Monday, July 26, 2010

The Perfect Age of Rock 'N' Roll: This Movie Could Be Your Band

Prescient moments....this year has been full of them.

I'm on the phone with a friend who is in Southern California to see a collection of America's greatest bluesmen together onstage. The bluesmen are a part of a documentary film in progress, a piece entitled, Once and For All, and it's got plenty of star power from a band made up of Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Sugar Blue, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Bob Stroger. It may well end up being the next Last Waltz.

My friend tells me she's having a chat with the film's director - she thinks I should talk to him. I think she's right, but the time is wrong. I think to myself that it's not quite time to write about the documentary as there's too much left to be seen, such as, will Keith Richards make a cameo at some point? But I do know my friend is right.

Filmmaker Scott Rosenbaum is about to be a very hot property. Turns out not that he's just making a documentary that may rival Scorsese's brilliant film of The Band's epic final performance, but that prior to this he made a little movie called, The Perfect Age of Rock 'N' Roll. It's a fictional account of a rock band, its members, and the foibles of this thing called rock and roll. I call it a little movie, but it paints a huge picture of the life of rock and rollers.

To be honest, about the last thing in the world I want to watch is a movie about rock, rock bands, or rock stars. There just haven't been many worth watching, and the film industry at large hasn't been blowing my skirt up of late, so I'm kind of cringing when my friend suggests I see the film and write a review. My gut is telling me to follow this trail that leads to Rosenbaum, but I hadn't known the movie was what it was. So, I cringe, and I wonder what the hell I'd gotten myself into this time.

I did a little research and found out that the movie had won an award for Film Achievement at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2009, and had gotten raves from audiences at the CMJ Film Festival. Still, concerns existed about how much I'd enjoy this type of film. I've been in, around, and of rock and roll for the last 35 years, and I knew that Hollywood was generally miles off the mark when it took on rock and roll.

Let me cut to the chase here, and say, this is one hell of a movie. It rang so true that I wondered if Rosenbaum had been down some of the same roads I'd traveled. I had feared a cliche ridden drama, but instead got a very realistic portrayal of the betrayals that all too often lie at the heart of the dream. Sure there are some broadstroke moves, but that's because they ring true. The too long in the tooth road manager, the two timing rock moll, the ego'd out lead singer, a crooked record exec, and a rhythm section that is so pedestrian that it's almost transparent. These are cliches because they exist. And they exist here. 

Kevin Zegers plays Spyder, a burnt out shell of an ex-superstar who walked across the soul of his best friend to make his dream come true. He made it, but it was all built on the songs written by his childhood friend Eric Gensen (played by an excellent Jason Ritter). Spyder had taken his friend's songs, claimed them for himself, and become a star as his friend toiled in anonymity as a school teacher back in their hometown, embittered by his punk-rock legend father's death, and his own fears of grabbing for the brass ring.

After a failed attempt to replicate the success of his pilfered debut, Spyder returns to his childhood home to rouse his old friend from a nasty pill addiction, a suburban existence, and the pain of teaching school children musical rudiments. He's accompanied by an aggressive female manager (Taryn Manning) who is desperate to return to the top at whatever cost is necessary. She's balanced by a grizzly old road manager (Peter Fonda), who is her seeming opposite, being concerned with the legacy of Gensen's father (his old boss), and genuinely caring about the music and the musicians. It turns out that they're really not so far apart, they just come from different genders and generations.

The character of lead singer Spyder is portrayed eerily accurately by Zegers. His startling good looks are interrupted by a blind eye and scars inflicted by his abusive father, but his disfigured face lends a Marilyn Manson-esque visage to his glam rock antics. He's angry, self destructive, maniacal, chemical, and egotistical, yet there is a glimmer of vulnerability that reveals the mask he wears to hide his pain and shame. He knows only too well who and what he is, and it is revealed to the careful eye by his choice of reading material in his home. The tomes of Daniel Pinchbeck and William Cooper, 2012: The Return of Quetzequatl and Behold A Pale Horse - books that reveal the essential corruption of mankind by tyrannical forces and point the way to redemption - are displayed casually in his living room, but told me reams about his character. A brilliant move by someone - this is great filmmaking, when even a subtle set design gives greater meaning to a character's character. Spyder is torn by this split reality of the egotistic star and damaged child - the makings of many a great rock and roll frontman.

Spyder cajoles Eric Gensen back into the fold, but Gensen insists on doing it his way, writing a record while on the mythical path of Route 66. The organic, soulful nature of such a sojourn is an anathema to the jet set style of Spyder and his manager, who are under the gun to get a record out yesterday. Their urgency clashes with the ideals of Gensen and his father's old friend, and the tension is such that a love/hate scenario manifests and threatens to derail the partnership.

Under the direction of a less knowledgeable, less skillful  artisan this could lead to the movie being just another standard cut drama, but I'm thinking that screenwriters Jasin Cadic and Rosenbaum have seen their share of broken bands and maybe even the deaths of a few rock dreams in their own travels. It rings so true I was a little unnerved at times, having either been in or around so many nearly identical situations. I've had the honor and pleasure of working with or for a great collection of musicians, including Iggy Pop, Bobby Womack, Michael Schenker, and Robert Pollard - I know a bit  about the minds, actions, and spirits of great musicians and tortured souls, and this movie shows the gritty underside brilliantly.

The nature of a theatrical film demands that a whole bunch be crammed into a little space, and Scott Rosenbaum has done a masterful job of conveying a tremendous amount of goings on into a brief space, and doing it without being overly sensationalistic, or far-fetched. Everything that happens here I have seen happen.  I've had friends so addled by ego and addiction that they could only make 18 shows in 16 years, then return to see greater productivity than ever and true redemption. I've also seen a young guitarist go through a few million and end up dead of AIDS and heroin in a space of ten years. Without giving up an ending, I will say that what happens here will surprise the hell out of you, but it is by no means unlikely.

Rosenbaum even manages to place the band in the age old situation of joining a blues band for a jam while driving through the Delta. And he does it in a way that had me shaking my head and saying, "I've actually done that, and he pretty much nailed it."

Movie cliches and generalizations are a lot like the licks that make up rock and roll and the blues. There is only  a slight difference between the great and the mediocre, but it may as well be a million miles. Scott Rosenbaum is the Muddy Waters of the music movie set. He's taken what could easily have been a terribly hackneyed story, and infused it with the soul and reality of greatness.

There are a couple of performances here, namely Zeger's, Fonda's, and Ritter's that could be beckoned for Oscar duty. Luke Haas is also excellent in a brief role as a journalist from Revolver magazine. This is an awesome debut for a filmmaker, and while this movie hasn't yet been released, I can't wait to see where Rosenbaum goes next. The best directorial debut since Liev Scheiber's Everything is Illuminated.

There are several plot threads that I have left out for fear of giving up too much to those who will eventually see the film. The mysterious third record, the love/sex scenario that always rears its ugly head, in film and life, and whatever happened to Eric Gensen. Just let me say that it all rings true, but still makes for a helluva story. Yeah, this is the way it really happens. There is nothing in this film that made me cringe due to unreality - it is the real deal, not always pretty, but hey, life's like that.

I knew when my friend called me from the lobby of that Santa Ana theater that something was happening, and it turns out again that I have been honored to preview a great piece of work before its general release. I'd like to thank Scott Rosenbaum for having the nerve to send a copy of a rock and roll film to a guy who hates rock and roll films, and Libby Sokolowski for the phone call, the invitation, and the introductions. I gotta tell ya, I was sweating, hoping that I wouldn't hate this guy's film. Thank goodness it's a brilliant movie, and I can again say, this is great art - support it.!/group.php?gid=68453815913&ref=ts

Sunday, June 13, 2010

GLENN HUGHES - "Hello. This is a Rock Band"


                             "Joe and I were looking at each other going,
                                       what in the world is going on?
                                Joe and I have NEVER had a problem."

