Thornetta Davis: A New Blues Classic

From the first bar of When My Sister Sings the Blues, with its solitary slide guitar softly moaning to the spoken word homage of Felicia Davis, this is one album that knocks it out of the park. Thornetta herself steps up quickly on I Gotta Sang the Blues, in a duet with The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson, who underpins the song with a smokin’ blues harp that grabs you by the collar and won’t let go. This track is also a statement of her passion for the blues, something consistently evident on this outstanding album.

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Davis’s new album is a New Blues instant classic, not to be missed for blues fans.

In her liner notes, Davis says it took her 20 years to put this labour of love together, only her second studio album. You don’t get much more dedicated than that, and it’s great to see artists like Davis and Lisa Biales producing work that is more about passion than just a tawdry urge for fame. Far too many celebrities these days are famous for being famous, not for the quality of their work. They should sit at the feet of Lisa and Thornetta for a few lessons in authenticity. There’s a world of difference between Just Your Next Album and a Labour of Love.

That Don’t Appease Me keeps the pace brisk with a great anchoring guitar riff by Brett Lucas that lets Davis hit the ground running. It’s a delicious groove and the unprocessed samples of trash talk at the end add a nice modern touch. Set Me Free follows with Davis supported by powerhouse backup vocals with a gospel edge and featuring the Larry McCray Band. (Am I) Just a Shadow slows things down to give us a chance to swing softly with a partner. Although in the classic tradition of the Bad Love Ballad, Davis’s lyrics project a fully empowered contemporary woman, seeking a partner who sees her as a complete person, not just a sexual partner or shallow stereotype. This is a deep touchstone in the blues—music as a vehicle for social commentary and at times even satire, going back to the earliest field chants singing in code about ‘the man.’

I Need a Whole Lot of Lovin’ to Satisfy Me picks up the pace again, with Davis fully into Blues Mama voice and a catchy chorus once again supported by great backing vocals. I’m amazed she gets away with the line: “If you ain’t packin’, baby, then you better leave,” but then, this is the 21st century. Men in the blues have been writing double entendre lyrics about feminine sexual attributes for ages already.

1399509319_imageI Believe (Everything Gonna Be Alright) is probably my favourite song on the album. I’m a sucker for a great electric slide guitar, and Brett Lucas once again delivers with pitch perfect control and menacing intensity. Lucas could give Clapton a run for his money on this one. Davis’s lyrics are as thoughtfully composed as ever, providing a message of hope in dark times. Davis is an astute enough producer to know when she’s found a good thang, so Lucas appears throughout the album. On Sister Friends Indeed his slide guitar work sets up a swingin’ groove with another catchy chorus and a Southern Baptist vocal and handclaps breakdown at the end. Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues gives us some Chicago blues with a tastefully employed horn line that does for us just what its title says. As John Latini sings on his album, the great irony is that The Blues Just Makes Me Feel Good.

I could go on, track by track, but let’s just say there isn’t a bummer song on the album. The media kit I received compares Davis to just about every major blues diva who’s ever graced a microphone. “Has the timbre like Sarah Vaughan.” “Belts the blues like Bessie Smith.” “Has the power of Big Mama Thornton.” “Touches you in your soul like Aretha Franklin.” While this may be just a little bit overstated, it’s fair to say that Davis has excellent range, control and power in her voice. She moves seamlessly from a slow dance groove to a fast shuffle, always with a great sense of articulated passion. Clearly she’s one of the best female blues vocalists working today, dubbed Detroit’s ‘Queen of the Blues’ in 2015.

For a first-time producer, Davis has an uncanny sense of how to make all the elements work—bits of soul, Chicago blues, Delta slide, blues harp, Hammond organ, gospel… all skillfully woven together to create the quintessential blues album. All too often, indie productions run aground on the rocks of inexperienced producers or recording technicians, resulting in songs not fully realized or recordings that fail to snap to life, or worse—are buried in sludge. Not so on Honest Woman. The mix here by Brian Roscoe White is beautiful—the definition of every instrument clear but not annoyingly crisp (a common fault of digital recordings), the midrange and bass tones well balanced with the highs. The result is a naturalistic listening experience not unlike sitting in the audience at a well-produced show.

