Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love & Mercy: The Genius of Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson has become recognized as a true innovator & musical icon for his work with The Beach Boys & as a solo artist. The word genius gets thrown around pretty casually these days, but that’s an apt description of Brian’s talent. Sadly, Wilson suffered a lot during his life. He endured a lot of pain & suffered from mental health issues before finding peace & contentment. He's now restored & rejuvenated, and touring again this summer. The new film Love & Mercy attempts (and largely succeeds) to give us a window into the mind & world of this brilliant, troubled, sometimes misunderstood artist. The film moves back & forth between two critical time periods in Brian’s life; the 1960s, when he was the leader & chief songwriter for The Beach Boys, and the 1980s, when he was under the thumb of Dr. Eugene Landy, a psychiatrist whose control over & obsession with Brian reached dangerous levels.

In the 1960s scenes, we see Brian (played by Paul Dano) retire from touring with the immensely popular Beach Boys. He stays behind to write & produce new music for the group. Inspired by exciting new music like The Beatles groundbreaking album Rubber Soul, Brian wants to move away from the pop tunes The Beach Boys are famous for, and create songs & sounds using new styles & techniques. There are some excellent scenes that recreate Brian at work in the studio with the famous group of backing musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. They're collaborating with Brian & recording the backing tracks for what will become the now classic album Pet Sounds. When the rest of the group return from the road, Brian plays them back the work he’s done, and asks them to help record the vocals. This begins a rift within the band, when some members, especially Mike Love, are against this new direction for the group. But Brian wants to continue, and take the musical transformation even further on their next record, Smile, which is eventually cancelled during the long studio sessions for the record. This causes more strife within the band, even though they work together with Brian on the "Good Vibrations" single, which becomes a tremendous success.

The portions of the story set in the 1960s alternate with scenes set in the 1980s, where Brian (now played by John Cusack) is struggling to overcome years of depression and drug use & deal with the emotional fallout of his turbulent youth, growing up with his abusive father. He's under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti. Brian meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, who's excellent in the role) while trying to buy a car, and they begin a tentative relationship. The sheltered, fragile Brian is completely dominated by Landy, who approves & supervises all access to Brian, and monitors him at all times. Landy also keeps Brian away from his family, and has him deeply medicated for what he says are Brian’s serious mental issues. Melinda begins to suspect that the doctor’s methods are hurting Brian more than helping him, and tries to contact Brian’s family to get help in freeing him from Landy’s control.

Dano is amazing as the young Brian; he doesn’t act the role so much as he inhabits it. He even sings solo in a pivotal scene. Dano brilliantly conveys Brian’s musical genius & fragile emotional state; his work is truly phenomenal. Cusack is very good as the older Brian, and accurately portrays the older Brian's personality & state of mind. But at times his familiarity to us (from his many previous roles) reminds us that this is John Cusack playing Brian Wilson. Still, he has some effective moments, and has really wonderful chemistry with Wilson as Ledbetter, whom Brian eventually married. Between the two actors, you get a real sense of Brian’s complex psyche. Giamatti has some creepy, chilling moments as Dr. Landy, and even if his performance occasionally veers into one note villainy, you get a very real idea of just how much this possessive, horrible person took over Brian’s life, and caused him great harm.

Of course, we get to hear a lot of music in the film, and see recreations of some famous moments in the career of the Beach Boys. Director Bill Pohlad and his crew have also put together some well-done sequences using visuals and sound to show us what’s going on in Brian’s head, and how he perceives things. There are some minor flaws: the rest of the band is portrayed in the background, and you don’t always get a strong sense of their characters or identities. The 1970s (when Brian’s tailspin into darkness became more pronounced) is mostly skipped over, though there are a couple of references to those years. But Oren Moverman & Michael A. Lerner’s screenplay truly gives us some insights into this complex, but impressive artist, who most people know through the wonderful music he’s given us. Brian Wilson was a man ahead of his time, and the rest of the rock & roll world finally caught up with him. Love & Mercy is currently in theaters, and is highly recommended. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Steve Miller Band Jams At Oakdale

