Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Brussels Affair: Vintage Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones dipped into their live archive in the summer of 2011 and unearthed and officially released the famous and long-bootlegged Brussels performance from October 1973 known as the Brussels Affair. It's release unlocked the Stones Archive, and gave live music junkies like myself a vintage and outstanding performance, fitting of the "Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World".

While you'd be hard-pressed to find a music fan who isn't at least somewhat familiar with the Rolling Stones studio work (Who hasn't heard Satisfaction?), Brussels Affair gives the listener the opportunity to see the band in an unrestricted environment; one in which they are free to stretch out and jam when the mood strikes.  The combination of compact true-to-the-album classics and extended, blues laden jams brings something to the table for everyone.  That combination has cemented Brussels Affair at the top of my collection since its release.   

The hour and 20 minute performance in front of a enthusiastic Belgian crowd finds the Stones in fine form and is jam packed with highlights, virtually from beginning to end. While each member of the band has their turn in the spotlight, for my money, the star of the show is without a doubt Mick Taylor, who despite his outstanding contributions to the Stones during his tenure, would leave the band in just a year's time after the Brussels performance.

After powering through a few bonafide Stones classics, Brown Sugar, Gimme Shelter and Tumblin' Dice, Mick and Co. roll out the Bootleggers first real highlight: Dancin' With Mr. D.  Only performed a few times during this tour, Dancin' With Mr. D features an infectious groove, and some simply stunning guitar work from Mick Taylor. After two years of listening to this set, Mr. D is still the magnet that draws me back in every so often.  Despite the presence of several of their more commercially successful songs being performed that night, Mr. D is the true gem of the set. 

Not to be outdone, the Stones cruise right into another new track from Goat's Head Soup, which would become a classic, Heartbreaker, which again features great energy, including some interesting lead interplay between the Micks, and a funky little breakdown section, before ripping right back into the chorus, hinting at how versatile and nimble the band is. 

Cranking back the intensity, Angie is another shining example of how multi-dimensional the Stones are, giving each member of the band their place to shine, and with the pace of the show to this point, giving drummer Charlie Watts time to take a little break! Charlie's break carries on into the Stones classic, Can't Always Get What You Want, where they spend 11 minutes exploring, highlighted by more soaring lead work by Mick Taylor, complimented by a stunning horn solo.

The break's over, but the jamming is just beginning. The final Bootlegger's highlight from this show, a romping and high energy 12 minute Midnight Rambler.  It's as if the first half of the show led up to a breaking point at Angie and now the almost frantic energy and urgency is back, punctuated this time by Mick Jagger's harmonica playing.  

But predictable is one thing Brussels Affair is not, and Midnight Rambler is a perfect microcosm of just that: slowing down to nearly a complete stop about halfway through for some riffing and vocal/guitar interplay, including Mick and Keith trading some tasteful lead lines, before Mick brings them slowly back onto focus to finish things out.

Bootleggers Bottom Line: Brussels Affair is a must-have for any Stones fan, and is also a great entry into the Rolling Stones over all, both as a live act and as a band over all.  It has been and will continue to be a staple on the show from now on.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Resurgence of the Live Album, and Why Your Band Should Have One

You and your band have spent the last few years playing gigs, cutting your chops and writing songs. You've played small clubs, maybe even a local theater or festival.  You've built a following; your shows are packed everywhere you go, and your fans are devoted.  On stage you're locked in: Rhythms tight, riffs rockin', solos focused and fluid.  You're ready to go into the studio to record an album. But studio time isn't cheap, and money's tight.  And you need some merchandise to sell at your gigs.  What about a live album?  Didn't think about that, did you?

