Category Archives: Reviews

America – 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits (review)

America – 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits (Rhino)

Celebrating their semi centennial with a solid career overview

For any band, reaching the half-century mark is a monumental achievement.  Years of touring, success, lack of success and friction of inter-personal relationships have caused the end of many a great band over the years.  The fact that America is still a working group, playing shows, year after year, is a testament to the dedication of both Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell to the same ideals that brought them together over 50 years ago.

A new collection, 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits, celebrates the high points of a long career.

The set opens with their first, and most recognizable hit, “A Horse With No Name,” a combination of CSN harmonies and Neil Young-like lead vocals, over a gentle, pulsing acoustic backdrop, that somehow manages to make a statement of the dying ecology; it still jumps out of the speakers, almost five decades later.  

What made America such a juggernaut is that back in their heyday, they had three capable vocalists and songwriters all adding their own elements to the band (Dan Peek was the third original member).  Beckley’s piano ballad “I Need You” was a counterpoint to Bunnell’s ominous “Sandman.”  

Three songs from their second album, Homecoming, show off their versatility.  Peek turned in the countryfied, 12-string jangle of “Don’t Cross the River,” which features some goose-bump-inducing harmonies on the chorus, while Bunnell gave us the iconic, acoustic-flavored “Ventura Highway” (with the crazy “alligator lizards in the air” lyric), while Beckley gives us another, McCartney-esque, “Only in Your Heart.”    

After the somewhat lackluster Hat Trick (I mean, if Captain & Tennille outdo your “Muskrat Love,” you might want to regroup and come up with a better plan, right?).  That plan was to bring in Beatles’ guru/producer George Martin.  This partnership brought immediate dividends in the gentle simplicity of Bunnell’s “Tin Man” and the absolutely gorgeous “Lonely People” (a highlight of Peek’s songwriting talents).  

Beckley gives us another great ballad in “Daisy Jane,” while Peek turns in the reggae-infused “Woman Tonight,” a forgotten track off of the album Hearts.  The real highlight off that album was the smash hit, written by Beckley, “Sister Golden Hair,” one of their finest singles.  

Another lost single, Bunnell’s “Amber Cascades,” was one of the high points of the album Hideaway.  Their final album as a trio, Hideaway, yielded the minor single, “God of the Sun.” After that, Dan Peek left for a solo career, reducing America to a duo.  They returned in 1982 with the Russ Ballard-penned “You Can Do Magic.”  

There’s also a 3-disc version of this collection that delves deep into their catalog.

The strength of 50th Anniversary – Golden Hits is that it’s concise (six less tracks than the somewhat bloated Complete Greatest Hits), but also contains all the highlights of the band’s career (something that the original America’s Greatest Hits does not).  Although there are plenty of great songs throughout America’s vast catalog, 50th Anniversary is a great starting point.  —Tony Peters

The Beatles – Abbey Road (50th Anniversary) (Review)

Beatles – Abbey Road (50th Anniversary Edition Remix) (Apple)

So good…it will make you cry

Abbey Road has always been my favorite Beatles’ album.  It’s the one I remember begging my mom to play again and again on our console stereo system, while I lay in between the large wooden speakers, basking in the glow.  The original album got so much love, it eventually developed skips, which I knew by heart.  

But, as much as I love that album, it always bothered me sonically.

The original version kind of sounded like shit.

While that statement certainly smacks of blasphemy, let’s examine things a little closer.  The original vinyl was mastered at a low volume, meaning all but absolute pristine copies are marred by pops and scratches, which overpower the music.  There’s also tape hiss that even shows up on those original pressings (just replay a vinyl copy of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” for proof).  

Things only got worse when the band’s catalog eventually moved to compact disc.  Not only was all that tape hiss louder, but many of the tracks sounded tinny and brittle.  How did this once-great album come to sound so lifeless?

All of that has been fixed with this glorious new remix by Giles Martin.

As the son of Beatles’ original producer George Martin states in his new liner notes, the goal of this project was to “peel back the layers and be as pure as we can.”  They have done that and more.