Black Country Communion were almost relegated to the scrap heap before the echoes of recording had ended in Kevin Shirley's home studio, The Cave, in Malibu, California.  Rumors had managers, and lawyers killing off the band before they ever had a chance to even consider logos, album covers, press junkets and tours.

"We're getting on famously," says the legendary Glenn Hughes, speaking from his Southern California home, waiting to begin a two month extended press tour that will see the singer/bassist chatting up journalists across the globe in expectation of the September 21st release of Black Country Communion, the new super-group's first record.  Black Country Communion is comprised of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian.

Hughes continues,  "All that crap you saw on the internet about two months ago was something so silly. And let me tell you, it smacks of very early Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, or The Black Crowes, what with all the in-fighting. 'They're fighting!'  Well, that sells magazines....I've gone through that my whole career, 'Is he too heavy, is he on crack, is he gonna jump off the building naked?'  It's all the controversial stuff, I'm not mad that they put that out, it does sell magazines - rock and roll is not always pretty and sweet.  Let's just say that at the time there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Look....J and R Adventures (Bonamassa's management company) is gonna run this, and I certainly don't mind, they've done a great job for Joe.  J and R, my manager, and I, we're all on the same page."

Glenn goes on, "You need to know this, Tony.  Everybody's great pals, everybody loves each other, and we're just dying for the next thing. I'm going to be everywhere, talking up a storm, and the most important thing is that on September 21 this thing is gonna jump out."

Hughes is the point man for BCC press campaign, and it's hard to imagine a better man for the job. The singer explains, "I've been kind of the unofficial spokesman for the band, for the obvious reason that I'm the one who's available to do it.  I'm from the rock side, and I'm naturally a media person. I keep saying that there's no mistakes in God's world, but there's no mistake why I'm doing this."

Hughes's enthusiasm for the project has been typical of the great passion and energy he exudes.  In our first discussion of the band in February, he spent almost two hours discussing the group's potential, when only a few backing tracks had been laid down.  His desire to return to his rock and roll roots was undeniable, roots  which were born in the Black Country of England, home to himself and an old friend named John Bonham, the late drummer of Led Zeppelin, whose son Jason mans the drum throne for this super-group.  Hughes was adamant that this was a calling, a place in time in which his mission seemed clear.

Hughes goes on, "There was no doubt about it when Kevin Shirley suggested Jason Bonham, y'know?  I'm supposed to be playing with Jason Bonham. His dad was a great mate of mine, and Jason all these years later has become a huge fan of that music. There's this big connection between the Bonhams and the Hugheses, and I'm privileged and honored to be part now because Jason has become a close, close friend to me. We get along famously."

Almost eerily, at this point in our discussion the phone rings. It's Bonham.  "Oh hang on....It's Jason, now.  Jason, hey, let me call you right back, I'm talking to a friend but I need to talk to you - yeah, I'm doing the interview.  I'll me call you back in 15 minutes, all right?

"Jason is just amazing on this record, Tony.  I've waited for him to make a great record, and he has too, mate, he has too.  I'll say it ten times over that this is by far the best playing he has done.  One of his best friends told him, when he heard the tracks a few months ago, 'This is what waiting for 25 years for the great drum track has amounted to'.

"Y'know, I told him right after we cut the tracks, I said, 'Jason, this is the best you've played, mate. Yeah....really man, this is the shit!"

Truer words were never spoken, indeed, Bonham's playing on Black Country Communion is spectacular, elevating his playing to the levels of the Moons and elder Bonhams of the world.  He plays brilliantly throughout the record, driving the band like a tank commander.

Many fans have wondered and speculated about what Black Country Communion means for guitarist/vocalist Joe Bonamassa's solo career, so I asked Glenn about this.  He replied in a matter of fact manner.

Hughes said, "See, the thing is, Tony, you can't really get around the fact that Joe has his solo career. Joe is going to be a solo act for the rest of his life.  I'm not resentful of that at all, I think he's great - he's gonna be playing the blues and doing his thing.  I said to Joe when we started this project, I said, 'Joe, I want to be in a band, I want to go out and rock.  And he said, 'Absolutely.'  So, I think what'll happen with our band is this - the album IS what it is, and it'll go viral, it'll just be everywhere.  It'll be undeniable that we gotta play.

"Listen, I don't want to spend the rest of my career playing to smaller audiences in smaller places, to funk and jazz aficionados, which you know I really love doing, but I want to go out rocking.  People call me 'The Voice of Rock, the great rock singer from the 70s,' and the fact of the matter is - I kind of woke up to that.  When I play live, Tony, I get into the funk, the grooves, but it always comes down to the heaviness and the funk - it's really dark and really nasty, and I wanna play with a great drummer who can play the grooves with me, and I wanna play with a great guitarist that plays organically.  And Joe Bonamassa's that guy.  

"You see, Tony, Joe just wants to play.  He doesn't especially want to talk about it, he doesn't especially want to talk about my new leather jacket, or fashion, my new suit.  He does want to talk about his new guitar - and that's Joe.  He's great.  I'm the fashion/rock guy, and he's the blues guy that kind of wants to be like Jimmy Page, so we're a match made in heaven.  A good point is that I don't want to work with people I don't genuinely enjoy.  Why would I?"

I asked Glenn about touring, given that he was about to embark on a long press junket that would seem to indicate more than just a one-off vanity record project.  Instead of stating with any sense of certainty whether Black Country Communion would or wouldn't be going out on the road (though some web sites are stating this as fact, I have yet to hear it from any BCC insider), he spoke of touring America in a more general sense.

"It's a little embarrassing to say this, but I haven't really toured in America since '94 when I did 15 dates with Trapeze.  America's a big, big animal.  America is a place where I want to do it right, I want to play America appropriately.  The right album, the right band, the right agent, and organization.  It's too big an animal otherwise.  I have an amazing hunger for playing live and always reinventing myself.  I was never the guy to get comfortable, just kicking back and making albums.  I'm the guy to be totally ensconced in working on brand new material.

"My manager gets it, and I'm sure that Joe does too, 'Can Glenn come play a session, can Joe do a session? - and it's great to know that I can do a session any day of the week, but I don't want to do that now.  I want to be investing my time in this band."

After listening to the record, and given the fact that Glenn Hughes is taking the summer off from touring to do a major intercontinental press tour, I'd be rather amazed if a tour didn't become an unavoidable inevitability.  The record is such a powerful rock and roll statement - I'd almost go so far as to call it the new rock and roll mission statement - that I believe the listening public will flock to it in huge numbers and continue to carry Bonamassa up on the amazing upward spiral that has become his career, taking Hughes, Bonham, and Sherinian with him.

We carried on our chat with Glenn speaking of how his past lead to the present.  

Hughes, on the path from Trapeze back to the Black Country, "I came busting out of the gate in 1969 as a rock singer and a rock bass player, and now for the rest of my career I've just got to concentrate on being that guy that came busting out of the gate and this particular project is a cornerstone of that belief.

"It's difficult to tell you how excited I am, because most musicians will go on and on and on about how great their new album is, and you've heard it all before, it's like....

"I gotta have you hear it.  I've just got off the phone with Roy Weisman (Bonamassa's manager), and three months later he's still on a pink cloud.  He cannot believe what a great record this is.  Kevin Shirley (the band's producer) just e-mailed me, and he just got off the back of doing Iron Maiden and Journey, and all he can do is talk about our record.

