Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Visit To "Muscle Shoals"

The best stories, whether they’re fact-based or fictional, give you a real sense of their place and time. That's one of the strengths of the fascinating music documentary, Muscle Shoals, which was originally released in 2013. The film gives us an in-depth look at the Alabama town where two well-regarded studios have given us classic music by Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander and many others. It’s also the story of producer Rick Hall, a fascinating man who survived quite a bit of personal tragedy and went on to open the celebrated FAME studios. Hall is a determined, driven man, who changed the shape of his destiny & the lives of many others. He gathered a talented crew of studio musicians that came to be known as the Swampers, who became the backbone of the “Muscle Shoals sound.”

For many of those interviewed in the film, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood and reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, the town and its atmosphere have as much to do with the sounds they created and recorded there as the music itself. They all talk about the special energy of the place, and how being there affected them. Many artists found that the trajectory of their careers were changed by recording in Muscle Shoals, including Aretha Franklin, who was having trouble finding a sound on record which matched the intensity of her live shows. Until she headed to Muscle Shoals, and did a session with the Swampers for the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and her career changed forever. That’s just one of the classic tunes that were recorded at FAME studios.

Another interesting fact brought out by the film is that many people thought the Swampers were black, due to the funky, R&B laced grooves they were creating; in fact, they were mostly white. But they were playing and recording with many black artists at a time when the civil rights movement was at its height. Hall points out that there were no color lines in the studio, and everyone got along with each other. The Swampers became one of the most in demand backing groups in the business, even attracting the attention of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, who eventually brought them to LA to play on some sessions there.

That success caused a rift with Hall, and the Swampers eventually broke off and founded their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. They became just as successful in their own right, and the town found it had two studios producing memorable music by Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan & many others. The film is filled with excellent performance clips, and that footage coupled with the behind the scenes stories really make the movie worth viewing. There’s also some interesting background on Lynyrd Skynyrd, who made some of their first recordings in Muscle Shoals, and even famously mention the Swampers in their song “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Muscle Shoals is about a remarkable town, an amazing group of people and the wonderful music they made. The story of Rick Hall, the Swampers and the music that sprang from this celebrated place is essential viewing for rock & roll fans. The film was produced & directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier. Along with Standing In The Shadows of Motown (2002) and 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) this is one of the best documentaries about the people “behind the music” I've seen. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for online viewing at various sites, including Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UDe4JrFAIQ.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Rock & Roll Times 3 at The Oyster Festival

The Milford Oyster Festival is well known for hosting great musical acts. In the past rockers such as Joan Jett, The Marshall Tucker Band and Bret Michaels haven graced their main stage. August 15th of this year was no exception, showcasing a triple bill of bands: The Rembrandts, Fastball, and Gin Blossoms. In a way, it was a flashback to the 1990s as all three groups first found fame during that decade. They’re performing as part of the “Circle of Friends” tour. Opening act The Rembrandts are of course best known for their hit song, “I’ll Be There For You,” the theme song to the TV series Friends, but they delivered a solid set of acoustic-tinged rock, featuring tunes such as “Chase The Clouds Away” and “Johnny Have You Seen Her.” Members Danny Wilde & Phil Solem know their way around a good song, and the crowd enjoyed their solid vocals and fluid guitar work. The California based band wrapped up their portion of the show with the 1990 hit “Just The Way It Is, Baby” and of course, the Friends song, with a touch of the Green Acres theme played at the start as a joke, when they noted "This is a song we wrote for a TV show."

Next up was Fastball, who hit it big with the song “The Way” off their 1998 release All The Pain Money Can Buy. They powered through a fantastic 11 song set featuring several of their hits, including “Fire Escape” and “You’re An Ocean” as well as a deftly played cover of Steve Earle’s “Devil’s Right Hand,” and the rocking instrumental “Tanzania.” Miles Zuniga was marvelous on lead guitar & vocals and was matched by the excellent work of Tony Scalzo on vocals, keyboards & guitar, Joey Shuffield on drums and Lonnie Trevino, Jr. on bass. Not only were they fantastic musically, but they displayed a sly sense of humor as well. The crowd (which was filling up in front of the stage at this point) even did some singing along on “Out of My Head” & “The Way.” After that, the Austin, Texas outfit finished their set with “Always Never.”