Honest Woman gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me, with the 5-star rating reserved for the original classic albums of the blues canon. Even the graphic design for the album is first-rate. Superb!

http://thornettadavis.com

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John Latini Hits the Feelgood Groove

John Latini is news to me and in the Blues News /New Blues department it’s that rarest of assignments for a journalist—a good news story. But first off, I have to disagree with the Ann Arbor Observer, which likened Latini’s voice to “the raspy, liquor-soaked growl of Tom Waits…” Maybe Latini was at the end of a long, exhausting tour the night the Observer’s reviewer saw him. To me the timbre of his voice reminds me more of Canadian bluesman David Wilcox, in a slightly lower register. It’s a voice that caught me off guard at first—I wasn’t sure I liked it, but it grew on me with repeated listens. Latini’s chugging guitar rhythms are reminiscent of Wilcox’s hit Bad Apple, and even a little of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s swamp boogie, especially on Rutabaga Cheesecake, with its faint echoes of Suzie Q.

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John Latini’s new album gets 4 out of 5 stars from this reviewer.

These days it’s tough to find an album that can honestly boast more than a couple of tracks that will stand the test of time. In my experience, an album that takes more than a first listen to creep into your imagination often meets this test admirably, as The Blues Makes Me Feel Good does. Woodchuck Blues, written by Michael Latini, sounds like it was plucked from the classic blues songbook of Willie Dixon and is easily my favourite track on the album. The title track’s rhythm sashays along gracefully, the subtle instrumentation a perfect foil for Latini’s voice. Broken Man follows in a similar groove before shifting seamlessly into an uptempo bridge with a jazzy guitar break. My Town’s Got a River and a Train is a heartfelt tribute to the small town landscape of Latini’s adoptive Michigan while never succumbing to cliché. It’s all the more poignant given the tragic decay that has been allowed to befall cities like Flint. Latini’s songwriting here gives Bruce Springsteen a run for his money. The spare arrangement of I Will Be Haunting You, with just Latini on vocals and guitar, recalls a slow Howlin’ Wolf stomp. Although a thoroughly competent blues guitarist, Latini opts for a mostly ensemble approach to playing, making his occasional solos all the more scorching and memorable.

The arrangements are kept uncluttered, propelling Latini to the front of the mix. Even when the horns come on, they roll into the track like honey, not overwhelming saccharine. Kudos to Latini, Ross Huff and Nolan Mendenhall for avoiding the all-too-easy pitfall of drowning a track in horns. Call me a blues purist, but in my view a horn section is only one colour of the sound palette and should be used accordingly. Horn players who want to be featured artists need to move into jazz. Credit goes to Brian Roscoe White, Latini’s second guitarist, for a beautifully crisp yet warmly rich mix-down on this album. Far too many independently produced CDs suffer from poor mastering or mixing but The Blues Makes Me Feel Good isn’t one of them, thankfully.

Latini is another New Blues player in Frank Roszak’s stable of artists. Roszak clearly has a fine ear for picking up outstanding blues acts and exposing them to the world. With The Blues Makes Me Feel Good we can be thankful he does. As Latini’s website biography states: “Latini… knows that all the best American music flowers from blues roots, and whether he’s tearing it up at a blues fest or captivating a room with original songs, folk and blues go arm in arm in his music like the blood brothers they are.” Well said.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Review also published at http://www.bluemondaymonthly.com (Scroll way down; this is a PDF document.)

For more information on John Latini visit: http://www.johnlatini.com/biography/

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Winter Blues Boogie’s 25th another memorable night

Well, they came, and they rocked. The 25th anniversary of the Winter Blues Boogie in Silverton (Saturday, February 4) delivered another great evening of booty-shaking rock and blues. The evening was notable for the reunion of the original line-up of Dr. Fun and the Nightcrawlers, a mainstay of the event during its quarter century. Although the band ‘officially’ retired in 2008, Gary Gilbert (‘Dr. Fun’) and bandmates showed up again in 2014 and 2016 to rock the joint.

“And all of them still alive, some more than others,” quips organizer Dick Callison. “They were just on cloud nine last night.”

Holly Hyatt & Friends opened Winter Blues Boogie 2017 with rockin' gusto. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Holly Hyatt & Friends opened Winter Blues Boogie 2017 with rockin’ gusto. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

In response to complaints about overcrowding on the dance floor, 80 fewer tickets were printed this year. The effect was noticeable, with less of the bumper derby effect of past years. Tickets were put on sale the first week of December and were sold out by the 15th of that month, all without publicity. “By the time it was time to submit an article to the Valley Voice the tickets were gone,” says Callison. “We printed 40 posters early this year but before we could get them put up the tickets were gone.” Callison and co-organizer Barb Yeomans keep an email list of about 120 people and send out alerts before advertising goes out.