Sonically, it is a massive upgrade.  While we were critical of the somewhat heavy-handed approach of The White Album remix, there seemed to be a reverence surrounding this new project.  The result is something that all but the pickiest of Beatles’ fanatics will be thrilled with.  

One of the greatest triumphs is the spine-tingling remix of George Harrison’s “Something.”  His vocals and guitar are warm, the bass – big and fat, and the strings engulf you.  

A side-by-side comparison from the original CD version gives some insight into just how improved these songs really are.  Take, for example, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which on the original album, was full of midrange frequencies and had instruments that were panned hard right and left.  For this new remix, they were able to play Paul’s original piano track through speakers at the original Abbey Road studios, miking the sounds on the edges of the room, giving you the feeling that you are in the room with the band. Ringo’s drums have punch, and everything just sounds more human.  

In this new mix, “Sun King” leaps out of the speakers.  The chirping crickets are everywhere, while Paul’s bass is full, and less distorted, and Ringo’s thumping beat is enormous.  The harmonies in stereo are a nice touch.

What about “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”?  The hiss is gone, and what remains is a testament to just what kind of a blistering band the Beatles could be.  John seems to be working through some of the pains of his eroding band in the gritty vocals.  Not to be outdone, this new remix really shows what a fantastic vocalist Paul was as well on the impassioned “Oh Darling.”  

George’s other masterpiece is “Here Comes the Sun,” and everything, from the acoustic guitar, the strings, even the handclaps, are all upgrades in sound.

That glorious medley of songs that make up the original side two are made even more enjoyable by the new remixes.  Everything seems to build from song to song, cresting with “Carry That Weight,” with the strings and brass really shining through.  The guitar solos on “The End,” by Paul, George and John respectively, are more isolated, giving you a better appreciation for each’s approach to the instrument.  After a lengthy pause, the brief “Her Majesty” brings everything to an abrupt close.

I wouldn’t be a Beatles’ fanatic without a couple of minor quibbles.  There are points where Martin and company insert little “new” bits into things – there’s extra vocals and guitar parts at the end of the new “Come Together,” which to me don’t add anything.  There’s also extra guitar fills at the end of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” even ones that sound like mistakes.  There’s also times where a different effect is used on the vocals, especially apparent on the “one sweet dream” part of “You Never Give Me Your Money.”  

There are several different versions available to purchase.  The two-disc set contains a second CD of rarities.  Of note here is a demo version of “Something,” where you can really hear the song coming together (pun intended).  There’s a fragility to this take which adds to its power.  The other tracks are interesting to hear once, but nothing stands out as revelatory. Either the vocals are rough takes or the instrumentation breaks down.

The real treat on the 4-disc set is “The Long One,” a 16-minute early version of side two, which has “Her Majesty” not at the end of the album, but sandwiched in between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” There’s also differences in vocals and instrumentation on every song.  This is a nice addition, but you either have to purchase the more expensive version, or just stream it online.  A demo version of “The Ballad of John & Yoko,” proves that just John and Paul played on the track, while Paul’s version of “Come and Get It” is very close to what Badfinger eventually released as their debut single.  

There’s something always bittersweet about listening to Abbey Road.  As great as the music is, it’s also the final recordings by the Beatles.  A great deal of love and care has gone into this new remix.  —Tony Peters

Foreigner – Live at the Rainbow ’78 (review)

Foreigner – Live at the Rainbow 78 (Eagle Rock / Rhino)

Proof they really were THAT good

Foreigner sold millions of records, placed several singles in the Top Ten, and toured incessantly, yet never had a proper live album of the classic lineup of the band – until now.  

It was DEFINITELY worth the wait.  

Live at the Rainbow 78 finds the original six-piece in front of a rabid UK crowd after being on the road for over a year in support of their debut album.  

No covers – no senseless noodling – this is rock n’ roll with a purpose.

