Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Everybody's Talkin' About Harry Nilsson

Who is Harry Nilsson? You're probably familiar with some of his songs: “One,” which was a hit for Three Dog Night, "Best Friend" the theme from the television series The Courtship of Eddie's Father, or "Jump Into The Fire" originally recorded by Harry, but later covered by Warren Zevon. Then there are the memorable songs that Harry had hits with, which were written by others: “Without You,” the heart-wrenching ballad by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger, and “Everybody’s Talkin,” the theme to Midnight Cowboy, penned by Fred Neil. Nilsson hung out (and worked with) The Beatles, Keith Moon and The Monkees, among others. However, fame took its toll on him. It’s an often told tale in the music business: struggling singer-songwriter makes it big and finds great success, but drug and alcohol abuse cause a spiral into a self-destructive tailspin. The artist rises out of that dark place, and then unfortunately dies much too early. In many ways, that template fits what occurred with Nilsson, but it's only part of the story: the fascinating 2010 documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) gives us a well-rounded picture of the man, his music, and his all too brief life.

Nilsson came to prominence in the 60s as a singer-songwriter. His first real success came after The Monkees recorded his song “Cuddly Toy.” He released a series of beautifully produced albums (including Pandemonium Shadow Show, Harry and Nilsson Schmilsson) with songs featuring witty and incisive lyrics, and hummable melodies. Artists like The Beatles stood up and took notice, and his songs were covered by the likes of Glenn Campbell and The 5th Dimension. In fact, when asked in a late 1960s interview who their favorite American group or artist was, John and Paul both responded “Nilsson.” That mutual respect (Nilsson was a huge fan and had covered several Beatles tunes on his albums) grew into a strong friendship with the Fab Four, especially John and Ringo, which is discussed in the film. Interviews with family members, as well as other famous friends like Yoko Ono, Micky Dolenz, Eric Idle, and Randy Newman sketch a loving, thoughtful and yet realistic portrait of Nilsson. Its definitely a "warts and all" story.

Producer Richard Perry, who worked with Nilsson on some of his most successful albums, talks about his great talent, his perfectionism and his complicated personality. Perry tells a great story about the recording of the hit song “Coconut,” and how Nilsson decided on using different voices for the various characters. Nilsson's problem was that he was often his own worst enemy, and sabotaged his career with bad judgment or foolish behavior. But he also did things that later became successful trends in the business. Well before rock stars sang pop standards on a regular basis, Nilsson recorded an entire album of them entitled A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973). He also released a well-regarded album of compositions by fellow singer-songwriter Randy Newman, Nilsson Sings Newman.

Another interesting point made in the film is that Nilsson never actually toured or performed live concerts during his most successful years, but still managed to have a host of best selling albums and hit singles. He even recorded a BBC “live” concert special that had no real audience! The movie highlights some of the other projects Nilsson worked on, including the acclaimed 1971 animated film The Point, featuring a story and songs by Nilsson, including “Me & My Arrow,” the critically lambasted and little seen 1974 rock musical Son of Dracula (co-starring Nilsson's pal Ringo Starr) and his work on the songs for the Robert Altman film Popeye (1980), which is discussed by Robin Williams, one of the stars of that film. Also covered are the darker periods of Nilsson’s life, when drinking and drug use took its toll on him, professionally and personally. His partying took on legendary proportions, including taking part in John Lennon’s famous “Lost Weekend” in LA. The interviewees don’t flinch in their honesty about this aspect of his life, but through it all their love and respect for him still comes through. One of the observations made by Yoko is that Harry's younger years echoed Lennon’s in many ways, and this informed the way both men viewed the world, and how they lived. 

Nilsson managed to get healthy and found renewed happiness with his third wife Una and their children. After Lennon’s death in 1980, Nilsson spent the latter part of his life advocating gun control, and was very active in lobbying for better handgun laws, performing at Beatlefest conventions to raise money for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He started recording again and began working on new projects. Sadly, Harry died of heart failure in January 1994. The film (written and directed by John Scheinfeld) is a comprehensive portrait of this complex, talented man, and features some wonderful performance clips and in studio footage of this amazing artist. The movie is available on DVD and for digital download on various sites. The disc version includes extended interviews and additional performances. If you are a fan of his music, or the songs and artists of the 1960s & 1970s, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) is a must see. Here's a link to the trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoFpvG5fb-0 and
and performances of "Everybody's Talkin" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AzEY6ZqkuE and "Gotta Get Up" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwQa_Ot7ss8.