The Steve Miller Band sailed into the Oakdale Theatre Saturday night for a rousing show consisting of a slew of hits & old favorites. After a terrific opening set by singer-guitarist Eric Herbst (a member of the well-regarded local band Dizzyfish) which featured some fine versions of classic rock favorites such as The Beatles "Norwegian Wood" & Led Zeppelin's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" as well as a couple of original tunes, Miller & his band took the stage, and jammed. From classics like “Take The Money & Run,” and “Abracadabra” to album cuts like “Lovin’ Cup,” the band deftly rocked & powered its way through the almost two hour set. Miller was in fine form vocally, and the magnificent band ably backed him every step of the way. The group has a loyal following that spans several generations & the crowd was very enthusiastic. In one case, an audience member even joined Miller on stage – at the artist’s request - to help sing “The Joker.”

photo by John V
Miller also performed a mini acoustic set in the middle of the show that featured “Wild Mountain Honey” and the Johnny “Guitar” Watson song “Gangster of Love,” which he played after telling a story about being in a band called The Marksmen with Boz Scaggs in his younger days. Since he was only 12 years old at the time, his Mom had to drive him to their gigs! After the brief unplugged set, the band returned for some more all out rock & roll. The musical artistry of the entire group was phenomenal. Miller gave everyone a chance to shine during the evening; they obviously enjoyed playing together and were having a grand time on stage. Kenny Lee Lewis' spectacular bass & Gordy Knudtson's excellent drums were matched by Joseph Wooten's vibrant keyboards & Jacob Petersen's fluid, masterful guitar work.

Its’s always a pleasure to see one of our long-time classic rock heroes continue to perform, as they (and we) get older. Miller (who's 71, believe it or not) played some sizzling guitar, and his positive energy radiated out into the audience. What rock fan doesn’t want to hear amazing live versions of Steve Miller Band standards like “Dance Dance Dance” and “Space Cowboy?” Another highlight was a fantastic take on the old R&B song “One Mint Julep,” which has been recorded by Ray Charles, among others. Of course, there were also wonderful versions of classics like “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Serenade. By the time the band got to the double-barreled encore, which consisted of “Rock N’ Me” & “Jet Airliner” most of the audience had been on its feet for the entire final third of the concert. The Steve Miller Band is on the road throughout the summer; check them out if they’re playing in your area. From a previous tour, here are links to live performances of “Serenade,” and "Jet Airliner,"

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Covers Gallery, Vol XI: Even More Remakes, Retakes & Reimaginings

Another selection of re-interpretations, re-dos & re-vamps

1. The Other End of The Telescope – Til Tuesday’s lovely take on this Elvis Costello song, originally featured on his album All This Useless Beauty. This version is on the tribute disc Songs Of Elvis Costello: Bespoke Songs, Lost Dogs, Detours & Rendezvous.

2. Can’t Get Enough of You Baby – Smash Mouth goes retro and re-does a Question Mark & The Mysterians track. It can be found on their All Star: The Smash Hits disc.

3. Crazy Love – Paul Carrack – It’s tough to pull off a Van Morrison cover, but Carrack does a fine job on this song, originally from Van's classic Moondance. It’s on Paul's album Still Groovin’

4. I Can’t Explain - Yvonne Elliman – Yes, it’s the songstress who gave us “If I Can’t Have You” & was a cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar, playing Mary Magdelene. She rocks out on her version of this Who classic. With Pete Townshend on guitar, no less. From her disc The Best of Yvonne Elliman.

5. Danger Heartbreak Dead Ahead- Bonnie Raitt - Bonnie takes on a Motown tune originally recorded by The Marvelettes, and makes it just a little more bluesy. It’s on 1971’s Bonnie Raitt, her debut disc.

6. Mutineer – a beautifully done cover of the Warren Zevon song (the title track to his 1995 album) by Jason Isbell & Amanda Squires. It’s from the Sea Songs EP.

7. White Boy Lost In The Blues – Lyle Lovett's excellent version of the Michael Franks song, from his 2012 album Release Me.