The concert kicks off with a rousing version of “Long, Long Way From Home,” fitting as half of the band were from America.  The real highlight on this track is drummer Dennis Elliott, adding frenetic fills throughout and building the excitement.  Guitarist Mick Jones turns in some truly scintillating guitar work on “I Need You.”  Then, he introduces “here’s one for the ladies here tonight, my mum included,” before kicking off “Woman Oh Woman,” with Jones and singer Lou Gramm trading off lead vocal duties.  

Gramm really shines on “Hot Blooded,” a song that wouldn’t be out for several weeks yet (the lead single from their second long player, Double Vision).  He effortlessly hits the high notes while Jones shreds on the solo.

Ed Gagliardi’s bass is intertwined with the keyboards on “The Damage is Done” – the live version has much more power, even grooving in the middle.  “Cold as Ice” opens with a cool stager before briefly pausing, allowing the crowd to roar in approval.  This live take is fueled by the keyboard duo of Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood.  The band had been playing this track for at least a year now, yet it still sounds fresh.  There’s even a nice acapella part, followed by a keyboard solo and a killer ending.

McDonald shows off his multi-instrumentalist skills, breaking out a flute solo on the spacey “Starrider,” featuring Jones on lead vocals.  This extended flute jam might be the only part where things drag just a tad. 

The twin guitar of Jones and McDonald are on display for another new song, “Double Vision” – and great harmonies in the middle and yet another great ending.

If you want proof that Gramm was one of the finest vocalists in rock, look no further than “Fool For You Anyway.”  Sure, he could belt out rockers, but here he’s soulful.  The Rhodes piano gives a gentle approach that the band would explore more fully on ballads like “Waiting For a Girl Like You” a few years later.

“At War With the World” is one of the hardest rockers the band ever played, while the concert closes with an extended take of “Head Knocker,” complete with Gramm getting behind another drumset and battling with Elliott – the entire song crests and whips the UK crowd once again into a frenzy, lasting over 12 minutes.

Live at the Rainbow 78 reminds us that Foreigner were a force to be reckoned with as a touring band.  A phenomenal live set that does nothing but add to this great band’s legacy.  —Tony Peters

Rush – Time Machine – Live in Cleveland 2011 (review)

Rush – Time Machine – Live in Cleveland 2011 (Roadrunner)  

Grizzled Canadians Return to the US City That Embraced Them First

2011 marked the 30th anniversary of Rush’s Moving Pictures album – their biggest, and best album.  To celebrate, the band played that classic record in its entirety, along with an eclectic smattering of album cuts and hits.  Time Machine: Live in Cleveland 2011, the document of that tour, has just been issued for the first time on a 4-LP set on vinyl.

The city of Cleveland played a significant role in the band’s history.  DJ Donna Halper of Cleveland’s WMMS was the first person to play Rush’s music in the States (she’s actually thanked on the back cover of the group’s debut album).  So, it would only be fitting to play in front of fans that believed in them first.

Part of the, er…rush of a Rush concert is hearing the band effortlessly tackle their intricate studio arrangements in a concert setting.  That’s great live and in person, but usually doesn’t work too well on their countless live albums.  What sets Time Machine apart is the amount of humanity that shines through.  Okay, these tracks still mostly sound like the studio versions, but, for one, Geddy Lee’s voice has aged.  More of a squawker than pure singer, his vocals have a deeper, resonating quality to them and there’s a hint of rasp as well, giving some of these songs a “lived to tell about it” feel to them that isn’t apparent on the studio renditions.  

Other times, like in the early part of “Red Barchetta,” the band doesn’t seem to lock in quite like they used to.  Yet, there’s a kinetic sense of playing together for so long, that things don’t ever veer too far off course.  

The show kicks off with “The Spirit of Radio,” a little rough around the edges, and slower than usual, but still rockin’.  This jumps right into “Time Stand Still,” with the band still reprising Aimee Mann’s background vocals, courtesy of a sampler.  Other early highlights include a decent version of moody “Subdivisions” and the seldom played “Presto.”

A minor quibble is that Neal Peart’s drums seem somewhat buried in the mix.  Largely, he’s the main attraction here, as he still sounds in fine form.  Yet, at times he’s lost under the sludge of guitars.  

