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TRACKLISTING:
1. Bonesaw (4:48)
2. Trigger (3:00)
3. St James Infirmary (5:12)
4. Stone Don’t Sway (3:46)
5. Family (4:51)
6. Moonshiner (4:12)
7. Tennessee (4:01)
8. Little More Feeling (2:20)
9. Smiles and Scars (4:39)

LINEUP:
George Gierer – guitar, banjo, lead vocals, marinated ice
Andrew Sussman – cello, bass, banjo, mandolin, vocals

With:
Dan Bonis – lap steel and resonator guitars (1)
John Lieto – trombone (3)
Nick Lieto – trumpet (3)
James Guarnieri – cymbal (2)
Bill Ayasse – fiddle (8)

Those who still follow my rare posts, as well as my (fortunately) much more frequent contribution to DPRP’s weekly feature Something for the Weekend?, may have noticed that my choices are increasingly drifting away from “conventional” prog, and touching upon music genres that are not traditionally associated with it. In fact, my tastes have always been rather eclectic, and as a rule I do not like to restrict my focus to just one genre. Therefore, I was glad of the opportunity to review Pluck & Rail’s debut album – especially after having seen the duo in action during Frogg Café’s performance at the Orion Studios in April 2016.

Pluck & Rail is a new venture in which Froggs bassist Andrew Sussman is joined by guitarist/vocalist George Gierer, of folkabilly band South County (based in Yonkers, NY). Fans of the NYC  jazz-rock quintet (now guitar-less, following Frank Camiola’s relocation to the UK) should not, however, expect anything in a similar vein – in spite of the participation of all the remaining FC members. Trigger is steeped in Americana, and, not surprisingly, its relationship with prog is rather tenuous.

Clocking in at a snappy 37 minutes, Trigger is a collection of nine songs – packaged in elegant, vintage-style artwork –  that draw on the US’ rich tradition of folk, country and blues, with occasional jazzy and even punk touches. It hinges on the seamless interplay between the two mainmen, though the instrumental brilliance is put at the service of the songs rather than spotlighted for its own sake – unlike what happens all too often  in prog. As you would expect, the bulk of the songs are wistful, mid-paced ballads, masterfully interpreted by Gierer’s deep, slightly smoky voice. The lyrics, in keeping with the folk tradition  (both American and European) also referenced by the Portland band, spin dark, gloomy tales of death, loss, addiction and similar cheery topics – which, however, go hand-in-glove with the music.

Opener “Bonesaw” immediately sets the tone,  with distinct echoes of The Decemberists’ early work – minus Colin Meloy’s somewhat nasal tone; Dan Bonis’ lap steel guitar adds its distinctive twang to the melancholy but catchy tone of the song. The title-track definitely breaks the mould:  an intense workout for Sussman’s cello, beefed up by James Guarnieri on cymbals, its aggressive, shouted vocals suggest an acoustic take on punk rock (not coincidentally for a song dealing with the topic of addiction). The revamped traditional folk/blues of “St. James Infirmary”, a song made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 (also covered by Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and The Animals, among many others), pits Gierer’s vocals against the brothers Lieto’s call-and-response horns, which emphasize the song’s mournful allure. On the other hand, the jaunty, almost rocking pace of Trigger’s shortest song, the 2-minute “Little More Feeling”, is nicely enhanced by Bill Ayasse’s brisk fiddle, while “Smiles and Scars” wraps up the album on a plaintive, whisky-soaked note.

Being European, I am not what you would call an expert on American folk, nor can I claim to be a frequent listener to this genre. However, as a lifelong music lover, I found that Trigger strikes the right chord. Clearly a labour of love by two outstanding musicians, it is recommended listening to everyone who loves good music, particularly of the acoustic variety. As to hardcore proggers, I believe that everyone needs an occasional respite from 20-minute epics with more time signature changes than you can wrap your head around. You might do much worse than give Trigger a listen, and possibly more than one.

