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Luther Allison at the Top of His Game

Luther Allison 1994: Feral intensity

When Luther Allison returned to American stages in 1994 after more than a decade playing in Europe and elsewhere outside the country, he was a lean blues machine, a charismatic, handsome figure in full blossom with an expressive, craggy voice, a sophisticated repertoire and a guitar style that made him easily the best performer on the U.S. festival circuit until his death in 1997.

Joining the raw power of his tutelage in Chicago with the rich experience of playing alongside jazz and popular musicians in Europe, Allison returned with an emotional intensity and command of the stage that reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. Difficult to describe unless you actually saw him perform during this time – you just let the music sweep over you.

Ruf Records has released a package that captures one night during that period. It includes a CD and DVD version of a set recorded July 4, 1997, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the DVD adds a short documentary and a couple of interviews. The DVD is especially intriguing and deeply poignant when you realize that Allison would be dead of cancer less than two months after this was filmed.

The set is heavy on songs from Allison’s last albums, musical vignettes and terse short stories that he calls “realistic songs” in one of the DVD interviews. “Move From the Hood,” “Cancel My Check,” “You Can, You Can” – all are all wonders of lyrical economy and ferocious musicality.

Has there ever been a more harrowing lyric about alcohol addiction than the sixteen lines that comprise “(Watching You) Cherry Red Wine?” The torment that settles over the singer as he watches his companion “asking the children to pour you a drink” is almost feral, his voice and Gibson Flying V shrieking together in deep pain and infinite frustration.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to have as talented a guitarist as James Solberg or his group backing you. Like the E-Street Band, these are guys ready to play upwards of three hours a night behind their charismatic leader. Allison gives him plenty of chance to stretch out, and Solberg’s tone and delivery perfectly complement Allison’s beefy chords, as the tension rises and then drops.

The DVD included with this package captures the Allison I remember, as charismatic and powerful onstage performer as I’ve ever seen.

Luther Allison
Songs From the Road
Ruf 1157

This review appeared in Stereophile magazine August 2010.

August 20, 2010   No Comments

In Denver, Springsteen Does the E-Street Shuffle

Bruce Springsteen and the 12-member E-Street Band hit the stage of Denver’s Pepsi Center about ten minutes after eight on Friday night. It was the eighth show in the current tour, which began March 23 in Asbury Park, N.J.

The view from Section 340 as the house lights came on for "Born to Run" in Denver Friday night.

The view from Section 340 as the house lights came on for "Born to Run" in Denver Friday night.

We were high in the nosebleed section (340), but both of us had binoculars and there was no one in the seats directly in front of us, so we had an unimpeded view of the entire stage and all players. Two screens behind the band showed incredibly sharp, close-up live images from every angle for those of us who didn’t wish to be legally scalped by Springsteen and Ticketmaster for more than our tickets’ face value ($100). The seats were actually quite nice, and my ears weren’t ringing when I got home. If it wasn’t a sell-out, it was pretty close.

With the exception of Clarence Clemons, who stayed in the background for the most part, I’m pleased to report that the band seems as vibrant and vital as ever. Max Weinberg and Gary Tallent form as seamless a bottom end as any in popular music, and Steve Van Zandt is still a wonderful foil and reliable presence. Springsteen doesn’t jump off pianos anymore, but he does exhibit the same kinetic energy I have always admired and remember from the first time I saw him in 1975.

For those watching the set lists the last couple of weeks, there were more than enough surprises to keep us guessing all night. The band opened with a loud, crunching “Badlands,” which took me right back to Kansas City, June 16, 1978, Memorial Hall, the Darkness at the Edge of Town tour, our second date with this group.

“Badlands” turned into “The Ties That Bind,” the first time he’s played that one on the current tour. The crowd joined right in, especially on the “by-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-ind” part. I realize I haven’t heard the song in years.

“Outlaw Pete,” from the new Working on a Dream album, tries to be provocative and dramatic, but I just can’t take it seriously. It actually made me laugh to watch him try and pump life into this trifle. Even with Springsteen’s neck muscles pulsing, an iconic Western backdrop and an oversized cowboy hat, Outlaw Pete still sounds like Yosemite Sam’s first cousin. Silvio Dante would have had him put out of his misery before he got to the end of the second chorus.

Another countdown and they gallop into “Out on the Street,” the second song tonight from The River, and again, it gets everybody to sing along – a mighty chorus of “oh oh oh oh oh, I talk the way I wanna talk.”

Another new one, “Working on a Dream,” like “Outlaw Pete,” comes and goes, its lightness giving way to the first real moment of the night: a loud, blustery “Seeds,” and I begin to notice that we’re quite well-positioned to watch Nils Lofgren, who provides a series of major guitar histrionics over the course of the evening. I can only describe the way he plucks as something more akin to playing a piano than a guitar. He plays like nobody I have ever seen.

