Saturday, August 30, 2014

Laura Nyro's Musical Life

What do the hit songs “Eli’s Comin” by Three Dog Night and “Wedding Bell Blues” by The Fifth Dimension have in common? They were written by the late Laura Nyro, who had many of her wonderful songs turned into chart topping hits by artists like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Barbra Streisand during the 60s & 70s. Nyro released her first record, More Than A New Discovery, in 1967, and went on to record several now classic albums, including Eli & The Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969). She was a gifted performer who stayed out of the limelight when she wasn’t recording or touring. Laura remained elusive offstage, and kept her personal life very private. Despite not being a household name to the casual listener, Nyro has gained a loyal following among music fans, critics & fellow musicians. The 2003 biography Soul Picnic: The Music & Passion of Laura Nyro by Michelle Kort, attempts to give us some deeper insight into the life & career of this talented artist, who passed away in 1997. Kort wisely focuses on Nyro’s music, and uses it as a window to tell her story. There are reminisces by Nyro’s family & friends, and stories about her upbringing & personal journey.

But the real pleasures & fascinating stories here are learning about the creation of her music: classic tunes like “And When I Die” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” showcase Nyro's gift for unique lyrics & melodies. Despite her success, Nyro often clashed with producers & record company executives who didn’t understand her vision for her records, and how they should sound. Kort does a great job covering Nyro’s passionate, unflinching commitment to her music and how that music should feel to the listener. There’s in depth detail about the making of her albums & information about her concert tours, including input from studio musicians, producers & band members. There are also recollections from well known artists who either worked with Nyro or were influenced by her, including Todd Rundgren, & Patti Labelle (Nyro recorded a wonderful album of soul covers entitled Gonna Take a Miracle, with Labelle’s trio) and bass player Will Lee. Kort takes the time to analyze Nyro’s music & its origins in her personal life, and brings out some facts that the average fan may not know, including Nyro’s relationship with a young Jackson Browne.

This is a well-written biography that will appeal to music buffs that want to know more about Nyro’s background & history as an artist, as well as fans wanting a look into her creative process. The book also includes a discography, which was current at the time of the book's release, circa 2003. It was also published before Nyro’s induction into the R&R hall of fame in 2012, so there are no details about that well-deserved honor, but this is still a beautiful portrait of this acclaimed, powerful singer. Highly recommended, Soul Picnic: The Music & Passion of Laura Nyro is available in paperback & hardcover from online retailers like Amazon. Here are link’s to Laura’s version of Stoned Soul Picnic and Stoney End

Next time: The British (bands of the 80s) are coming...again!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel's Space Heroes Energize The Screen

Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy, the heroes of Marvel’s latest move hit? They’re a rag-tag group of heroes who go on an outer space adventure to retrieve a mysterious object, the origin of which will be familiar to Marvel comics fans. The team has existed on the printed page in various versions since 1969, but they’ve always been on the second (some would say third) tier of Marvel characters, despite some surges in popularity in the 80s & 90s. However, Marvel Studios was very clever about making this the latest entry in their cinematic universe. The film is a thrilling, fun-filled romp, combining the fast paced action & humor of films like the original Star Wars & Raiders of the Lost Ark, with a nod to 80s B-movies like The Last Starfighter.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is an earth man who is kidnapped as a boy by alien scavengers called the Ravagers. Now an adult & a member of the group, he fancies himself a Han Solo-esque outlaw named Starlord. Quill’s planning to double cross the Ravagers and sell a powerful orb he’s stolen to a third party. Along the way, he runs into an assassin named Gamora, the adopted daughter of super-villain Thanos, a living tree named Groot, and a genetically altered, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket. While they initially clash, they end up banding together to stop a fanatical alien warrior named Ronan, who plans to use the orb to destroy the planet Xandar. Despite a peace treaty that ended a war between Ronan's people and the Xandarians, he wants to annihilate them. Our heroes gain another ally in Drax The Destroyer, who’s seeking vengeance against Thanos for the death of his family. In fact, Thanos may have plans of his own for the orb.....if Ronan will turn it over to him. And is Quill a hero.....a rogue,.....or both? Will he & his friends save the day?

That may sound like a lot of plot, but it moves quickly, and there are space battles, prison breaks, a bit of romance, a lot of funny lines and a host of 70s rock tunes, courtesy of Quill’s Walkman and his favorite mix tape, which was a gift from his dying Mom. The characters are well developed despite the focus on humor & action, and their backstories will obviously be further explored in future installments, especially the identity of Quill's father....a being his Mom referred to as an "angel" before her death. Long-time fans will pick up on myriad references to other Marvel comic book characters and stories, which are obviously laying the groundwork for other Marvel films, but you don’t need to be familiar with any of that history to enjoy this movie. Sit back, relax & enjoy the ride. It’s a perfect summer popcorn flick, and the most fun you'll have at the moves this summer.