Moving Pictures comes at the midway point in the concert.  Only problem is, that means the album performance starts on Record two and completes on Record three (again, minor quibbling here).  Just for consistency, it would’ve been nice to have the complete album in live form on a single disc.  “Tom Sawyer” flat out rocks, while there’s some silly carnival sound effects at the start of “Limelight.”  It’s nice to hear songs like “Vital Signs” in a live setting.  

For the remaining tracks, the band digs back to their prog rock roots for the “2112 Overture” and  “La Villa Strangiato.”  At the same time, you also get both “BU2B” and “Caravan,” songs that were brand new and would show up the following year on the album Clockwork Angels.

And what would a Rush concert be without a mammoth drum solo by Neil Peart?  This one, originally titled “Love For Sale,” gets retitled “Moto Perpetuo,” clocking in at over nine minutes in length.

The concert ends on a surprising note, with the band diving into a reggae version of “Working Man” (hmmm…).  Thankfully, it morphs into the real song about 1:30 in.

By showing a band that’s aging, and a little rough around the edges (yet still in fine form), Time Machine is the most human of all Rush live albums, and that’s a good thing.  —Tony Peters

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Mister Rogers – It’s Such a Good Feeling – The Best of (Omnivore Recordings)

Johnny Costa – Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (Omnivore Recordings)

The Neighborhood, from a couple of different perspectives

It was easy to make fun of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an adult.  Eddie Murphy certainly did several times on skits for Saturday Night Live.  His slow, deliberate delivery which he addressed his young audience could get on our nerves.  The music seemed trite and Rogers was anything but a great singer.  Oh, not to mention the cringe-worthy subject matter.  I mean, how dare he talk about DEATH on his show?

Of course, now we realize it was all pure genius

First came the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor.  Now, coming in November of 2019, is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie starring Tom Hanks.  Yes, Mister Rogers is finally getting his due.  

Bridging the gap between those two films are a pair of reissues from Omnivore Recordings, which shed further light on Fred Rogers’ gifts. It’s Such a Good Feeling is a collection of many of the best-loved songs of the 5-decade long TV series, while Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood shows that the melodies laid under the lyrics were also a thing of brilliance.

As someone who watched the very first episode of Mister Rogers as a young boy, the mere sound of this familiar voice brings back feelings of warmth, like hearing a long-deceased relative whom you loved.  As the first born, Mister Rogers was my playmate and my confidant. 

The thing that’s so amazing is how intricate some of the melodies are.  I didn’t know I was listening to jazz at the time (sneaky, sneaky).  As an adult, I’m even more impressed that most of these were done live, on the spot, while the show was being filmed.

Make no mistake, Rogers was never a great vocalist that you’d pay to see at a nightclub, but he used the most of his limitations.  For example, listen how the bouncing melody and plaintive lyrics contrast the Art Tatum-like speedy piano fills of Costa on “Look and Listen.”  Most of these songs are true duets – Rogers sings “Be Brave, Be Strong,” and Costa echoes with his piano.  

And, Rogers’ true gift was being able to relate perfectly to the children in his audience.  “Pretending” has a tension to it that adds excitement, but isn’t scary.  “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” sounds completely ridiculous, yet Rogers pulls it in and keeps it earnest.  

Or take “Sometimes People Are Good,” where he sings “are the very same people who are bad sometimes.”  What other song better captures the duality of most of our personalities?  Or “Wishes Don’t Make Things Come True” is a surprisingly sober topic for a kid’s show.

Of course, the real treats are the staples of his long-running program – opening with the insistent “Today is a Very Special Day,” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and ending with the optimistic “Tomorrow.”  

Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers Neighborhood marks the first time this album from 1984 has been available on CD.  Rogers’ accompanist takes the familiar melodies of the program and adds further colors, with the addition Carl McVicker on bass and Bobby Rawsthorne on drums.  

It’s here where you really do get a better appreciation for this music.  Stripped of the vocals, these songs are less childlike and more just incredibly uplifting jazz music.  You also get an opportunity to really marvel at Costa as a soloist.  The comparisons to the legendary Art Tatum are definitely warranted.  

