Archive for October, 2012

The story of US pop singer Karen Carpenter is well-known – the squeaky clean all-American girl-next-door who, with her brother Richard as the duo The Carpenters, had sunny hit after sunny hit during the cloudy 1970s.

What is maybe not so well known is the dark shadow behind the perfect Colgate smiles – the spectre of Richard’s prescription drug addiction and, most tragically, Karen’s awful battle with anorexia nervosa which ultimately led to her premature death at the age of 33.

It is this tragedy which adds an aching poignancy to Carpenters’ hits such as ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Yesterday Once More’ – a poignancy amplified by the bittersweetness of Karen’s woodsmoke voice and Richard’s widescreen arrangements. It is genius capital-p Pop, on par with the hit-radio triumphs of Björn Ulvaeus ABBA or Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys.

Sydney cabaret chanteuse, Meera Belle’s ‘Close to You: A Tribute to Karen Carpenter’ – performed over two nights at the inner-City Italian Forum as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival – took on both the sunshine and the moonshadow of Karen Carpenter’s art and life. The songs were hung on a smartly scripted monologue – shared between Belle and backing vocalist Rob McDougall – detailing Karen’s sunny highs and nightblack lows over a two-part show.

It worked beautifully too: the first half – kicked off fittingly with the almost too cute ‘Top Of The World’ – is the sunshine. Meera Belle, cool in a pale mint gown, recounted the meteoric rise of the Carpenter siblings under the eye of A&M Records hitmaker, Herb Alpert. She touched on the irony of Karen, who only ever wanted to be a drummer (and she was a damn good drummer),  growing to become one of the world’s most beloved singers.

A smart touch here was the featuring of young Sydney jazz drummer Lauren Benson in the band – between Benson’s cool swing and Meera Belle’s rich, assured voice they created a kind of composite Karen for us, drummer and singer.

The band, led by astute musical director and keys player Ray Lemond, somehow managed to recreate – with very spare means – those huge luscious Richard Carpenter arrangements. Veteran bass player Phil Scorgie and alto/flute/clarinet man Scott Simpkins rounded out the intrepid quartet that achieved this magic. (Kudos to Belle for not using backing tracks – these songs deserve more respect than that).

Meera Belle returned for the second half in black with a simple gold belt, reflecting the somber nature of the moonshadow half of ‘Close to You: A Tribute…’ The backstory here was of the personal decline of both Carpenters, focussing on Karen’s snakes-and-ladders love-life and, of course, her descent into anorexia nervosa – the wracking slimmers disease that, in the late 70s, was still barely acknowledged. She always wanted to be perfect – the perfect wife and suburban Mom, the perfect show-biz face and figure. Her parade of faithless lovers robbed her of the former, anorexia robbed her of the latter, and finally her life.

‘Close to You: A Tribute…’ did not shy away from the tragedy of Karen Carpenter’s life but allowed her story to colour and illuminate the way we heard the music. And what music it is – one of the rare bodies of work that, like the music of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, is beloved by millions now and into the future. Perfect pure pop – beauty, born, like Brian Wilson’s, of pain.

 

Published September 2012 on megaphoneoz.com

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Like both the Blues and modern Jazz before it, the genre of Blues-Rock found its perfect expression in the early 1970’s. Heavied up by British rockers such as Cream’s Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and the hyperkinetic Jeff Beck, the highly innovative music of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon paved the way for Heavy Metal and all forms of Hard Rock (including, whether they like it or not, Punk Rock).

And, like both the Blues and modern Jazz, Blues-Rock has its evangelists – those artists who, through single-mindedness or outright religious zeal, feel it is their mission to bring the Righteous Word to their hungry flock. US guitar classicist, Joe Bonamassa travels the world, missionary-like, wielding his Les Paul like a fiery cross, his blazing sermons lighting up congregations at all points of the compass.

 

 

 

On October 5, Bonamassa’s church was Sydney’s State Theatre, as gaudily rococo a house of worship as there ever has been. After a wonderful and too-short warm-up by the Wizard of Katoomba, Claude Hay (his one-man band trip would be mere sleight-of-hand if not for his warm and entirely-engaging musicality), Bonamassa sat down with a stool and an acoustic guitar and we were his.

Joined by drummer Tal Bergman on conga set, he took us through covers of Bad Company’s ‘Seagull’ and originals such as the title track to his last album ‘Driving Towards The Daylight’. The acoustic set concluded with some jaw-dropping bluegrass flash which would have shook every guitar player in the audience (and there were many – later in the set Joe B asked us to identify ourselves and a forest of callus-fingered hands shot into the air).

