Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Peace Train Tour - Nokia Theatre, December 14, 2014

How to describe one of the best and most rewarding shows I've ever seen is the dilemma facing me after seeing Cat Stevens for the first time in concert after waiting for over forty years. I had given up on the chance of his returning to the concert stage years ago, after he dropped out of public life for family and religious reasons. He became persona non grata for a lot of bigoted and narrow-minded people after his conversion to Islam in the late 1970s, changing his name to Yusuf Islam. It seemed he would remain a fondly (or not, depending on your politics) remembered pop superstar from a bygone age who we lost to religion, and that was that.

There were occasional noises here and there and a few random appearances beginning in the 1990s, giving hope that he might return to music at some point in the future. He credits his son with bringing a guitar back into the house to pursue his own music, which Yusuf picked up and began playing again. Acknowledging how much he missed making music, and spurred on to keep going, the result was the release of his first new recording of non- and less-religious music in almost thirty years called An Other Cup in 2006. I thought how remarkable his voice still sounded after all those years.

Still, the thought of new concerts seemed remote at best, considering the resentment of all things Muslim in the still raw aftermath of 9/11, and his short-lived (and ludicrous) appearance on our no-fly lists in the mid 00s. So the announcement this fall of a series of shows across the U.S. to mark his return to the land of rock and roll was as surprising as it was welcome. How I scored a ticket was pure luck as the tickets were gone almost as soon as the box office opened.

My own personal history with Cat Stevens goes back to April 1971 when I was 20 and purchased Tea For The Tillerman, because "Wild World" was a hit single, and it became one of the cornerstones of my record collection. When Harold and Maude opened that December, I was already well aware of the music that helped that movie go from overlooked box-office flop to cult film within a few years. It came and went so quickly in it's first release that I didn't even get to see it until it was screened a year later at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass in December 1972, before it became a cult classic. By 1974 it had been rediscovered and was playing year-long engagements in many cities across the U.S.A.

In spite of his disappearance, his music survived decade after decade, never losing a drop of it's emotional power or its relevance. He'd struck a nerve in the popular culture and we were determined not to give it up, even if he never re-emerged. I, and many others, never stopped listening to his records and I always regretted not seeing him on one of his tours through Boston.

By the time Sunday, December 14th rolled around, I had settled into a low grade excitement which only intensified as the time to take the subway downtown approached. Never having been to the Nokia Theatre before, I made sure to get there with plenty of time to spare. The buzz of anticipation was palpable among the crowd standing in line to get in, no matter what their age. The range of his appeal was still overwhelming and undeniable.

A glowing crowd filled the lobbies of the Nokia and I wanted to enjoy a beer and take in the whole scene before heading to my seat in the loge section. The stage was set up as a run down railroad station stop with a sign reading "Los Angeles" (interchangeable with the tour stops) and a backdrop that looked like a prairie landscape out of the dream ballet in the movie of Oklahoma!.

Onto this evocative and plainly symbolic set wandered Yusuf/Cat Stevens and members of his touring band and the first notes of "The Wind" hit the audience like a ton of bricks. Cue: squeals of delight! His voice sounded exactly the same. The arrangement, updated but remarkably the same, and the song itself was emotionally perfect for the state of excitement in the crowd, proudly stating the 'journey' theme of the whole show: "I let my music take me where my heart wants to go."

Ordinarily, I would complain about the size of the venue, as I was a quarter of a mile away from the stage but for this, it didn't matter. I was zeroed in on the stage. The next song was "Don't Be Shy" and that started the water works. To think he would perform one of the two songs he wrote specifically for Harold and Maude as the second song was more than I could take, through the tears I could envision Bud Cort hanging himself.

He seemed so at ease and comfortable on stage, and was obviously moved by the love he felt coming from the audience, that he was chatty and chummy, making the huge venue far more intimate. By the time he sang two more of his early hits, it was clear he would be reviewing as many of his most popular songs, along with newer compositions, as he could fit in his 32-plus song set. I think the whole audience relaxed together and realized we were in for a special night.

Surrounded by a powerful flock of musicians, including long-time guitarist Alun Davies, who has been with him since the beginning, and pianists, violinists, horn players, drummers, they made a formidable rock band. The songs stayed close to their original arrangements with only additional augmentation when called for. Passages of almost solo acoustic performances by Yusuf were contrasted with richly orchestrated celebrations, each appropriate to the song being rendered.