The second half of his rendition of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” really swings, while “Then Your Heart is Full of Love” is very melodic.

Honestly, this is just great background music – put it on at a party and dare your friends to guess what it is!

In anticipation of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, take a walk down the old street again.  —Tony Peters

Hootie & the Blowfish – cracked rear view (Deluxe Edition) (review)

Hootie & the Blowfish – cracked rear view (Deluxe Edition) (Atlantic)

A MONSTER album, 25 years later

We treat our pop stars very strangely here in America.  For the really big ones, we usually lap them up like the all-you-can-eat dessert bar, then toss them aside and pretend they never existed.  Take the Bee Gees for example.  In 1978, the Brothers Gibb were everywhere.  By 1980, they couldn’t get arrested in the States.  I saw Hall & Oates in a small club in Cincinnati in 1992 after they had been kicked to the curb (they were fabulous, by the way).  Other countries aren’t so rude (take Europe’s never-ending fascination with ABBA, for instance).  

Another such band is Hootie & the Blowfish, whose debut album, cracked rear view, sold a gargantuan 21 million copies before they were shown the pop culture door to Siberia. 

And, it’s a shame – they didn’t deserve it.  

cracked rear view is made up of simple songs – most are fueled by a repetitive riff and three chords with lyrics about relationships.  You could say it’s the precursor to modern country music – but instead of boots and pickup trucks, they sing about crying and hand holding (sometimes in the same song).  

The album opener, “Hannah Jane,” is pure power pop.  But, with Don Gehman’s muscled production, it comes off as Mellencamp meets the Gin Blossoms. The ballads are good, “Let Her Cry” and the even better “Time.”  “Only Wanna Be With You” mentions their club buddies Dillion Fence (“put on a little Dylan / Sittin’ on a fence), who were arguably far more gifted melodically, but never got even close to stardom.  Yet, “Hold My Hand” is the standout, even 20 years later.  It’s a universal song of people coming together with a great chorus.

Hootie & the Blowfish were a really good bar band.  I saw them in October of 1994 at Bogarts in Cincinnati.  “Hold My Hand” had just come out as a single to AOR rock stations.  My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by the packed house.  This band had obviously created a buzz.  For further proof, check out the live disc, recorded a few months later in Pittsburgh.  They do a fantastic job with Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” while somehow making Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” sound like they wrote it.  

There’s also a bonus disc of early material and b-sides.  “I Go Blind” was another monster hit (originally written by the Canadian college rock band 54-40), but left off the original album.  Another obscure cover, “Almost Home,” came from the Texas band, the Reivers.  “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” came from the Led Zeppelin tribute album.  

There’s also a bevy of early versions of these tracks on the album.  Honestly, Gehman didn’t do much to improve these songs – they were fully-realized years before their major-label release. 

Keep in mind – in 1994, the world was still knee-deep in Grunge – hailed at the time as the “savior of rock.”  We now know it killed rock – DEAD.  Rock stopped being fun – that’s why everyone listens to country music now.  

cracked rear view still stands up as a fun, sing-a-long album.  It’s time it got the respect it deserves.  —Tony Peters

Travis – Live at Glastonbury ’99 (review)

Travis – Live at Glastonbury ’99 (Craft Recordings)

The band’s “shining moment”?

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Travis’ breakout year (1999), Craft Recordings has also issued Live at Glastonbury ’99, documenting the band’s career-turning performance at this popular English festival.  

The Man Who had been issued the previous month with very little fanfare.  The album was basically dead in the water.  Then, the band took the Glastonbury stage in June, and just as they marched into their single, “Why Does It Always Rain On Me,” it started raining.  This Queen-at-Live-Aid-type moment captured the spirit of the crowd and reversed the band’s fortunes.  Within the month, “Rain on Me” was in the Top 10, the album would hit #1 and Travis were on their way.

While all of that is well and good, this concert is, um, less than spectacular.  The first issue is that Fran Healey’s whispered delivery doesn’t transfer very well in this big setting.  His voice is flat A LOT. And it cracks OFTEN.  

