Friday, April 30, 2010

Dez's Top 30 Guitarists: Blues Savior

9. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Unlike with most of my guitar heroes, I grew up just as Stevie Ray Vaughan hit the big time. So I had the pleasure of real time discovery with him and was able to watch him grow and develop, as opposed to discovering him after his best days were already passed and his legend intact.

SRV saved blues music. At least he saved it as a still vibrant musical form in which new and exciting things could still be done. Blues was about as tired and dead as could be by the 1980's. But SRV, along with Robert Cray (#17 on this list), injected new blood and new energy into the genre. In a time period where synthesizers and drum machines were becoming the dominant pop instruments, SRV emerged as a new guitar god on a mission. It helped that he was also such a likeable guy with a flamboyant stage persona reminiscent of Hendrix, with the feather boas and funky hats.

His debut record, Texas Flood, is one of those titanic albums that shifts the landscape of music. It was pure blues, but it was also thoroughly modern. A show of stunning virtuosity with a style fully formed, but also brimming with soul, heart and humor. While not as critically acclaimed, I dig his sophomore effort, Couldn't Stand the Weather, even more. What balls to cover Hendrix's "Voodoo Child"! He also started to develop a thrilling blues/rock hybrid with the funny "Cold Shot" and great title track.

At the time of his tragic death in a helicopter crash, he had just released his most successful and ambitious record yet, In Step. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that SRV had finally overcome his substance abuse problems, and was celebrating a new sobriety and new lease on life. In Step fulfilled the promise of the blues/rock crossover started on Couldn't Stand the Weather and Soul To Soul. Singles like "Crossfire" and "Tightrope" fit just as comfortably on modern rock radio as they did in a sweaty blues club.

ABOVE: The SRV monument in Austin, Texas, his adopted hometown

While I love his own records, two things really stand out for me. First, SRV played lead guitar on David Bowie's 1983 slick pop smash, Let's Dance. The sound of SRV's round blues pegs trying to fit into Bowie's square pop holes created a fascinating tension. Credit Bowie for recognizing that tension and sustaining it over the course of the record. One of my favorite Bowie albums.

Second is a wonderful bootleg I have of a live show in Austin recorded about a month before his death. Never have I heard him play and sing with such concentrated brilliance. He rips through a ferocious, wah-drenched "Voodoo Child," as well as a prophetic "Life Without You," where he raps with the audience about how glad he is to be alive after his struggles with addiction. I was fortunate enough to see SRV in concert four or five times before his death. The most memorable was on a blistering summer day in Houston in the parking lot of the Astrodome at the Miller Lite Festival. I remember the staff hosing down the audience with fire hoses as SRV played. He never failed to wow and entertain.

If I have any complaints about SRV, it is that his playing did not have a lot of variety. But within his style, he was simply untouchable.

ABOVE: Always one of my favorite tunes of his, "Couldn't Stand the Weather." Yeah, he can solo like a madman. But listen to how absolutely funky his playing could also be.

ABOVE: The groovy "Mary Had a Little Lamb" performed on Austin City Limits

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dez's Top 30 Guitarists: The High Priest Professional

10. Jimmy Page (session work, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, The Firm, solo):

I don't think I need to talk too much about Led Zeppelin here. All self-respecting rock fans know Zep's canon by heart. One aspect of Led Zeppelin's music that is often overlooked, though, is its diversity. Jimmy Page was primarily responsible for that. Not only did they supercharge the blues and take it to another place entirely (Led Zeppelin I and II), but they were equally adept in the folk/acoustic realm (Led Zeppelin III and elsewhere), as well as being early world music experimenters ("Kashmir," "Black Mountain Side.")

Before Zeppelin, Page was the session guitarist in mid and late-60's London. What that means is that the guitar on many classic British Invasion singles from the 60's feature Mr. Page. He is all over tunes from Donovan to even early Who and Kinks singles (Pete Townshend and Dave Davies were great guitarists, of course, but it was common practice in the mid 60's for producers and studios to bring in hired guns to play the solos and some other instruments. Jimmy Page was the primary hired gun in London at the time.)