"I been doing this a long time, and I knew going into it what kind of record I was going to write, and I knew that Joe Bonamassa could do that with me.

"There's nothing out there like this (Black Country Communion's album), it's such a big album sound-wise.  And as I've said, this album was made in hours, man - I sang the vocals in a matter of 10-12 hours, and there's no rhythm guitar, Joe's playing one guitar and there may be one or two overdubs, and that's it.  Live solos, live Hammond, and maybe a few overdubs - that's really it."

In listening to the record, I was repeatedly impressed with Glenn and Joe's vocals, which sound like the result of months of work, but are actually a product of less than twenty-four hours of recording. Glenn had this to say about working with Bonamassa and super-producer Kevin Shirley.

"When I got 'round to doing the vocals with Kevin, just with Kevin and I, well normally I don't really like having people around when I'm singing -  but people seem to always want to come and watch me sing.  The beauty of working with Kevin is that it was just me and him - no second engineers, nothing, and we got on a roll.  We did five the first day, four the next, and then I went back to England, came back and finished it up. First take, second take maybe, but never really a third.

"I'm getting a feeling of how Joe Bonamassa makes records, I sort of understand it now.  It's like Joe goes in with Kevin, and it's like they get together, get the guy from New York - the guy from Letterman (drummer Anton Fig), Carmine, and Rick, and they just go sorta live; and Joe records live, and he solos live, and I'm goin'....OK.  I didn't realize this.  We're cutting live, are we?  I'm really playing on this album, there are no fixes on the bass.  Just exactly live, and I'm going....'You know something? I like this!' I haven't done this for 25 years!"

I asked Glenn how the band went about learning the songs, as they developed the tunes live without benefit of rehearsals.  His reply. "Joe's really great, because we played guitar together.  The first time I had to play guitar in front of him was when I showed the band One Last Soul.  I came in - the first production meeting with almost no time.  Sitting in front of Joe, and I didn't know Joe too much, we'd had dinner a few times.  So I'm sitting in front of Joe and I have to play Joe Bonamassa my new songs - you gotta be twisted.  But we got comfortable.  He looks at me, and says, 'Wait a minute, what's that chord?' He just makes you feel real comfortable.

"This one song, No Time that I had written, it was more, I guess....I had written it as a kind of a lazy drop D thing.  He made it sound Jimmy Page rather than Tony Iommi, which was very interesting.  And he had my song Beggarman, that you'll hear, that I just's the same riff I wrote, but Joe bent the crap out of it, and I just went, oooooooh, that's great!"

I asked Glenn about the sensational title track, Black Country.  The song is an instant classic, the kind of song people will know from now until the end of rock.  

He laughed a bit, then said, "That track....and when you hear that track in it's entirety - and this is difficult to tell you until you hear it -  that's the best rock track I have ever written.  It's a Glenn and Joe track, but it is the best thing I have ever been involved with.  That's our Immigrant Song, that's our Burn, our Highway Star, that's our Start Me Up, it's our, 'Hello. This is a rock band.'

"Tony, we're all super happy, we're all very excited.  This is difficult because you two haven't heard it (I was assisted in this interview by Libby Sokolowski), but you've gotta get it tonight if possible, contact Rachael now and see if you can still get it this evening. You've gotta hear this to get what I'm saying."

Glenn's final thoughts. "It's awesome.  There are certain things in life that are givens.  I was telling Joe.  I told Joe Bonamassa, I said, 'Joe, let me tell ya, buddy - this is a sure fucking thing.  Trust me when I tell you this - you're young.  This is a sure thing."

He wasn't lying.

Black Country Communion coming September 21, 2010.

tony conley and libby sokolowski

a note on photos: Given the paucity of available images, I pulled these photos from Google Images. I know several are the work of the legendary Robert Knight, and several are from Libby Sokolowski. If any others remain uncredited or if anyone would wish their photos not be used, I will gladly comply with all wishes.  Thanks, tony conley.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Black Country Communion - Debut Album Review


                                           "I am a messenger,
                                            this is my prophecy....
                                            I'm going back,
                                            to the Black Country."

That's where it all begins, following the most memorable intro to a rock and roll song that I've heard in way too long.  It's the intro to Black Country, the lead track of the debut record by Black Country Communion, the super-group comprised of Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Jason Bonham, and Derek Sherinian.  Hughes's amazing bass line kicks off the tune like a clarion call to arms for rock and roll, and he's quickly joined by Bonham doing some nifty cymbal work before Joe Bonamassa fires off one of the coolest riffs ever to grace a rock record.

Let's get one thing straight.  If you want to hear comparisons to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Free and The Who (and I'm not saying they wouldn't be favorable), you're gonna have to go elsewhere.  What I will say is that this record is the best debut disc I've heard by a new rock band in the last twenty years.  To waste our time trying to find comfortable reference points is to sell everything short - this project stands on its own and neither wants nor requires aid to describe the brilliance it contains.  Regardless of the context in which you place it, it delivers the goods.

I first heard the record described by Glenn Hughes back in February, shortly after I had written an optimistic blog stating that this combination of players could produce the sleeper record of 2010.  Glenn initially spoke with a confidence and pride that had me reeling backwards, hopeful, but wondering if it really could be as good as he described.  Subsequent to that initial interview, I began hearing comments from various sources who had heard material at producer Kevin Shirley's studio, or on the Bonamassa tour bus, and their comments were as powerful as Glenn's.  Bonamassa bassist Carmine Rojas raved when we spoke in early May, after having just heard the final mixes, and Red Hot Chili Pepper and sometime Hughes confrere Chad Smith also waxed enthusiastically of the album's excellence.

Black Country continues with Hughes belting out a veritable mission statement when Joe Bonamassa unleashes a furious wah infused solo that invokes much that we have nearly forgotten to expect from a rock record.  I found myself laughing out loud at the power and beauty of it all.  I hadn't gotten a goosebump from a new song in too long, had all but given up on the probability, yet there they were.  Instantly Bonamassa assumes the title of rock guitar god - the world will have yet another accolade to heap upon the young guitar wizard when the record is released on September 21.

Coming out of the solo section, Hughes sings the chorus a cappella with Bonamassa answering each line with a scorching retort that compares with the greatest call and response moments in rock and blues history before Sherinian takes the reins and leads the band out of one of the most memorable introductions I've ever heard.

It's clear that the Black Country signifies to Hughes his early rock roots; this is firmly entrenched in the earthy depths of the soulful sounds he had described to me back in February, when he passionately described the kinship he felt for his homeland roots, where he had grown up with Jason's father, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (a huge fan of Hughes's early 70s band Trapeze), and how vitally important it was to have Jason in this group.

If there were still singles, at least in the form that most of us recall from the halcyon days of big budgets and vinyl jukeboxes, One Last Soul may have been the record's first 45 rpm.  Most readers are already familiar with this track from the YouTube videos that appeared when the band made their live debut at a Bonamassa show in Southern California a few months back, but for those who aren't, this is a powerful piece of classic hard rock that sounds at once familiar and yet brand new.  It struts with a confidence that recalls the days when men in rock bands didn't look at their shoes, tuned their guitars, and looked like stars.  This is a song made by men who travel in jets and drive fast cars, and don't mind who knows it.