Yeah, I know it’s live.  It’s hot, it’s the festival crowd.  But, R.E.M. turned in a truly career-defining moment under these same circumstances (for proof, check out their Live at the BBC performance from the same show).  

“Writing to Reach You” does have a little more kick than the album version, but a lot this midtempo stuff, just kind of lays there. The drums are mixed way down, so everything just sort of lumbers along.  Their older, more rocking material, like “U16 Girls” and “Good Feeling” are much better suited to the live format.  What about “Why Does It Always Rain On Me”?  Without the rain, it’s just a so-so rendition.

Travis is a great studio band.  As mentioned in the previous review, The Man Who still stands up.  So does Ode to J. Smith.  This?  I would only recommend to the truly devoted Travis fan.  —Tony Peters

Travis – The Man Who (20th anniversary edition)

Travis – The Man Who (Craft Recordings)

One of the finest albums of the late-Nineties gets the deluxe treatment

20 years ago, the Scottish band Travis issued their breakout album, The Man Who.  At the time, it was a departure for the group, whose debut, Good Feeling, had been a rockin’ good time two years earlier.  This new direction was darker, and more melodic.  It also paved the way for many other UK bands, like Coldplay, who went on to even bigger fame, with their own spin on this style of middle of the road fare.  

The Man Who still stands up – full of jangly guitars and gentle hooks, courtesy of leader Fran Healey.  There are times when he sings so softly, as on “Writing to Reach You,” that he sounds like he’s whispering.  

The gentle funk of “The Fear” – the chiming “Driftwood,” the Pepper-esque ballad “Last Laugh of the Laughter,” the slightly rocking “Turn” and the epic standout “Why Does It Always Rain On Me,” all contribute to an impressive song cycle.

The music is mellow, but still really catchy.  And the entire record is solid from start to finish.

The original disc has unlisted bonus material at the end of “Slide Show,” track 10.  After a 4 minute silence, the rocker “Blue Flashing Light” comes roaring in.  Recorded during the sessions, but oddly out of step with the mellower material.  

The original American disc has two extra bonus cuts not here, “20” and “Only Molly Knows.”  

The second disc comes with 19 bonus tracks – b-sides, live cuts, etc.  “Green Behind the Ears” is a great rocker, while “Only Molly Knows” is a gentle acoustic number that was a bonus cut on the US disc.  “Coming Around” is a great, Byrds-esque flavored single that came right after the album.  Some of the tracks rock like their first album, as on “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and “High as a Kite.”  There are some odd covers – “Be My Baby” is, um, the Ronettes cover, slowed down.  There are two Joni Mitchell songs – “Urge For Going” is buoyed by acoustic guitar and “River” is her “Christmas” song, on piano. “Baby One More Time” is the Britney Spears song (why?).  And “The Weight” is their (not bad) version of The Band song.  There’s a great acoustic rendition of “Driftwood” which is another highlight. 

Travis would go on to release many more albums.  Some really good, like Ode to J. Smith, and some others, just sort of so-so.  But, The Man Who is still Travis’ masterstroke.  —Tony Peters

James Taylor – One Man Band (review)

James Taylor – One Man Band (vinyl edition)

James Taylor – One Man Band (Craft Recordings)

A very fine concert recording makes its debut on vinyl

For an artist who’s been making music for over 50 years, James Taylor has very few live recordings under his belt.  His best, One Man Band, was released in 2007, but has never been available on vinyl – until now, thanks to Craft Recordings.

One of Taylor’s strengths is his warmth, and it comes through in waves on this 2-LP set.  The title, One Man Band, might have you think that it’s a solo, acoustic thing, when actually it refers to the one accompanist, Larry Goldings, who plays piano, organ and bass throughout.  

Honestly, Goldings should be given equal billing, as many times the two musicians interlock, as on a very fine run through of “Country Road,” where Taylor’s voice is surprisingly strong as well.  Unlike so many of his rock contemporaries (Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, etc), James Taylor never screamed.  Perhaps that’s why, unlike them, he’s still got his voice, fully intact, after all these years.  