My favorite Page solo comes, funny enough, on the overblown Zeppelin live album, The Song Remains the Same. His solo in the second half of "No Quarter" is perfect Page - speed, fire, in your face. One of those solos where he gets going so fast that it gets a little sloppy, but that doesn't matter. A solo that makes you forget the goofy Norse mythology lyrics and Robert Plant's melodramatic vocals of the previous 6 minutes. Led Zeppelin is one of those rare bands whose entire catalogue is essential listening. NOTE: The Song Remains the Same has been remastered, but the performance of "No Quarter" on the remaster is a different take, and not nearly as good as the original.

ABOVE: We all know that Page can rip on the electric, but he is a fine folk player as well. Check out this absolutely gorgeous version of "Going To California." (That's Zep's underrated bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones on the mandolin.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dez's Top 30 Guitarists: #11-Eric Clapton, Rock's True Conservative

11. Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominoes, solo): His talent and feel is undeniable. In a guitar-crazed late 1960's London, the grafitti on the subway walls famously proclaimed "Clapton is God." As admired as he is as a guitarist, Eric Clapton is also rock's true traditionalist. He left The Yardbirds in the mid-1960's largely due to his frustration that they were straying too far away from pure blues forms.

Ever since then he has been carrying the torch for the blues masters, often slavishly (and unnecessarily) staying true to their arrangements in his frequent covers of the blues classics. While his stirring guitar work on Cream's cover of "Crossroads" was revolutionary and transformative, most of the time he does not veer too far from the original arrangements, as if they were holy scripture. And they are to him.

Clapton seems to be always running from his own talents. They were on most impressive display during his tenure with Cream. The psychedelic blues rock of that power trio stands as his greatest achievement. But once Cream imploded, Clapton often tried to be the laid back singer-songwriter, hoping to defuse his guitar god status. Some fine music was made, but talent was also wasted.

I believe it was Greil Marcus who once wrote that all of the blues covers and reverent aping of the blues masters was not reflective of Clapton's true blues. His real blues appeared on Derek and the Dominoes's Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Strung out on heroin, pining for his best friend George Harrison's wife and playing and singing like his very life depended on it. He could not make music consistently that great. It would have killed him. But if you want one Eric Clapton album, that is the one.

So, we are left with a prodigiously talented guitar player who is often uncomfortable with his own greatness. A musician who has to pay homage to his heroes or go play mindless AOR fodder in order to have a sane personal life. Yet at times, his greatness cannot be prevented from shining through, in spite of himself.

Aside from "Crossroads," "White Room" and many other great Cream tunes, I am left with two standout Clapton moments when he lets his detached fa├žade fade away and lets it really rip. The first is available on the box set Crossroads. It is a live version of his excellent cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." The song is rocking amiably along for three and a half, and then Clapton ever so casually mutters "Alright." That "alright" means it is time to get down to business. It means that he now needs to take this song to a higher place. Clapton launches into a solo so fluid, rich and melodic after his "alright." At his best, Clapton is not so much about speed or flash as he is about playing just the right note for that second in time. Occasionally, he will string together full minutes of such sublime, perfect seconds. When people understandably question "what's the big deal about Clapton?" (considering the large amount of mediocrity he has released), it is "Crossroads" with Cream, the Layla album and this moment in "I Shot the Sheriff" that should be the answer.

The other moment exists only in my memory. It was at a show from around 1990. Clapton was playing a rather dull tune called "Old Love" from his then-current album, Journeyman. When it came time to solo, all of the stage lights went dark save a lone spotlight over Clapton as he started the solo with a wailing note so full of pain, emotion, blues and every sorrowful moment in your life. He turned his back to the audience, head down, and soloed with such fury and abandon, so within himself yet for all the world to hear. That is the big deal about Eric Clapton. That makes it worth it when he so often is merely going through the motions.

