Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Two Sides of Phil Spector

The songs & the sounds are unforgettable. Be My Baby. He’s A Rebel. Da Doo Ron Ron. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. Phil Spector came up with a unique way to create rock & roll records (nicknamed the “Wall of Sound’) that sounded different from what had come before, and helped bring the genre much success in the days preceding the British Invasion. Later, he produced & worked with groups like The Beatles, Ike & Tina Turner and The Ramones. But there was also a dark side to Phil Spector, and it culminated in the tragic shooting of actress Lana Clarkson at his home in 2003. Spector was convicted of her murder in 2009, and is currently serving 19 years to life in a California prison.

British journalist Mick Brown attempts to tell a well-rounded story of Spector’s life in Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. It’s an interesting read. The author covers Spector’s troubled childhood; first in New York, and later in Los Angeles, where Spector’s mother moves the family after the suicide of Spector’s father, which occurred when Spector was 10. That event clearly affected Spector for the rest of his life.  Spector’s mother & sister were overbearing, which also influenced him, and made him wary of his family. Subject to bullying at school, Spector learns the guitar, and finds solace in music.  He eventually works as a session musician and finds success in the music world.

Brown goes into great detail charting Spector’s rise in the music business & his associations with industry legends like Atlantic records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun & legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, among others. There’s wonderful information on the “Wall of Sound” years, including interviews with members of the legendary band of studio musicians called The Wrecking Crew, who played on many of Spector’s records. But Brown also traces the darker tones of Spector’s personality, and as his success grows, it becomes clear he can be mercurial & callous, with a violent temper. He treats singers, performers, colleagues & friends with casual disdain & dismissiveness, belittling their contribution to his work. While Spector is clearly talented, there’s another side to his genius that ultimately leads to tragedy, and distances him from the people who cared about him.

His disastrous marriage to Ronnie Bennett (Spector) of The Ronettes (and his obsession with her) has been covered in other books, including Ronnie’s own, and it’s clear that Spector was controlling & abusive to her, eventually locking her away in his mansion & refusing to let her record or tour. The author also discusses Spector’s battles with depression, outbursts of anger & aberrant behavior. Brown traces Spector’s more than casual interest in guns & firearms right through to his fateful encounter with Lana Clarkson in 2003. What’s most compelling about the book is that the author interviews many of Spector’s friends, former colleagues & collaborators, often getting multiple viewpoints on the same incidents.  He lets the readers make up their own mind about this troubled genius, who appears to have been swallowed up by the demons within himself.

This edition of the book was published in 2008, when Spector’s first trial ended in a hung jury. He was subsequently convicted during a second trial in 2009. Brown actually interviewed Spector a few weeks before Clarkson’s murder, and decided to expand his interview into a book. Tearing Down The Wall of Sound is a fascinating story of the fine line between brilliance & darkness. There have been other biographies written about Spector before & since, but Brown's is one of the more insightful & well-balanced. If you're a fan of the music and want to know more about the complicated man behind it, Brown's book is worth a read.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Jackson Browne Captivates at Oakdale

Jackson Browne is an enormously talented singer-songwriter (and passionate social activist) who continues to perform excellent live shows. He & his band brought their summer tour to the Oakdale Theatre on Saturday, June 11. The set list was a solid mix of classics and newer material, including songs from his most recent release, 2014’s Standing in the Breach. Browne also performed a few requests that were shouted out by audience members, including a solid version of “Sky Blue & Black,” from 1993’s I’m Alive. In fact, fans were calling out song titles during the entire show, including Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" to which an amused Browne responded "Really?" But it's truly to his credit that he often takes a request from a loyal fan and runs with it. The band, consisting of Val McCallum on guitar, Mauricio Lewak on Drums, Jeff Young on keyboards & vocals, Bob Glaub on bass, Greg Leisz on lap steel & pedal steel guitar, and Alethea Mills on vocals, were nothing short of spectacular. They sounded tight, & very much in sync, and Browne offered them plenty of room for some incredible solos & spotlight moments. It was nice to see longtime collaborators Glaub & Leisz in the group. But everyone in the band was incredible. They are among the most talented musicians I’ve ever seen backing Browne.

Some other highlights of the two-set show included a beautiful version of “For A Dancer,” an amazing take on the Carlos Varela penned “Walls & Doors,” and the touching "Fountain of Sorrow." Of course, there were a few radio-friendly tunes sprinkled throughout the night (mostly in the second half) including a bring the audience to their feet sing-along for the one-two punch of  “Somebody’s Baby” and “Doctor My Eyes.” Those songs were followed by what I felt was the best performance of the show, a rollicking, rip-roaring run through of “Redneck Friend.” Browne’s been touring and recording a long time, and he knows how enthrall & entertain an audience; his between song intros & stories were excellent. His sincere & heartfelt appreciation of his fans shone through the entire night. The evening concluded with an encore consisting of another sing along on “Take It Easy,” the Eagles hit that Browne penned with Glenn Frey, a stunning version of “Our Lady of the Well,” and the Little Steven anthem “I Am A Patriot.” Definitely one of the best concerts I’ve seen in recent years. Browne & his band are on the road through August; it's a must see.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

An Evening of Rock & Soul With Todd Rundgren at College Street Music Hall

Photos by John V
Todd Rundgren came to College Street Music Hall for two shows on May 29 & 30. The concerts were relocated from Daryl’s House, musician Daryl Hall’s venue in Pawling, New York due to some permit issues. I attended the Monday night gig on May 30, and as usual, Todd & his band thrilled the audience with a spectacular performance, and did not disappoint us. Billed as “An Evening With Todd Rundgren,” the set list consisted of hits, fan favorites & album cuts, all selected by Todd & the band. Rundgren’s music runs the gamut from ethereal love songs, crunchy rockers & soaring power ballads. The night kicked off with the classic “I Saw The Light,” which was followed by “Love of the Common Man,” and the all-out rocker “Open My Eyes,” a tune from Todd’s late 60s band, The Nazz. The rest of the night see-sawed between slower songs like “Soothe” and more driving numbers like the Utopia classic “Hammer in My Heart.”

As usual, the band was fantastic, featuring the supreme talents of John Ferenzik on keyboards, Prairie Prince of The Tubes on drums, Kasim Sulton on bass, and Jesse Gress, who provided some blistering guitar licks throughout the night. And Rundgren didn’t let you forget that he can jam on the guitar as well as anybody, providing some wailing solos, and moving back & forth around the stage with boundless energy. Todd was in great form vocally, as well. The “soul medley” where Rundgren performs “I’m So Proud,” by The Impressions, “Ooo Baby Baby” by The Miracles & “I Want You,” by Marvin Gaye, was simply stunning. College Street Music Hall is a smaller venue, and it was the perfect setting for Rundgren’s music, as evidenced by the rapturous reaction of the crowd, many of whom travel to multiple shows around the country to see him perform.

The show was filled with classic songs, including the radio hit “Bang The Drum All Day,” and a few more numbers from Todd’s tenure with Utopia, including “Lysistrata,” and the audience sing along “One World.” Rundgren shows are always an event, and the audience of loyal fans appreciated every note. By the time the band reached the encore, which included “Hello It’s Me,” and “Just One Victory,” Todd had treated us to another thrilling evening of music. These two concerts were his last for now, as Todd hits the road once again with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band for a summer tour. He will return with his own band to perform a couple of more solo shows in August. If you have the chance to see him, either with Ringo or on his own, you will be treated to some fantastic music by a wonderful artist.