Joe Bonamassa is well known by his fans for his melodic slow blues numbers, and The Great Divide kicks off with a sexy, sultry single string attack that soon gives way to some very sophisticated music making from the entire band that belies the speed with which this record was made.  Hughes tells this tune's tale with great ethos and passion.  While many speak of Glenn's vocal abilities in terms of powerful histrionics, his subtlety, range and superb phrasing is the real story here.  He sings of the beauty of the great divide, and I can't begin to doubt it.  The man sells the song spectacularly.  This is why many call him The Voice of Rock.

Bonamassa's guitar solo on The Great Divide starts as a slow builder with a reprise of the tune's intro before he bursts into a conversational confession of silky sweet melody.  Jason Bonham is brilliant here, as he is across the whole album - he's finally made a record in which he drives the band and fully displays his awesome skills.  His playing is his and his alone, with no mention or reminders of his vaunted past being necessary.   

Next up is Down Again, which swaggers wonderfully as Hughes sings a classic tale of the need to keep rocking and rolling along.  The chorus has a wonderful reprise with great harmonies singing, "I'm Down Again," as Hughes assures us that, "It's not all over," and indeed it's not, as Joe Bonamassa rips off yet another sizzling hot solo before Bonham and Sherinian bring the band beautifully back into a repeat of the chorus.  This is yet another tune that sounds like it could have been months in the making instead of a few short days.

Beggarman has Bonamassa working his wah pedal hard on the intro to this sophisticated piece of rock writing that mixes elements of rock guitar god maneuvers, sleek funk and gritty rock.  This is a very modern take on a very classic sound.  It puts me in mind of much great rock history, yet sounds very new and exciting.  The guitarist performs a blinder of a straight ahead rock and roll solo filled with acrobatic pentatonics and cascading crescendos bringing to mind Steve Vai's best work.  Smooth as silk but still edgy and thrilling.

Singing a lead vocal on an album that features the vocal talents of Glenn Hughes is a task that not many people would attempt, and I will admit wondering how Joe Bonamassa would fare singing side by side on a record with one of rock's greatest voices.  His vocals have improved with every new release, but this was a whole different venue, singing big rock beside the legendary pipes of Mr. Hughes.  The Bonamassa penned ballad Song of Yesterday shows the pupil holding his own very capably, and when Hughes does join in, it only adds to the beauty of this soulful number.  Derek Sherinian, a keyboardist of amazing technical skills, displays his awesome ability to melodically enhance a vocal performance, with some tremendously empathetic work that supports Bonamassa's singing before Joe takes the tune to rock riff city and Hughes joins in on the vocals.  While this song would not sound out of place on a Bonamassa solo record, Hughes, Sherinian, and Bonham's assistance render something brand new out of an already successful formula.  Bonham and Hughes push Bonamassa's solo to higher and higher ground - you can hear them listening to one another very closely, and Sherinian keeps showing up in the perfect place, playing the perfect part.

Jason Bonham kicks off No Time, which features another great Hughes vocal performance, enhanced by a powerful unison riff played by the guitarist and bassist which somewhat puts me in mind of the vastly underrated King's X.  This is a tune that shouts out that it wants to be played loud and live.  It rocks along very solidly until Sherinian throws the band into a moment that I can only call a Zeppelin-esque raga that leads the band into a vaguely flamenco sounding refrain with Bonham supplying a perfect snare drum recital before a thunderous fill that takes the band back into another passionate Hughes chorus.  The hooks on this record are huge and frequent.  Expect to hear yourself humming and singing along almost immediately.  Isn't this fun?  A review of a record that is not only wildly enthusiastic, but also completely accurate?  I'm having a blast writing this.

Medusa.  This song is nearly as legendary as its namesake, and once again, I had a bit of trepidation in my head and heart when I heard that it would be included on this album.  Too many times, classic rock acts have re-recorded old standards and almost always disappointingly.  One more time, my fears have been obliterated as Joe Bonamassa takes ownership with a great tremolo'd intro, Gilmouresque slide fills, and a sledgehammer heavy riff-o-rama.  Glenn Hughes sings this track as if he knows it is finally going to get the listen it has always deserved.  Bonamassa and Hughes sound as if they have been playing together for a great many years, not a few precious hours.  Another example of a great band of musicians who are expert not just at their instruments but also at listening and sensitively supporting one another.

Nine tracks in, and no slow down in sight.  I can't remember the last time this happened.  It's been many seasons since a record held me hostage for nine songs straight.  How glorious.

In fact, The Revolution in Me, another Bonamassa lead vocal, had me riveted as Joe sang and played as if his very existence were dependent upon his performance.  This is simply great hard rock - heavy as a hammer and with great support from Derek Sherinian's Hammond B-3 organ, and Jason Bonham's awesome display of tub pummeling.  Midway through, Sherinian switches to an electric piano sound that evokes the Michael Schenker era UFO, and Bonamassa reacts with a very Teutonic bit of melodic soloing that will have fans of heavy rock smiling wildly and thrusting fists to the heavens in staunch admiration.  From beginning to end, Bonamassa is stretching into new horizons and doing so with grace, power, and beauty.

On Stand (At the Burning Tree), Hughes again takes the microphone on the track that most closely resembles his funk informed solo work.  Echoes of very European sounding riffage by Bonamassa conjures the rock ghost of a certain side-burned, black wearing six stringer, and the shadow is a pleasant shade of purple.  Very gypsy, but this gypsy is sophisticated, and Hughes knocks at the doors of Stevie Wonder and other smooth, soulful vocalists before slipping back into a powerfully rocking chorus.  More brilliance that is made even more so when one realizes that this was recorded almost on the fly, in a matter of days as opposed to months.  While Hughes great vocal chops get the lion's share of attention, his songwriting and bass playing are both stunning throughout this entire album.

Containing rock and roll that brings to mind Australia's Young brothers and sleek sophistry, Sista Jane switches gears seamlessly as Hughes and Bonamassa trade lines back and forth before returning to the straight ahead rock of the chorus, yet another great hook.  I've never heard Joe Bonamassa sing quite this well.  Obviously singing next to Glenn Hughes has elevated his game, and he's again proven his mettle, and defied any lingering doubts that could exist concerning his vocal skills.

While I have attempted to avoid direct comparisons, discussion of the end of Sista Jane must speak of The Who.  The band pay loving homage to the glory days of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, as Bonham and Hughes throw down rhythms that serve as reminders of exactly what it means for a bassist and drummer to be called a rhythm section, and finally Sherinian brings the message home with a loving dose of Who's Next keyboarding.

The record ends with an epic jam entitled, Too Late for the Sun.  Clocking in at eleven and a half minutes, Hughes and Bonamassa sound like 21st century outlaws in an arid showdown at the OK corral.  Two soul cowboys; a modern day, rock and roll Butch and Sundance.  This track is one that would become larger than life when played on stage.  Sherinian shines very brightly on this song - his B-3 cuts through the mix like a knife and allows Bonamassa the luxury of getting a bit atmospheric and experimental, whilst Hughes and Bonham joust with understated brilliance.

So there it is, I've said it.  The best debut by a new rock band in several decades.  The rumors have proven to be sometimes true, sometimes false.  Yes, the band is astounding and the record got not just made, but made startlingly well.  Talk of dissension and tension?  Well, that's essential for great rock and roll, isn't it?

I must thank everyone involved in this project, and for this first glance/listen: Joe Bonamassa, Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham, Derek Sherinian, and producer Kevin Shirley (who I didn't speak of nearly enough in this review), for creating such an amazing piece of music; Roy Weisman and Carl Swann for their cooperation and granted access, as well as Roy's fantastic enthusiasm for Black Country Communion; and Rachel Iverson at J&R, and Erin Podbereski of Jensen Communications for their help.

