The Rockets – Live Rockets

The music business is filled with unsung heroes – local bands that never received the true recognition they deserved. I can’t speak for other major cities, but in the case of Detroit, there is no truer case of this than The Rockets. 

A local supergroup of sorts, guitarist Jim McCarty and drummer John Badanjek, from Mitch Rider’s backing band, the Detroit Wheels (and later a member of supergroup “Cactus”) along with front-man Dave Gilbert from Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, were the core driving force of what was truly a force to be reckoned with in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They just never had the chance to really prove it.

In the course of their career, The Rockets released five great studio albums and one incredible live album, recorded at the Royal Oak Music Theater. If ever there was a swan song live album to be released by any band, “Live Rockets” was it. This was the sound of a band hungry to prove they had what it takes to make it. The problem was the record company just wasn’t listening. All you really have to hear in order to realize the success this band could have reached was the response from the audience. The energy in the auditorium that night was massive.

Still, at least to the fans in their hometown of Detroit, “Live Rockets” left a lasting impression of what rock and roll was at its core to those who play it live. The sound of a band hungry to play music and to get a crowd fired up, always leaving them wanting more.

Strawbs – From The Witchwood

Sometimes, when I really like a band, I like to go back and check-out their origins. What bands and kind of music did their members make before they were in the band that made them famous. Today, the band is Yes and the musician is Rick Wakeman. 

Strawbs started out in 1964 as a bluegrass band. But no Rick Wakeman did not play in a bluegrass band. In 1967 they shortened their name to Strawbs and signed a deal with A&M records. They released their first album in 1968. By that time their sound had evolved into more of a folk rock sound. By the time Rick Wakeman joined them in 1970, they were starting to incorporate elements of progressive rock into their repertoire and Wakeman’s impressive work on keyboards was an obvious asset for their developing style. Rick Wakeman would only stay with Strawbs for two albums. “From the Witchwood” was the last record he would play on with them before leaving to join Yes.

From the Witchwood is a combination of many different styles. At times having a strong European classical influence, combined with folk music, some songss feel like they would be right at home being played at a Renaissance Festival. This is most evident on the album’s opener, “A Glimpse of Heaven”. Other songs have a more aggressive sound to them. 

Although Rick Wakeman has a few short keyboard flourishes on side one, “Sheep”, which starts off side two, seems to be written around his organ and Moog synthesizer work. If Wakeman had joined Genesis instead of yes, their music would have probably sounded something like this.

“From the Witchwood” is definitely a good album when you want to listen to music that mixes many different styles with an array of different instruments like clarinets, sitars, harpsichords, and recorder, along with traditional Rock instruments like the mellotron, organ, guitar, bass, and drums. However, except for a few passages, it is not an album you would immediately associate with Rick Wakeman. It’s easy to see why he would have left to play on the more progressive rock songs by Yes.

Boston

Boston’s debut album was both a blessing and a curse for the band. At the time of its release it became the most successful debut album by any band and went on the sell over 17 million copies in the United States and 25 million worldwide. So how can you follow up with success like that? Well, the short answer is you can’t. 

Although Boston’s next two albums, “Don’t Look Back” and “Third Stage” we’re solid albums and would be considered extremely successful by any other band, they just couldn’t come near the success Boston’s eponymous debut. The fact that there was an 8-year gap in between the second and third album (caused by the master tapes being damaged in a flood) didn’t help either. Still, all three albums stand as a testament to an exceptionally talented band.

All three albums were recorded in the basement studio of Tom Scholz, chief songwriter and guitarist for the band. SChola was actually a classically trained pianist, which helped shape Boston’s sound- classical elements mixed with hard rock, interweaving with instrumental melodies and harmonies exhibited by no other bands at the time. Their sound was imitated by, and garnered success for, many other bands that followed them – a sound that was unfairly coined as “corporate rock”. In reality, it was just plain and simply a sound that offered enough complexity to appeal to people who wanted to intimately listen to their music, yet at the same time, have a simplicity in it’s hooks and song structures that appealed to the passive listener as well. 

If you listen to classic rock radio today, there is not one song on this album that is not regularly played. Quite an amazing accomplishment for a first outing. Then again, this was an amazing debut album.

REO Speedwagon – Live: You Get What You Play For

REO Speedwagon had their greatest success in the 80s with their more pop oriented songs. I love the album “Hi-Infidelity” and was so glad it brought much deserved success to a band that was vastly underrated for over a decade. But to me, the epitome of what REO Speedwagon was happened in the 1970s, and was encapsulated on their live album “You Get What You Play For”. This album ranks up there with the greatest of the great live albums which are in my humble opinion Bob Seeger’s “Live Bullet”, Peter Frampton’s “Come’s Alive” and REO’s live album from 1977.