Please Note: If you enjoy reading my work here at Eclectic Avenue, I'm also writing for Culture Sonar, an excellent arts & entertainment website. Please check them out at www.culturesonar.com. Here are links to a couple of my recent posts, a feature about Badfinger's "Straight Up," http://www.culturesonar.com/badfinger-straight-up/, and a look at Otis Redding's "Otis Blue" http://www.culturesonar.com/otis-blue-album/. Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Retro Soul is Alive & Well in New Haven

St. Paul & The Broken Bones - photo by John V
Soul music has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. Performers like Charles Bradley, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, and Alabama Shakes have mined the era of Stax, Muscle Shoals and Motown to bring us essential new music that is steeped in the classic soul tradition. One of the prime examples of this modern soul renaissance is the Alabama based St. Paul & The Broken Bones, who performed at New Haven's College Street Music Hall Sunday night. The band is touring in support of its excellent 2016 release, Sea of Noise. The show was magnificent: this outstanding band offered a sensational set, featuring their powerhouse sound, which is an enthralling mix of soul and rock, touched up with more than a dash of R&B. It's a potpourri of retro soul with a modern feel.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones - photo by John V
Lead singer Paul Janeway, who’s a fiery mix of Otis Redding, Al Green, and Wilson Pickett, owned the venue as he danced, jumped and slid his way across the stage. His passionate vocals on songs like “I’ll Be Your Woman” and “Sanctify” transported the audience and lifted us to new heights with their intensity. This was a show jam packed with high points, including one of my favorites, a stellar rendition of “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” one of the band’s signature songs, from their 2014 debut, Half The City. But the night wasn’t just about touching our emotions. Janeway and the band also got our hips moving with can’t stand (or sit) still takes on “Flow With It” and “Call Me.” This extraordinary group kept us grooving as we twisted and swayed for the entire evening. This was a night for singing and dancing along.

Kudos to this remarkable cadre of musicians, who include Browan Lollar on guitar, Al Gamble on piano, Jesse Phillips on bass and Andrew Lee on drums. The three-piece horn section, featuring Allen Branstetter on trumpet, Jason Mingledorff on saxophone and flute, and Chad Fisher on trombone, provide a rich and gritty backdrop that’s essential to the group’s success. Holding it all together is Janeway, who is truly a force of nature, with limitless reserves of energy, with a voice that is simply astonishing; he testifies, soul-ifies and funk-ifies everything he touches. This is an incredibly tight unit that knows how to hit those grooves perfectly, and they match their leader every step of the way. By the time the band wrapped up the show with a four-song encore, they’d shook the foundations, raised the rafters and torn the roof off the place with their superb performance.

Shovels & Rope - photo by John V
Opening act Shovels & Rope delighted the crowd as well. Real life couple (and gifted multi-instrumentalists) Michael Trent and Carey Anne Hearst’s obvious joy at playing together was truly infectious. Their rollicking sound is an Americana-fed mix of country, folk and rock. Songs like “Birmingham” and “O Be Joyful” definitely captured the audience’s attention. Their set also included the lovely “The Last Hawk” a tribute to Garth Hudson of The Band, and “ Missionary Ridge” an evocative retelling of a Civil War battle. Thanks to amazing sets from both bands, it was an extraordinary evening. Special thanks to Paul Janeway for giving a shout out to New Haven’s signature food: pizza, during his between song comments. If you get the chance to see either Shovels & Rope or St. Paul & The Broken Bones live, run, don’t walk to your local music venue. They are absolutely worthy of your attention. Here are links to St. Paul & The Broken Bones performing "I'll Be Your Woman" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrFmJik2cVg and Shovels & Rope taking on "Birmingham" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqFAt3FUn0k.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Early Elton Resurrects A "Madman"

Early Elton, the brilliant band who pay tribute to the music Elton John performed on tour with Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray during 1970-72, returned to the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One on June 8. I’ve been attending their shows for several years now, and this group never fails to knock my socks off with their incredible live shows. The last time I wrote a review of the band, I mentioned I was running out of superlatives to describe just how good they are. Well, these guys just keep getting better every time I see them, so I’ll try to think of a few new ones. Friday night’s show was nothing short of spectacular. I'd expect nothing less from these superb musicians.

