Sunday, 20 February 2011

Gig review – Europe in London (19 Feb 2011)

On Saturday night Swedish hitmakers Europe stormed through a spirited 90-minute set to a heaving Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The band, and more specifically, lead singer Joey Tempest had the audience in the palms of their hands from the opening strains of Last Look At Eden, the title track of their latest album, right through to the inevitable encore of The Final Countdown

In between they covered the bulk of their career, thankfully ignoring their mostly dire debut, but reaching back to sophomore effort Wings of Tomorrow for Scream of Anger early on, while their other essential hits (Rock the Night, Carrie, Superstitious) were scattered with precision throughout an intelligent set.  The setlist was largely dominated by material from the band’s two most recent efforts, with 3 songs featured from 2006s Secret Society and three more from Last Look at Eden; conversely only the title track from the first post-reformation album Start From the Dark got a look in, and only two tracks were featured from my personal favourite, Out of This World. It has to be said the newer material emitted almost as strong a response from the audience as any of the old songs, particularly the Eden material – and why not? It’s first rate. 

Possibly because the show was being filmed for future DVD release there were a large number of hardcore fans in attendance who had made the trip across from the continent – indeed, barely a word of English could be heard on the ground floor before the show began. 

The show was paced fairly relentlessly, with only perennial power-ballad Carrie and new track New Love in Town (inspired by the birth of Joey’s son Jamie) allowing the audience time for breath. Joey Tempest’s powerhouse vocals dominated the night, but a drum solo and guitarist John Norum’s brilliant performance of Gary Moore’s The Loner, played in tribute to the recently fallen guitar hero, gave him a couple of breaks and allowed the other band members room to show off their considerable chops.

More (from any era) would have been welcome, but this was a consummate performance by a skilled band, and demonstrated that they were and remain so much more than that song, even if it will be their perpetual calling card/closing number for all time. If as to prove this, they began the encore with an as-yet unrecorded song, Doghouse, before that big keyboard riff sent out its shockwaves.

Hopefully the filming will do the gig justice, but only time will tell. There didn’t seem to be many cameras in attendance; I only spotted one actually roaming the stage, with the rest behind the audience,so the end result may be a bit of a static affair visually. But it was a cracking gig, and all things being equal the DVD will be highly recommended. 

I was also lucky enough to nab a John Norum guitar pick, (one used by Joey Tempest, so the best of both worlds) which came flying at me mid-set, so that was a nice bonus!  (9/10)

Friday, 18 February 2011

February’s Fabulous First Five

Ah, if only every month started with an ‘F’ I could have such beautiful alliteration every time on my ‘first five’ lists (for those who might don’t know a monthly exercise wherein I look at the first five songs thrown up randomly by me ipod). Okay, for February 2011, the first 5 songs out of a possible 10247 are:

  1. Gerry Rafferty – Because
  2. Stealers Wheel – Another Meaning
  3. Pride of Lions – Prideland
  4. Marillion. – Don’t Hurt Yourself (Video edit)
  5. Marillion – Beautiful (Live)

Gerry Rafferty – Because (from Life Goes On  – 2009)

Rafferty’s final release was hardly a fitting swansong – or, indeed, epitaph, as it turned out: this is one of six ‘new’ songs featured on it, but tellingly only one of the six was a Rafferty-penned tune (and an old one at that) and most had been featured as downloads on his website a few years earlier. This is, of course, a cover of the Beatles tune which was originally the second worst song on the (slightly) overrated Abbey Road. As a cover it’s redundant from the start, but Rafferty’s multi-layered vocals never fail to delight and it’s at least as good as the original. But it only serves as yet another reminder of what could have been. (6/10)

Stealers Wheel – Another Meaning (from Stealers Wheel1972)

