Saturday, 25 June 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #5 – Night Ranger at the 02 Islington

It can be worth taking a punt on an act you don’t follow too closely. Sometimes it can be a waste of an evening as you realise just why you never got into them in the first place, but on other occasions (as with Richard Marx a few weeks ago) a gig can turn you into a full-on fan. Then there are the ones that fall into the middle of the spectrum: they don’t change your mind, but they’re just damned good fun in their own right. And so it was with Night Ranger, playing their first-ever UK headlining gig (and their first show on UK soil at all since 1985, when they played in support to Foreigner). After 26 years away, they then experienced a seven-hour delay at Heathrow, and barely made it to the venue on time, but in the end their loyal fans got what they’d been missing for such a long time.

Opener Rock and Roll Tonight set the tone for the whole set, being good fun, but utterly generic (yeah, the title’s the giveaway, I know!) and sounding like it was being played by a particularly talented bar band. This has always been my problem with Night Ranger -  a paucity of really good songs. Certainly they’ve come up with a few pearls in their time (Sister Christian, The Secret of My Success, Forever All Over Again, Rumours in the Air to name a few), but they’re the exceptions rather than the rule.

Night Ranger’s commercial prime was fairly brief, but they did notch up a pretty significant run of hits within a few years (83-85 basically - had they been on any label other than MCA that run would likely have extended into the rest of the 80s but it was not to be), and there were no serious omissions from that period, which made for a crowd-pleasing set (even if these songs were never hits on this side of the pond).

Bassist/vocalist Jack Blades expressed the opinion that the most important/enjoyable thing for them as a band though was to create and play new music, and so their new release – which seems to have met a rapturous response from their fanbase – Somewhere in California had several tracks aired, of which Lay it On Me and first encore No Time to Lose You stood out, while single Growing Up in California spectacularly failed to do so.

But if the night couldn’t be about the songs the performances (almost) made up for it – this is a band who can play, and do so with verve and delight. I’m always impressed by a singing drummer and Kelly Keagy is one of the best, never missing a beat, even when trying desperately to get his sound issues fixed during Sentimental Street.  Blades, meanwhile was full of life, despite having been confined to a drumstool earlier in the week, following an unfortunate onstage mishap (where he ended up doing the splits accidentally...ouch). You’d never have known he’d suffered hamstring strain though, so I assume he’s part-Alzarian...elsewhere his OTT onstage banter could have become irritating, but he managed to keep it just to the right side of endearing instead, and certainly got the intended reaction from the crowd. But it’s the twin/duelling guitars  that’s the most appealing part of the NR sound and Brad Gillis and Joel Hoekstra delivered in spades, Gillis in particular being immensely watchable. These guys know how to put on a show, you’ve got to give them that.

Aside from The Secret of My Success (and the medley of other songs featuring prominent ‘na na na’  parts that followed) and the surprise inclusion (to me at least) of Coming of Age (originally by  Blades’ 90s supergroup Damn Yankees) the main set didn’t contain many standout moments, but the show was consistently enjoyable nonetheless, and the 3-song encore that culminated in Sister Christian and You Can Still Rock in America proved a fitting conclusion to the proceedings.

So top marks for performance, energy and atmosphere. Just a pity about the songs. The faithful were well-served though, and truly seemed delighted with the whole deal – can’t say fairer than that. (7/10)

PS – after the show, various things (picks, drumsticks, etc) were thrown into the crowd by the band – one prize that landed in my hands was a screwed-up setlist. If a ‘proper’ (UK-based!) NR fan would like this drop me a line and I’ll get it sent to ya (first come first served, obviously!) somehow or other!

Monday, 20 June 2011

June’s First Five: The Time Alone with a Church-Burning Dragon


Hmmm, did I say I’d do these monthly? Well, what I meant by that was no more than once a month. Absolute maximum. Yep, got out of that one…seriously though, I know it’s been a while since I’ve done a ‘first five’ as there’s 665 more songs sitting on my ipod and waiting to be chosen than there were last time! So, for June 2011, the first 5 songs out of a possible 10912 are:
1.       Paul Simon – A Church is Burning (Alternate Take)
2.       Toto – St. George and the Dragon
3.       Bad English – The Time Alone With You
4.       Boz Scaggs – Claudia
5.       Poco – Rose of Cimmarron (Live)
Paul Simon – A Church is Burning (Alternate Take) (from The Paul Simon Song Book  – 1965)