But as sweet and earthy as the acoustic set was, we had come for the Power and the Glory, and when Bonamassa plugged his (signature, no less) Les Paul into an unholy trinity of 100w Marshall amps it was Heaven, of a sort.

Playing through the menacing Zep-blues of ‘Slow Train’ and the funk-noir of the title track to 2011’s excellent ‘Dust Bowl’, Bonamassa delivered the sermon we had heard so many times before, and would rush to hear again for many years to come.

Bonamassa covered all the bases – the gorgeous Gary Moore cover, ‘Midnight Blues’, which showed the subtle, multi-coloured blues voice behind the heavy rocker, and brought to mind the spiritual genius Peter Green, an influence on Gary Moore and Carlos Santana; the worldly Jeff Beck group blues ‘Blues Deluxe’ which featured his vocal, completely underrated and over-shadowed by his guitar-playing, but, like SRV, an integral part of his appeal; the delicious ‘Sloe Gin’, Tim Curry’s boozer-poem and a JB live staple since his 2007 album of the same name.

Bonamassa’s take on Mose Allison’s wry ‘Young Man Blues’ (via The Who) took his road-toughened band into guitar jam territory – with bass player Carmine Rojas trading some toe-to-toe riffage with JB. Electrifying shit, whichever way you slice it.

But it was not all tooth-and-claw blues and spitting Les Paul magma; Bonamassa can be a truly beautiful player, easily putting aside the histrionics and flash for sweet and soulful lines, making his instrument truly ‘sing’ with all the nuance and warmth that that suggests. The long, mountain-misty intro to ‘Mountain Time’, accompanied only by the keyboard strings of Sydney’s own (and JB touring stalwart) Rick Mellick brought to mind Jeff Beck’s more cosmic flights and took us all higher in every sense.

What, of course makes Joe Bonamassa so exciting is that he is part of the long line of electric guitar players – Hendrix, Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore – who revel in making a great big guitar noise. The encore of ZZ Top’s ‘Just Got Paid’ mixed in all sorts of big fun rock guitar, from its ‘Ain’t Superstitious’ (Jeff Beck) intro to snatches of Billy Cobham’s ‘Stratus’ (a tip of the hat to Tommy Bolin) and huge chunks of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’.

To those who wanted a rock guitar masterclass, they got it; to those who wanted unadulterated rock par excellence, they got it; for those (such as your correspondent) who wanted a window into an era when the guitar ruled the known world, they got it. Joe Bonasmassa cannot be beaten, whichever rules he plays under.

 

Photo by John Snelson/Get Shot Magazine

 

Published October 2012 on liveguide.com.au

 

 

If I thought anything on this earth could budge the monolithic gravitas of The Dap Queen, Sharon Jones, I would say “Move over, Sharon – there’s a new capital-S Soul Diva on the block.” But of course, the leader of the mighty Dap Kings and figurehead of the New Deep Soul Revival will not and cannot be moved.

But if there was anyone who could shift her, it just might be Hannah Williams. The young British singer and her tough-as-brass-tacks band, The Tastemakers have a raw urgency that might rattle even Jones and Co. Not that Jones is worried – she, as well as soul magi such as Charles Bradley and UK DJ Craig Charles, has voiced her support of the young singer, calling her “blessed”.

And blessed Williams is – blessed with a voice that calls to mind the more declamatory and rough-edged styles of Etta James and even Betty Davis. No Nu-Soul here: smooth she ain’t – it’s cat-scratch and big-woman blues all the way. Strong, strident and down-town – I fear a blast from Williams could shrivel the most bullying man (and most of the Nu-Soul divas twittering away in their gilded cages these days…).

Italian record label Record Kicks has a good ear for Soul – they release Sydney’s own soul superheroes Dojo Cuts (see my review here). Record Kicks have now taken on Hannah Williams & The Tastemakers’ debut, A Hill of Feathers.

What draws me to any of the New Deep Soul Revival recordings, from the Dap Kings onwards, is the wonderfully “live” production feel they go for and achieve. This music is as emotive as the most electrifying blues (from which, of course, it takes and alchemises so much) so, to bury all that blood, sweat and tears under a pile of plastic midi-beats and AutoTune would be criminal. A huge appeal of Amy Winehouse’s 2006 smash Back To Black was producer Mark Ronson’s wise choice to use the Dap-Kings as the living, breathing backbone to the music.