Early Elton - photo by John V
The first set featured Elton’s 1971 album Madman Across The Water in its entirety. Madman is an intricate, masterfully produced album with amazing and powerful songs, including “Levon” and the classic title track. But some of the songs on that disc have a massive sound, which includes choirs and orchestra. How do you scale that down for Early Elton’s trio setup? You do what this phenomenal band does for all of their performances: carefully research by listening to live recordings, demos and bootlegs to get a feel for how Elton, Nigel and Dee made these tunes work in a live trio setting. Allowing for some terrific solos to showcase this group’s stellar musicianship, these songs sound exactly as they would if you’d gone to see Elton during those trio shows in his early days.

The Madman Across The Water set was incredible. Of course, the band knocked it out of the park with “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon,” songs they perform regularly. But I really dug the fantastic versions of deeper cuts like “Razor Face” and “All The Nasties.” Their rendering of “Indian Sunset,” one of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s most evocative songs, was nothing short of magnificent. The marvelous Jeff Kazee on piano and vocals, the tremendous John Conte on bass and vocals, and the awe-inspiring Rich Pagano on drums and vocals, dazzled us on every song. This was a remarkable performance of the Madman album, and if the show had ended right there, we could have all gone home happy. But there was another memorable set of music to come.

The second half of the night kicked off with a rocking “Take Me To The Pilot” and included a stunning take on “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” from Honky Chateau. The set also featured breathtaking performances of several cuts from Tumbleweed Connection, my personal favorite of Elton’s albums. These songs are always a highlight of Early Elton’s shows, and on this night, the tremendous versions of “Son Of Your Father” and “My Father’s Gun” were no exception. The evening wrapped up with an audience sing along on the classic “Your Song” and the encore: a mind-blowing, bring the house down “Burn Down The Mission.” Early Elton rocksKazee’s terrific keyboards, Pagano’s powerful drumming and Conte’s intense bass, combine with their emotional vocals for an unforgettable night of music. The band is doing more shows this summer, so get out there and catch them live! If you’re a fan of this period of Elton’s music, they are a must see. For more info, you can go to their site at http://www.earlyeltontrio.com, or visit their Facebook page.


John Conte & Rich Pagano - photo by John V
Early Elton Set List - 6/9/17
Set 1 - Madman Across The Water
Tiny Dancer
Levon
Razor Face
Madman Across The Water
Indian Sunset
Holiday Inn
Rotten Peaches
All The Nasties
Goodbye


Jeff Kazee - photo by Gilda Caserta
Set 2 - Fan Favorites
Take Me To The Pilot
Rocket Man
Country Comfort
Son of Your Father
My Father’s Gun
Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters
Border Song
Grey Seal
Your Song
Encore:
Burn Down The Mission



Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some Came Running: Dean's Finest Hour?

Dean Martin was a multi-talented performer who had great success in music, movies and television. In his film work, he often portrayed characters that aligned with his onstage persona of a charming, affable ladies man, with a self-deprecating sense of humor…and a drink in his hand. For example, you may remember the four movies where he played swinging superspy Matt Helm, which were certainly an influence on the Austin Powers series featuring Mike Meyers. Or you might recall Ocean’s 11 (1960) and Robin & The Seven Hoods (1964), light-hearted romps designed to show off the easy-going camaraderie of Dean, Frank Sinatra and their Rat Pack brethren. Maybe you love the seventeen films he did with his comedic partner Jerry Lewis. But Martin also proved his mettle in movies like The Young Lions (1958), which displayed his ability to succeed in more serious dramatic roles. Martin was one of those actors, like Robert Mitchum, who made it look easy when giving memorable performances in their films. They almost didn't seem like they were acting, but left an indelible impact in their wake.

One of my favorite Dean Martin roles is his portrayal of card shark Bama Dillert in director Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 drama, Some Came Running. Based on a novel by James Jones, the film co-stars Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a WWII veteran and failed writer, who returns to his Indiana hometown, with a kind-hearted gal named Ginny in tow. Dave is still bitter about some past conflicts with his older brother Frank, and he’s not exactly welcomed home with open arms. One person who does befriend Dave is Bama, a gambler with a “live and let live” attitude. The two men start playing in card games together, and Bama invites Dave to move in with him. Ginny, who is in love with Dave, is brushed aside when he meets Gwen French, a local woman impressed by his writing. Dave sets his sights on Gwen, much to his brother and sister-in-law's chagrin. Frank doesn't want Dave (and his bad reputation) to disrupt his social standing.

