Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dez Reviews Jeff Beck’s 'Live +', 2015

If you are including downloadable releases and discs you can get from his website, this marks Jeff Beck’s seventh live record in about 15 years. For someone who used to take years off at a time from playing any music at all, this last 15 years or so have been a bevy of riches. That being said, another live record is not essential at this point. Supposedly he is also releasing a studio record later this year, one that he has been working on for years, so this is probably a whimsical stopgap before the real prize comes. By the way, if you want some live Beck and are a little overwhelmed by the choices, Live at Ronnie Scott’s (2008) ***** is still the one to get. For the more hardcore Beckophiles, both volumes of Live in Tokyo ’99 (1999/2006) **** are also essential.

This one stands out from the other recent releases primarily because he has a vocalist band member with him (half of the tunes are still instrumental, though). Jimmy Hall (of Wet Willie semi-fame) handles the vocals, and while a competent classic rock screamer with a tinge of Southern soul (and frequent over-emoter), as with any Beck vocalist other than Rod Stewart, I find that the vocals get in the way of why we are really here…which is to hear Jeff Beck play the guitar. Also, Beck should have delved deeper into the original Jeff Beck Group and Yardbirds songbooks if he was going to have a vocalist. Why not pull out “Plynth,” “The Train Kept A-Rollin,’” “Up Under Sideways Down,” “Shapes of Things,” etc.? (It is cool to get “Superstition” and “Going Down,” though). Instead we get mostly well tred covers like “Little Wing” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” or tunes that have already appeared on recent live records like “A Day in the Life,” “Big Block,” “Hammerhead” and “Where Were You” that aren’t really improved on to justify their reappearance.

Now this is not a bad listen at all. Beck is miraculously ageless and still sharp on the axe. It is just a bit redundant at this point. I’d say there are two highlights, one of which is a stomping version of Beck’s industrial take on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” But the clear peak is a jawdropping run through of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra classic, “You Know You Know,” which is nearly worth the price of admission alone (and definitely worth the individual download). Beck is in top form firing off laser sharp lines. The song also allows jazz bassist (and longtime Prince collaborator) Rhonda Smith to play a stunning bass solo that matches Beck’s brilliance.

The “+” part of the title are two studio tracks tacked on at the end. Perhaps they foreshadow a harder edge on this next record. Beck’s playing in these tunes remains innovative and surprising, although again the presence of guest vocalists just get in the way.

Dez Rating: *** out of *****

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dez Predicts the NBA Conference Finals


Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Houston Rockets (2)

I still don't know why The Houston Rockets are here. I was only able to watch the first several games in their series. The ones where the Los Angeles Clippers dominated. That was more about a collapse by the Clippers (and an exposed short bench) vs. The Rockets, I think. Anyway, glad they are there. My assertions remain: Dwight Howard will never win a championship and James Harden doesn't play defense. I think the Warriors' shooting prevails.
DEZ SAYS: Warriors in 6


Atlanta Hawks (1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (2)

Still don't believe in Atlanta, and I think this is where their ride ends. Even without Kevin Love, even with Irving not at 100%, Lebron powers the Cavs through.
DEZ SAYS: Cavs in 7.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

RIP B.B. King, 1925-2015

One of the very last of his generation of blues masters, B.B. King was one of the few blues artists who transcended the genre and was a part of the mainstream popular consciousness.

Riley King’s (“B.B.” stands for “Blues Boy,” the moniker he took as a DJ on a Memphis radio station) early life followed the template of many of the blues greats. Born in the rural South (in his case, Mississippi), he worked in the cotton fields and learned to play blues guitar from a musician uncle. He honed his skills playing on street corners, and eventually made his Great Migration up to Memphis, Tennessee. There he continued to hone his craft and also got a gig as a DJ on a local rhythm and blues radio station.

King is famous for his deceptively simple, stinging, single note soloing style. There is that legendary scene from U2’s ‘Rattle and Hum’ film where the band is collaborating with King on “When Love Comes To Town.” U2’s guitarist Edge is trying to show King the chords for the song, and King replies, “oh, I don’t play no chords,” and Edge just stares at him for a moment, incredulous. The guy didn’t have to “play no chords.” You can hire people to do that for you. It sounds like such a cliché, but with King it is so true: he said so much more by playing less. It was a stinging, stabbing tone that had such a flow to it. Guitar players who play more notes and much faster than King cannot approach his expressiveness and placement. Placement both as to which notes he chooses to place where, but also placement within the rhythm of the song. Add to that his at times smooth, at other times explosive vocal style, and it was a unique one-two punch.