ABOVE: This isn't the solo I was talking about above, but it is from a more recent performance of "I Shot the Sheriff." This clip is just the solo.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Updated Daughter of Dez Pics

I'm never that interested to hear about other people's babies, which is why I have kept my own baby talk to a minimum here at GNABB. Why would you want to hear me talk about my baby when you can instead read about Jeff Beck and my NBA playoff predictions? But, once a month it wouldn't be a bad idea to update you with some photographic cuteness. Since I take about 500,000 pictures of her each month (damn those digital cameras!), I will probably show you the best of them once a month here. That's not too much "other people's baby stuff" for you, is it?

She is a pretty happy baby, overall. Thank God she generally sleeps through the night. We are starting to see hints of a voluntary smile (they first smile involuntarily), and she makes a lot more noises this month than last. She also travels well (as in, sleeps when you put her in the carseat and take her out anywhere.) She has already ventured out to Wallmart, the grocery store and Home Depot. Slept through them all. Anyway, this month's cuteness...

ABOVE: This is her daily dose of "tummy time." A highlight of her day. She cannot crawl yet, but she tries. It is kind of cute watching her legs try and propel her forward without success. Good exercise. She can also lift her head for short periods of time. Eventually she gets tired of this and cries.

ABOVE: I like this one a lot. The expression on her face tells me that she has just done something scandalous.

ABOVE: In a serious mood. Contemplating the pros and cons of Obama's health care plan and what it will mean for her and future generations.

ABOVE: Flirting with my Dad

Playoffs are Awesome

At first glance the first round of the NBA playoffs looked as if they would have fairly predictable outcomes. And that may still happen. But it is looking less likely. In the West, you could have upsets in every series. SA is up 2-1 over Dallas (I've got great seats to tonight's game), Portland has tied up the series with Phoenix 2-2 with the surprise return of Brandon Roy, and Utah is up on Denver 2-1. Most importantly, OKC slaughtered the Lakers last night by about 2000 points to even that series 2-2. OKC looks inspired, LA looks tired. The East isn't quite as exciting (as usual). Great stuff!

ABOVE: So far, Kevin Durant has been the best player of the Lakers-Thunder series, not Kobe Bryant

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dez's Top 30 Guitarists: #'s 20-12

For the Intro and #'s 30-21, go here.

20. Trevor Rabin (Yes, solo): 80’s Yes divides many prog rock fans. But it was the hugely successful 90125 album from 1983 (#8 on my all time list) that introduced me to the band and genre in the first place, so I’ve got a soft spot for the more commercial phase of this band’s illustrious career. Rabin was most responsible for this shift in sound, and the three records they released when he was their sole guitar player bear his more commercial stamp. The guitar playing all over 90125 is awesome.

19. Jim Thomas (The Mermen): Getting a little more obscure here, but Thomas’s epic guitar on The Mermen’s hybrid of surf/cinema/noir/rock/lounge music is always interesting and often beautiful.

18. Wes Montgomery: The only jazz guitarist to make my list. I enjoy jazz guitar (I like a lot of John McLaughlin’s stuff, for instance), but generally the instrument doesn’t grab me in the jazz setting for some reason. Wes is an exception. His smooth and fluid playing can be exciting or peaceful, or a bit of both at the same time.

ABOVE: Wes plays what may be the greatest jazz standard, Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight." The clip is a little on the long side, but it is worth your while. He really gets going in the middle section.

17. Robert Cray: There were two great blues guitarists to emerge from the 1980’s. One, of course, was Stevie Ray Vaughan. The other was Cray. If SRV was the heir to Hendrix and Allman, then Cray was the heir to B.B. King. Cray’s warm, fluid, soulful playing is reminiscent of King’s. Cray has two formidable weapons, his guitar playing and the fact that he is one of the great soul singers of the last 30 years. Strong Persuader is my all time favorite blues record.

16. Neil Young: Not a technician, but Neil plays with more passion and fire than almost anyone, however basic his technique on electric guitar. On acoustic, he can be much more complex. Nobody has influenced my own guitar playing more than Neil Young.

15. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen): The fact that EVH is an unbelievable douche bag of a person sometimes overshadows his greatness as a guitarist. While he did not invent finger tapping, he took it into the stratosphere on Van Halen’s earthshattering debut.

14. Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top): Earthy, blues rock at its best. While ZZ Top explored some other sounds (especially in the 80’s), they have always been rooted in Billy’s ripping blues/rock playing. His thick, fat sound reminds one of the greasy plate of enchiladas that graces the inside cover of one of their greatest records, Tres Hombres.

ABOVE: ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons is Texas, through and through

13. Pete Townshend (The Who, solo): Pete as a guitar player sometimes occupies the unusual musical space that Andy Summers occupies in the Police. While Pete can solo with the best of them (unlike Andy), he just as often will act as the anchoring rhythm guitar player while John Entwistle’s bass runs all over the place and Keith Moon’s hurricane style of drumming dominates the sound. Pete is my favorite rhythm player, always interesting and thrilling.

12. Joe Satriani: As I said in my introductory remarks to this list, I am not basing my rankings on technique or agility. You can train a monkey to do something really fast. I look for character and a unique voice on the instrument in my favorite guitar players. Satriani is unique on my list in that he does often rank with the best of the technical shredders, but he stands apart from them in that he never forgets that great music also needs melodies, hooks and emotion as opposed to just flashy technique (I guess Eddie Van Halen qualifies here too). Satch uses his technique in aid of the music, versus showing off his prodigious technique for its own sake, like a Vai or a Malmstein.

ABOVE: Here's some Satriani, "Flying in a Blue Dream". There is a rather lengthy intro, the song picks up at about the 2 minute mark.

Friday, April 16, 2010

NBA Playoff Predictions

Professional basketball is the only sport that I follow closely enough to feel confident to make predictions in public. Since the playoffs officially kick off tomorrow, here are my predictions for Round 1. Once Round 1 is done, I will then predict the next round and so forth...


Cleveland (1) v. Chicago (8): Chicago gets one, so Cleveland moves on 4-1. Del Negro gets fired soon after.

Orlando (2) v. Charlotte (7): Orlando sweeps 4-0. As great as Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace are, Orlando just has too much firepower.

Atlanta (3) v. Milwaukee (6): It is a shame that Bogut went down for the season, because Milwaukee was one of the feel good stories of the year. Had Bogut not gotten hurt combined with the electrifying Brandon Jennings, this would have been a real series. But, it is what it is. Atlanta wins 4-2. I like Atlanta a lot, anyway, so I'm pulling for them.

Boston (4) v. Miami (5): As decrepid as Boston is, Miami just doesn't have enough weapons. Boston wins 4-2, but they will be knocked out easily by Cleveland in the next round.


L.A. Lakers (1) v. Oklahoma City (8): It is a shame that OKC got the 8th seed and face the Lakers in the first round. They could have been really dangerous in the playoffs, and Durant & Co. will give the Lakers some scares, but they aren't there yet. Lakers move on 4-2.

Dallas (2) v. San Antonio (7): The West was so close this season that the difference between the 2nd seed Dallas and 7th seed SA is only 5 games. This could be a really great series, with Ginobili playing like a superstar these past few months. Had the surprising George Hill not gotten hurt, I would have given this series to SA in 7. But without Hill, that really hurts San Antonio. I'd rather have Hill out there over Tony Parker. So, this goes to Dallas, 4-3.

Phoenix (3) v. Portland (6): I feel like a broken record, but had Portland's Brandon Roy not gotten injured, this could have been an epic series. But, Roy is injured, so it won't be. Phoenix wins 4-2.

Denver (4) v. Utah (5): This is the only series in the first round that is a true toss-up (SA has a chance of upsetting Dallas too, but they've got to play really well). This should be the most fun to watch in Round 1. I haven't called an upset yet, so I guess I'll do it here. Utah wins, 4-3.