Links:
http://www.pluckandrail.com
https://www.facebook.com/pluckandrail/?fref=ts
https://pluckandrail.bandcamp.com/releases

 

 

 

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SETLIST:
Black Country
One Last Soul
Crossfire
Save Me
The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall
Beggarman
Faithless
Song of Yesterday
The Outsider
Cold
The Ballad of John Henry
I Can See Your Spirit
Sista Jane

————–

Man In the Middle
Burn

Even though this blog is mostly focused on progressive rock in all its forms, I am, and always have been, a fan of good, old-fashioned hard rock. As much as I love the sophistication and intellectual appeal of prog, there is something about the powerful wail of a cranked-up electric guitar, or the equally powerful roar of an iron-lunged vocalist that appeals to both the physical and the emotional side of my nature. It is no wonder, then, to find an album like Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell in my personal Top 10 – and no wonder either that a band like Black Country Communion, in the ten months since the release of their debut album, has immediately become such a firm favourite that both their CDs get almost daily spins in our player.

When the band’s formation was first announced, the presence of Glenn Hughes alone would have been enough to attract my interest, as he has been my favourite vocalist for the past ten years or so, even over such luminaries as Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan. The first time I saw him perform live, at London’s Mean Fiddler club in October 2003, as soon as he started to sing my jaw dropped on the floor and stayed there for the whole duration of the concert. I have also been following his career closely, and acquired quite a few of the numerous albums he has released over the years – including the near-legendary Hughes-Thrall album (originally released in 1982), and his collaborations with another rock legend, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi.

However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer magnificence that is Black Country Communion.  Even though supergroups can often be rather hit-and-miss affairs that hardly ever last beyond one album, scuppered by ego clashes or by just failing to deliver the musical goods, BCC are all set to become the glaring exception to the rule. While snobs might superciliously label them as a retro or nostalgia act, accusing them of rehashing old modes of musical expression, or cashing in on some members’ erstwhile fame, in my humble view they possess the same classic, timeless quality of those dishes or items of clothing that never go out of fashion. There is something deeply comforting in the knowledge that, on a music scene all too often dominated by fads, where most of the offer seems to be little more than a triumph of style over substance, there are still artists that choose to play the music they want, and use the same strategies as the trailblazers of the late Sixties – writing brilliant material, releasing albums every few months or so (instead of keeping fans waiting for years), and – most importantly – performing their music on stage, where it really belongs.

Indeed, while  probably a good half of current prog releases are studio-only projects (sometimes carried out through the Internet), Black Country Communion’s music begs to be played in front of an audience. While each of the four members could live comfortably for the rest of their lives without having ever to tread the boards of a stage again, seeing them perform on the evening of June 19  confirmed that this is an outfit tailor-made for raising hell in a live setting. The 9.30 Club – a no-frills venue situated in a slightly seedy (though full of character) neighbourhood of Washington DC, with no seating except for a handful of bar stools, a balcony and a stage raised high enough to make it visible even to small people like me – provided the perfect locale for a profoundly satisfying evening of loud, passionate, flawlessly performed, bluesy hard rock – the kind of entertainment that leaves you physically drained because you have been standing up for over three hours in close proximity to other equally excited fans, dancing, yelling, singing along and pumping your fists in the air, while being hit by the full force of the sound blasting out of a stack of Marshall amps. Indeed, quite a change from being comfortably seated in a theatre, listening intently to the elaborate musical concoctions of your average prog band…

The sizable crowd was a mix of the older and the younger generations; some audience members had brought their children with them, as living proof of BCC’s timeless appeal – unlike, I am sorry to say, far too many stuck-in-a-time-warp progressive rock acts. I had noticed the same thing at the Blue Oyster Cult show in Baltimore, back in February – there is a reason why such bands are often  called ‘classic rock’. When we got in, securing a nice position a few feet from the stage, the anticipation was palpable. At 8 p.m., the lights dimmed, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” started blaring from the PA, eliciting a round of excited yells from the audience. A bit clichéd maybe, but a fitting introduction to one of the very best concerts I have been fortunate to attend.