The tone he got from his successive guitars that he dubbed “Lucille” was such a fat, full, beautiful tone. (The best descendant of both the tone and style would be Robert Cray). How he named his guitar Lucille is an oft-told tale, but a great one. He was playing a gig at a club in Arkansas, and a fight broke out. Two men were fighting and knocked over a heater that started a fire, and the crowd and musicians ran out of the club. Realizing he had left his guitar inside, King risked his life to dash back into the burning building to save his prized axe. Later he found out the two men had been fighting over a woman named Lucille, hence the moniker for his guitars ever since.

What I really loved about King’s music, and what I think separated him from some of the other legendary blues artists of his generation and from similar backgrounds (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, etc.) was his restrained sophistication. King could play with fire on traditional blues of course (“Sweet Little Angel,” for example), but there was often something more, I don’t know, uptown about his style. Whereas with these other guys, the grittier and tougher the sound the better, my favorite B.B. King songs are the ones where he tries to add a sophisticated pop sheen to them, often with strings. Accoutrements that when used by other blues artists dilute their strengths, for some reason brought out the best in King. Songs like “Hummingbird,” “Ain’t Nobody Home,” “Help the Poor,” “Ghetto Woman” and of course his signature song “The Thrill Is Gone,” are King at his best in my view.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Remarkable Evening With Wyclef Jean

Last night, my wife and I saw Wyclef Jean perform at the new Tobin Center in San Antonio. She won the tickets on the radio. It was an intimate show in one of their smaller theaters, maybe 200-300 people.

It was one of the most unique shows that I have ever seen. People aware of 90’s music probably remember Wyclef as the yin to Lauryn Hill’s yang in The Fugees. A renaissance man and iconoclast, Wyclef put on a show that was a strange combination of concert, street poetry, block party and Q & A.

It was just him and the original DJ from The Fugees. The DJ was spinning the records while Wyclef sang, rapped, recited what seemed to be spontaneous street poetry about everything from having a late flight to San Antonio to Ferguson and Baltimore, played guitar and piano. A nice rendition of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” with Wyclef seguing into some original lyrics reflecting on the issues of the day that wasn’t too preachy or too one sided was the standout musical moment of the evening. But this show was about a lot more than mere music.

ABOVE: Wyclef plays some sweet Bob Marley licks

The show went off the rails about half way through, but in a fantastic way. He went back to the DJ table with Fugee’s DJ (I forget the guy’s name) and they decided to “change the format” and host what Wyclef called a “block party.” And that is exactly what it was. He had his roadie move his guitars and keyboard out of the way and invited the audience up to the stage and he just spun records for a dance party. The Jackson 5’s “ABC” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and everything in between. People were free to go up and dance with Wyclef, take selfies with him, he was game for whatever people felt like doing. I really don’t think this was planned. Or at least it did not seem to be cleared ahead of time with the Tobin Center security and the radio promo guys. I know many artists work hard to look spontaneous, but I was watching the Tobin Center security and radio people during this whole “block party,” and they looked genuinely confused and concerned. They were huddled together discussing options. Finally one approached Wyclef and whispered something at length in his ear and he sheepishly instructed everyone to return to their seats. But that was one of the more insane 10 minutes or so I have ever experienced at a concert. (NOTE: My wife and I are both former attorneys and we couldn’t help ourselves. After the show on the way home we both went through all of the liability issues with Wyclef’s “block party.” As fun as it was, I sympathized with The Man on this one. Am I getting that old?)