The cast is top notch; Pratt literally becomes a star before our eyes with this breakout performance; he’s got a sense of humor, cockiness, savvy (and dancing & singing skills) to spare, and the supporting cast is wonderful; Zoe Saldana is impressive as Gamora, and the voices of Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Vin Diesel as Groot add surprising depth & gravitas to their computer generated characters. Wrestler Dave Bautista proves himself a powerful ally and a perfect comic foil as Drax, and you’ll see a lot of familiar faces in smaller roles, including Glenn Close, Michael Rooker & John C. Reilly. The film was directed by James Gunn, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman. Gunn and his team have done a great job with the visual elements of the film; the effects are great, and this movie looks like an old school, big budget space adventure.

I’ve tried not to give too much of the film’s plot or pleasant surprises away. But if you like entertaining action-adventure films, and you have a soft spot for 70s and 80s sci-fi (and 70s pop music) you’re sure to have a good time watching Guardians of the Galaxy. The movie has a great sense of energy, a rollicking sense of humor, and a real dose of heart. It’s one of the best Marvel films yet. As always with Marvel movies, make sure to stay until the end of the credits, for an additional scene or two. And remember: The Guardians of the Galaxy will return. The Guardians of the Galaxy is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Next time: A look at a biography of singer Laura Nyro

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Godfather of Soul & The "Jersey Boys" Head To The Multiplex in Two New Films

Since the successful release of Ray (2004), the biography of Ray Charles, which starred Jamie Foxx, the musical bio-pic has come back into vogue, and two new releases continue the trend. James Brown was one of the most powerful, innovative performers to ever grace a stage. The “Godfather of Soul” helped bring funk into the mainstream, and has inspired countless other artists, including Michael Jackson, Prince & Mick Jagger. Get On Up (2014) tells the story of Brown’s life, and attempts to give us some insight into this legendary musician. The film moves back & forth in time, taking us to some of the high points (and low points) of Brown’s career, from his beginnings with the group The Famous Flames, to his worldwide success as a soul/funk/R&B superstar, scoring hits with songs like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.”

Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in 42), is amazing as Brown. He’s got the wild, yet graceful athleticism of Brown’s stage performances down pat, and it’s not mere mimicry. He inhabits the role – right down to Brown’s speech patterns & the way he walks. It’s an astonishing performance. There’s an excellent supporting cast including Viola Davis as Brown’s mother, and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd, the soul icon's musical collaborator & closest friend, who gets pushed to the background in Brown’s rise to the top. Some of the female roles in the film are too thin & lightly sketched, but all of the actors are solid in their roles. The musical sequences, including some of Brown’s most famous songs & musical moments, are fantastic. Particularly interesting are the recreations of his triumphant 1962 concert at the Apollo Theatre (which became a classic live album) and his 1964 appearance at the multi-artist concert The T.A.M.I Show, where he blew his fellow acts (including The Rolling Stones) off the stage with an electric performance.

The movie does jump around in time a little bit too much, sometimes moving back to complete a flashback scene we saw the first part of earlier in the film. And while the movie tries to give us a good overview of Brown’s life & career, balancing the story of Brown's successes with a look at his dark side, it skims over some of his issues with drugs & violence. But Boseman’s performance & the great music make this a must see for music fans. The film was directed by Tate Taylor, and written by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth. Mick Jagger & Brian Grazer were two of the film’s producers; in fact, Jagger helped shepherd the project's journey to the screen. The movie is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

The Broadway musical Jersey Boys has been a major success since it opened in 2005. A movie version of the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons has been in the works for a while (Jon Favreau was once slated to helm the project) but it finally came to fruition with Clint Eastwood directing. The film adapts some of the play’s structure, with the characters addressing the audience as the tale of the group’s early years unfolds. We see the beginnings of the band as Frankie forms the group with his friend, guitarist Tommy DeVito, keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio & bass player Nick Massi. While the group goes on to become one of the biggest selling acts of the 60s, personal conflicts & internal strife derail them at the height of their success. The movie features John Lloyd Young as Valli, Vincent Piazza as DeVito,  Erich Bergen as Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as Massi. The screenplay is by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, who wrote the original Broadway show.