Kind of a Rafferty double-shot here, although this song was penned and sung by Joe Egan, the other ‘half’ (in inverted commas as there were 5 members credited on the debut, but of course only Rafferty and Egan got any further than that) of the band. This is a good, if not outstanding tune, on a par with most of the material on the album. With the legendary production team of Leiber-Stoller on board you’d be forgiven for expecting something approaching ‘rock and roll’ but this is very laid back and melancholic, like much of Egan and Rafferty’s material – and not as good as most of what followed. (7/10)

Pride of Lions – Prideland (from Pride of Lions  – 2003)

Yuk. Jim Peterik (Ides of March/Survivor) is one of THE great pop/rock songwriters, but sometimes he goes astray, and this is probably the ‘best’ example of this. Sounding desperately like something written for The Lion King although mercifully even Disney wouldn’t have allowed anything this twee like this on to the soundtrack, even if it hadn’t been over a decade too late. Vocalist Toby Hitchcock tries his best but you can pretty much hear him thinking how lame the whole deal is, especially on this *inspired* verse: ‘The lion king and the lioness/Defend their kingdom against the best/Their pride's survival's the only test/And all the proof their life demands.’ And it’s over six minutes long too…  (1/10)

Marillion – Don’t Hurt Yourself (from Marbles on the Road – 2004)

The second single of Marillion’s mid-noughties ‘chart comeback’, which began with their surprise return to the UK top 10 after a mere 17 years away with You’re Gone, this one also performed respectably, reaching #16. Many fans have a stated preference for Marillion’s more extended/progressive/experimental works, but I’ve always liked their more accessible/commercial stuff just as much and this ticks all the right boxes for me. I think it’s also the only Marillion song that opens with acoustic guitar that doesn’t reduce me to crying like a baby, so that’s nice too…this is an edited version, taken from the promo video as featured on the 2-disc edition of the  Marbles on the Road DVD (and below - check it out!). Presumably this was also the single edit (It’s about two minutes shorter than the album version in any case), but I’m not deducting anything on account of it being an edited version that’s popped up. (9/10)

Marillion – Beautiful (from Somewhere in London  – 2007)

A genuine double-shot to round out this month’s ‘first five’, and given that Marillion account for over 5% of the songs on my ipod (563 of the buggers at present!) if it’s going to happen with anybody it will be them – strange that for this double-shot we’ve also had two tracks from special editions of DVD releases though! The song itself was the band’s final single on EMI (and another UK Top 30 hit), and ranks amongst their very best singles (Kayleigh, Sugar Mice, Easter and Cover My Eyes round out my top 5, in case you wondered)  I’m yet to hear a below-par live version, but this (from what remains the definitive live DVD by anybody, in my book) is one of the best. Invigorating, life-affirming and, yes, beautiful. (10/10)

So another mixed bag, with one of the few truly dreadful songs I own bringing the average score down to 6.6…but let’s do some rounding – an average of 7/10’s pretty decent really, innit?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Some more first impressions...and another final farewell

It seems I’ve erred in allowing one (albeit completely horrid) radio song colour my attitude to a band, even when I suspected all along that they’d be right up my street. Comprised entirely of stellar musicians and fronted by a chap (Eric Martin) who once nearly became Toto’s third lead vocalist (or DID become Toto’s third lead vocalist for almost a week, as Martin tells it!), and with a focus on musicianship and songwriting, why wouldn’t I love them?

The band is Mr. Big, and while it’s possible I know several of their older songs it’s the cloying To  Be With You that I’ve had ringing in my ears and preventing me from buying any of their albums for all these years. With their reunion album What If… being generally very well received (including a rare 100% rating at I figured it was finally time to add them to the collection, and starting with the most recent album seemed a logical move – after all, if I like this, I should like their past efforts at least as much. 

The good news is, after just one listen I like it plenty, and while I’m wary of albums that sound good on a first listen – too many end up with nothing more to reveal on repeated plays – I’m confident that this will grow further. Only thing is I’ve a feeling I’m going to have to go back and get their earlier albums, including their biggest success, Lean Into It (1991) – yep, that’d be the one with To Be With You. Who knows, I may even find that song’s not too bad after all. Yeah, right, and if that happens I’ll stop confusing Billy Sheehan with Billy Sherwood…anyway, with this, the new Magnum and John Waite's Rough and Tumble, 2011 is off to a very good start for old-school melodic rock lovers everywhere...