What gave this, and the preceding Studio albums by REO Speedwagon, their special character, was the band’s geographical Origins. Coming from Indiana, their early music had midwestern rock roots with just a slight hint of southern rock influence. Then they combined this, ever-so-slightly, with progressive rock that was influential in the seventies, and created a sound that was unmistakaby unigue. Yes, some of this came through in their later, more pop oriented material, but to me this was the epoch of what REO Speedwagon was at their finest.

I would be remiss to not mention every song on this album, in mentioning what makes a great. It really is the combination of the whole. But if I were to list standouts, they would be the opener “Like You Do”, “Keep Pushin'”, “157 Riverside Avenue”, with its incredible improvisational interplay between lead singer Kevin Cronin and lead guitarist Gary Richrath, “Ridin’ The Storm Out”, and what has to be one of the finest live album closers of all time, “Golden Country”.

 This album is also one of the reasons I started getting turned off by compact discs. Although they offered convenience, quite often the remastering of some albums left something to be desired. Either the recordings were over compressed, muddying the sound of the original recording, or they came across sounding thin, losing much of the dynamic range of the vinyl record. With “You Get What You Play For”, it was the latter. 

What made it even worse though, was the omission of critical songs off the record. To omit “Little Queenie” might have been forgivable, but “Gary’s Guitar Solo” was one of the defining moments of this album. To delete it was near blasphemy. The CD noted that this was because of time constraints. I later recorded my own CD, direct from the album (this was in the era predating MP3s). I merely edited the length of some of the audience sounds in between the songs and was able to fit the entire album onto one CD, so I call bulls***!. They just didn’t want to take the time to do it right – to give “You Get What You Play For” the respect it rightfully deserved.

Robert Plant – Carry Fire

So I’m sitting here listening to Robert Plant’s new album, “Carry Fire”, which just came out today, and I’m wondering…how do I describe this? It’s not bluegrass, at least not in the traditional sense. There’s not a lot of fast picking in it. But there are certainly bluegrass roots in it. But then again, it’s got a very modern modern feel to it as well. These are songs that fit right in more with Arcade Fire, KT Tunstall, The National, Alison Krauss, Blackfield, and Radiohead than they do with bands from the classic rock era, when Led Zeppelin ruled. That’s not to say there’s not Zeppelin elements in here as well. But it’s more of the acoustical, eclectic, and experimental side of Zeppelin.

No, this isn’t an album you want to listen to if you’re in the mood for the Sonic bombast Led Zeppelin was known for. But it is the album to put on if you want to be absorbed by the sounds radiating from your speakers. This is an album worthy to be cranked up when no one else is home -but not for the purpose of playing air guitar like a fool because you think no one is looking. You want to let it surround and envelop you.

I have to say I was somewhat skeptical pre-ordering “Carry Fire”. A lot of classic rock era performers that are still making music today just try to rehash what they’ve done in the past. And that’s not to say they put out  bad music. It’s just that a lot of the time, it feels like the same old same old. But then there are those performers who are true artists. They believe in branching out and trying new things. Sometimes what they do works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or doesn’t, I always respect the effort and risk they took try something new. In the case of Robert Plant’s new album, it really, really works.

Savoy Brown – Street Corner Talking

British bands in the 70s loved to emulate the sound of American Southern blues rock bands. If ever there was a British band that sounded like an American southern rock band, it was Savoy Brown, especially on their seventh album, Street Corner Talking. So much so in fact, that for the longest time, I had no idea they were British.

Savoy Brown saw significant changes in the band’s lineup on “Street Corner Talking”. In between this and their previous album, three of the remaining original band members left and formed the band Foghat. This left lead guitarist Kim Simmonds as the only remaining original member. This obviously changed the sound of the band noticeably. Whether for the better or for the worse is debatable. The bottom line is,  they still were able to release one of their best albums ever.

“Street Corner Talking” is loaded with Southern Blues grooves, catchy riffs, and just plain and simply great songs. All of the songs on it are originals, written or co-written by Simmonds, with the exception of the closer, “Wang Dang Doodle”, which was written and originally performed by Dixon. 

“Street Corner Talking” is  album that’s easy to track all the way through. As a matter of fact, I find it impossible not to. The opening track, “Tell Mama” is possibly my favorite Savoy Brown song. I still can’t believe it’s not being played buy anow American southern rock band.

Alice Cooper – From The Inside

Back in the 1970s, if you suffered from alcoholism, there were no rehab centers to go to. You would be put in a mental institution. It was in this era, that Alice Cooper suffered from severe alcoholism. It almost killed him. “From The Inside” is the story of his experience while being institutionalized and of the people who were in there with him. 