Very special thanks to Libby Sokolowski, who has graciously assisted me in so many ways, and finally to Glenn Hughes, who has been so wonderfully helpful and generously given me hours of his time and attention.

tony conley

June 11, 2010

All Photos by Libby Sokolowski     

Monday, May 10, 2010

Campbell American Guitars: Dreams to Behold (and be held)

"This is a guitar you do not want to put down. It has the feel of not so much an expensive sports car as that of a flying saucer. It almost plays itself. Honestly, I can’t remember being this taken by a first play since the first time I played a really right Les Paul through a 100 watt Marshall. But this is a completely different trip. The Transitone is cool, calm, and collected, as subtle as it is beautiful."  That's me speaking on the Campbell Nelsonic Transitone.

Kind of odd that I choose to start an interview with perhaps America's finest custom guitar builder with a quote from my own mouth, but if the shoe fits....

I wrote that little blurb in a review back in 2007, long before Dean Campbell, Bill Nelson, and artist Nicholas DelDrago had conceived the Campbell Spaceship Transitone that is currently on display at the always excellent Premier Guitar website (url below). 

While there is no question that the guitar is the eye-grabber of the year, the true joy lies under the hood.  Dean Campbell not only has a wonderfully artistic eye for design, he also builds some of the best playing and sounding electric guitars and basses you can imagine.  But the process doesn't stop at Dean's design desk, with how the guitar looks, that's only the beginning.

Dean on the design process, "Every design differs, some come quite quickly, others are flung around the shop for years. Once we are ready to take the design further than sketches, we move everything onto a cad drawing and set the dimensions. Then we will cut it out of rough materials and check it. If it makes it that far, we will then build a working prototype. Everyone at the shop will evaluate the piece and if it warrants, and we want further input, we speak with some of our endorsees and dealers."

The process also includes the most valued opinion, that of the end user, as Campbell explains, using the example of the Nelsonic Transitone, the signature model built for Bill Nelson, the iconic british musical visionary best known for his work with Be Bop Deluxe, but who has consistantly created vibrant original music for over 40 years and continues to do so.

"I showed Bill various CAD drawings and sketches that I had done years ago on many different guitars including several variations of the guitar that was to be eventually called the Transitone (we had done over a dozen, including the shape that was eventually selected) and we discussed building a signature model. Bill came up with the color scheme and that large pickguard that graces the front of the instrument. Bill requested a tremolo and two humbuckers with a particular control arrangement. Once we had this information, we selected the Gotoh Tremolo and Humbuckers and after searching for weeks, we were able to source those NOS “cooker” knobs. We built a prototype, and after Bill had played it for a while, he asked for a different color red, added a second pickguard and an arm contour, once we had that, we were done and went into production."

Bill Nelson talks about Campbell Guitars, "I actually own two Campbell Precix apple greenburst one and a blueburst one fitted with a vibrato arm. I've used both guitars on various tracks that I've recorded in my home studio. I actually had these guitars before I got the Nelsonic Transitone so they feature on albums prior to the albums credited with the Nelsonic guitar. But it was the Precix that first brought my attention to the Campbell American company and the excellent guitars they make. I still use the Precix models on recordings and have actually used the blueburst one live at a couple of Nelsonica concerts in the past."

Nelson continues, "One of the good things about Campbell American guitars is that they are within the reach of working players and not just overpriced exotic toys for rich lawyers to collect and stash in their bank vaults. A Dean Campbell 'Precix' guitar sits in my lap as I type these words." 

I first played the Transitone and several other Campbell models at Swamp Dogs Music in Columbus, Ohio, and in thirty some odd years of playing guitars, I have never been more impressed with an builder's wares more instantly.  The guitars in the Campbell line are simple and elegant, yet once you get one in your hands you find that they unfold into subtle layers of expanding brilliance.  The interaction of ideas between design, builders, and end users becomes abundantly obvious.  Comfortable, ergonomic, and handsome, yes, but these instruments sound even better than they look and feel.  Campbell uses the finest materials and parts, generally offering choices on pickups and hardware from Gotoh, and pickup makers Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Lollar or TV Jones.  In fact a great many of Campbell's creations are one of a kind.

Unlikely though it would seem, Campbell Guitars are flying out of Gruhn's Guitars in Nashville.  The legendary vintage store has a huge Campbell fan in ace salesman Billy Jackson, a longtime and well respected guitarman in Nashville, a town that is notably known for all things guitar.  Billy doesn't just sell Campbells, he plays them, owning three variations of the Transitone.

Billy Jackson, "My lake placid blue Transitone has a basswood body, rosewood fingerboard, maple neck, string thru body with a 3 way toggle, and the pickups are Seymour Duncan 59s, with a coil tap in the tone  control.  My shell pink model has a mahogany body with and ebony board on a maple neck, a Gotoh strat style bridge, Dimarzio Air Norton pickups with dual coil taps, and Sperzel locking tuners. Finally, the gold metallic Transitone is basswood bodied, rosewood maple, and Duncan 59s again with an 18 switch passive tone control."

Jackson has this to say about Campbell Guitars, "I think very highly of Dean Campbell, his crew, and their great guitars. They make an honest guitar that plays and feels great, and the tones are nice, especialli since you can customize each guitar to your liking. I call Dean, and I generally have a perfect custom instrument in about two weeks.  My clients range from doctors and lawyers to some of the hottest players in town, and I sell Campbells to them all!"

Dean Campbell, "We have most definitely become more of a custom builder. At this point I’d say that 75% of our current output are custom pieces, even the dealers place special orders for their stock pieces,"  and Campbell  adds, "The fit between the dealer and our company is extremely important. We are looking for dealer’s whose business philosophy matches ours. We prefer to work with someone who isn’t trying to compete with the larger business models that exist, and who has an eye for and desire to sell quality instruments."

Dean Campbell's relationships with his artist endorsees speaks of collaboration and appreciation for the artist, a welcome respite from a scene in which generally an act's ticket sales are more influential than any valid input the player may have concerning design or function.  One such artist that Dean has collaborated with is David "The Fuze" Fiuczynski.  Iconoclastic and prolific, a jazz player who“doesn’t want to play just jazz”, The Fuse has been hailed by the world press as an incredibly inventive guitar hero, who continues to deliver with music that is unclassifiable, challenging and invigorating. An innovative musician who has released nine CD’s and a double live DVD, Fuze is best known as the leader of the Screaming Headless Torsos.

Campbell continues, "Ah yes, Fuze. As David teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and plays out at different venues around the city, we were bound to run into each other eventually. If I recall correctly, I was introduced to David at the Lizard Lounge one night. He was playing a gig there with another wonderful guitarist, Dave Tronzo. We started talking about, of all things, guitars, and David invited me over to Berklee. We have built several guitars for David, the most unusual instrument was a double neck where the lower neck was a standard 25 1/2 scale and the upper neck was fretless and a 21’’ scale. David has a signature model called the FuZix and he owns a Precix or two and a UK-1."

Dean Campbell, you'll find, is as elegant and understated in speech as his instruments are in their manifestations.  The Campbell FuZix is a startlingly beautiful design the seems to marry the art museum to the liftoff pad.  Available in no less than eight different tone woods, and with a huge variety of build options, the FuZix is a signature axe that becomes the signature guitar of the end user, once again.  The body shape is familiar but elaborated on and informed by a post modern twist.  The headstock is a work of art on its own, in a world in which builders have seemingly thrown in the towel and settle for a slight variation on the too familiar.