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An album that’s been out for a while now, but I have only just got around to is The Doobie Brothers’ World Gone Crazy. Released last year, it marks the Doobies return to recording  with their first a) studio album in 10 years and b) their first with Ted Templeman producing since One Step Closer (1980) the last album the band put out prior to their early 80s break-up. The previous album, Sibling Rivalry, was a patchy affair, which itself had come nearly a full decade after its predecessor (1991’s Brotherhood). Still, there was a bit of a buzz around this release, not least because of the reunion with Templeman, who produced the band right throughout the 70s, and it’s received mostly positive reviews, so I figured it was worth investigation.

After a couple of listens though, it’s just not hitting the mark for me. As with Sibling Rivalry Patrick Simmons’ contributions are the more musically satisfying, and his voice has worn the years well. Tom Johnston’s efforts, on the other hand, seem repetitive and dull, albeit with some decent lyrics at times, but his songwriting never really developed and his best songs all date from 1971-1975. Actually the rot began to set in from Stampede (1975) with the likes of Rainy Day Crossroad Blues and I Been Workin’ On You weakening the tail-end of an otherwise excellent album. Indeed it’s telling that the standout cut (and first single) on World Gone Crazy is a remake of Nobody, from their completely ignored debut. Now, I’ve been a fan of the Doobies for decades, but unless this album turns out to be a serious grower (which, based on the previous album, won’t be the case) I’ll not be tempted to check out any future output. Although I would plump for a Patrick Simmons solo album…

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Finally, another great musician has passed away in recent days, legendary guitarist Gary Moore. If you’ve read an obituary you’ve probably seen him described as ‘former Thin Lizzy guitarist…’ which, while true, is hardly the way he deserves to be remembered. (I hope that when – in many years time! – John Wetton passes away, he isn’t described as ‘former Uriah Heep bassist….’!)

Sadly, other than a vague memory of his Still Got the Blues days (which passed me by at the time, although I’ll forgive myself the oversight given I was still pre-teens) I wasn’t familiar with his output at all, until last year, when I caught his set at the High Voltage festival, and he turned out to be one of my unexpected highlights of the weekend.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but by the second song (Thunder Rising) he’d won at least one new convert, and I found his set compelling form start to finish. Sadly his planned encore failed to come to pass, as organisers would not let him back on the stage due to timing pressures, and I guess that’s an apt metaphor for his sudden passing – he certainly had more to offer, but was prevented from being able to do so – RIP Gary.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Transatlantic's 'Whirld Tour 2010' Boxed set: Too much of a good thing?

Just under forty years ago Robert Christgau, self-appointed ‘Dean of American rock critics’, was tasked with reviewing Chicago’s 4LP live set Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Deciding that it wasn’t actually necessary to listen to it in order to reach a rating (C- in this case) his capsule ‘review’ concentrated mainly on the packaging. You can read it here:

Christgau represents everything I hate about rock snob critics, but his consumer guide reviews are worth reading for their entertainment value; just don’t pay any attention to his opinions, as they’ll tend to irritate you if you take them seriously. To give credit where it’s due, I'll reluctantly acknowledge that he is the originator of this type of review, and does have a penchant for the snappy (and, dare I say it, occasionally witty) putdown. It’s just a shame that there have been so many pale imitators taking up this style as though it represents genuine rock journalism. Ah well.