He seemed eager to acknowledge the wide range of influences that have affected his own songwriting, including songs by Curtis Mayfield, Edgar Winter, Sam Cook, and, beautifully, Procol Harum ("The Devil Came From Kansas"). His wonderful recent song "Maybe There's A World" proved his songwriting skills are undiminished, which then segued into a version of Lennon's "All You Need Is Love" (which had all us old hippies singing along) and it was was a high point of the first act. As soon as he said the words Harold and Maude the audience erupted into wild applause. (pretty amazing for a movie that could have been forgotten 45 years ago) and he played "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", as the tears flowed copiously leading to an intermission.

The second act was even longer than the first, and continued alternating covers, old classics and new music. An additional thrill was seeing Cat Stevens playing the piano again, which he did on half a dozen numbers. Highlights for me were hearing "Oh Very Young", Where Do The Children Play?", and especially "Father and Son". I think that with all the singing he has been doing on this tour that his voice is showing far more flexibility that it did a few years ago, when he first started singing again. The muscles are oiled and in tip top shape. I can't believe he was ever better, even back 35 years ago. I'm glad we were the last stop on the tour, to enjoy the fruits of all that non-stop singing for the last month since he started this tour in London in November.

He came back for four songs on encore which included the climactic "Peace Train", "Sad Lisa" (on the piano again) and ultimately "Morning Has Broken" resulting in a sequence of standing ovations. I was like putty in his hands by this point, We all were.The love and appreciation he exuded was strong enough to envelope all 7000 plus audience members in the Nokia Theatre. It's a concert experience I will never forget, and here it is, 48 hours later and I'm still in a state of euphoria.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Horse Feathers at The Satellite - December 6, 2014

I'd be hard pressed to say that there's a better live band around right now than Horse Feathers. This band is just about perfect. I'd seen them twice before, the last time they were in town and played The Echo in May and December of 2012, but when two years went by and I heard nothing from them, I was unprepared for the impact they would have on me this time.

Apparently after the last album, Cynics New Year, and supporting tour in 2012, band leader Justin Ringle felt the need to step back and reassess where the band was headed. Though lauded for their original and committed take on gothic/indie/chamber Americana music, there was a dourness to the material that some critics felt made them less than exciting. I disagree, but it was enough to revitalize Justin and led to the creation of So It Is With Us, perhaps the most accessible of their five albums.

They are another of those bands from the Pacific Northwest who come to the table fully prepared but with a unique sound that sets them apart from all the other bands from that region giving them all specific identities. Think Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, The Parson Red Heads, Mimicking Birds, Sallie Ford, these guys. Though, to me, with the soft-spoken vocals and chamber sound, they most closely resemble Canada's Great Lake Swimmers or North Carolina's Lost In The Trees, both in performance and in style. But the new album adds a bit more rock to their signature laid back appeal, enlivening things considerably, though still keeping their realistic and sombre outlook intact.

Recorded partially in a barn in Oregon (doesn't everybody?), which gives the music an ambiance of being played in a tall, dank, wooden cathedral and infuses the album with a sonic dampness that suits them. But live, the music springs to vibrant life on stage with an immediacy and punch that makes the songs even better. Silky smooth vocals sit atop a first rate chamber orchestra which includes violin, banjos, keys, two drummers, occasional mandolin and harmonica to lay a gorgeous carpet for the superb melodies to rest upon.

Right from the first song, a normally noisy Friday night Satellite crowd was hushed into rapt attentiveness as the seven member band overwhelmed with their cohesive, carefully structured compositions that are so clean that each instrument can be heard and appreciated for their contribution to the entirety of the texture. Justin Ringle's (at right) voice sounds more supple and varied than on record, and his duets with mandolin/guitar player Brad Parsons are even more natural and powerful in person.

By the time they launched into their third song, "Middle Testament", I figured each song was going to be better than the one before it and just had to go with it. I was already approaching that nirvana-like space where the music takes over and you feel alone with the band.

There wasn't a single lag in the entire set list that consisted of plenty of older material as well as a healthy sampling from their latest album, So It Is With Us. Nathan Crockett's virtuoso violin was regularly rewarded with applause after each of his solo highlights during the evening and the presence of two drummers added immeasurably to the new power this band has found. Distinctive keyboards on certain songs and the anchored bass work all lent the perfect balance to the stunning orchestrations.