Recorded in England about a year before he became famous, The Paul Simon Song Book mostly contains belatedly familiar material, made famous in it’s Simon and Garfunkel versions. This song is the exception, but it’s easily one of the highlights of the album (which, I’ll take any day over any S&G album!). This version is an alternate take, included on the surprise 2004 CD release (it had never been released in the US before – previous attempts, dating as far back as 1969 had always been blocked by Simon, though I have no idea why – or why he finally changed his mind!). The original take selected for inclusion gets full marks from me, leaving this one as a curiosity more than anything, but even though it’s not quite as perfect as the familiar version, it’s a great song performed with passion. (9/10)
Toto – St. George and the Dragon  (from Hydra1979)
This song goes hand in hand with it’s parent album’s title track, and while fantasy-inspired prog rock isn’t what you’d usually expect from Toto, they do it very well indeed. Sadly, fantasy-inspired prog rock wasn’t what anybody (especially the AM pop audience) was looking for in 1979, so when released as a single it stiffed in a big way (as all Toto singles would from that point on, until their major comeback in 1982 with Rosanna rescued them from chart obscurity). Curiously it is the only Bobby Kimball lead vocal on the first side of the album – it’s also one of his best from his original tenure with the band. The version to pop up on the ipod is from one of many Toto compilations featuring extensive remastering, and the difference in sound between this and the original album release is like night and day. But despite the fact that the whole catalogue has been remastered, Sony still show no inclination to releasing remastered albums in their entirety (preferably with bonus tracks and extensive liner notes…hmmm, perhaps Rock Candy will step in and save the day?) (10/10)
Bad English – The Time Alone With You (from Backlash  – 1991)
This should probably have been the single form Bad English’s second (and final) album, but given that 1991 was the ‘year of Grunge’ and the band had effectively fallen apart before the album came out, it probably wouldn’t have fared any better in the charts than Straight to Your Heart (#42) did, so never mind. Having the name Diane Warren in the writing credits is usually a worrying sign, but this was a co-write with bandmembers John Waite and Jonathan Cain, and is one of the best songs to have her involvement (far superior to their #1 When I See You Smile, from the debut in ’89 for starters). As Bad English were so short-lived it’s hard to think of them on their own terms, usually it’s either Journey with guest vocalist John Waite, or John Waite solo, but with a better backing band than usual. This one falls into the latter category.   (9/10)
Boz Scaggs – Claudia  (from Other  Roads – 1988)
A very solid album cut from Boz’s late-80s comeback album. It’s been a long time since I’ve sighted the album’s liner notes, but if memory serves this was one of two cuts produced by Stewart Levine (the other being hit single Heart of Mine), whereas the bulk of the album was overseen by Bill Schnee. As with Simone on previous effort Middle Man Boz seemed to be competing with his ex-backing band (Toto, who still appear on many of the cuts on both albums) to ensure every album had at least one song named after a woman. Well, it’s better than if he’d called it ‘Christopher’ innit? (8/10)

Poco – Rose of Cimmarron (Live) (from Poco in Concert  – 200?)
The title track of Poco’s 1976 album is widely (and rightly) considered one of the highlights of their entire catalogue (‘It’s ‘long, but rarely long enough’ as John Tobler says in the liner notes for any BGO Poco release you’d care to name…). This version, culled from their live DVD (which has appeared under many titles over the past decade or so) falls a bit flat, mainly due to a thin/weedy lead vocal from Rusty Young, but it picks up as it goes along and is musically satisfying. (6/10)
So, despite a comparatively weak finish, a pretty solid bunch of tunes this time around, which have combined to  bring the average score up to 8.4 (which, given that February’s average was a disappointing 6.6 represents quite an improvement, even if, in rounded terms, it only goes up one from 7/10 to 8/10). But not too shabby, whichever way you look at it. Who knows, maybe I'll even do this again next month…

Friday, 17 June 2011

Summer of Gigs #4: Neal Morse at Tutus, KCLSU

I only ‘discovered’ Neal Morse a little over a year ago, when I saw him with Transatlantic (the first band I saw upon arriving in the UK, as it happens) and he completely blew me away. I would have thought that anyone who saw him on that tour would have taken any opportunity they could to see him again, but it seems not, as disappointing ticket sales led to the cancellation of two other UK shows, and the London gig moved to a smaller venue than initially planned.

Perhaps it is the overtly Christian nature of his lyrics or his forthcoming appearance at the High Voltage festival that put people off seeing him a mere six weeks earlier. Whatever the reason, he and his cracking seven-piece band delivered the goods to a smallish (though, as a result of the venue change, cramped!) but enthusiastic crowd of progheads and anybody else missed out in a big way, as he is one of the leading proponents of Christian Prog (What do you mean? Of course there’s more than one!).