The last few years have seen what I would consider the revival of the live album. A who's who of blues and rock heavy hitters have rolled out an avalanche of live music: Blues master Joe Bonamassa has recorded three since 2009, at Royal Albert Hall and the Beacon Theater, with a third just released in April 2013 recorded at the Vienna Opera House. Gun's 'n Roses legend Slash recorded one of his own with Myles Kennedy of Alterbridge in 2011, Made in Stoke. Veterans of the live album Derek Trucks/Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gov't Mule have each dropped two since 2010.  Warren Haynes went one further and released one with this solo group, the Warren Haynes Band, recorded at the Moody Theater. Rock and roll royals The Rolling Stones unlocked their vaults in 2011, so far releasing five pristine, internet-only live sets from 1973 to 2005. Even Led Zeppelin, the ultimate guardians of their live performance legacy have gotten in on the action, finally releasing a CD/DVD set of their 2007 reunion concert at the O2.

Two of the greatest and most critically acclaimed albums in the history of rock were live albums: The Allman Brothers' Live at the Filmore East and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive. These were recorded during a time when technology wasn't nearly as advanced, and the ability to properly record a band in a live environment was nowhere near as easy. Margin for error was much higher, making capturing a quality recording of a band significantly more difficult, often requiring recording a band over several nights, increasing costs.  By contrast, in today's era of hard drives and digital recording, it's easier, more reliable and more cost effective than ever.  It's so easy in fact, that many bands, including Phish, Gov't Mule, WidespreadPanic, String Cheese Incident and other big guns of the jam band circuit now record their shows every night, and sell digital downloads through their websites, providing fans the opportunity to relive their favorite shows for a few extra bucks, usually within a couple days after the concert took place.

So, why hasn't your band taken the time to record themselves live if the 'pros' are doing it with such regularity? 

Since the outset of Bootleggers Beware in 2010, I've spoken regularly to bands who want to send me their new single or album.  There's a special feeling that comes from it - being able to say 'We just recorded our first album'. The glamour is and always has been in being in the studio.  But unless you're Jimmy Page, who had absolute control over everything Led Zeppelin did in the studio (which he got in part because Zeppelin was so great on stage), someone is probably calling some of, if not all the shots by the time you get there.  Especially for a band who's new to the studio, there's pressure you won't find on stage, because you're paying for the time, and trying to make everything perfect.

There's a lot of value in bands recording themselves live.  But in my opinion, they are hidden behind the blinding light and draw of the studio. A live album is either an afterthought or a complete non-thought. More times than not, I hear 'We're going to record something at our next show' - most of those bands I never hear from again.

I believe the allure of the studio, and the 'coolness' of having a studio album causes most bands to not consider the merits of recording themselves live.  Any band can sound good in the hands of a good producer in the studio with the benefit of Pro Tools, second takes and numerous other safety nets.  The legendary bands who have recorded live albums, like the Allman Brothers or Led Zeppelin, honed their sound in rehearsals and in the studio, but it was on stage where they truly shined.  The bottom line is, as a band, your real value is what you can do on stage, in the moment, when there's no safety net. 

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with blues legend Johnny Winter and his current bandmate and manager, Paul Nelson, and we briefly discussed live recordings:.  Winter echoed the above thoughts, saying that live performances and live recordings give the listener the opportunity to 'Really see what the bands can do." 

Winter explained his process for the creation of an 'official' live album as somewhat selective, "We just decide it's time for a live record" and "Just play," choosing the best of the best to be included on the album. But Winter and his crew have also put a unique spin on the live album concept, in establishing the immensely popular Bootleg Series. Using sometimes less polished, unofficial live recordings, they release some of the higher quality unofficial live recordings in their archives as live discs.  The Bootleg Series has reached an impressive nine volumes, with Volume 9 having been released in May 2013, further demonstrating the value in tapping into the value of developing a habit of recording live.

Even if you're not immediately planning to release a live album, consider this: Every night may not spawn the next Frampton Comes Alive or Live at the Filmore East, but recording your live performances is anything but wasted time. There's always value in listening to what you did the night before.  You may pick up new ideas, licks, riffs of improvisations that could be the nucleus of new songs, that you may not remember without keeping it on file. 