Due to the heavy snowfall, some ticket holders weren’t able to make it, leaving Callison with about eight tickets to re-sell the night of the Boogie. Although Highway 6 remained open, there were extreme weather warnings across the province, with an accumulation of up to 70 centimetres predicted over the weekend in some areas. Meteorologists are calling it one of the most significant snowfalls to hit BC in February history. But braving the elements has become as much of a tradition for Winter Blues Boogie as shakin’ yer booty. Boogie patrons over the years have had to endure landslides, power outages and of course extreme weather. Just last year a snowslide briefly closed the highway between Silverton and New Denver. This year one man drove all the way from California to be here.

Holly Hyatt: maturing into a relaxed yet powerful performer. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Holly Hyatt: maturing into a relaxed yet powerful performer. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

But enough about weather. Holly Hyatt and Friends came on for the first set. It was great to see Holly so relaxed and happy now as a performer and at the same time really belting it out. And looking fabulous all the while. The ‘Friends’ turned out to be Jon Burden properly giving the fretboard the 12-bar strut and some mean, ripping leads. The rhythm section was the ‘old reliable’ rhythm engine of No Excuse: Bill Wilson on drums and Kenny Turner on five-string bass. And let’s not forget the inimitable Clint Swanson on sax, as usual blowing magic through those brass keys. In places it was a bit rough; Burden confessed they’d only had time for a couple of rehearsals. But in the main it was a rollicking great opening set that had the dance floor packed from the very first song.

Dr. Fun & the Nightcrawlers: a Winter Blues Boogie mainstay that seldom disappoints. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Dr. Fun & the Nightcrawlers: a Winter Blues Boogie mainstay that seldom disappoints. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

What can you say about Dr. Fun and the Nightcrawlers anymore after 25 years? These guys never let you down—always entertaining, always energetic, and with an evolving mix of songs that weave seamlessly through two dance-licious sets. Just like Holly Hyatt, Dr. Fun’s gang had ‘em shakin’ their hips from the first chord. Gary Gilbert came on decked in his trademark shades, nattily dressed as usual, and the boys soon launched into a raucous cover of Talking Heads’ classic Life During Wartime. They nailed it. Talk about dancing on the ashes of the apocalypse to the south of us. I must admit I miss their Allman Brothers streak, but that’s just my love of a screaming electric slide guitar, Duane Allman-style. I’ve seen these guys do an extended Allman Bros. jam and do it justice damn straight. They also did a fast blues shuffle version of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, often considered the choice of cool cats in the music world. It’s a bit odd to hear it done that way, probably because without the man himself singing it it’s a reminder of the Great Voice we’ve lost. Of all the Great Voices we’ve lost the past year. But nobody thought of that. They just boogied. And boogied. And boogied.

Dr. Fun's horn section. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Dr. Fun’s horn section. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The only sour note came from a sound mix that occasionally had instruments buried in the mix, repeated squeals of feedback, monitor problems, and other issues. The horn section was particularly hard hit, with Crispin Elder’s honeyed sax tones all but drowned. That didn’t change the fact that Winter Blues Boogie is the Doctor’s best cure for those dreaded January Blues, when it’s not hard to find yourself drained to a grey shadow. Shakin’ a leg is one of Nature’s great remedies. Callison is fond of saying how he’s always loved looking out at the audience and seeing all the smiling faces. Many of them are faces that return year after year, making it almost a family reunion – getting older but staying perennially young at heart.

Gary Gilbert, a.k.a. Dr. Fun, lookin' sharp as usual. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Gary Gilbert, a.k.a. Dr. Fun, lookin’ sharp as usual. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Dr. Fun and the Nightcrawlers aren’t being let off the hook to enjoy their pension cheques just yet. They’ve been hired to perform at this year’s Cannafest in Grand Forks, BC, a rock music festival dedicated in part to raising awareness of the medicinal benefits of cannabis. “So they may be back in business,” says Callison. “They all seem kind of pumped to do that gig.” The Nightcrawlers will share the bill with Canadian classic rock artists Randy Bachman, Loverboy, April Wine, Harlequin, Trooper, Platinum Blonde and prog rockers Saga—a much underrated band who are ironically more popular in Europe than here at home.

LINKS: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/cannafest-2015-pot-meets-rock-and-roll-at-b-c-festival-1.3013612

http://www.cannafest.ca

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The New Prog Masters Part 2: All About the Music

“Run, why should I run away

When at the end the only truth certain—

One day everyone dies,

If only to justify life.”