The title song of the album, tells the story of how Alice’s lifestyle landed him in the mental institution. The quiet room describes being put in padded room after violent episodes. A safe place of isolation, where you won’t hurt yourself, but one where being all alone, your thoughts can drive you even more mad.

Then there’s the cast of characters. A rich girl from California, who was institutionalized by her family after she, like Alice, succumb to alcoholism and drug abuse. Another is a sexual addict obsessed with one of the nurses. There’s a couple so in love they murdered their spouses together and a character so obsessed with his dog that nothing else in life matters. Finally, there’s the Vietnam vet suffering with PTSD and addicted to morphine and meth.

Mixed in with these songs of mayhem is a very slow and emotional song that became Alice’s biggest hit from the album. “How You Gonna See Me Now” finds Alice writing a letter to his wife, asking her if she even still wants to be with someone who’s been sent to a place like this, back in her life. 

As it should, the album closes with the song “Inmates (We’re All Crazy)”, which tells of his being released, realizing that what put him in the mental institution is something that will always be a part of him and something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life, from the inside.

The album design itself was unique in that Alice’s stage face opens like doors to reveal the characters described in the songs, inside the mental institution. Inside there, is a small door that opens to reveal Alice curled up in a ball inside the quiet room. The back cover of the album has two doors that open revealing all of the inmates being discharged. 

I have to think that of the albums Alice Cooper has released through the years, this one has to be the most personal to him.

The Alan Parsons Project – Pyramid

The Alan Parsons Project was actually a duo. Obviously one of the members was Alan Parsons, who was known for his engineering work on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. The other significant member was Eric Woolfson, a Scottish born musician and songwriter. Although Woolfson was more widely known in the music industry, Alan Parsons had a name more recognizable to record buyers because of his work with the Beatles and Pink Floyd, so the latter’s name was chosen as the moniker for the band.

Like its two predecessors, Pyramid was a concept album that was heavy in its use of orchestration in choral arrangements. The Alan Parsons Project’s first album was based on the literary works Edgar Allan Poe. Their second, “I Robot”, focused on the rise of technology and its potential to overtake man. Like its name implies, “Pyramid” focused on the mysteries and fascination that America and much of Europe had with pyramids at the time of its release.

I remember buying this album as an alternate choice to what I actually wanted. I had gone to the record store that day to buy “I Robot”, but it was sold out. “Pyramid” had just come out so I figured I’d pick it up instead. 

I also remember at first being somewhat disappointed with the album. Although it still sounded like the same band, it had a distinctly different feel to it than its predecessor. I don’t know why that surprised me, the same could be said of the first and second Alan Parsons Project albums. As time passed however, the music on it grew on me and I now find I like Pyramid” as much as, possibly more than the album I actually wanted to buy that day.

Jean-Luc Ponty & Stephane Grappelli – Violin Summit

I don’t know much about Stephane Grappelli, but I do know who Jean-Luc Ponty is, and if he looked up to Stephane grappelli for his violin playing…well, that’s good enough for me.

Jean-Luc Ponty is a highly regarded classically trained violinist who found his calling to be not in classical music but in jazz. This I knew. What I didn’t know until reading the liner notes on this album was that Stephane Grappelli influenced Jean-Luc Ponty to throw himself into jazz music.

I knew early on in his career, Jean-Luc Ponty played and toured with Frank Zappa. What I didn’t know was that right after he finished touring with Zappa, he recorded this album with Stephane Grappelli, who was a jazz legend in Jean-Luc Ponty’s native France.

I knew I liked to go to garage sales to look for old vinyl records people were getting rid of for pennies on the dollar. What I didn’t know a couple of weeks ago when I stopped at that garage sale, was that I would end up finding an album that I had no idea existed, by an artist I revered, playing with an artist who he highly regarded. An album that will from that day forward remain one of the hidden treasures in my record collection. 

An album that almost nobody knows.

Jeff Beck and The Jan Hammer Group – Live

Jazz fusion. A culmination of jazz blues and Rock. Music that is best performed live. Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer had to have known this when they collaborated two record this album in 1977. The interplay between the keyboards and guitar is exquisite. Then again, all the musicianship on this record is.

The album opens with Freeway Jam and closes with blue wind. Two of my favorite Jeff Beck songs, both of which are perfect for live improvisation. Old songs feature solos that are extended out from the studio versions.

As the album title implies this is an album that focuses on two artists, both masters of their craft. The performances are mostly instrumental, with only a couple songs on side one having vocals. I kind of wish they would have made the album entirely instrumental. In my opinion, the singing somewhat detracts from the quality of the rest of the album. Listening to the audience response to the songs, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Still, this is a great live album.