Strangely though, I find myself in a similar predicament of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a release as to not be able to even bring myself to play it, namely prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic’s document of last year’s World tour, redubbed Whirld Tour 2010 after 2009s The Whirlwind studio album. The deluxe edition comprises two DVDs and three CDs, consisting of the band’s near 3.5 hour performance at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The second DVD also contains an extensive documentary (another 2 hours of material there!) plus a bonus performance from the High Voltage Festival, where the band was joined by Steve Hackett on their rendition of Genesis’ Return of the Giant Hogweed. So about six hours total viewing time. That’s fantastic, it’s very in-depth, thorough and the quality is (I’m sure) exemplary…but when am I ever going to have time to actually watch it?! 

Of course it’s easier to find time to listen to the CDs, as you can do other things at the same time, but so far I’ve only managed to listen to one song. Or, to put it another way, all 80 minutes of disc 1!  While The Whirlwind was always conceived as a single song, on the studio release it was broken into twelve chapters with individual titles, which went some way to aiding its digestion, but here it’s presented as one single solid lump of music – mildly intimidating to put it lightly! The track’s so long that there’s barely room for any audience applause at the end - I seem to recall we cheered for a lot longer than eight seconds! Ah yes, another factor that separates me from Christgau - I was actually present for the recording! 

At the time I was brand new to Transatlantic, having only added The Whirlwind to my collection around a fortnight before the gig - although I'd booked the ticket while still in New Zealand. I was already a fan of two of the band members, specifically bass player Pete Trewavas (on leave of absence from my #1 band, Marillion) and drummer Mike Portnoy (who wasn't quite ex-Dream Theater at this point), so on arrival at the venue I picked a prime spot near the front where I'd be as close to the two of them as possible, albeit in the knowledge that it would be difficult to pay attention to anyone but Portnoy - he is an absolute monster after all! Turns out this was just as well, as I'd never realised just how tiny Pete T is - I was mere metres away from the stage but rarely spotted him all night! (Not helped by the fact I ended up behind a ten-foot tall giant...thankfully I did get to see Pete a couple of months later at the High Voltage festival, where he did double duty, appearing with both Transatlantic and Marillion and effectively headlining the prog stage on both nights - nice).

Guitarist Roine Stolte of The Flower Kings was fine (not a weak link, just not as awe-inspriing as his colleagues, if that makes sense), and live-member-only Daniel Gildenlow was a joy to behold, but the real revelation for me on the night was Neal Morse, formerly of Spock's Beard and currently a solo artist with his very own sub-genre - Christian Prog. While the vocals were shared by all band members, it was Morse who dominated (and rightly so) the vocal department, and I'm always a sucker for a decent keyboardist as well. That would have been more than enough but this phenomenally talented individual had to show off by also playing some guitar and then taking over on the drums when Portnoy decided to do a bit of crowd surfing (and was whisked straight past my right ear as a result!)

Anyway, after The Whirlwind, the remaining songs in the set were significantly shorter, although as three of them were around half an hour long each we were never in any danger of entering three-minute pop song territory! Not being familiar with any of that material may have been a disadvantage, but it didn't feel like it at the time, although it is possible that my brain exploded at some point without me realising it - in any case I'd ordered Transatlantic's first album within an hour of the gig ending, and Morse-era Spock's Beard has also magically appeared (at last) in my collection. I also realised I'd no longer have to persevere with Dream Theater, as I can get my Portnoy fix elsewhere, all thanks to the stunning gig captured for posterity on this release.
So, while simply not buying this boxed set might have seemed an option, I really had no choice but to splurge on it (actually it was too ridiculously cheap to even qualify as a splurge...which was nice). And it is beautifully presented, even if getting the second CD out of the case is a bit tricky (Handy hint: remove the third disc first!).  While it’s possible I might never actually get around to watching/listening to everything contained in this package, I’m confident that the quality will be every bit as high as you’d expect from a band of this calibre, so have no hesitation in awarding a rating, perfunctory though it may be, (and, not coincidentally, the same rating as I’d have given the gig itself) of 10/10. Hey, it's better than a C-...I just envy people who have the time on their hands to enjoy it. And get to see Pete...(assuming the cameras had more luck on the night than I did!)