Friday, June 27, 2008

Willie Nelson & Wynton Marsalis - Two Men With The Blues

When musical luminaries collaborate the results are often mixed. Sometimes, as with Sinatra’s late career Duets projects they can be downright dreadful. But then there are projects that regardless of how they came about sound organic and real. Thankfully the collaboration between Willie Nelson and Wynton Marslalis is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each of their resumes is chock full of not only successful endeavors but respect from their musical peers which is often the most impressive sign of musical accomplishment. Country and Jazz are two musical idioms which can be claimed as coming from the United States. This collaboration has the benefit of two men at the top of their fields in each of those genres.

Last year they played at Lincoln Center where Wynton is the Artistic Director. Though it had been billed as “Willie Nelson Sings The Blues,” it was in reality collaboration between two behemoths in their respective fields. The two-night collaboration was recorded and turned into the album Two Men With The Blues.

The tunes on the album run the gamut from standards like Georgia On My Mind to the Jimmy Reed classic Bright Lights Big City, which acts as the opener. Other highlights include Clarence Williams My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It, and Willie’s own Rainy Day Blues. Blues, Jazz and Country sounds come together to form a wonderful homemade musical stew.

Throughout their performances they weave a fine line between showing off the impressive musical chops they share with their backup band to seeming as relaxed and natural as if they’re playing a backyard picnic for some friends. I can only hope that at some point they decide to hit the road together. If they do, it’s likely to be a show not to miss. For now though this album is a terrific slice of Americana to seek out if you're a fan of either of these men.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pearl Jam - 6/25/08 - Madison Square Garden

Last night Pearl Jam played the second of 2 sold out nights at the Garden. When they were asked to headline Bonnaroo they decided that since they’d have the engine revved up they might as well play a few dates before and after that festival. Bands with a large catalog like Pearl Jam playing dates without a specific album to support often take one of two tacks. Some decide this is an excuse to take the easy route and do a greatest hits type set to appease the brain dead masses. Pearl Jam, not surprisingly, took the other road. Sure, their set was peppered with well known radio standards. However, the bulk of their show was made up of album tracks, rarely played songs and covers. I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a casual Pearl Jam fan. If there is I doubt they were at the Garden for this show. Pearl Jam’s core fan base is loud, loyal and energetic. These are the people Pearl Jam plays to.

From the first note of Release to the last seconds of Yellow Ledbetter the Garden was rocked and swayed by Pearl Jam for 2 hours and 45 minutes and through 29 songs. Tracks like World Wide Suicide were joined by rarities such as All Night from Lost Dogs their double disc of outtakes and b-sides. It was on All Night that the first guests of the night appeared onstage. Three vocalists who Ed described as local friends sang backup and harmony vocals on this and several other tunes throughout the night. For every well known song like Corduroy that made the set list, a song like Who You Are not played in 10 years before this tour, also made the cut.

After delivering jabs and body shots for a little over an hour and a half the band left the stage briefly. When they returned for the first set of encores they got back to business immediately with Inside Job from their self titled 2006 album. A couple of songs later the next special guest emerged in the form of C.J. Ramone. He strapped on Jeff Ament’s bass and they played the Ramones classic I Believe In Miracles. This was followed by a rousing version of Better Man and then Rearviewmirror.

Another very quick break later, Ed emerged, acoustic guitar in hand to play No More by himself. The rest of the band returned and the body shots and jabs in the form of tunes continued. Little did I know that two and a half hours into their show Pearl Jam had a left hook up their sleeve no one could have seen coming. Eddie said that the next guest was not for the crowd so much as it was for them. Specifically the guest he said was for drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready. He said they’d be sharing vocals on the next tune which their guest would play lead guitar on. With that he said words I’ve heard in concert many times, just not at a Pearl Jam show. “Ace Frehley Lead Guitar,” is what Eddie said. The next sound I heard was a collective gasp from an incredulous crowd. Out wandered the Space Ace, and make no mistake, Ace wanders more so than he walks. His gait is as unmistakable as his guitar sound. With that they tore into the KISS Classic Black Diamond. It was an inspired version with a particularly engaging lead and solo from Ace. After that I would have been fine calling it a night but Pearl Jam played a couple of more tunes and completed their knockout of the crowd.

With their performance at Madison Square Garden last night Pearl Jam displayed that they are a live act with few peers. Certainly there is not a single band from their generation that can hold a candle to them live. In the pantheon of rock history there are but a few acts whose live show towers above everyone else. Pearl Jam can stand proudly with those legends. They are everything a great and legendary rock band should be live. Loud, passionate, spontaneous, tight and breathtaking.

Official Pearl Jam Bootlegs from every night of their tour can be purchased for a reasonable price through their website. They are available either in downloadable file form or as CD's.

Pearl Jam 6/25/08 MSG Set List:

Main Set: Release, World Wide Suicide, Severed Hand, Corduroy, All Night, Cropduster, Garden, Marker In The Sand, I'm Open, Wishlist, State Of Love And Trust, Even Flow, Who You Are, Rats, Given To Fly, Do The Evolution, Go

First Encore: Inside Job, W.M.A., Lukin, I Believe In Miracles, Better Man (Save it for Later), Rearviewmirror

Second Encore: No More, Last Kiss, Why Go, Black Diamond, Alive, Yellow Ledbetter

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Aimee Mann - @#%&*! Smilers

Since 1993’s Whatever Aimee Mann has been releasing solo albums at a pretty consistent clip. While each of them is distinct in their own right she’s certainly honed a sound that’s all hers. That continues to be true on her latest release @#%&*! Smilers. Her previous release was a holiday album, One More Drifter In The Snow.

@#%&*! Smilers continues Aimee Mann’s string of strong efforts. One of the benchmarks of her solo work has been the ability to create indelibly vivid imagery with her words. Songs like “Thirty One Today” on this new release continue that trend. Accompanying the unshakeable images her words create are palettes of sound that set a mood and feeling that listeners would be hard pressed to ignore and not become part of, for a little while at least. On the one hand her songs seem perfectly suited to create accompanying videos for. Conversely though it’s preferable to let her words and sounds create slightly different images in each of her listeners heads.

Songs such as the lead single “Freeway” are reminiscent of the more keyboard laden songs of her 2002 masterpiece “Lost in Space” while a song like “Phoenix” has a more sparse sound to it than most of the material on her recent releases. And that’s what sets @#%&*! Smilers apart from her last few albums, more diversity within the album itself.

It’s too soon to say where @#%&*! Smilers will rank within Aimee Mann’s body of work. But considering how incredibly strong her solo work has been, it’s praise enough to say that it lives up to what she’s created before.