The Fuze on the FuZix, "It's supposed to do more than one thing. on the outside it basically looks like a strat, but it's warm, i actually want to be able to do a jazz gig with it, at the same time, I'd like to be able to crank, rock out, do weird whammy stuff and more. my main contribution is the longer horn. For me the instrument balances better that way.  I love the straight string pull headstock shape that Dean came up with. It allows me to use the whammy without a locking nut, but it still has a vintage look."

So, I'm far from alone in my reverence of the work of Dean Campbell.  Campbell American Guitars are being described by the music press as such:

PREMIER GUITAR MAGAZINE: “This is the second Campbell American model that I have reviewed, and like the previous one, this one manages to magically feel and sound like an old guitar. This is the main thing that breaks the company out of the custom builder crowd; somehow Campbell has figured out a way to make a new guitar have the broken-in feel, and aged sound of a 30 or 40-year-old vintage instrument. Call it voodoo or call it – as he does – “New England craftsmanship,” from the minute I picked up this guitar and plugged it into my Orange Tiny Terror head, it felt like an old friend.”

GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE: "Guitarists who are willing to spend upwards of $2,000 or more on an instrument can choose from a vast playground of excellent boutique, production, and custom models. The Campbells are pricey guitars, but they represent an appropriate measure of care and pride, and the level of quality is commensurate with other models in their price ranges. Perhaps the greatest appeal of the Campbell clan is that each model is so damn fun to play. Their gentle, satin-finished C-profile necks promote oodles of gleeful fretboard gymnastics—a trait confirmed by the smiles of every GP editor who picked one up."

I generally like to write my own copy, but these are two of the best guitar publications in existence, and they say it as well as I ever could, and it shows that I'm not nearly alone in thinking that Dean Campbell may be the best guitar builder on the planet, and one who has slowly built  his company one guitar at a time, out of the spotlight but in the hands of some of the world's most innovative players.

Campbell says, "I feel great about that! It shows that there are plenty of musicians out there that have found our instruments to be the correct tools for the creation of their music. Some time in mid 1999 I had walked into a local guitar shop in an affluent suburb of Boston and realized that there wasn't one American made instrument for sale in the entire store. The over all quality of those imports was deplorable, I wasn't very happy about that and the wheels started turning. It gave me the motivation to start something that I had wanted to do for a very long time."

Sailing through these economic tough times hasn't always been easy.  I asked Dean about this and he replied with a typically colonial, New England answer, filled with a humble nature and good reason:

"Badly? Just kidding, anyone in this business who maintains that things have been ok is either insane or lying. I have had to make some painful decisions over the last two years.  We are much leaner and efficient. We have increased the length of our lead-time and are far more prudent when it comes to ordering materials."  Campbell continues, "As builders of musical instruments, we are always open to new business partnerships!"

Dean Campbell's guitars speak for themselves.  Everyone who plays one walks away thinking they've just been in an amazing spaceship that just happens to feel as home as anything cooked up in an American kitchen circa 1959.

The full line of Campbell models address any concept or need that a guitarist could ask for, from the ultra elegant  Caledonian, the rootsy Precix, the space age Transitones, the UK-1 (which comes as Campbell casually mentions, "We offer that model in several different configurations, chambered with sound holes, chambered without sound holes, a solid body, and a slab version." is that all, Dean?), to the exciting new Terrasonic.  Within any basic body shape/style you can design the hardware configuration as you would like.  A fabulous, "you can have your cake and eat it too," guitar dream scenario.

Cambell's user list is growing quickly, and with astounding range, from players such as The Fuze and Danish glam metal maven Dennis Post of Starrat, whose take on Campbell guitars is a bit more brash than the erudite Nelson, or the scholarly Fiuczynski. "If you want a powerful axe that stands out, just get any Precix or Transitone model, and I guarantee you heavy metal madness! Campbell builds them from the ground up, so you decide the wood, hardware, and pickups you want.  This is class A custom shit at a price you can actually afford without having to sell drugs at the local kindergarden, hahahaha....."

Post adds, "Dean hooked me up with a Kahler tremolo, Gotoh bridge, Sperzel tuners, a Seymour Duncan Distortion pickup in the bridge, and that is all I wanted; simple and highly effective! It took me about two minutes on the phone to get all the specs down pat...."

Dean makes it all seem effortless and easy, but I'm guessing that it's not really that easy at all, otherwise there would be more guitars out there as interesting, versatile, and innovative as what he's cooking up in New England.  But there's not.

Campbell says, finally, "The concept behind Campbell American Guitars is simple: build guitars here in America - using old New England craftsmanship; utilize sensible designs and top shelf components; and always retain a commitment to quality, integrity, and ingenuity.  We believe the results and philosophy speak for themselves."

If you've not had the pleasure of playing a Campbell American Guitar, I highly recommend that you remedy that, you deserve it.  You'll be as amazed as I have been at the look, feel, and playability of these great guitars.  Dean is doing fantastic work, and as always I appreciate his efforts, unfailing kindness and consideration. 

Thanks to Dean for taking the time from the brutality of tax preparation to supply so many insightful answers, and to the magazines whose words I've quoted, and to Swamp Dog Music in Columbus.

All quotes are from new interviews with the exception of Bill Nelson, whose comments originated on his Dreamsville Forum @

Here's a few links for more info....

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Graham Bonnet : Every Guitarist's Dream

Graham Bonnet has long been the singer of choice for the cream of the crop of hard rock guitarists.  First Ritchie Blackmore pegged him to replace Ronnie James Dio in Rainbow, then Michael Schenker gave him the nod.  Soon afterwards, Bonnet started his own band, Alcatrazz and recorded three stunningly good records with three separate guitarists.  Alcatrazz first featured whizz kid Yngwie Malmsteen, then introduced Steve Vai to the world of hard rock, and rounded out their run with Danny Johnson, another extremely talented six stringer.

Bonnet also featured on albums by Impelliteri, Japan's Anthem, Bruce Kulick's Blackthorne, and of late, lesser know acts Taz Taylor, Electric Zoo, and Savage Paradise, amongst others.  When a hot guitarist needs a singer, Bonnet is often the man on the receiving end of the phone call.

Graham first came to my attention when I went to see Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, and expecting to see the diminutive, long haired Ronnie James Dio, I was instead greeted by a James Dean look alike who could not have been further from the Elf.  It soon became apparent that this was another band completely, and actually one that I preferred.  Still in place were Blackmore and Powell, but they were now joined by old Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover, keyboardist extraordinaire Don Airey, and this guy who looks like a rebel without a cause, but has incredible vocal talents that became immediately apparent as he blew through the Dio-era material with no problem aside from an occasional apparent smirk at the previous singer's proclivity for  semi-mystical imagery.  I love Dio, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't imagine singing those words, could you?

On Rainbow's newer material, Bonnet showed exactly what he was made of, and it blew me away.   He certainly had the power and range of a Dio, but he also had the most incredibly controlled vibrato and a much more highly developed melodic sense, as evidenced on Down to Earth's (the band's 1979 album featuring Bonnet), Eyes of the World.   Down to Earth presented a sharp right turn from their previous records, returning Blackmore to an earthier bluesy sound, and a more song driven approach.  The album's first single,  Since You Been Gone is still a staple of classic rock radio, and remains maybe the best example of Bonnet's talents.  The Russ Ballard written tune sounds as if it were written with Bonnet's huge range and power in mind.  The tune is simple enough on the surface, but try singing it in the shower and you instantly become aware that this is a vocal tour de force.  Bonnet brings to the song great inflection and dynamic range, going from a near conversational beginning to a more emphatic note on the pre-chorus, then exploding with emotion and power for the song's memorable refrain.  This is probably one of the most accomplished vocal performances you will ever hear on rock radio, and Bonnet pulls it off with a style that sells the song without sounding like he was trying to sing just for effect.  It sounds like a very real plea.