“Seeds” bangs right up against “Johnny 99,” another hard-rocker and showcase for Lofgren, who throws up his right leg as a prop all night for whatever electric guitar he decides to play slide on. I’m really beginning to notice fiddle player Soozie Tyrell, who adds an edgy higher end to the mix, and the imaginative work of organist Charles Giordano, who has taken the place of Danny Federici.

The heavy mood continues with “Youngstown,” pretty much the same version as we saw the last couple of tours, with a red light bathed on Springsteen as his voice rises to a high, feral pitch at the end of the chorus. Listen to the original acoustic version on The Ghost of Tom Joad, and you see how far this song has come.

Patti Scialfa joins her husband center stage for a nice duet on “Tougher Than the Rest” before the band stop-starts into the rollicking lick, courtesy Lofgren, that propels “Darlington County.” This always gives Springsteen a chance to run around the stage, climb the platform in back to sing to those seated behind the stage and loosen things back up. This time he runs out to the edge of the stage and gathers 15 or 20 signs from the eager crowd and drops them back next to the drums.

This proves to be quite a gimmick, as he comes back to the front of the stage with one of the signs, which says “E-Street Shuffle.” And suddenly we are all back in the funky 1970s – “everybody form a line.”

He goes to the back of the stage, splashes himself with water and comes back with another handmade sign that says in bright red letters, “Bruce, Prove It.” He places it down at the base of his microphone so the cameras can pick it up, and apparently taking that as a challenge, they tear into “Prove It All Night,” always an onstage favorite. I can’t decipher my notes, but I think this was on this one that Lofgren began whirling and dancing in circles like a leprechaun as he built the tension before letting the air out of his soaring lead at just the right moment.

“Waiting on a Sunny Day” leads into a nice take of “The Promised Land,” with everybody joining in on the choruses. Lofgren and pianist Roy Bittan accompany Springsteen for “The Wrestler,” the first song from the new album to really connect with me tonight.

The last four songs of the set all build to a perfect climax. The melodic new “Kingdom of Days” leads right into “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising.” The latter took on the air of a gospel number before the house lights came up for “Born to Run,” letting those who have taken this long journey with the E-Streeters to capture a momentary piece of our youth and celebrate perhaps this band’s greatest moment, too.

I suppose this is nothing new to anyone who attends big shows these days, but I was amused that cell phones have replaced BIC lighters as the object of choice to hold up in the dark and swing back and forth while cheering for the band to come back onstage.

The encore began with an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” It’s not often that a major modern performer plays a song that dates back to the 1850s, but this one, which he opened with his appeal to donate to your local food bank, was a reminder that good lyrics are timeless, and great harmonies are, too.

“Thunder Road” came next, always a great singalong for the crowd – “you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright” is still timeless. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” was its usual rollicking self, “Land of Hope and Dreams” was moving, but the real thriller was Pete Seeger’s “American Land,” which includes a lot of earthy harmonies, Little Steven on mandolin and Bittan and Giordano each sporting an accordion. It is a noteworthy tribute to Seeger, who turns 90 next month.

That would have been the perfect closer for me, but they ended with “Glory Days,” which, two hours and fifty minutes after the show began, came to a close with a nod to the primal riff that closes the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” — and they were gone.

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Pepsi Center, Denver, Coloroado, April 10, 2009:

Set List

The Ties That Bind
Outlaw Pete
Out In The Street
Working on A Dream
Johnny 99
Tougher Than The Rest
Darlington County
E Street Shuffle
Prove It All Night
Waiting On A Sunny Day
The Promised Land
The Wrestler
Racing In The Streets
Kingdom of Days
Lonesome Day
The Rising
Born To Run

Hard Times
Thunder Road
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Land Of Hope And Dreams
American Land
Glory Days

April 11, 2009   No Comments

Mike Smith Was the Real Deal

One day in December of 1964, I bought three singles that encapsulated the period for this deeply committed adherent of the First British Invasion: the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” and the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It.”

Each single deserves its own essay, and I could go on and on about the Kinks, perhaps my favorite live band ever, but “Any Way You Want It” caught the essence of the Dave Clark Five, a full two minute and thirty one second assault on the senses that begins and ends at full throttle – with a lot of echo. The DC5, first and foremost, was a great singles band. I bought at least 12 of their 45s during the band’s brief day in the sun, including the one pictured here with the column. My admiration and enthusiasm continues unabated.

Some people remember that Dave Clark, who led the band and played drums, retained the copyrights to his material, something very rare in those early days and worth mentioning – the individual Beatles have spent decades fighting for the rights to their own music.

Musically, the DC5 sound was completely unique. With rare exception, the guitar, bass and saxophone were mixed like one huge monolithic instrument. The inclusion of tenor saxophone was unusual, something that young Bruce Springsteen no doubt picked up on when he saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights during the band’s heyday.

No band was more economical than the Five. On the group’s definitive hits collection, The History of the Dave Clark Five, only three of the 50 tracks last more than three minutes; 12 don’t make it to two minutes. There is no padding, no wasted notes, no filler in any DC5 track. They won’t be remembered as a jam band.