8. I Don’t Know Why I Love You – Brand New Heavies bring the funk to the table on their run through of this Steve Wonder classic. It can be heard on their compilation, The Best Of 20 Years.

9. Great Big Kiss – The New York Dolls romp through a playful take on a Shangri-Las hit, from their album Seven Day Weekend.

10. Rock & Roll – Jerry Lee Lewis covers a Led Zeppelin standard, with a little assistance from Jimmy Page on guitar. From Jerry Lee’s 2006 release Last Man Standing.

11. Sugar Sugar – Wilson Pickett takes on the Archies bubblegum classic, and truly makes it his own, bringing the song into a soulful new direction. It's on The Very Best of Wilson Pickett.

12. If I Were a Carpenter – Robert Plant's nicely understated version of Tim Hardin’s folk classic is one of the best cuts on his 1993 album Fate of Nations.

Bonus Track: You – Lisa Mychols power pops her way through a cover of this George Harrison tune. It's one of the best tracks on the tribute disc He Was Fab: A Loving Tribute To George Harrison.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Early Elton Returns To FTC with a Fantastic Night of "Fan Favorites"

Rich & John - photo by John V
On Friday night, Early Elton, the talented band that pays tribute to music from the 1970-72 period of Elton John’s career, returned once again to Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One. Kicking off the evening with a spirited rendition of “Take Me To The Pilot,” the band rocked the place with a generous group of songs selected from fan feedback, providing us with a night of Fan Favorites. The set list included well-known tracks like  “Rocket Man” & album cuts such as “No Shoe Strings On Louise,” from 1970’s Elton John. As usual, the performances by Jeff Kazee (piano & vocals), John Conte (bass, mandolin, vocals) and Rich Pagano (drums & vocals) were nothing short of spectacular. The band, who are veterans of groups such as Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and The Fab Faux, are musicians who are passionate about the music they play, and are always at the top of their game. They’re fans of this music, just like we are, which makes these shows even more special.

The night was filled with classic tunes, including Rich’s amazing vocal on “Levon,” John’s excellent lead on “Friends” and Jeff’s bring down the house take on “Burn Down The Mission,” based on the version from Elton’s live disc, 11-17-70. The band often trades vocals & verses during songs as well, which adds extra depth to the music. This is a tightly focused unit; they are masterful performers who clearly love playing together. Other highlights during the show included a beautiful version of  “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters,” from Honky Chateau, a rocking turn on “Elderberry Wine,” from Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player, which kicked off the second set; a lovely performance of "Come Down In Time," and a kick ass rendering of “Ballad of a Well Known Gun,” both of which are on the excellent Tumbleweed Connection, one of my favorite EJ albums.

This superb night of rock & roll concluded with the groups’ two-song encore, which was comprised of terrific takes on “Grey Seal,” & “Tiny Dancer,” which had us all singing along. It was another spectacular show from this wonderful band. As I’ve said in previous posts about the group, if you’re a fan of this music (as I am) you owe it to yourself to get out there & see them. In addition to being talented musicians, they’re great guys. You’ll be treating yourself to a show you won’t soon forget. In a word, Early Elton is awesome. Their next gig is at City Winery in New York on June 19. You can read more about them on their website: The band also has a Facebook page with info about the band & upcoming shows. Here are links to performances of the songs “Ballad of a Well Known Gun” and "No Shoe Strings on Louise" from earlier gigs by the band. And if you're interested in my reviews of previous Early Elton shows at the FTC, follow the links here: and here:

Set List: Early Elton 6/5/15 at The FTC
Set 1:
Take Me To The Pilot
Border Song
No Shoe Strings On Louise
Rocket Man
Son of Your Father
My Father’s Gun
Country Comfort
Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters
Madman Across The Water

Set 2:
Elderberry Wine
Where To Now, St. Peter?
Sixty Years On
Come Down In Time
Ballad of a Well Known Gun
Burn Down The Mission - 11-17-70 version
Your Song

Grey Seal
Tiny Dancer