They seemed very relaxed and happy, saying they'd been looking forward to coming back to L.A. for a long time and it showed. They played an hour set and two encores. The perfect sound mix at The Satellite didn't hurt either (though I could have used some of Rebecca Balin's lights). Even though I've seen them twice before, it couldn't have prepared me for this astonishing performance. Got to greet Justin and Brad outside after the show which put a perfect capper on this memorable night.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gruff Rhys presents American Interior at The Echo (11/20/14)

"Walk Into The Wilderness"

I really wanted to get some of these thoughts down on paper (so to speak) so I'm just going to go for it. Even though the Gruff Rhys show at The Echo was weeks ago. I have been a big fan of Super Furry Animals ever since 2005, when they were one of the bands I allowed to pull me back to rock and roll. I picked up Rings Around The World and Phantom Power at that time and devoured them. I'd been listening to rock and roll for the first time in 20 years, with nearly, newly virgin ears, since August 2005, so when I saw they were coming to town in November that year, I decided it was time to take the plunge and go out to a show!

November 29, 2005, was the exact date, at the Avalon on Vine St. I had no idea what to expect, didn't know if I'd get laughed out of the room as 'that old guy in the corner' or what. I knew no one who was into rock music at the time so I had zero expectations. This was the tour where they came on stage wearing space suits (at left). Super Furry Animals took me on a trip that night that launched me off in an entirely new direction in my life.   Music, music videos, CD's, getting into the local indie scene, eventually blogging. I mean, you're reading this aren't you? See what I mean?

Passion for live music exploded like a bomb in me. Within 4 months I was seeing 7 concerts a month, within a year I was seeing 12 a month. Now nine years have gone by, and I have seen Super Furry
Animals three times and Gruff Rhys once before solo on his Candylion tour in 2007 (at right). When I heard about this show on November 20, I didn't know what he was up to until I checked out his new CD, American Interior, and read about this latest solo project, which originated a few years ago.

Apparently, Mr. Rhys took a trip a couple of years ago across a great swath of the American Middle West, touring and performing and in search of any trace of a distant relative from a couple of centuries ago who scoured the Native American territory for evidence of an ancient tribe of Welsh Indians...??? Too bizarre to relate here, suffice to say, I was doubtful. But curious. And I love his music so I wanted to see this show.

I got there really early and saw the entire set by East India Youth. All pre-programmed beats and pre-recorded backing, still the vocals of singer William Doyle are stylized and varied enough to merit attention, all bathed in trippy swirling lights which filled the venue. But it was LOUD LOUD and I was either glad I wasn't tripping, or wished I was.

Gruff Rhys delivered one of the oddest sets of songs and storytelling events I've ever seen. When I first read about his latest project I wasn't sure that he wasn't telling a true story. Welsh Native Americans? How was I to know?

As soon as he took the stage, all doubt was erased. It was all a big fabrication of the devious, mischievous mind of Mr. Rhys. He welcomed the audience with an introduction to the short mockumentary we were about to watch with a series of cue cards he held up. Earnest sarcasm dripped from his lips. It was equal parts Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Mad Magazine.

We then watched the 20 minute film which traced Gruff Rhys' long lost "fictional" relative, "John Evans", who fled Wales to try to find out the history of a lost tribe of Native Americans who spoke Welsh, owing to the fact that they were rumored to have emigrated to America from Wales in the 12th century. One quickly picked up the tone of satire with the outrageous tale told.

Following the film, Rhys took the stage alone with a guitar and it was just him and us as he sang acoustic versions of the songs from the album. The pleasure of hearing his wonderful voice, up close and without adornment, was a treat that kept the audience transfixed. The songs range in style through multiple American folk and country idioms to illustrate the varied tales he had to tell. On the album, the songs are fully orchestrated in the inimitable Rhys style, but here, stripped down to basic acoustic versions, his voice was really given a chance to dominate.

Between songs he presented short stories about the trials and tribulations of "Evans", the adventurous explorer, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Making his way through the plains states and the American south "John Evans" survived attempted murders, starvation, disease, animal attacks, hostile natives, until he was last heard from in New Spain under the name of "Don Juan Evans". He was never heard from again after the age of twenty-nine.

The whole presentation had a very free-form, almost improvisational, vibe as Gruff would sound like he was making it up on the spot. At various points he would bring out a doll to represent "John Evans" (at right) or invite audience members to join him onstage to pantomime characters he was describing (below).  Overwhelmed by the creativity, startled once again at how wonderful his unique voice is, and impressed by the easy, relaxed and conversational rapport he achieves with his audience, it felt like being invited into his home to watch slides and listen to songs.

I have to say, though, that conditions at The Echo were not optimal for a show that was often intimate and quiet. Whatever was going on downstairs at Echoplex was bleeding sound and beats up through the floor, becoming occasionally distracting. The gracious Mr. Rhys didn't acknowlege that, but when the hand blow-dryer in the ladies room went off, he glanced back over his shoulder and asked, "Is someone using a leaf-blower out back?"