One of the great ironies of the English Invasion was that we American kids were learning American soul songs from white English kids who were reinterpreting singles they imported from the U.S. And nobody this side of Stevie Winwood was a more natural interpreter of that music than Mike Smith, who also played organ. “I can do the blues, I can do the twist,” he sang, understating his enormous range, on the band’s magnificent cover of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me.”

Smith, who co-wrote many of the Five’s songs with Clark, translated soul hits (“Reelin’ and Rockin’,” “Little Bitty Pretty One”), crooned Beatles’ knock-offs (“Because,” “Don’t Be Taken In”) and led the charge on the pedal-to-the-metal rock (“Glad All Over,” “Bits and Pieces”) that was the band’s bread-and-butter. Nobody did Chuck Berry better than Smith on the band’s outrageous take of “Reelin’ and Rockin’.” Listen to the primal scream that opens “All Night Long,” a b-side instrumental, and tell me that Smith wouldn’t equal even the mighty McCartney in a Shriek-Like-Little-Richard competition.

Mike Smith, the secret weapon of the Dave Clark Five and the best vocalist of his generation, died outside London on Feb. 29. He was 64. The band is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Monday night.

March 8, 2008   No Comments

Believe It – Or Maybe Not

I read a column on Fox News (second item) that suggested that Clear Channel, which owns about ten percent of the radio stations in the United States, “has sent an edict to its classic rock stations not to play tracks from Magic,” the new album from Bruce Springsteen, one of the kings of classic rock.

The columnist suggests that perhaps Clear Channel considers Springsteen, 58, too elderly to be played on rock stations and notes that new releases from John Fogerty (62) and Annie Lennox (who will turn 53 Christmas Day) are being similarly shunned.

Since I’m fascinated by the music industry and have never been much of a fan of Clear Channel, this item certainly piqued my interest. Could a radio conglomerate really be that stupid? And more importantly, can I get a self-righteous, clever blog post out of it?

I began writing the column, cute headlines (Clear Channel is Radio Nowhere) dancing in my head, but something just didn’t seem right. I had heard “Radio Nowhere” on the more adventurous Denver station KCUV, so I checked the websites of a couple of local classic-rock Clear Channel-owned outlets.

KBCO had both Springsteen’s “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” and Fogerty’s “Creedence Song” in its last-ten-songs-played list, with links to the videos for the songs. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” was listed on the KTCL site when I visited. Perhaps these are the two exceptions to the Clear Channel rule, or the only two stations in revolt against their corporate masters, but then again it might be that the columnist doesn’t know his ass from his elbow.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is as pithy as it is eternally true: Don’t believe everything you read. That’s hardly a new sentiment, but it can’t be repeated enough.

This is especially true when you’re reading something that is in general agreement with your own belief system. Each of us has a right to believe what he or she wants and to express that belief to others. But just because you read something that appeals to your sensibilities or that you agree with doesn’t make it true.

October 31, 2007   No Comments

“Radio Nowhere”: YouTube Rules the Airwaves

I got an email early this morning from a friend in Kansas City that said he had “watched” the new Bruce Springsteen single and liked it.

Intrigued by his choice of words, I immediately called up YouTube and typed “radio nowhere” into the search box. It gave me a list of videos, including the official Columbia Records version. I clicked on it and wound up hitting replay – a bunch of times, in fact.

Looking farther was instructive. The song has been out about a week, and fans are already involved, too, and seriously interactive. Apparently unhappy with the official version, many have already mashed their own video versions. Some are using the music and adding their own Springsteen images. One is an old video of the E-Street Band from the Hard Rock Café with the new song superimposed that almost works. R.M. Rueff shot his flag waving in the wind and added “Radio Nowhere” as the soundtrack.

Enterprising amateur guitarists have added videos of themselves playing the song in their dens and living rooms. One guy offers a tutorial on how to play the chords. Another fan who calls himself Tele0009 (hint: let people know your actual name) has 35 other Springsteen covers online. He’s not bad.

But what this really got me thinking about was how quickly things are changing in the music industry. But the principle is the same. When I first started listening to music, I relied exclusively on the AM radio dial, which, when the late-night frequencies were clear, brought an astounding diversity of music into my transistor radio.

Today, I watch the new Springsteen single on my computer, then copied “Radio Nowhere” — it’s a free download — and it’s already crowding for position in the Jukebox in My Head. And reading this weblog, you can “watch” the same music I’m writing about.

A couple clicks of the mouse, and the job that Columbia Records once assigned to radio stations (and sometimes paid them well to do it) had been done. And you just gotta think that this is a cheaper and more efficient way to promote your product than back in the good old days, or even last year, for that matter. Columbia is giving away the single, betting that all of us will rush out and buy Magic, the first studio album with the E-Street Band since The Rising.

And whether it’s a transistor radio or an iPhone, it’s just connecting people to the music they want.

More as we watch Columbia, the label that hired producer Rick Rubin to save it, promotes one of its biggest artists in the last days of the music industry as we know it.

September 6, 2007   1 Comment