I was able to see quite a few good shows this past year, including Paul Weller, Paul Kelly, Wishbone Ash, Jethro Tull and more. But the best gig by far was a December show by Greta Van Fleet. Although they're a Michigan band, I wasn't able to get tickets to their sold-out Detroit shows. Instead, my wife managed to get $10 tickets (!) in Kansas and we turned it into a weekend road trip.
For those who don't know, Greta Van Fleet are classic rock's latest up-and-coming superstars. This is a young band, ranging from 18-21 years in age. Oh, and three of them are brothers. It's hard to believe, but these young kids rock as hard as Led Zep ever did. In fact the first time my wife heard their hit single "Highway Tune" last summer, she thought it was some long-lost Zeppelin song that had never been released. They've only released 8 songs so far, and the songs on their initial EP are definitely in the Page/Plant school of classic rock. It will be interesting to see how they expand their range and repertoire as they release more material.
And while they are young musicians, they have incredible chops. The band may not always have the greatest stage presence --singer Josh Kiszka is tentative on occasion -- but they are one of the tightest bands I have ever heard. They sound like they've been playing together night after night for years on end. Which is exactly what they have been doing.
If you get a chance to see them live, I highly recommend it. Looks like their next tour takes them through Europe in the spring.
Here's a short video from the concert as well as the official video for Highway Tune.
Paul Kelly has been one of my favorite musicians since a trip a few years back to Australia. A buddy set me up with an iPhone full of Australian music and Paul Kelly's "Songs of the South" greatest hits album ended up in heavy rotation. In the fall, I saw that he had released a new album "Life is Fine" which was shooting up the charts, and embarking on a tour of North America. Even better, my other Australian mate Rob got tickets to see him at Slim's in San Francisco.
Although Kelly only went on stage at 10pm (a late night for an old fart like me!) it was a corker of a shoe. Slim's is a modest size club (capacity of about 500) and they were mostly full, which is pretty good for a weeknight. I'm pretty sure I was the only non-Australian there and everyone seemed to have had about 4 more beers than I did. So it was a lively and exuberant audience. With five decades of touring and recording, Paul Kelly is a national treasure in Australia; he's written songs that are uniquely Australian with world-wide appeal.
Kelly has quite a bit of acoustic and bluegrass music in his background, but I was glad that this was more of a rock and roll show with a full band. He played the new album "Life is Fine" in its entirety and then went into a greatest hits set with two encores. The new album is good, though I was not familiar with it. I recognized just about every song after that including classics like "From St Kilda to King's Cross," "To Her Door," "Before Too Long," "How to Make Gravy," and "Darling It Hurts." The show ran two hours and it was one of the best shows of the year.
Here's a video of a song "Firewood & Candles" from the new album.
If you know one thing about the obscure prog rock band Klaatu, it's that in the late 1970s they were rumored to be the Beatles. Of course, that wasn't the case, as legions of Beatles fans later realized when they, you know, actually listened to the first Klaatu album. But they were a pretty good, if undervalued band.
Haling from Toronto, these three studio musicians thought that "the music should speak for itself." Hence, no bios, photos or interviews with the band, not even credits indicating who played or wrote the songs. And since they were signed to Capitol Records, some bonehead reporter for the Providence Journal thought it must be the fab four reunited.
At any rate, when all these Beatles rumors surfaced, sales for their first album soared. And admittedly, there are a couple of Beatlest-esque tunes on the first album, notably "Subway Sub Rosa" and "Little Neutrino." Meanwhile the band shrugged off the rumors since they were busy in London recording their second album, the rock opera "Hope," with the London Symphony Orchestra. And The Carpenters released had a hit single with their version of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants from Interplanetary Craft."
And I've got to say, "Hope" is one helluva an album. Although it clocks in at just over 40 minutes, it is ambitious and grandiose musically and thematically. It tells the story of an ancient race or planet of space travelers and a lonely lighthouse keeper at the end of space or who the heck knows what. There is a story here, which is why I think this qualifies as a rock opera more than just a concept album, but I wouldn't be able to explain it to you. Still, I would put it up there with SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things. It's that good an album.
While the whole album is excellent, I view "Long Live Politzania" as the best cut. Ok, and some of the vocals on this album do sound a bit like George Harrison but I think it's just coincidental. The guitar work on "Madman" is also excellent. The music has a '70s extravagance that you will either love or hate. There are elements that compare with Queen, King Crimson, Supertramp, the Beach Boys, fellow Canadians Max Webster and others from that era.
Unfortunately, at some point the truth behind the rumor ("Klaatu is Klaatu!") surfaced and there was a huge backlash against the band. This was unfortunate because the band had nothing to do with these rumors. The band recorded three more albums before breaking up.
The first three albums are excellent while I consider the last two a bit more hit-or-miss. There's also an excellent box set called "Sun Set" which includes all of Hope with all of the London Symphony Orchestra sections fully restored. The albums are available on Amazon, iTunes and from the official Klaatu website.
Since live footage of Klaatu is relatively hard to come by, here's a 1974 live performance on CBC Music Machine with a song from their first album.
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, one of my favorite bands in the last twenty years, is on tour promoting their first new album in seven years. Although the album "The Hanged Man" was mostly composed and performed by Ted Leo as a solo project, this is a full band tour. I managed to see them at Detroit's Magic Stick club and it was a great show.