Talk to you next round. Your predictions? Agree or disagree?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dez’s Top 30 Guitarists

This list has been rolling around in my head for about a year (at least), and so I have finally decided to post it. It hardly needs to be said that rock music’s primary “voice” is not the vocals of the singer, but the six strings of the guitar. Much has been made of the phallic symbolism and male power of the electric guitar, and I think there is some validity to it. Whether it be making love to you (via Carlos Santana) or assaulting you (via Jeff Beck).

Two things about this list: while it is primarily rock and roll (since that is what I primarily listen to), it is not restricted to rock (as #’s 18 and 7 on my list show). More importantly, this list is not a “most influential” or “most important” or “technically advanced.” These are guitarists whose playing really strike a nerve with me, for whatever reason. Naturally, most of them can really play too. Over technical skill I value a unique “voice” on guitar. A player where I can hear a song for the first time and immediately say, that’s got to be X. My #1 and 2 choices stand out the most for me as immediately recognizable.

I won’t drag this out too long. I’ll give you #’s 30-21 here, 20-12 in the next post, and then #’s 11-1 will get their own individual posts with more in depth analysis and discussion. Enjoy…

30. Robert Smith (The Cure): Smith can solo, but the reason he is here is for his melodic rhythm playing. I am a rhythm player myself, so I appreciate great rhythm guitar players. And when he does solo, it is never mere wanking. His solos more often than not restate the melody of the song in gorgeous ways (“Just Like Heaven,” “Pictures of You”).

29. Robby Krieger (The Doors): Now that I look at this list, Robby probably should be a little higher. Krieger is a master of many styles, he can play bottleneck slide blues (“Who Do You Love?”), flamenco (“Spanish Caravan”) or straight up killer solos (“Light My Fire”). He can do it all effortlessly, and always looks half asleep while doing it. (My friend Gillums and I used to joke “imagine how great he’d be if he ever woke up.”) The Doors are one of my favorite bands, but not because of Jim Morrison. I listen to the Doors because of what Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore are able to create around Morrison. One of the most distinctive and great musical trios in rock history, often overshadowed by their legendary frontman.

ABOVE: How great would Robby Krieger be if he woke up?

28. Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia Band, session player): The heart and soul of The Grateful Dead was a musician deeply steeped in American folk music traditions. In addition to being an excellent electric guitar player and improviser, Jerry was equally adept at picking a banjo, dobro or acoustic bluegrass playing (just listen to the stuff on Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty). And the beautiful pedal steel guitar on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s classic “Teach Your Children”? That was Jerry. Funny enough, some of my favorite playing of Garcia’s is as a sideman on several of Bruce Hornsby’s records, especially Harbor Lights. I don’t always find his 30 minute Dead jams interesting (although sometimes they are), but in total Jerry was a great player in a variety of settings on many stringed instruments.

27. Carlos Santana (Santana, solo): Years ago Carlos would have made my Top 10 easily, but his playing has a certain sameness to it that has knocked him back several pegs. Granted, that style is fluid and passionate and has served him well over the last 40 years.

ABOVE: Here is Carlos playing at Woodstock. Great jam on "Soul Sacrifice." He said in an interview once that he had taken lots of acid, and so the guitar neck kept moving like a snake as he tried to play.

26. Steve Howe (Yes, Asia): Through all of Yes’s 70’s bombast and excess (Tales From Topographical Oceans, anyone?), Howe’s tasteful and eclectic playing styles always grounded them in thrilling rock and roll.

25. Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones, session player): Mick is sort of the forgotten player of the second fiddles to Keith Richards, as he was only with The Stones for a five year stretch. But he is a better guitar player than the iconic Brian Jones or the long lasting Ron Wood. He made crucial contributions to the albums from Let It Bleed through It’s Only Rock and Roll, when he quit over the fact that Jagger and Richards refused to give him songwriting credits on tunes that he clearly co-wrote with them.

24. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones): Rock’s quintessential wildman survivor is also rock’s greatest riffmaster. Renowned as THE rhythm rock guitar player, Keith can also solo when need be, although he usually leaves that to whoever is the #2 Stones axeman. The classic razor-sharp solo on “Sympathy For the Devil” was played by Keith.

ABOVE: Keith with never die

23. The Edge (U2): A guitarist who made a virtue of his limitations. By his own admission, Edge couldn’t really play advanced solos when he started out, so he compensated by creating an original style of skeletal arpeggios and waves of delay and echo. Now that he can actually play he’s even better.

22. Andy Summers (The Police): Edge may have taken some lessons from Andy Summers’s playbook. The Police were such a unique band in the instrumental interplay between the trio. Sting’s bass takes the melodies, while Andy is left to embellish and color the songs. He rarely solos, instead he plays textures.

ABOVE: From the Police Reunion tour in 2007. I caught the Houston show. One of my favorite bands, one of the best shows I've ever seen. The sound these three dudes make together is unbeatable.

21. Michael Bloomfield (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Electric Flag, solo): While acknowledged as one of the great blues/rock guitarists, I dig the erratic, late, great Bloomfield most when he stretches beyond the blues into more daring territory. Check out “His Holy Modal Majesty” from the classic Super Session by the one shot Bloomfield, Kooper & Stills group, or the stunning, groundbreaking jam “East/West” with the Butterfield Blues Band.

ABOVE: One of the great jam albums, Super Session by Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dez Reviews Jeff Beck's Emotion & Commotion, 2010

More emotion than commotion this time around, but that's alright. This is probably the most mellow and lyrical record in Jeff Beck's entire catalogue. If you want to find out what the big deal is about Jeff Beck as a shredding, balls to the walls guitar player, I would not recommend starting here (instead I would check out the trilogy of studio albums that came before this one for evidence of that, especially You Had It Coming, as well as his recent live record, Live at Ronnie Scott's). On the one song here where he does go full throttle, "Hammerhead," he makes it count. He opens "Hammerhead" with a wicked wah wah that must be an homage to Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile," before soaring over the thunderous groove laid down by teen bass phenom Tal Wickenfeld. As is typical with many of Beck's tunes, he doesn't actually solo until near the end, where fires out angular, jagged bursts of Jeff Beck greatness. But "Hammerhead" is the exception here, not the rule.

His comments in the liner notes for "There's No Other Me" explains his approach this time out: "Originally, I was going to play all over this song, but we brought Joss (Stone) in to sing and the direction changed. That says a lot about where I'm at right now-letting other people be a part of the music rather than have full-shred guitar on every track." Instead he wants to "have the guitar provide a short burst of energy." The genesis of EAC was actually a project where Beck recorded Mahler's 5th Symphony with a symphony orchestra. He liked the sound (from all accounts this still unreleased recording is amazing), and so decided to use the orchestra on about half of the album here. Rarely has his playing been more melodic and lyrical. He has decided to focus on melody over the pure energy and shredding of his recent output.

Also, straight out of the Book of Tufnel, Beck evidently was chopping carrots during the recording of this record, and he chopped off the tip of one of his fingers. It was sewn back on (and now is fine), but still hurt as he was finishing the recording of the record, so that might also be a reason he decided to slow it down this time around (and why some of the solos might be "a bit dodgy," he jokes). I am not making this up. This is according to Beck himself in a recent interview. But slowing it down does not necessarily mean less interesting.

Beck definitely has a thing for Jeff Buckley, because he covers two of his tunes here. "Corpus Christi Carol" opens the record with a beautiful, plaintive guitar line over the accompanying orchestra. (It is a great contrast, by the way, as the last lovely strains of "Corpus Christi Carol" give way to the wild wah intro of "Hammerhead"). The other Buckley tune is "Lilac Wine," featuring newcomer Imelda May on vocals. "Lilac Wine" closes with some of the loveliest and most fluid guitar work I've ever heard from Beck.