Throughout the whole of Down to Earth, Bonnet's performance is pretty amazing.  His bluesy wailing on Makin' Love and Love's No Friend are as strong as anything Blackmore had done with David Coverdale in Deep Purple Mk III.  In fact, Love's No Friend is as good a bombastic blues as I've ever heard, with Graham hitting notes that most singers can only dream of hitting, and his singing at the end of the chorus going into Blackmore's solo is a masterpiece of control, note length and inflection.  I've often played this to many people as a demonstration of sheer vocal artistry and it is an incredible example of the man's talent.

After leaving Rainbow, Bonnet released Line Up, an album that netted several singles which made the charts in England, but made little headway in America.  The Bonnet concert staple Night Games made it to #6 on the BBC charts and another Russ Ballard penned number, Liar ( a huge hit in America for Three Dog Night) also made a showing.  Line up featured Deep Purple family members Jon Lord, and Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell, who soon recommended Bonnet for the singing position in the Michael Schenker Group shortly thereafter.

Graham joined the Michael Schenker Group in 1982, replacing vocalist Gary Barden, and the band proceeded to make what serious listeners still consider to be one of the true classics of hard rock/heavy metal, Assault Attack.  Produced by Martin Birch, the record displays Schenker's huge talents superbly and never before had Schenker worked with a musician of equal technical prowess, and the fireworks are fantastic as Schenker and Bonnet take turns giving lessons in hard rock  history.  The Desert Song is a great example of the marrying of these two musicians skill and is a breathtaking performance.  Especially notable is Bonnet's ability to harmonize with himself on these tracks, weaving intricate layers throughout the album.  Birch and Bonnet often recorded several layers of vocals and the effect is superb. The vocal talents required to do this are astounding, mixing power, range and timbre into an intricate cloth of melody.

Managerial greed rose it's ugly head and forced the band on to the road without proper rehearsal time, and unfortunately this version of MSG never got a chance to tour or record again, and this was a huge disappointment to the hard rock audience.  Stories of this incident have circulated for a great many years and once again, but suffice to say that it would appear that the business killed the band, that same old song and dance.

In 1983 Bonnet moved to Los Angeles, and it was there that he formed Alcatrazz, a band built around his vocals and the rhythm section from the band New England, who had previously scored big in America with the hit Don't Ever Wanna Lose Ya.  Formed in Bonnet's garage, the band discovered a young Swedish guitarist, Yngwie Malmsteen, a protege of metal guitar guru Mike Varney, who had brought the young Swede to America and produced his first record with LA band Keel.

The result became No Parole From Rock and Roll, yet another classic album of the era.  This is one of the albums most responsible for the birth of what became known as the shred guitar movement.  The influence of this record was immense.  Filled with great guitars, excellent songs, and Bonnet's amazing singing, it's as listenable today as it was in 1983.  Bonnet's lyric writing became filled with imagery of foreign lands, mysterious worlds, distant childhood memories, and created superb tales based around Malmsteen's guitar histrionics.  This was a creative pinnacle for both artists and remains a testament to their incredible skills.  Graham's singing throughout the album is a virtuosic masterpiece.  He does fantastic things on literally every track, and every aspiring rock vocalist would do well to spend dome time studying it.

Malmsteen left the band shortly thereafter to set out on a solo career, but never again made an album of such consistant quality.

Next up for Bonnet and Alcatrazz came Frank Zappa's stunt guitarist, the incredible Steve Vai.  Once again, Bonnet proceeds to assist a great guitarist in making the best record of his career.  Disturbing the Peace continued Bonnet's path of the lyrical nomad, with such tunes as Desert Diamond and the indian influenced Mercy.  This matched up perfectly with Vai's highly developed sense of melody and mysticism, and gives the album a great feeling of being a soundtrack to a global trek, featuring Bonnet and Vai as tour guides.

Once again the market stepped in and killed a golden goose of art for a golden goose of commerce, and Vai left Alcatrazz to join David Lee Roth in his first solo outing.  While I can't blame Vai for increasing his salary tremendously, I can mourn the loss of another great Graham Bonnet fronted band.

From there Alcatrazz reconvened, once searching for a new guitarist and coming across seasoned veteran Danny Johnson, who after being discovered by Rick Derringer and spending several years in Rick's band (doing great work incidentally - a smoking band, they were), had played with Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper and many others.  While not the sheer shredder of Vai or Malmsteen's ilk, Danny brought to the band a tasteful approach that emphasized song-craft over pure musicianship, though he certainly had the chops to fill their shred shoes, which he proved while touring with the band.

By now the band had landed on Capitol records doorstep, and the label demanded a more hit single type approach.  Bringing in veteran producer Richie Podolor (Three Dog Night),  the band produced Dangerous Games, a great record, but one that left fans confused over which Alcatrazz they were getting this year, after the two previous lineups.

Another great album of amazing vocals remains largely unheard, and that's a shame as Bonnet consistantly put out world class records to n indifferent marketplace.  Whether it's bad luck, timing or whatever hardly matters.  The fact is that Graham Bonnet put out great record after great record of some of the best rock vocalizing that's ever made it onto tape.

While he may not have had the impact of a Dio or a Halford in terms of record sales, listening proves that Graham Bonnet is as talented a singer as ever walked into a recording studio.  If you've not heard the Alcatrazz records, do yourself a favor and search them out.  You will be glad you did.

Peace, love, loud guitars, and great vocals!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cracker's John Hickman: "Hell yes, it's all I ever want to do"

One day last week I saw an amazing video of John Hickman singing Another Song About the Rain, accompanied by David Lowery from their Cracker Duo tour last fall.  Then I see a notice that Cracker is playing here in Dayton on May 15th.  Next thing I know I'm on the line with Cracker's PR folks and setting up an interview with John.  World's funny like that, and you have to pay close attention and go where it takes you.

John Hickman has been the lead guitarist and for Cracker for about twenty years now, and his partnership with David Lowery has been amazingly fruitful.  In a time of cancelled tours and disappointing records sales, Cracker is doing big business, selling out shows and moving units in an impressive fashion.  Their latest long player, Sunrise In The Land of Milk and Honey is yet another fine record and it sounds as fresh as their debut Cracker Brand back in 1992.  Lowery's songwriting is always as fine as you'll find, and in addition to being a fine writer himself, Hickman is as fine a right-hand man as there is in the business.  His tasteful playing is as big a part of Cracker as Lowery's distinctive twang, and places him in the same league as Richards and Ronson as brilliant sidemen.  In addition, Hickman released his solo album Palmhenge a few years back with excellent results and reviews.

Normally, I like to write a feature around an interview, but John Hickman's words are such that I thought a verbatim transcript would best serve.  A little less of me, a little more Cracker Soul.

John, my Facebook page lit up like crazy when news of a local Cracker show came across. With a tanked economy and in the throes of record-store deaths, how’s the road treating you?

JH: Surprisingly well I'm happy to say. The new Cracker CD "Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey" is still doing well after nearly a year and the shows have been selling out consistently both with the full band and with the David and Johnny duo shows. Cracker just competed a sold out tour of Spain which is like a second home to us now. It's sad to see the record stores going under one by one. We sell most of our CDs online or at shows now.

I saw David Lowery and yourself on youtube in Sebastopol, CA – “Another Song About the Rain” - one of the best “rain” songs ever written, right alongside Fogerty and Lennon’s.

JH: You're putting me in some heavy company. Thank you very much.