The cynical and embittered Dave tries to romance the reluctant Gwen (she inspires him to continue with his writing) and work through his personal issues. His relationship with his self-righteous brother continues to be strained. Dave does form a bond with his niece Dawn, but that situation backfires when a secret about her father is revealed. Meanwhile, Bama becomes a sort of big brother, conscience and sounding board for Dave. Both men end up having altercations: Dave with Ginny’s jealous and violent ex-boyfriend, and Bama with another gambler who accuses him of cheating. Bama is stabbed and ends up in the hospital, where he learns he has diabetes. He's advised to curb his hard-drinking lifestyle, though the news doesn't slow him down much. Ginny’s unrequited love for Dave continues to grow, and her steadfast devotion to him leads to tragic results.

The film is a fascinating portrait of the sanctimonious attitudes and prejudices that lie just beneath the surface of small town America. Dave’s brother Frank resents his return, and he looks down on his sibling's association with "losers" like Bama and Ginny. The elegant Gwen ultimately rejects Dave because he doesn’t “fit in” with her social circles. She also doesn’t care for what she perceives as his lowlife friends. In truth, Bama and Ginny are more genuine, and more loyal, to Dave than anyone else he encounters. The film's ending only accentuates this point: Dave’s friends are much better people than the supposedly upstanding citizens of Parkman, Indiana. There are parochial attitudes and a real sense of darkness (plus a host of secrets and lies) beneath the surface of this seemingly innocent town. This definitely isn't the world of Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver.

Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin in Some Came Running
Director Vincente Minnelli’s carefully coordinated color scheme, as well as his expansive use of the CinemaScope frame, adds immeasurably to the film’s effectiveness and visual style. Just look at the scene where Dave first encounters Bama. We see his ubiquitous hat before we actually meet the man. The hat will become a signature part of his character. He only removes it at a key point late in the film. During the filming, Sinatra reportedly clashed with Minnelli over the director's methodical planning and meticulous style, but Some Came Running is a great looking and richly detailed film. The carnival sequence at the film’s climax is simply stunning.

The acting is phenomenal, with Sinatra doing some finely nuanced work as the world-weary Dave. The excellent supporting cast includes Arthur Kennedy as Frank, and Martha Hyer as Gwen, the object of Dave’s affections. But for my money, this film belongs to Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin. In one of her best early roles, MacLaine is simply luminous. Ginny may feel she's not good enough for Dave, but her love for him comes from an honest and pure place. While she may not be as “respectable” as the well-heeled Gwen, she’s ultimately shown to be more loving and sincere. It’s a part that garnered MacLaine her first Oscar nomination, thanks in part to a suggestion from Sinatra about changing a key scene from the novel for the film's finale. Arthur Kennedy and Martha Hyer also received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their roles. However, Dean Martin should have gotten a nomination for his fantastic work as Bama. 

Martin is terrific as the amiable gambler who is skilled at much more than playing cards. He’s also a sharp-eyed observer who sees the world for what it is. He knows Dave’s attempts to fit into so-called “polite” society are doomed to failure, and tries to warn him. Dave is angry at the world and rails at what he feels are its injustices, and unfairness to him. Bama accepts things the way they are, and tries to enjoy life. He'd rather have a good time than fight a losing battle against the posers and hypocrites of the world. Bama knows that particular deck is not stacked in his (or Dave's) favor. Working for the first time with Sinatra, Martin has a natural camaraderie with his co-star (and real life friend) which beautifully defines their characters’ onscreen relationship. Martin's effortless charisma shines through in every aspect of the character. I think it's one of his finest performances.

Following his role in Some Came Running, Martin would also do excellent work in a pair of films released in 1959: as the alcoholic deputy "Dude" in the Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo, and portraying a blacklisted film director in Joseph Anthony’s drama Career, which once again co-starred Martin with MacLaine. Dean Martin continued to work in films, television and perform onstage until the 1980s. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 78. If you’re only familiar with Dean from his more comedic roles, you might be surprised by his solid work in Some Came Running. But whether you're new to the film or have seen it before, it’s essential viewing. Here's a look at the original trailer, which really doesn't do the movie justice, but is typical of its era: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jv362svYC2U.

This post is part of the Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon, hosted by Samantha, my fellow blogger over at Musings Of A Classic Film Addict. I'd like to thank her for including me in the Blogathon! To check out the rest of the entries, please follow this link:https://annsblyth.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/the-dean-martin-centenary-blogathon-is-here-day-one-recap/. Thanks for reading!