As I said, the mood here is mostly quieter and more contemplative than we usually hear from Beck, as he tackles a dreamy version of "Over the Rainbow" (trying, I think, to recapture the magic of his recent wonderful cover of "A Day in the Life," but not quite reaching those heights this time out), as well as classical pieces like "Elegy For Dunkirk" and a gorgeous "Nessun Dorma" (would Clapton have the stones to try that? I think not.) Tunes like "Never Alone" and "Serene" are in danger of veering into smooth jazzy territory (the former avoids it with a sharp melody from Beck, but the latter probably does get there). Joss Stone provides a wonderful gritty vocal foil for Beck on two numbers, a spirited and steamy cover of "I Put a Spell On You" and the rocking "There's No Other Me." Beck doesn't often work with vocalists, but Joss acts as a kind of female version of Rod Stewart, who was Beck's most successful vocalist in the earlier days of the Jeff Beck Group.

This record would be damn near perfect if he had balanced it a little more with a couple more "Hammerheads" and one or two less "Serenes," but much of what is here is still very good and interesting, and Beck is one of those few guitar players whose every note is a gift to us all. In a recent interview Beck was musing that he is one of a dying breed. The guitar god a la Beck, Clapton, Page or Hendrix doesn't really exist these days. Not that the talent isn't out there, and Beck was not being egotistical when he said it, but the focus in today's music world has shifted. He thought that was kind of sad, and so do I. We all need our rock gods, don't we?

***1/2 out of *****

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dez Recommends Van Morrison's St. Dominic's Preview, 1972

Van Morrison has made many great records, many of them featuring transcendent moments. But he has made three perfect records. One is 1968’s Astral Weeks, which stands alone in pop music. The second is one of the greatest live albums ever made, 1974’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now. And the third is 1972’s St. Dominic’s Preview. SDP is somewhat overshadowed by the trilogy of records that came before (Moondance, His Band and Street Choir and Tupelo Honey), but SDP is better than any of those other more celebrated albums.

I’ve always enjoyed individual cuts from SDP, but only recently did I start to appreciate it as a whole piece. Perhaps it is more overlooked due to its eclectic styles. Whereas Van’s records in the early to mid-70’s had a real cohesive feel within each record, SDP is quite diverse. But this is its strength.

Van opens with one of his most exuberant soul ravers, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).” It is about as much joy as you can pack into three minutes of music. Then he moves into what is the weakest track on the record, the catchy acoustic rocker “Gypsy.” Then we get a great three minute R&B slowburner, “I Will Be There.” What was Side 1 of the record closes with Van’s epic 11-minute “Listen To the Lion,” probably his most personal and visceral performance. His rendition on It’s Too Late To Stop Now is so intense that it is hard to even listen to, but here Van goes slightly lighter and the tone is perfect and beautiful. At one point words fail him and he falls into grunts and vocal sounds to express his emotions. The title track is one of his most underrated tunes, a jubilant soul-rocker with some of his greatest lyrics. “Redwood Tree,” another unjustly forgotten gem, is a three minute groovy rock song that should have been a hit. Finally what was Side 2 closes with another 10 minute-plus journey, the hypnotic “Almost Independence Day,” with its great combo of 12-string acoustic guitar and synthesizer (unlikely partners, I know, but it really works here).

SDP is the best sampler of Van at his peak in the early 70’s, featuring soul rave-ups, concise pop tunes and two epic explorations that stand out as two of his most soulful songs. But unlike a compilation, this has the added bonus of all being recorded as a single record that was meant to be heard together. A perfect Van Morrison record, and you don’t get much better than that.