How much fun is it to sing and solo in a live setting over a really solid acoustic guitar underpinning? Lowery is really a solid rhythm player, no?

JH: It's a sheer pleasure. Yes, in addition to being a great songwriter David is a highly underrated guitarist. He spent four years in Spain as a kid and I think it got into his blood. He can finger pick very well and the next moment be beating hell out his guitar like some Flamenco demon. For the duo shows we run his classical guitar through sub woofers and it sounds like a kick drum. We mesh very well together as a live duo. We know intuitively how to follow one another and so it frees us both to take chances and be adventurous on stage. We never use a set list so it's always fresh and unpredictable. It's a little different every night. We love that and so do the fans.

"Another Song About the Rain" How did you come to write this song? Song-craft, autobiography, or perhaps a bit of both?

JH: I wrote the core of it alone in a cabin where I lived in the San Bernardino Mountains of California where I lived. I also wrote "Father Winter" up there which came out on my solo album "Palmhenge" years later. The original version of "Another Song About The Rain" was very long. I was listening to a lot of "Blood On The Tracks" era Bob Dylan when I wrote it and later my other co-writer and longtime friend Chris LeRoy edited the verses down, simplified it and shaped it into what you hear. Obviously it was a bad time in my life but that's where some of the best music comes from. It's the classic double edged sword. There is the cathartic purging of pain but yet you sort of give it eternal life if you write a song about it.

What was David Lowery’s reaction when he first heard it? Had you done a lot of writing prior to this?

JH: We were nearly finished with the first album when I brought it in. We had already written some pretty great songs together at this point so I think David was pretty open. If he didn't like it I would have tossed it aside immediately. I mean, we're talking about David Lowery, one of the best songwriters out there in my opinion. He and our producer Don Smith heard my demo and said "Let's record it". It was the last song to go on the record. Listening to the album version now I wished I had had time to do it better but that's often the case. It is what it is. I think David and I play it much better now.

How was the Cracker/Camper tour? Any competition issues between the bands?

JH: Sure, I'd be full of shit if I said there wasn't a little healthy competition between the two bands but we have also been brothers and friends, all of us for a very long time. Over the years we have had a lot of support for each other and share two band members. The tour was very successful. Most shows sold out pretty quickly.

Your tour blog shows you to be a pretty good and serious writer. Do you journal a lot, and what do you derive from it?

JH: Thanks. I'm pretty outgoing as a person and it's just an extension of that I guess. It just comes naturally for me to comment on whatever riles me up, humors me or outrages me somehow. Also I was tired of reading other writers get things so wrong so often. It's very satisfying when people tell me they were effected by one of my articles or blogs which happens all over the world now with the internet. Another reason I do it is because you have to be a hustler in the music business these days. It's another way to stay connected with our fans. I wish I had more time to devote to it.

I know you’re big fans of analog tape, so how do you approach recording your guitar digitally?

JH: We record everything to tape, move to the digital realm for editing and then bounce it back to analog to warm it back up as they say. When I record guitars I sometimes try people's patience because I set up a huge wall of very different sounding amps, going from one to another and combining them often. It gets loud as hell sometimes but that records well with certain amps. If I'm playing the same thing through two amps simultaneously I try to persuade the engineer or producer to give each amp it's own mic and track even if it bleeds a little. You can be a lot more creative in mixing that way. I learned that trick from the brilliant producer Don Smith who sadly, just passed on while we were in Spain. He used that technique with the Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and others before us. I've read that Jimmy Page did this a lot too.

What do you listen to for enjoyment?

JH: Everything from outlaw country to Middle Eastern music to electronica. I put my ipod on shuffle on the long drives on tour and it runs the gamut from classical to punk rock to Irish ballads. As a musician and songwriter I think it's good to listen to current and ancient music and everything in between. It gets into your blood and challenges your sensibilities. It's good medicine.

What is your favorite band, and your favorite album?

JH: I'd have to narrow it down from 20 or 30 bands and to about 100 albums. Off the top of my head I'd put The Rolling Stones "Beggars Banquet", Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks" The Kinks "Muswell Hillbillies" and "The Harder They Fall" Soundtrack album right up there but I could never pick just one favorite. It changes daily. I'm anxiously awaiting the next Fleet Foxes album. I love Graham Coxon too.

With the demise of traditional record companies and record sales, is there any less recognition of newer material by fans on the road, or are they boned up on new stuff? Any noticeable differences?

JH: It's an every changing playing field with regards to the business side of things but you just have to roll with it. Cracker fans are very devoted to say the least. They have pretty much embraced every album and know that every album is going to shift gears a little. They don't really care whether it's on the radio or not. This new album HAS gotten on the radio and garnered us many more fans I'm happy to report. There are lot of free thinkers in the Cracker fan base. I've met many thousands of them and they all came to the party from different albums over the years, the latest one or the first one. We never have a set list but we try to play something from every album live. Every night is a little different.

Are there any bands or musicians you’d like to play with?

JH: Hell yes. Bob Dylan or The Replacements would be at the top of that list but I love to collaborate, jam, record, play live. It's all I do or ever want to do.

Your Les Paul….How long have you been playing it, how much work did you do or have done to it?

JH: It's a 1977 Standard and I bought it new. I was living on my own at a young age and actually gave blood to make the payments several times in those lean days. I've turned it into a bit of a Frankenstein monster over many years. I use Seymour Duncan Jeff Beck pick ups in it and it has a Kahler locking tremolo system. They don't even make those anymore. It's an odd set up but it works very well for me. It's ain't broke so I ain't fixing it as they say. I've also carved all over it, tattooed it, gouged it out and put a little piece of Muddy Water's birthplace wood in it. I've also attached some polished stones to it.

Your tone is often nearly as pure as a Tele’s. Any pickup height, or pole piece adjustments worth noting?

JH: I played up around Bakersfield for a while just before I got together with David and all the old cowboy players would say "You can't play country on no Gepson...get a FENDA boy!". I just worked at it until I could get those sounds with my hands and picking style on the Paul. I have my bridge pick up raised up pretty high and use fairly heavy strings. I like a lot of deep twang as well as psychedelic noise and overtones and that set up does it for me.

What is the difference in your rigs for the acoustic shows vs. Cracker full band shows?

JH: Actually I play with the same set up for both. David plays an Ibanez nylon string acoustic for the Cracker duo shows and I play with my usual electric set up which is: My Les Paul through a Boss tuner into an MXR Carbon Copy delay pedal into a Boss Blues Driver and then into a Fender Supersonic. I run the Supersonic through a 4x12 Marshall cabinet on bigger stages. I also have a clamp on holder on my mic stand with anywhere from 2 to 5 Lee Oskar harps in it for both duo and full band gigs.

What’s your favorite guitar or road story. The must tell story?

JH: My favorite guitar story is that I was once lucky enough to open a few weeks of shows for ZZ Top when they were at the top of their game in the 80s. I'm a big Billy G fan and would sound check with his licks before I had actually met him. One day I saw that beard poke around the corner and was afraid I'd pissed him off. I was wrong. He came to the dressing room and introduced himself with a grin. "heard ya playin my chops boy" Then he asked in that great Texas accent "Why'd you put a wiggle stick on a Les Paul?" I loved it. He was very cool to me on that tour which amazed the crew because he's kind of mysterious. He let me sit behind the P.A. speakers on stage every night and watched him up close. I'll never forget it.

David Lowery and John are currently on tour as Cracker Duo, and will commence full band touring in May co-headlining shows with The Reverand Horton Heat.  This will be a tour to see, maybe the hottest I've come across this year.

Thanks to John Hickman and the gracious folks at Pavement PR.