Williams’ band, the eight-piece Tastemakers, led by guitarist Hillman Mondegreen, is the Stax-classic two-horns plus rhythm with two backing vocalists. Mondegreen’s smarts allow this format to simmer under a moody blues – such as the indigo opener to A Hill of Feathers, ‘Work It Out’ (with added strings) – as well as cut up the 16ths in a funk workout such as ‘Do Whatever Makes You Feel Hot’. The band’s feature piece, the instrumental ‘Things To Come’ is a nice piece of showing off that you don’t mind at all.

Lyrically there are some spots where the attitude may be from the same bygone-age as the patina of the music – ‘The Kitchen Strut’s “I’m getting out of your kitchen/And into your bed” seems to not really apply these days, but Williams delivers it with such right-on clout, I think I would be hesitant to ask her to pass the salt.

Every track on A Hill of Feathers has me asking again “Where the hell do all these amazing singers come from?” For every X-Factor cookie-cut kiddie band we have an Adele or a Melody Gardot to carry the music forward.

And now we have Hannah Williams and her kick-ass band. I have seen the future and it is not AutoTuned.

 

Published October 2012 on theorangepress.net

 

As irrelevant as the question may be in a world where most music is now cherry-picked from iTunes or Spotify: what is an album? LP records have been around since 1910, reaching their apogee during the 1970s with concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ or album-length works such as Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick As a Brick’.

Steve Sedergreen’s latest collection, ‘Points in Time’ is just that – a true collection that is at once a retrospective of his remarkable 25-year career and at the same time twelve new recordings. The loop goes back on itself in that almost all tracks are are re-imaginings of pieces written at various points in that career.

The son of Australian jazz-piano titan Bob Sedergreen, Steve is a teacher, mentor and author as well as an enormously respected and internationally heeded pianist. His reflective nature is obvious from the opener ‘Constraints in Construction’ – a shimmering quicksilver solo piano piece improvised as if from the air – which illustrates where Sedergreen is right now. The smart juxtaposition of the next track, 1988’s ‘The Trophy Revisited’ shows how far he has flown since then. A bright latin-funk bounce, now with vocal added, ‘Trophy’ is quite gorgeous, if a little jarring in its sudden stylistic shift back in time from ‘Constraints’.

Sedergreen says “The tracks on ‘Points in Time’ capture the three main writing periods of my life: that of a young 20 year old music student; then as a little-bit-more-mature 28 year old musician; and finally as a man in his 40s, a jazz improviser focused on deep listening.”

Deep listening it is: ‘Constraints in Construction’ and 1995’s ‘Resolution’ (a brooding on eternity over didgeridu) brought to mind a painter such as Picasso or the mystic Paul Klee who, as they advance through their years and their Art seem to pare away all their work’s stylistic scaffolding until we are left with just wonder and simplicity.

Producer Cameron Giles-Webb (who along with Hetty Kate provides vocals on the album) has used a startling 12-piece band on ‘Points In Time’ expanding and contracting this palette as the pieces require. It is nice work: the music never seems to get too puffed-up nor too scrawny; all is beautifully balanced.

‘Prayer For Lost Souls’, ‘Miss Happiness’ and ‘The Pink Glove’ from the 90s show Sedergreen’s nimble and sharp jazz writing but he is obviously beyond that now. He says, “This is the album I had to make. I have entered the most creatively exciting phase of my career thus far and I knew the first step was to reflect on the music I have written and performed over the past two decades.”

One might wonder why this would be the first step, or why Steve Sedergreen felt re-workings of existing material to be in line with this new phase. But artists have their own instincts, their own logic – and usually it is best if we all just go with it. After all, it could just yield up a sparkling work like ‘Points In Time’.

Points in Time will be released on Friday 14 September. Sedergreen and his nine-piece band will launch the launch the album on Saturday 15 September at the Central Club Hotel in Richmond.

For more information visit: www.stevesedergreen.com

Published September 2102 on jazz-planet.com

Even if I hated the music of Annie Erin Clark, I think I would find some way to like it. Not only does she take her performance name – St Vincent – from the hospital where Dylan Thomas died in 1953 (“Where poetry comes to die,” she says – poetically) but she dropped out of the esteemed Berklee College of Music upon the realisation that “at some point you have to… forget everything that you learned in order to actually start making music.” But it’s a good thing I like her music – literate, dreamy, alienly original and archly arty – very much.

David Byrne… well, I have wanted to have his babies ever since I heard Talking Heads ’77 – in 1977. A musician who even out-eggheaded Brian Eno, Byrne has always gone for the left of field, the multi-layered joke and the coolly artistic (even if it is often wrapped in humid NYC salsa or scratchy funk).