With Transatlantic the first 80 minutes of the show was their new album, The Whirlwind which I’d had for a couple of weeks and been able to listen to about 3 times before the gig, while the rest of the set was brand new to me. I expected this show to follow a similar pattern, as Morse’s new solo album Testimony Two has been out for less than a month, and it was well-known that it would be played in its entirety (Well, the first disc anyway…), and I was right. Except it was the other way around.

Beginning with a pair of ‘short’ songs (including Beware of Darkness, originally recorded in this version by Morse’s old band, Spock’s Beard, and sufficiently different from George Harrison’s original for me to completely fail to recognise it!), we then moved on into ‘epic’ territory, which is Morse’s forte. These included the 26-minute Seeds of Gold from the second disc of Testimony Two and as such the only number I recognised during the first set (the bulk of the audience greeted every offering with recognition and delight, so it was clearly a devoted crowd in attendance) and demonstrated the abilities of the entire band. Special mention must go to…well, them all, really – as a collective they clearly have a joy in playing together, and their musicianship is beyond question – however, I’m going to single out electric violinist Ben Whatshisname (Hey, it’s always tough to pick out an unfamiliar name when it’s announced onstage…due to choice of instrument and hairstyle I’m tempted to say Steinhardt, but it wasn’t that…), whose playing added textures rarely heard in a rock situation, and were, quite simply, wonderful. The first set ended, fittingly, with the closing section of Testimony (or Testimony One, as it’s now called…) and Neal announced they’d be back after a short break with Testimony Two.

The original Testimony album was Morse’s first solo album following his departure from both Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic, and detailed his full conversion to devout Christianity. While I’m not familiar enough with that first album to say for certain, lyrically the follow-up seems to be more of a prequel or perhaps a further colouring in of an existing picture, than a direct sequel/continuation of the story. Apparently Morse ‘left out’ a key part of that story on that first album, namely that his conversion came as a result of his daughter Jayda’s miraculous ‘self healing’ – born with a hole in her heart, her condition vanished to doctors astonishment prior to planned surgery. The rest of the story makes it clear that the conversion wasn’t sudden. In any case you don’t have to have religious beliefs to appreciate the story or the music, as it’s about as far from evangelical bible-bashing as it’s possible to get. Instead it is a deeply personal exploration of a man in deep conflict with himself, his lifestyle and his beliefs, but it is also a tale with multiple happy endings. It’s abundantly clear that Morse made the right decision for him, and that’s enough for this agnostic.

In a live situation, even more so than on the album, the result is both emotional roller-coaster and musical tour de force.  The Jayda section provided perhaps the most cathartic experience of any gig I’ve been to. As detailed before I’m prone to the odd blub here and there, but this had me in full flood, and that was even before Morse joined in, to the point that at it’s conclusion he had to take a few minutes to get himself together in order to continue. Anybody who failed to be moved by the performance, or its effect on the man himself, could only be described as soulless, but I don’t think such an accusation could be levelled at anybody present, be they in the audience or onstage.

Soon though, he was back to his usual self, revelling in the joy of the music, juggling guitar and keyboard duties in addition to his singing, and even leaving the stage to perform in the audience at one point.

Having plumbed the depths of his emotions and delivered an outstanding performance in the process, he’d have been forgiven for ending his (already near 3-hour) set right there, but we were treated to an encore featuring Transatlantic’s Bridge Across Forever performed solo, before he was rejoined by the band for one final number, and then band and crew alike crowded the stage for a joyous celebration of the end of the tour. As I mentioned at the start Neal Morse will be back (and I’ll be seeing him again) at High Voltage in July -  indeed it’s about the best reason I can see for going on the Saturday at all this year –see you there! (9/10)


Bonus review: Don McGlashan at the Bush Hall

I added a last-minute, unexpected bonus gig to the ‘Summer of Gigs’ as a friend (No private joke this time, it really was *just* a friend!) recently relocated from New Zealand, just in time for us to catch one of our country’s premiere singer-songwriters/bandleaders/general overachievers in action.  Despite his success with bands including Blam Blam Blam and The Mutton Birds, and as a solo artist, between us we could only name two of his songs off the top off our heads (Dominion Road and Anchor Me). I expected to recognise a lot more when I heard them – but didn’t.

Never mind. Armed only with his voice, acoustic guitar, loop pedals and, erm…tuba (of course!) McGlashan delivered an entertaining evening, with NZ-specific references a-plenty in the lyrics, which created a nice, nostalgic vibe amongst the audience, I’m sure almost entirely made up of fellow ex-pats. Nice.