The concert was the last date of the band’s first US tour – expected, as Glenn Hughes repeated on several occasions, to ‘build a foundation’ for a band that aims to fill a void in the current music market – judging from the comments gathered around the Web, an unqualified success in spite of its short duration. With no opening act, the audience was allowed to concentrate completely on BCC’s show, introduced by the formidable one-two punch of “Black Country” and “One Last Soul” (from the band’s debut album). As expected, Glenn Hughes totally owned the stage, wielding a nicely battered, vintage red and white bass, and displaying a level of energy that many people half his age (he will turn 60 at the end of August)  would kill for. As soon as he opened his mouth to belt out the first lines of the pulsating anthem “Black Country”, there was no doubt that he amply deserved his nickname of ‘The Voice of Rock”.  Most of those who have been lucky to see him live will wonder how those golden pipes of his can withstand the strain of singing with that kind of intensity night after night. Though some people cannot warm to his voice, and are annoyed by what they perceive as over-the-top vocal acrobatics, I am happy to report that he has toned things down considerably, his voice adapting to the music rather than the other way around.

Indeed, BCC is not a Glenn Hughes vehicle, but very much of a tight unit in which everyone works towards the final result. No one with a large ego would share vocal duties with someone as gifted as Joe Bonamassa (whose voice sounds at times like a higher-pitched version of Paul Rodgers). Glenn is also a fine lyricist, capable of penning standard rock anthems as well as deeply emotional pieces, such as the ones dealing with those dark years when he came very close to self-destruction. For somebody who has stared in the face of death, and lost many a good friend in recent years (including his childhood friend and fellow Trapeze member, Mel Galley), he is in superb shape, and his positive attitude  to life is to be commended in an age when people seem to enjoy wallowing in negativity. He is also one of those rare singers whose voice has actually improved with age, in spite of his struggle with various addictions. While in his Trapeze and Deep Purple days Glenn’s voice had occasionally sounded a tad shrill, now it has acquired a depth and versatility that, coupled with his awesome range, allow him to sing just about anything with stunning results.

Though they have been jokingly called “Purple Led” or “Deep Zeppelin”, BCC actually do not sound anything like Hughes’ former band. On the other hand, the Led Zeppelin comparisons are certainly more appropriate: Joe Bonamassa is the 21st century’s answer to Jimmy Page, and has also stepped into the void left by Gary Moore’s unexpected passing in February 2011. In a scene riddled with shredders, Bonamassa’s brilliantly emotional playing and considerable songwriting skills (as shown by “The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall” and “Song of Yesterday”, the latter possibly the highlight of the whole set) are a breath of fresh air, proving once again that great music does not necessarily have to break new ground each and every time. On stage he employed a nice array of guitars, including a double-necked one for the wistful, folk-tinged “The Battle for Hadrian’s Wall” (stirring memories of the immortal “The Battle of Evermore”), and a Flying V for the two encores – as well as a spot of Theremin towards the end of the set.

Keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian plays an even larger role on stage than he does on record, putting to rest any allegations of BCC being a power trio with just a token helping of keyboards. His maple-encased Hammond B-3 provided that indispensable background rumble (though at times it tended to overwhelm the vocals); he also performed the only solo spot of the evening. Jason Bonham pounded away at his rather understated kit (especially if you are used to the likes of Mike Portnoy) with enthusiasm and precision – clearly a very capable drummer in the no-nonsense mould of his father or Cozy Powell, and perfectly suited to the band’s sound, which does not need fancy flourishes, but rather solid, powerful time-keeping. Until halfway through the set, both him and Sherinian looked dead serious, almost grim – but then both of their faces lit up when Hughes heaped lavish (and clearly heartfelt) praise on his fellow band members. The deep personal bond between the four players is clearly the secret to BCC’s success, and bodes very well for the band’s future endeavours.