My excitement at seeing these two bright sparks come together for the recent release – Love This Giant – was tempered with a little trepidation: would Byrne and Clark cancel each other out? Would their cerebral tendencies produce an impenetrable code of clever-clever – signals emanating from a brain-box that none of us dummies would get?

Silly me. Upon listening to Love This Giant I realised that, yes, they are smart cookies but both have always made music for people. St Vincent’s sly grooves and pop hooks, Byrne’s dips into the hothouse of ‘world’-music. And Love This Giant is made for people.

Talking Head’s last album, 1988’s Naked, was filled with Latin flavours – salsa, mambo, latin funk – and the thudding mambo of Love This Giant’s opener, ‘Who’, is the mission statement. Rich with a phat horn section and ass-whipping drums, its joyful street-parade strut sets the template for what is to come. “Who’ll be my Valentine? Who’ll lift this heavy load?/Who’ll share this taxicab? Who wants to climb aboard?”

Beautiful organic flavours abound – the sound of real instruments, whether those baritone-sax driven horn blasts (‘Weekend In the Dust’) or Salvation Army Brass Band brass choir (the intro to ‘I Am An Ape’). St Vincent herself sounds transported on the compassionate ‘Ice Age’, after a drifting first section, when the horns pick up steam – “Oh diamond, it’s such a shame/To see you this way, freezing it out/Your own little ice age.” An icier, synth driven, background might not have brought out the rise in the song as full-bloodedly.

The horn charts were written by Tony Finno and were so complete by the time Clark and Byrne got around to incorporating them in the music, Byrne says “Often when we could, we didn’t use any bass. The tuba or the baritone sax would do the job of the bass and Annie and I would play guitar. I was more the rhythm guitar guy. And she was the incredible lead guitarist.” (And she is).

The burnished-brass fruit of a three-year gestation/circling between two mutually appreciative artists (what a pleasure to use that word accurately for a change) – after Byrne and Clark were brought together for a 2009 charity performance – Love This Giant is, if the god of NYC bohemia is smiling upon us, the beginning of more from these two. I truly hope so.

Read (lots) more at http://lovethisgiant.com/

Published September 2012 on theorangepress.net

‘In a Little While’, the debut single released earlier this year by Melbourne vocalist, Maxi Vauzelle gave us a taste of what was to come. A quite irresistible piece of pop-soul, ‘In a Little While’ balanced old school and nu-soul flavours nicely with Vauzelle’s voice standing out immediately to the ear as one to watch.

‘In a Little While’ sits right in the middle of Vauzelle’s new EP, MAXI – five tracks (well, four and a bit) of soul that is thankfully not too serious – drawing together elements of 70s disco, gospel and synth-pop to make a truly original whole.

Maxi Vauzelle – who goes by the hip contraction of Maxi – has teamed with producer Joel Witenberg to hone these tunes, written in her parent’s attic over the summer of 2011/12, into what we hear on MAXI. Using a core of smart musos (check guitarist Adam Starr’s Earth-Wind-&-Fire horn arrangements on ‘For Me’) and some nice production imagination (the thinned out percussion under the lush vocal harmony on ‘In a Little While’ is sharp and effective), Witenberg has framed Maxi’s songs and stand-out voice perfectly.
The informal opener, aptly called ‘Intro’ weaves gospel voices over a finger-popping background, intertwining and blending into church harmony before the jungle drums of ‘From The Start’ take us to Motown. Perfect groove, Stax-soul horns, neat hook.

The single, ‘In a Little While’ keeps the standard up, warmed up this time with the smoulder of vintage synths. Disco mover, ‘For Me’ (with those tasty horns) has a mirror-ball vibe that should earmark it for the next single (or my next party).

EP closer, the moody ‘Heaven Helped You Down’, a minor key torch anthem with cinematic thunder drums shows Maxi’s flawless vocal harmonies – used richly throughout the five tracks – to great effect; stacked four or five voices high, they create a wall, a curtain, a river of sound wherever Witenberg uses them. It is a mark of Witenberg’s taste (and soul-smarts) that ‘Heaven Helped You Down’ never boils over but aches through to the end.

Very nice – I am taken with that balance of production, as we heard recently on Adele’s omnipresent world-beater 21, of a lush treatment that still manages to have the immediacy of a band playing for you in a room. Maxi’s vocal is also reminiscent of Adele’s – not the sometimes too-pushed power of the British singer, but the warmth and nuance that goes back to soul’s golden period. What Maxi adds is the sass of disco-divas such as Alicia Bridges and Gloria Gaynor. As I said, one to watch.

Maxi’s website is here.

 

Published September 2012 on theorangepress.net