While unfamiliar with much of his material he proved that the esteem granted to him in New Zealand is well-earned, and he is every bit as deserving of wider attention as the brilliant (but overrated) Neil Finn. (8/10)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Summer of Gigs #3 – Journey (with Styx and Foreigner) at Wembley Arena

AOR, at times the most reviled, but generally the most melodic of all rock genres, never dominated the UK charts as it did Stateside, but Saturday night at a packed Wembley Arena proved it still reached a significant audience, as we were treated to three of the premiere AOR acts of all time all in the space of a single evening. All three bands demonstrated how they rose to the top of the genre, with their classics easily standing the test of time, even if they are mostly performed by different singers these days – all of whom deserve praise of the highest order for filling some gigantic arena-sized shoes with apparent ease.

Kicking things off was a short, sharp 45 minute set from Styx, megastars of the late 70s/early 80s in the US and Canada, but whose only significant UK hit was power-ballad Babe, a song that vanished (some would say thankfully, but I wouldn’t be one of them) from their sets at the same time as it’s writer (and band founder) Dennis DeYoung vanished from the band. DeYoung’s replacement, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, commanded attention with his energy, leaping across the stage and even atop his keyboards at one point. As with the other ‘replacements’ he was able to make his own mark on the material whilst staying true to the sound of the original recordings. Tommy Shaw’s lead vocals weren’t quite as strong, but were still decent and the band’s vocal harmonies were sublime.
Given the time-constraints the setlist was almost perfect, the exception being the decision that JY (second guitarist James Young) have one of his songs showcased, Miss America in this case. Oh well, he is an original member...the only other slight negative affecting their set was the fact that dregs of audience were continuing to arrive right the way through it, inevitable for a 7pm start I guess, even on a Saturday. It certainly didn’t detract from the band’s performance and they were very well received - I’m certain they acquired more than a few converts. Opener The Grand Illusion, Come Sail Away and Renegade were all highlights of a far too short set, but so it goes with package shows (ahhhh, a little bit of poetry there for ya!)
Next up were Foreigner, the only band in this dream lineup that I’d seen before (three times – each in a different country, oddly enough, even though I’m not a particularly big fan) and as a result the excitement levels dropped slightly for me during their hour-long set. This was due only to familiarity – as always they played like the consummate professionals they are, and with Kelly Hansen and Jeff Pilson on board they are vocally a match for any band you’d care to name. They also stuck to their strong suit – the rockers, so only I Want to Know What Love is (which garnered a rapturous reception) and a few early technical difficulties broke the flow. Double Vision, Head Games, Urgent and Juke Box Hero were all as superb as ever – it’s just a pity they felt there was no room in the set for at least one song from their recentish studio effort, Can’t Slow Down.
Finally the headliners stormed the stage and immediately took things to another level entirely (and it’s not as if the bar hadn’t been set high as it was). Separate Ways was the perfect set opener, and having four of the first 5 songs originating from the Frontiers album (even if it took 25 years or so for Only the Young and Ask the Lonely to actually be included on the album…) was a surefire way of keeping the crowd happy.
As with Foreigner, nobody was left in any doubt as to what Journey had come to do – i.e. rock! Keyboardist Jonathan Cain seemed to be on second guitar almost as often as he was on keyboards, especially for the new material (from literally brand new and – judging from my first few listens – brilliant album Eclipse). Four songs were aired from Eclipse and while the reception to those songs didn’t match that given to the old favourites, applause was far more than polite. The selections chosen were pretty much spot on, and certainly it was new song Chain of Love that remained stuck in my head on leaving the venue at the end of the gig.
Special mention must go to Arnel Pineda, whose discovery by guitarist Neal Schon via youtube is one of the oddest (but also best) things to happen to any band in history. While he conversed with the crowd more than I’d expected, it’s clear that he is still not entirely comfortable with that aspect of the job, which is the only factor preventing him from being the consummate frontman - but he can still work a crowd and his energy and the passion and power in his voice cannot be denied. Here’s hoping he remains Journey’s singer for the rest of their career, and the fairytale is not ruined by the ugliness that Journey’s past vocalists have experienced.
By way of a breather he handed lead vocal duties over to powerhouse drummer/vocalist Deen Castronovo for Mother, Father, so we actually had TWO band members making it look like singing a la Steve Perry is easy (it isn’t – I’ve checked!).
The band toned things down for just a few ballads, which sadly included Open Arms (But again, judging by the response they had no choice but to play it), but the set was expertly constructed to feed in a new song or a ballad at just the right time, before everything built to a climax with Don’t Stop Believin’ the smash that has had so much new life given it in recnt years, and made Journey a household name again (or for the first time for those of us not from North America!). Surprisingly perhaps – and pleasingly, certainly – there weren’t great numbers of Glee fans in evidence in the crowd, sitting impatiently for 4 hours to hear the one song they knew – a scenario I had feared – in fact the median age of the audience was amongst the oldest I’ve ever seen at a gig. That’s fine, made me feel young… 
All in all then a fantastic night, with maybe one song per set that I could have lived without, not bad going at all for a show running well past the three hour mark. The only real disappointment is that for the European dates of the it’s Night Ranger rather than Styx on opening act duty, whereas we Londoner’s get a full Night Ranger gig later in the month – I may yet eat these words (unlikely though...) but I’d far rather have had 45 minutes of Night Ranger and be anticipating a full Styx gig, but you take what you can get!                 (10/10)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