Besides 8 out of 11 tracks from the band’s second album (released only a few days before the gig),  the stunning two-hour set featured a selection of songs from their debut, the gorgeous, slow-burning Bonamassa composition “The Ballad of John Henry” (from his 2009 album of the same title), and a blistering rendition of Deep Purple’s “Burn” as a final encore, with its iconic Hammond riff and Hughes screaming his heart out as he did almost 40 years ago at the legendary California Jam. Though I was a bit disappointed about the absence of personal favourites such as “Medusa” or “Down Again”, BCC’s performance was so exhilarating that it left no room for minor quibbles. In spite of the feeling of physical exhaustion and the ringing in our ears, we were left wanting more, and the promise of another US tour next year filled us with joy and anticipation. Clichéd as it may sound, Black Country Communion have really put the “super” back in “supergroup”. Long may they reign!

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Three Score And Ten, Amen (5:36)
2. Time Lament (6:04)
3. Take Me Back To Doomsday (4:26)
4. The Daughter Of Time (3:30)
5. Theme For An Imaginary Western (4:05)
6. Bring Out Your Dead (4:25)
7. Downhill And Shadows (6:11)
8. The Time Machine (8:12)

LINEUP:
Jon Hiseman – drums
Dick-Heckstall-Smith – saxes
Dave Greenslade – organ, piano, vibes
Clem Clempson – guitar, vocals
Mark Clarke  – bass
Chris Farlowe – vocals

With:
Barbara Thompson – flute, saxes
Louis Cennamo – bass

Colosseum’s first studio album since the departure of singer/guitarist James Litherland (who went on to form the short-lived Mogul Thrash, known for having been John Wetton’s first band) sounds at the same time similar and unlike its illustrious predecessor, Valentyne Suite.  In comparison with the latter, it is a bluesier, jazzier effort, somewhat ‘bigger’-sounding, and with a harder, more guitar-oriented edge.

While progressive rock  fans will find a lot to enjoy in Daughter of Time, at least as regards the instrumental performances, new singer Chris Farlowe’s powerful, blues-tinged vocals do not fit with many people’s expectations of what a prog singer should sound like, and for some they may even be an acquired taste. To these ears, though, his voice is simply stunning, and complements perfectly the epic sweep and overall uplifting mood of the album.

I set great store by the opening track of an album, and “Three Score and Ten, Amen” does not disappoint, with Farlowe’s commanding vocals fitting perfectly into the lush texture of Colosseum’s music. Saxophonist  Dick Heckstall-Smith is joined by Barbara Thompson (Jon Hiseman’s wife) on flute, so that the presence of a mini brass section boosts the band’s already dramatic sound, providing a foil for Hiseman’s textbook-perfect drumming. Clem Clempson’s brilliant guitar work shines throughout the album,  and the instrumental section of “Time Lament” showcases his sadly underrated skills as a six-stringer. “Take Me Back to Doomsday”, my own personal favourite, is an exhilarating ride dominated by an awesome vocal performance by Farlowe and Greenslade’s scintillating piano, as well as a soothing, tasteful flute section.

While the title-track may sound slightly too bombastic for comfort, “Theme for an Imaginary Western” is another vocal tour-de-force for Farlowe, though of a somewhat more understated nature than his trademark, over-the-top style. Originally written by legendary bassist Jack Bruce for his 1969 album, Songs for a Tailor, it is a melancholy ballad vaguely reminiscent of Procol Harum’s best efforts. The intricate instrumental “Bring Out Your Dead” “, featuring sterling organ work by Dave Greenslade, comes closest to the band’s sound on Valentyne Suite; while the powerful, bluesy “Downhill and Shadows” introduces the live recording of “The Time Machine”, mainly an extended solo by master drummer Jon Hiseman. Even if drum solos have the reputation of being all too often terminally boring, this one is eminently listenable even for non-musicians.

The release of Daughter of Time was followed in 1971 by the legendary  Colosseum Live!, and then by the rather unexpected demise of the band.  The same line-up got back together in 1994 for a tour, which led to a permanent reformation of Colosseum.  Barbara Thompson, who had often guested in the band’s live performances, eventually replaced Dick Heckstall-Smith after his untimely passing in 2004.  On any account, though not as ground-breaking as Valentyne Suite, and slightly less cohesive, Daughter of Time is an excellent offering, blending jazz, blues, classic rock and progressive stylings in a single package – as well as lashings of genuine emotion. A highly recommended release from one of the landmark years in the history of rock.