And who knows, maybe one night y catch lightning in a bottle, capture THE perfect show and it BECOMES your Filmore East.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Gov't Mule: The Charles Ives Experiment

The perfect outdoor concert is one where the stars both literally and figuratively align. The Gov't Mule peformance at the Ives Concert Park on Sunday June 3 was one of those nights.  The weather was perfect; warm and slightly overcast, the crowd was enthusiastic and respectful, and the band was as usual, in perfect form.  For the third time in the last five years, the Mule took to the Ives' intimate stage and delivered another unique set of originals and cover songs that kept the crowd and seemingly the band, on the edge of its seat.

The beauty of a Gov't Mule concert is the unexpectedness of both the setlist and the guest list, and Sunday's show was no exception.  The highlights were many, with the band taking the stage before dusk. Easing into things with Hammer and Nails, the Mule proceeded to hit a groove just before dark, and drove the crowd into a frenzy with a blistering version of Streamline Woman, slipping directly into Howlin' Wolf's How Many More Years, done only the way Gov't Mule can.

Sco Mule, beginning just before dark and ending just after the sun went down, brought in the first guest of the night, jazz saxophonist Bill Evans. Evans stepped up to the front line and teamed up with Danny Louis in a combination of horns that highlighted the band's full range, showing anyone that didn't already know that Gov't Mule is more than your every day rock band.  Evans, Louis and guitarist Warren Haynes traded solos throughout a 16 minute jazz driven jam session that brought the first set to a close.

Evans was by no means done, coming back almost immediately to join the band for most of the second set, including The Band's The Shape I'm In, and the unquestioned highlight of the second set that brought out the biggest applause of the night, a brilliant version of Traffic's Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Clocking in at a quarter of an hour and featuring more impressive interplay between Evans and the Mule, Low Spark was highlighted by Louis effortlessly doing triple duty on the trumpet, trombone and keyboards, and proving that no guest, no song and no style is too far outside the bounds.

Never one to hog the stage from their opening act, Warren invited Nicki Bluhm (who reminds me a lot of my fellow Vermonter Grace Potter) and members of her band, The Gramblers (and of course, Bill Evans) up to the stage to join in on a beautiful version of Ray Charles and Dinah Washington's Drown in My Own Tears, with the Gramblers huddling around the mic reminiscent of a barber shop quartet to deliver the song's title verse line. 

Once again showing off his musical knowledge, Warren educated the audience on the history of Charles Ives, the groundbreaking composer for whom the park is named, before embarking on what seems to be becoming a tradition with the Mule when they visit the Ives, a Charles Ives Experiment. Consisting of straight up experimentation in the honor of the park's namesake and living effortlessly on the edge of musical chaos, Mule and Bill Evans began the encore with a Traffic classic that the band has been covering since the 90's Sad and Deep As You.  Where things got really interesting was watching Mule roadie extraordinaire Brian Farmer covertly suit up bassist Dave Anderson off to the side of the stage. Anderson then seamlessly took stepped in as Jorgen Carlsson slipped out the back door (all while the whole group eased into Afro Blue) and promptly stole the show.  Anderson delivered a show-stopping bass solo, highlighting the 16 minute encore and leaving the whole park, band and fans alike, breathless and satisfied, like only the Mule can. 

The Bootlegger's Bottom Line: As long as the Ives keeps bringing the Mule back, I'll keep making the 4.5 hour drive to Danbury to hear the next experiment in the Park.

Set 1: Hammer & Nails, Banks Of The Deep End, Time To Confess, Million Miles From Yesterday, Unring The BellStreamline Woman, How Many More Years, Endless Parade,
Sco-Mule (with Bill Evans)

Set 2: Scared To Live, The Shape I'm In (with Bill Evans), Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys (with Bill Evans), I'll Drown In My Own Tears (with Bill Evans, Nicki Bluhm, Tim Bluhm, Steve Adams & Dave Mulligan), Broke Down On The Brazos, Tributary Jam, Lola Leave Your Light On

Charles Ives Experiment #2 - 'Sad & Deep As You' & 'Afro-Blue' )with Bill Evans & Dave Anderson)