While the movie is a musical, there’s a bit less focus on the music at times than you’d expect, though there are sequences depicting performances of some of the band's biggest hits. One thing that’s missing is a larger sense of the group’s success amid the other pop/rock groups of the 60s. There’s more of an emphasis on the dark side of the group’s rise to fame. It’s a very internalized story that keeps its sights on the group's dynamics, treating them like a family. The actors do a great job bringing these musical icons to life. Lloyd Young (who originated the role of Valli on Broadway) & Bergen as Gaudio stand out in the talented cast, and Christopher Walken shines in a supporting role as a mobster who helps the group get its start. I haven’t seen the play, though people who have tell me there’s more music, and a bit less less focus on the group’s downfall. But maybe the darker side of the story is what drew Eastwood (who also directed the Charlie Parker bio-pic Bird) to the project.

Like many film biographies, the movie is lighter on the details of the groups’ later years, and quickly sketches their eventual comeback, ending with the band's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Still, it’s an interesting story, and you’ll probably learn a lot about the The Four Seasons that you didn’t know before, including the group’s friendship with a young guy named Joe Pesci. Of course, there are also all those great songs on the soundtrack, including “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” among others. In fact, the film’s at its best when showing the guys working on their music with producer Bob Crewe, who contributed a great deal to the group’s success. While you might not think of Eastwood as the first choice to direct a musical, he does a decent job, even though the film still somewhat betrays its stage origins. If you’re a fan of the The Four Seasons & their music, Jersey Boys is worth a look. The film has just about finished its run in theaters, but a video release should be announced soon. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, August 3, 2014

There's No Gridlock For Dave Mason's “Traffic Jam” in Hamden

Legendary rocker Dave Mason brought his  “Traffic Jam” tour to Town Center Park in Hamden, CT on Friday, August 1. The show was the last in the town’s 2014 outdoor summer concert series. Luckily, the weather held out, and there was no rain in sight during the evening. Kicking off the show with “40,000 Headmen,” Mason led his stellar backing band through a solid set of Traffic classics & songs from his solo career. The first portion of the evening focused on Traffic, and included “Pearly Queen” & “Medicated Goo.” Interestingly enough, Mason performed a couple of Traffic tunes more closely associated with fellow member Steve Winwood, who sang lead vocals on the originals.  Mason altered the arrangements to “Dear Mr. Fantasy” & “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” to suit his own bluesy style, and while the songs sounded different from the originals, the new versions sounded great.

After “Dear Mr. Fantasy” Mason remarked “it’s time for some Dave songs” and he launched into a group of solo numbers including the well-remembered 70s hit “We Just Disagree” and the often-covered “Only You Know & I Know.” He also performed a couple of tracks from his recent release Future’s Past, including “How Do I Get To Heaven” a song co-written by Jim Capaldi, another member of Traffic. Mason spoke warmly of working with him in Traffic and during his solo years. He talked about the genesis of the tune, which was left partially finished when Capaldi passed away in 2005. Mason later finished the song and recorded it. The emotional performance was one of the highlights of the concert. The excellent show finished with great renditions of “Let It Go, Let It Flow” (a personal favorite of mine) and a cover of “All Along The Watchtower.” By the way, Mason actually played on the Hendrix version of that song back in the 60s.

The crowd wasn’t quite ready to let Dave go, however, and he returned for an encore featuring another classic that he wrote “Feelin’ Alright,” which became a huge hit for Joe Cocker. The funky arrangement of the song was the perfect way to end the night with the appreciative audience grooving along as the evening drew to a close. Dave Mason’s “Traffic Jam” tour will be on the road for some more dates this summer, and if you’re a classic rock fan, this is most definitely a show you'll want to see. Here are links to Dave performing “Feeling Alright”, “Only You Know & I Know,” and “We Just Disagree”

I’d also like to note that Remember September, an excellent jam band based in Trumbull, CT were a great opening act at the show. Their set featured songs from their CD The Roads We Travel as well as some new material. They have a cool sound that’s a mix of rock & funk and delivered some great grooves to kick off the evening. This was the group’s second visit to the Hamden Summer Concert Series after opening for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes in 2012. They are worth checking out, and you can find out more about them at:

Set List for Dave Mason:
40, 000 Headmen
Pearly Queen
Medicated Goo
Rock & Roll Stew
Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Dear Mr. Fantasy
World in Changes
We Just Disagree
How Do I Get To Heaven
Good 2 You
Only You Know & I Know
Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave
Let It Go, Let It Flow
All Along The Watchtower
Feelin' Alright