2011 Summer of Gigs #2: Richard Marx at the RAH

I’ve never followed Richard Marx very closely. At the time that Repeat Offender was riding high in the charts I was quite keen to get myself a copy, but then Billy Joel put a new album out and, only being nine at the time I couldn’t afford both, so the Marx album fell by the wayside (at the time I remember thinking that as Marx guested on said Joel album I was getting the best of both worlds). Years later some fellow Toto fans raved about his 1991 album Rush Street (which, incidentally, contains a guest appearance from…Billy Joel), so I picked it up and found it to be very good (especially the closing third) but still didn’t feel a need to delve further into his catalogue, although obviously I was familiar with many of his radio hits.

Then, around two decades after he’d last performed in the UK he played a show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire (my local, if you will!)) and I would have been tempted to go if it hadn’t been on the same night as Steve Lukather’s London gig. Those who did attend raved about it, and a mere seven months later he came back for a more extensive UK tour, which again received rave reviews from all who attended, so I thought that this time I’d better just bloody well go and see what all the fuss was about. Good decision.

The date last year and the other gigs on this tour were stripped-down acoustic only, but the Albert Hall gig was billed as a full-band affair, although in practice this wasn’t the case for the first half of the set. Opening with two of his best singles – Endless Summer Nights and Keep Coming Back Marx appeared solo and armed only with an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, and swiftly demonstrated an engaging stage persona with a voice that has worn the years extremely well.

A string quartet then came on stage to provide added textures to the rest of the acoustic material, beginning with two tracks from the 2004 album My Own Best Enemy, the second of which (One Thing Left)  Marx described as the first ‘pussy love song’ of the night, which is typical of his cheerfully self-deprecating manner (as was his dismissal of those who cheered the mention of My Own Best Enemy with a ‘Yeah, right – If I came to your houses I wouldn’t see it on your CD shelves! But thanks anyway…’). One of the highlights of the night was new song Save Me, which featured additional (pre-recorded audio and visual) accompaniment from Marx’s 3 sons, demonstrating that his is one of those ridiculously talented families. Utterly annoying but I’ll forgive them just this once…

I’m not sure how long it’s been since Marx has performed with his band, but when they joined him midway through the set he greeted them (musically speaking) as long-lost friends and the vast majority of the second half of the 2-hour plus set was high-energy pop/rock and roll, dominated by his early hits (Don’t Mean Nothin’, Take This Heart, Angelia, etc), but also including newer songs, and hits he’d written for other artists – Better Life, a song co-written with Keith Urban, was another of the evening’s highlights, and was nothing like as ‘country’ as I’d feared it would be when he introduced it!

One of the oddest things to happen in the band set occurred when he asked us if we were up for a singalong. Of course we were, but then we got the news that this was a brand new song and he’d have to teach us the lyrics first! Luckily our part consisted of ‘Na na na’s’, which we sang with …erm, restrained aplomb, I guess you might say. In any case it was the first time I‘ve ever seen a new song used for audience participation, let alone one that ended up being a strong contender for song of the night.

The evening came to a close with the obligatory Right Here Waiting – I had thought Marx might return to the stage alone for a final encore and play this solo on piano, but the band remained with him (see below), and a song I’ve always kind-of liked, but certainly never loved, made me a bit weepy (I really do need to get a ‘You made me cry – you bastard/s!’ sign to bring along to gigs, I’m sobbing far too much just lately…) While some of his ubiquitous radio songs (well, just the cloying Now and Forever really) may see some dismiss him as too ‘lightweight’ he proved beyond any doubt that there is far more too him than those ‘pussy love songs’…and that Repeat Offender would have been the better choice all those years ago…oh well, don’t suppose it’s too late to nab a copy…            (9/10)