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Tracklist:
1. Northern Hemisphere (5:03)
2. Isadora (4:19)
3. Waterways (7:00)
4. Centaur Woman (7:09)
5. Bathers (4:57)
6. Communion (4:02)
7. Moth (4:03)
8. In The Stable Of The Sphinx (8:20)

Bonus tracks  (Eclectic re-issue, 2004):
1. Waterways (demo) (6:40)
2. In the Stable of the Sphinx (demo recorded in July 1968) (11:10)
3. Eight Miles High (recorded at Tangerine Studios, London, 3rd September 1969) (6:51)

Lineup:
Dave Arbus – electric violin, flute, bagpipe, recorders, two saxophones
Ron Caines – soprano & alto saxophones (acoustic & amplified), organ, vocals (4)
Dave Dufont – percussion
Geoff Nicholson –  guitars, vocals
Steve York – bass guitar, harmonica, Indian thumb piano

Though I have neglected my blog for some time, I have definitely not forgotten about it (and hopefully neither have you, my dear readers!). Unfortunately, my other reviewing commitments sometimes have to take precedence – unless I want to find myself even more backlogged than I already am.

Anyway, for the first update for almost three weeks, here is another 1969 album, and one of the lost gems of the earliest years of progressive rock. As a matter of fact, having been released a few months before In the Court of the Crimson King, Mercator Projected might very well be considered as the first prog album – though, sadly, nowhere as well-known as King Crimson’s iconic debut.

Mercator Projected marks the debut of East of Eden, one of the most exciting, authentically progressive acts of  those golden years, now unfairly overlooked by most.  Drenched in exoticism, from its stunning, surprisingly modern cover (depicting a heavily tattooed woman’s back) to its evocative title (a Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection that distorts the shape and size of large objects),  the album is a thoroughly exhilarating listen, blending Eastern sounds with jazz, blues, heavy rock and psychedelia in a heady brew that might at first sound dated, but still holds a deep fascination for the  discerning music fan.

One of East of Eden’s strengths lies in their use of an impressive array of instruments that, at the time, were not yet common currency in rock music. Dave Arbus’ electric violin (which, incidentally, also graces The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley”) dominates the proceedings, weaving ethereal melodies or bringing a strident note to the compositions, while saxes and flute add their distinctive character to the band’s sound. In the best tradition of the original progressive rock movement, and not unlike the mighty Crims’  seminal debut, the songs on this album are at the same time accessible and experimental, harsh and gently soothing. While the band do not reject their rock and blues roots, they also push the envelope with their richly textured soundscapes, which evoke many different moods.

Closing track “In the Stable of the Sphinx”, a jazzy, sprawling instrumental (also present in a longer version in the 2004 remastered edition), is possibly the album’s masterpiece: mainly guitar-driven, unlike most of the other tracks, it features some brilliant sax and violin work. Flutes take centre stage in the dreamy, hippyish “Isadora”; while “Waterways” and “Bathers” conjure images of Eastern-style languor and sensuality, with lashings of sumptuous violin and keyboard melodies. On the other hand, the bluesy, harmonica-driven “Centaur Woman” sounds somewhat grating, and is in my view the weakest offering on the album, even though the slightly distorted, dramatic vocals add some spice to the song.

As even a cursory listen will make it clear, Mercator Projected is not the accomplished work of a seasoned band. However,  even in  its undeniable rawness,  it shows the promise than East of Eden would fulfill in their sophomore effort, Snafu. It is a great pity that they did not achieve the fame they would have deserved for their highly individual, creative approach to music-making – they could have become as big as Yes or King Crimson, but now they are forgotten by almost everyone but the real aficionados of the ‘golden era’  of the genre.

On any account, Mercator Projected is highly recommended to anyone who likes their prog to be eclectic and challenging, even if a bit rough around the edges. This is an album that every self-respecting prog fan should  try at least once.

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