Of the 19 total songs, most are familiar, but there are surprises too.  Goldings shows off his boogie woogie chops on “Mean Old Man,” while “Chili Dog,” originally from One Man Dog, is good fun.  There’s a “drum machine” (actually a real person) on the funky “Slap Leather,” while a backup choir joins things on “My Traveling Star.”  

Taylor is the ever-professional.  Just think how many thousands of times he’s done “You’ve Got a Friend.”  Yet, he still turns in a mesmerizing performance where his voice is clear, and his finger picking is as supple as ever.  He’s always been an underrated guitarist, and he shows off his chops on electric guitar on “Steamroller Blues.”  In fact, this may be the finest version of that song ever put to tape.  With Taylor on electric and Goldings on Hammond, there’s lots of space for each musician to roam.

The choir returns for the gospel-tinged “Shower the People,” before Taylor does a solo acoustic “Sweet Baby James.”  He does tell a few stories, like the inspiration behind “Carolina in My Mind.”  

The mostly-acoustic instrumentation sounds fabulous in the vinyl format.  The LP’s are quiet, and the music leaps out of the speakers.  The gatefold jacket shows off a nice photo of the venue, The Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  

Taylor did release the album Live in 1993, and it sold millions of copies.  Yet, that concert is a full band recording, which dulls some of his appeal.  At his roots, James Taylor is one of the greatest songwriters of our time.  One Man Band gives his talents a chance to fully shine.  —Tony Peters

Bill Evans – Evans in England (review)

Bill Evans – Evans in England (Resonance Records)

Previously-unreleased live recording of jazz giant in 1969

No label has done more for jazz in the last decade than Resonance Records. Their co-president, Zev Feldman, literally traverses the globe in search of rare recordings by legendary artists. Yet, it’s the label’s attention to detail that truly puts them in a class all their own. Each new release comes with an exhaustive booklet, featuring rare photos and extensive background notes, adding further detail to each recording, and, as a result, enhancing the legacy of jazz itself.

Their latest project is a concert recording by Bill Evans from 1969 entitled Evans in England. The piano legend is joined by longtime bassist Eddie Gomez along with drummer Marty Morell, who had recently joined the trio at the time of these shows. The recordings were made by a fan of Evans’ for personal enjoyment, not commercial release, yet they are of surprisingly good quality.

The venue, Ronnie Scott’s in London, was a favorite of Evans. It was a place he felt comfortable. And, this is an important factor: when an artist feels at ease, the performance becomes more than just a paid gig – it gives him a chance to be himself.

The track listing for the two-disc set is impeccable, covering a lot of terrain, from standards like “Stella By Starlight” and “Our Love is Here to Stay,” to Evans’ classics like “Waltz For Debby.” But, the trio also tackle the Miles Davis classic “So What,” which Evans played on the original recording from Kind of Blue – it’s a thrill to hear this familiar classic reworked for the trio setting.

There’s a buoyancy to these performances. Evans is one of the all-time great melodicists on piano – yet often in his career, there’s a shroud of sadness that lingers. Here, a lot of the music seems to be floating – as on the superb version of “Round Midnight.” “Elsa” is another song Evans tackled many times, but rarely at this fast of a tempo. “Stella By Starlight” is bouncier than the version he cut with Miles, and gives Gomez a chance to really shine.

And there’s more here than just great piano playing – listen how all three musicians talk back and forth as on “Very Early.” The set closes with a gorgeous rendition of the standard, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”

There are multiple essays in the accompanying booklet that go into how these rare tapes finally saw the light of day. Really, for a single microphone recording, you can hear all three musicians clearly.

There are a handful of minor quibbles with the sound: from time to time, when all three players are really cooking, the music will distort (remember, this wasn’t intended for actual release). Also occasionally, the tape slows down (as if someone bumped up against one of the reels), like on the intro to “Waltz For Debby.” Yet, Evans is so joyful in these performances, it doesn’t matter.

Don’t let the “previously unreleased” tag scare you off. Evans in England is a fantastic showcase of Bill Evans in his prime. —Tony Peters