Then Gin Blossoms took the stage, and rocked out for the rest of the afternoon.  Singer-guitarist Robin Wilson led the band through a generous selection of their catalog including “Until I Fall Away,” & “Found Out About You.” Wilson continually cajoled the crowd to sing along, clap & raise/wave their hands, and even passed a couple of tambourines into the crowd so people could play along. The Tempe, Arizona rockers (who first broke through with their 1992 release New Miserable Experience) also features Bill Leen on bass, Scott Hessel on drums, and Scott Johnson & Jesse Valenzuela on guitar. The enthusiastic crowd had jam-packed the main stage area by this point, and the group fed off the crowd’s energy, bringing the show to a climax with their hits “Hey Jealousy” & “Til I Hear It From You.” But the fun wasn’t over yet, and the guys returned for an encore that included a killer cover of The Plimsouls classic “A Million Miles Away” featuring a guest appearance by Miles from Fastball! Then the band closed the show with their hit “Follow You Down,” from 1996's Congratulations, I'm Sorry.

It was a tremendous afternoon of music, and all three bands delivered solid sets of well-played rock & roll. As always, the organizers of the Milford Oyster Festival provided solid entertainment, as well as great food and arts & crafts vendors. It’s always a wonderful event. And if you get the chance to see Gin Blossoms, Fastball or The Rembrandts on tour, you won’t be disappointed. Set lists for the bands are below:


Photo by John V
The Rembrandts:

1. Burning Timber
2. Johnny Have You Seen Her
3. Follow You Down
4. Chase the Clouds Away
5. Someone
6. St. Paul
7. If Not for Misery
8. How Far Would You Go?
9. This House Is Not a Home
10. Just the Way It Is, Baby
11. I'll Be There for You



Photo by John V
Fastball:

1. Rampart Street 
2. Sooner or Later 
3. Love Comes in Waves
4. Fire Escape
5. You're an Ocean
6. Devil's Right Hand (Steve Earle cover) 
7. Til I Get It Right
8. Tanzania (instrumental)
9. Out of My Head
10. The Way
11. Always Never


Photo by John V
 Gin Blossoms:
1. Lost Horizons
2. Somewhere Tonight
3. Miss Disarray
4. As Long as It Matters 
5. Found Out About You
6. Until I Fall Away 
7. Dead or Alive on the 405
8. Allison Road
9. Hands Are Tied
10. I'm Ready
11. Wave Bye Bye
12. Til I Hear It from You
13. Hey Jealousy


Gin Blossoms Encore:
A Million Miles Away (The Plimsouls cover featuring Miles Zuniga of Fastball) 
Follow You Down

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Rogue Nation: The IMF Returns

Rogue Nation, the latest chapter in the Mission: Impossible franchise is another well-produced entry in the series. I wasn’t a fan of the initial two entries, which felt more like Tom Cruise centered action movies. And in the first film, 1996’s Mission: Impossible, they did a serious disservice to a beloved character from the TV show. But since J.J. Abrams took over the reins in 2006 when he wrote & directed Mission: Impossible III, he’s steered the films back toward the team-oriented feel of the original TV series. Abrams has continued on as a producer on the series, letting Brad Bird (The Incredibles) take a turn in the center seat for 2011’s Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol. This time out, Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, takes over the director’s chair. McQuarrie also wrote the screenplay & co-authored the original story.

As Rogue Nation begins, it’s a bad time for the IMF. The director of the CIA (played by Alec Baldwin) pushes the government to disband the team, citing the fact that, while they’re successful, they answer to no one & have left too much chaos in their wake. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is in the field, tracking down a group of former intelligence agents from various countries that have banded together to form a secret organization. This group, known as The Syndicate, is bent on spreading death & destruction throughout the world for their own nefarious purposes. Hunt is labeled a rogue agent, and must elude the CIA, while also stopping the villains from carrying out their plans. He crosses paths with Ilsa Faust, a disgraced British operative (Rebecca Ferguson), who may or may not be in league with the bad guys.