ABOVE: My wife, the blurry one on the left, dances onstage with Wyclef (right)

Then 180 degree shift to a question and answer session, where Wyclef took questions from the audience. You might recall that Wyclef made a serious run for the presidency of Haiti last year or the year before, and there were several Haitian people in the audience. So from rap/reggae/pop show to dance party to Wyclef answering complex questions regarding Haitian domestic policy. And he answered the questions well, too. He is smart. And he knows it. One of the few turnoffs of the evening was Wyclef’s substantial ego. He was actually making a humble point when discussing how difficult it is for an artist of his vintage to be relevant to younger listeners, but when you start the conversation with “When a legendary artist tries to make a comeback…”, the humble facade soon disappears. He referred to himself as a “legendary artist” several times during the evening. Also, after making an admittedly good point about Haitian politics, he felt the need to point out that it was a smart observation, “hey, he can sing and dance, but he’s also really smart!”

Not all questions were that deep. One young lady got the microphone to say “I don’t have a question, I just f**kin' love you. And I’m legal.” Good to know. One guy right behind me used his opportunity to ask a question to make this offer to Wyclef, “hey man, you want a hit of this?,” proffering his joint. Wyclef partook and then continued his dissertation on Haitian politics. The gentleman who offered the weed was promptly escorted from the room by security. He was wearing a law school T-shirt, yet looked very confused as to the nature of his offense. Great stuff. Funny Wyclef was not likewise escorted out, considering he had just broken the same Texas law. I liked what Wyclef had to say about Baltimore: “why are people in Baltimore waiting for someone else to come in and improve their community for them?” He also showed support for the now famous mother who beat her rioting son upside the head on national television. “Every person in this room probably benefited at some time in their life from a good ass-whipping...not that I condone child abuse...but still.” When asked when the last time he spoke with Lauryn Hill was, he had to think for awhile, and replied, “Dave Chappelle’s block party.” I assume that was awhile ago, considering the last time Dave Chappelle was relevant.

ABOVE: Wyclef waxes philosophical about Haitian politics, Baltimore riots, and marijuana use

He also had a great perspective on the American Dream, as many immigrants do. When one audience member asked him about his definition of success, he talked about coming from Haiti as a young boy, working at Burger King for awhile, made fun of his accent in taking orders, and talked about the definition of success being dedicated and doing the best you can at whatever you are doing. It wasn’t just lecturing from a successful celeb, it was genuine. It was an oddly touching moment when he was talking about concentrating, at that time, on being the best Burger King worker he could be.

To top the evening off, he stayed after the show to take pictures with anyone who so desired. My wife and I got a good one with him. I don’t own any of his work other than The Score by The Fugees, and honestly I’m not likely to rush out and buy anything, but he still gave me one of the more memorable concert experiences of my life last night.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Dez's 2nd Round NBA Playoffs Predictions

Well, I got seven of the eight first round victors correct (that wasn't hard, it went as generally expected), and the one I got wrong went to Game 7 and came down to a single basket. What a series between San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers. Even the players were saying what a shame it was that this was a first round series. Either team could have won the West. Although I'm obviously a Spurs fan, I have no animosity towards the Clippers. Great team, class act. That Game 7 was everything you could have hoped for in a Game 7.


Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
This could be an interesting series considering the completely opposite styles of play of these two teams, but the Warriors have been too good this season. So it probably won't be that interesting.
Dez says: Warriors in 5.

Houston Rockets (2) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (3)
This should be a fun one with dynamic players on both sides. Harden and Howard vs. Paul and Griffin (who has just taken his whole game to a new level this playoff season). Bench play will be crucial. Although the Clippers' bench is pretty weak, they still were able to beat the Spurs. Rockets have more rest. Injuries are key. The Rockets are without Beverly, but there is a question about Paul. He played out of his mind last night, but also had a hamstring issue. Will it be alright by tomorrow?
Dez says: Clippers in 6


Atlanta Hawks (1) vs. Washington Wizards (5)

I still don't believe in Atlanta. But they should beat the Wizards.
Dez says: Hawks in 6.

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Chicago Bulls (3)
I'm no Cleveland fan, but I think it really sucks that Kevin Love is out for the rest of the playoffs. And I agree with Love, it was a bush league play that took him out from some scrub on a crappy Boston team. I just would like every team to be at full strength in the playoffs. With Love, I think there would be little question that Cleveland would win this series. But with him out, it really could be a tough series. And dare I say that Derrick Rose is playing solid basketball at times. Although I still expect him to shatter in a million pieces on the floor whenever he drives to the basket. I say Lebron wills the Cavs to victory.
Dez says: Cleveland in 7.