There were two local opening acts Someone Who Isn't Me (SWIM) and the delightfully energetic punk pop band Ryan Allen and his Extra Arms. Ryan and crew did a great job with 110db of high energy rock loaded with hooks. Ryan's a fan of Ted Leo from way back and the band certainly held their own with this audience.
Ted Leo went on stage about 9:40pm. Although there was no separate encore, it was a two hour show which was not bad for a Wednesday night. The band was incredibly tight with Leo's trademark distorted punk guitar, a powerful rhythm section with the full force of drummer Chris Wilson, Adrienne Berry on sax and backing vocals, and at times three (!) guitar players resulting in a wonderfully frenetic and soulful sound. There were only minor order changes in the setlist from shows in Toronto, Boston, DC in the last week. The tour is drawing heavily from the new album, which is quite solid.
Leo was garrulous about his descent into piano and acoustic guitar singer-songwriter form, but the songs don't need any apologies. Highlights included the upbeat R&B influenced "Can't Go Back," "Run to the City," "Lonsdale Avenue" and "Let's Stay On The Moon." There's still plenty of fast-paced songs, but Leo is painting from a wider palette than previously with a couple of more relaxed songs, rich in vocal harmonies. But when the band got to the more rocking numbers, they were full-on explosive and moving in a chaotic choreography. Despite Ted's protestations that his voice was rough, he sang beautifully.
The band also played a good assortment of songs from earlier albums including "Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?," "Parallel or Together," "The High Party," and my favorite song "Biomusicology." I think we can all agree "Biomusicology" is one of the greatest songs ever written. Heck it could be a Lennon / McCartney / Strummer / Weller composition, for all I can tell. That song just sends a chill down my spine. And although I was hoping to hear "Timorous Me" in an encore, the rest of the material was so good and the banter so enjoyable I can't fault Leo for skipping a couple of songs.
I managed to shoot video of several of these songs. I think the audio captured and processed on my iPhone is possibly better than it sounded at the club. I always find the mix at MagicStick to suffer from too much bass and drum and not enough vocals.
The band is on it's way to Chicago and touring coast-to-coast through December. If you haven't seen Ted Leo live before, this is a tour worth catching.
If you grew up in the '70s Jethro Tull was a band that was hard not to notice. They had a slew of FM radio hits and a distinct flute-driven sound ranging from blues to hard rock to prog to folk. Whether you loved Tull or hated it, it was immediately recognizable. Ian Anderson, was the songwriter, vocalist, flautist and arranger that defined Jethro Tull. Iconoclast that he was, he cycled through more than two dozen band mates over five decades, dispensing with the second longest-running member of Tull, guitarist Martin Barre, back in 2011.
I managed to see the latest incarnation of Jethro Tull (or more accurately, "Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson") at Interlochen this week. Although I'm not a huge Tull fan, I'm familiar with their '70s hits. There is a certain sameness to a few of the songs ("Locomotive Breath," "Cross-Eyed Mary," "Hymn 43" all sound the same to me) but there's an inventiveness in the standout songs like "Thick as Brick," "A New Day Yesterday," "Living in the Past," and their jazzy interpretation of Bach's "Bourrée." And of course, what can be said of "Aqualung" --a song that has arguably one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. (Guitarist Martin Barre claims it was recorded in a single take, fearing that if he dallied, Anderson would put another flute solo in its place.)
The band played a lot of the classic songs drawing heavily from the late '60s and early 70s, along with a few more recent songs and instrumentals. And while the band was incredibly tight (they play virtually the same set list every night on this tour), the concert was a bit of a mixed bag. The flute playing, the guitar, the keyboards, the drum solo were all excellent, but...
I knew that Anderson's vocals had deteriorated in the '80s, due to a heavy touring schedule that inflicted permanent damage. Anderson's range has become more limited and his voice has lost the rich, smooth sound that characterized his best work. While not awful, it was clear as the night wore on, he's not doing the songs justice.
And this is not intended as a knock on Anderson. He is a bona fide musical genius having released 30 albums, won awards by the score and invented an entire genre. Heck he can still play the flute on one foot. And at 71, there would be no shame in sharing the singing duties with another performer.
During Aqualung, the last song before the encore, there was a video with a second vocalist, Ryan O'Donnell, who toured with the band a few years earlier, singing some of the verses. Similarly, on Heavy Horses, he had video of singer and violinist Unnur Birna from Iceland performing some parts. Personally, I think it would be great to have a second vocalist singing along with Anderson, or alternating songs or verses or lines. However, pulling up a video with a vocal backing track seems a bit cheesy to me. Still the band was great and guitar player Florian Opahle put his own mark on Martin Barre's original solo.
Jethro Tull is coming upon it's 50th anniversary in 2018, which is pretty crazy if you think about it. If you haven't seen Tull before, or if you want to relive some of those memories, check out their latest tour with dates in the US, UK and Europe coming up. Sadly, it seems unlikely Ian Anderson will be able to sing as well as he used to, and unless he brings back Ryan O'Donnell, the vocals are going to be pretty weak.
Here's a video of the encore, the classic Aqualung. Skip ahead to 3:10 if you want to get to the awesome solo.