It’s up to Hunt and his former team-mates to stop this so called “anti-IMF.” But can William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, returning from the previous film), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), help Ethan while eluding their new bosses in the CIA?  Just who is Ilsa, the lovely but deadly agent who seems to be playing both sides against the middle? What is The Syndicate’s ultimate plan? Is Brandt actually planning to turn Ethan over to the CIA? I won’t say any more about the twisty, deftly handled plot. Enjoy it on its own terms when you see the film. Director McQuarrie keeps things moving at a brisk, breathless pace. There are the usual amazing stunts, action sequences and chase scenes, including a cleverly executed sequence set at the Vienna Opera, where Ethan tries to foil an assassination.

The cast is excellent as usual, with Pegg getting some good comic moments during the story, and Renner and Rhames offering fine support. McQuarrie & his crew have done a wonderful job with the film, crafting an enjoyable action movie that doesn’t talk down to its audience. This is a series that has stayed consistently strong as it goes on, unlike some franchises, which are suffering from fatigue by the later entries. (I’m looking at you, Die Hard) It helps that the producers seem to have taken a page from the James Bond series, bringing in top directors & writers to work on each film. It’s a well-made popcorn flick that should please fans of the previous movies and older fans who recall the original show. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is now in theaters. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOW_azQbOjw.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Kansas & The Family Stone Perform in Hamden's Summer Concert Series

Kansas  - photo by John V
The Town of Hamden, CT always has a fantastic series of outdoor summer concerts (free of charge) during the month of July. This year was no exception: earlier this month, music fans were treated to a doo-wop show featuring members of The Drifters and The Tokens. The following week showcased a well-attended & warmly received performance by dance pop diva Taylor Dayne. But in the last two weeks, The Hamden Arts Commission outdid themselves once again. On July 24, Kansas arrived at Meadowbrook Park for a rocking show that featured well-known hits like “Dust In The Wind.” The band also performed a selection of songs from throughout their long career, including “Play The Game Tonight," "Sparks of the Tempest," and “Closet Chronicles.”

Over the years, the group has shifted its focus back and forth between their progressive roots and more pop oriented material, but they still have a very loyal cadre of fans who love their music. The band was amazing vocally and instrumentally, and sounded great on crowd favorites like “Point of Know Return” and “Hold On.”  The band recently released a long form documentary about their history, titled “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” Local rockers XYZ Revisited ruled the stage with a set of energetic metal to start the evening,  and laid the groundwork for Kansas’ awesome set. The huge crowd loved every minute of the concert. Seeing a national act like Kansas for free in an outdoor setting was fantastic, and the weather cooperated as well; it was a beautiful night. The show wrapped up with a fantastic encore performance of the classic “Carry On Wayward Son.” 

The Family Stone - photo by John V
Then on July 31, The Family Stone, with founding members Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini and Greg Errico brought the funk to town with an energetic set of their soul & r&b classics, including “Dance To The Music” & “I Want To Take You Higher.” While their original leader, Sly Stone, has been plagued with a myriad of personal problems over the last few years and doesn’t currently tour, the band has soldiered on to bring their classic sounds to their fans. The current lineup features Sly & Cynthia’s daughter Phunne on vocals, and she sounded wonderful. The group had an electrifying groove, and captivated the crowd. The band cajoled & entreated the audience to keep dancing & singing on every song they performed. And how could you not dance to tunes like to “Everyday People,” and “Stand!” The group sound sharp & powerful: they had the chops and they were The Family Stone, united in the funk, rock & soul.

It was an exhilarating night, climaxed by one final knockout dose of funk on "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)." The Family Stone brought the funk, kicked it up several notches, and then left us wanting more. By the way, Hamden resident (and former contestant on The Voice) Blessing Offor, opened the show with a wonderful set of soulful music. His album, Roots, is worth seeking out. If you get a chance to see either Kansas or The Family Stone in your area, I very highly recommend both groups. And keep your eyes on The Town of Hamden website (usually in late May or early June) for announcements of the shows coming up for next year. The hard work & dedication of the Hamden Arts Commission, their local & corporate sponsors (as well as donations from concertgoers during the shows) keep this amazing series going strong every year.