Note: This is what I hate about making lists. If I were revising my Top 100 Albums list, St. Dominic's Preview would definitely make the cut. Probably replacing Moondance. Van could really do little wrong in the 70's, I also recommend the overlooked Veedon Fleece from 1974.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Waiting For Treme

Can't wait for the premiere next Sunday (4/11) of the new series Treme on HBO. What is most exciting is that it is created by David Simon, who brought us one of the greatest shows in history, The Wire. The setting is New Orleans, three months after Hurricane Katrina, in the culturally rich New Orleans neighborhood known as Treme. What a fantastic setting for a complex, character driven drama. From the reviews that I have read, the music is supposed to be awesome (not surprising for a show set in New Orleans). With a cast featuring John Goodman, Steve Zahn and several Wire vets, it promises to be high quality stuff.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Traveling With Dad, Cajuns and Manifest Destiny

Sorry it has been a couple of weeks since the last post. I will offer up the generic excuse: baby. She is doing quite well and is even cuter than she was in her first weeks of life. I will have to get some updated pics up for you. She generally sleeps through the night (save an occasional night here or there), so that is nice.

Oh, I got to break up a fight in my classroom the other day. A desk was thrown to the floor (not by me). Both of these guys could have flattened me in two seconds, but fortunately they listened to me when I got between them. That was my first fight this year. OK, on to the post...

Since my wife has to return to work and I am working, my parents generously offered to come stay with us for two months to help with baby during the day. Once summer comes I will be able to take over and then she will be old enough for daycare. My folks wanted their car for their two month stay in SA, so I volunteered to drive it for them. They live in Florida along the west coast of the peninsula. I flew into Florida on a Friday night, turned around Saturday morning and drove back to Texas with my Dad through the weekend. A bit over 1000 miles. My mother decided to fly over on Sunday. I really love road trips, so it was cool.

You get into great conversations on a trip like that. My Dad and I talked of life, love, sports and music. I have made that San Antonio (or Houston) to Florida trip several times over the years, sometimes alone, sometimes with someone. (I made it with a certain girlfriend years back, and somewhere in Mississippi I decided she would become an ex-girlfriend upon our return. There is no hidng from someone in a car for 1000 miles.)

The Florida panhandle is extremely dull and goes on forever, and Beaumont to Houston is ugly with all of the refineries everywhere, and the Houston to SA three hour stretch I have driven 3,489 times and can give you a detailed description of every tree or fast food joint on the route...but I absolutely love the stretch through southern Louisiana. Having lived in New Orleans for a couple of years, I am fairly familiar with the area, but every time I go through I really enjoy it. Something rather mystical about the place, time has stood still in parts of it.

The Atchafalaya Basin is beautiful to me. It is about a 20 mile stretch of road through Louisiana swamps between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, Louisiana. Here are some pics (I didn't take these, but they give you a feel for the place)...

ABOVE: The Atchafalaya Bridge is about 20 miles of I-10 over the Atchafalaya Basin. I read somewhere it is the 8th longest bridge in the world.

We stopped Saturday night in Baton Rouge because my Dad had to get to a TV in time to watch the Kentucky-West Virginia NCAA game. Having grown up in Kentucky, he is a devoted Wildcats fan, and has probably not missed watching or listening to a game in the past 60 years or so. (Strange game, W. Virginia did not score a two point basket the entire first half, it was all threes or free throws. They ended up knocking Kentucky out, too).

Louisiana people are unique Americans. At the hotel we grabbed a quick breakfast Sunday morning and the breakfast lady was quite enthusiastic in serving us. She was a cajun lady, therefore we could only understand every fifth word or so. Yet she really wanted to talk. Referring to my Dad as "brother" (or "bruddah"), she sat down next to me uncomfortably close and watched me eat my Belgian waffle and talked about the Indian owners of the hotel and the annoying guests she serves every day. We gave her a $5 tip and we might as well have bought her a new house and car. "Oh bruddah, you so so kind! What a good man, mm hmm!" We were half way down the hall going back to our room and we could still hear her shouting our praises.

Road trips are a wonderful part of American life. I would rather travel by car over plane any time. The open road is part of that American possibility. Something that people in the crammed Northeast cities miss out on somtimes, the wide open roads and spaces of the South and West have always represented new beginnings and opportunities. Or in my case, a certain rejuvenation and an opportunity to have some good times with my Dad.