—Gentle Giant, A Cry for Everyone, from Octopus

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Gentle Giant’s 1975 Prog classic Free Hand

In Part One of The New Prog Masters I introduced readers of my blog to bands such as The Flower Kings, Magic Pie, and Haken. (Pronounced ‘hay-ken.’) That these bands aren’t more widely known and loved is perhaps another symptom of our media-saturated age. Of course, you’re setting off into uncharted territory (pardon the pun) as a Prog Rock band—not since the ’70s have Prog acts been able to enjoy the worldwide renown of bands like Genesis and Yes. Even in that classic era, Gentle Giant managed to survive on sheer genius rather than record sales, with only 1975’s Free Hand charting in the Billboard Top 50. And Yes had its greatest commercial success with an album (90125) that was arguably light years from their original sound and barely a Prog work at all, although they’d scored minor chart hits with songs like Don’t Kill the Whale. If it hadn’t been for the advent of FM radio in the ’70s, it’s debatable whether Genesis would have had much of a career prior to the more pop-oriented sound produced by Phil Collins in the ’80s. Prog Rock was always better suited to the realm of the concert hall than the stadium, with a commensurately more intimate audience.

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Unitopia’s ‘Artificial’: hitting all the right notes.

Unitopia: Artificial. Unitopia is Australia’s entry into the modern Prog Rock canon. As with Magic Pie, their first album, More Than a Dream, was released in 2005, followed by The Garden in 2008 and Artificial in 2010. Their final album was something of an abortive tribute to the Prog Masters, 2012’s Covered Mirror Vol. 1: Smooth as Silk, a set of covers seemingly conceived as a two-volume work before the band imploded. According to Prog Archives, “The band was formed by Mark Trueack (vocals) and Sean Timms (keyboard, guitar) after they were introduced by a mutual friend who saw that the two had similar tastes in music and the story goes that as soon as Timms heard Trueack sing, he knew they had to do something together.” Although I haven’t heard More Than a Dream, I found The Garden absorbing in its own right, if showing its Prog influences a little too obviously at times. But Artificial is where they nailed it, integrating their sources seamlessly while creating a powerful musical statement that weaves in textures of Penny Lane-era Beatles with more typical Prog influences. The guitars here are more Rock than Metal, there are more horns, jazzy sections and flute passages than in Haken or Riverside and the occasional hummable chorus.

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Covered Mirror: typically rated four stars in reviews, I beg to differ.

Covered Mirror was an ambitious project that would be laced with pitfalls for any band. Only rarely do covers do justice to their originals—occasionally even surpassing them, as with Santana’s Black Magic Woman or Creedence Clearwater’s Suzie Q and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. The set list on Covered Mirror embraces a ridiculously wide field, from Klaatu’s Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft to Led Zeppelin’s Rain Song as well as a Yes and Genesis medley. For my money, it works best on the individual songs, whereas the medleys come across feeling like a pastiche. The performances are excellent but the renderings of these classics occasionally fall flat. And expecting Trueack’s voice to cover such a broad swath of vocalists—from Fish to Gabriel to Robert Plant to Roger Hodgson of Supertramp—is almost doomed to failure. As the band split shortly after this album, it’s arguable it was at least partly responsible for their demise. But this is a guess on my part.

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Riverside’s ‘Second Life Syndrome’ is a New Prog classic.

Riverside: Second Life Syndrome. This Polish Prog band combines its love of Heavy Metal with Prog, which puts it somewhat on the other end of the spectrum from The Flower Kings alongside Haken. The album begins with a moody, almost doleful vocal in After, easing you in before the guitars chime and grind in on Volte Face. Occasionally they indulge a Death Metal style of growling vocal, but thankfully not often. Usually we’re lulled along by the considerable warmth of feeling of Mariusz Duda’s vocals, lending an elegiac, wistful quality to many of the songs. Incredibly his English lyrics are sung with a thoroughly natural, unaccented voice. Duda is also a fine bassist, slapping out clean, fat tones in a rolling simmer. The late Piotr Grudziński’s guitar lines are equally pristine, chiming when they need to and growling when they need to—the kind of musical synthesis the best Prog is known and revered for. At its best, it’s not about show-offy soloing but how to weave sound into a seamless tapestry of transcendence. Each instrument then becomes analogous to the range of colours on a palette of paint. Marillion in its glory days with Fish was particularly good at this.

Lately I can’t seem to get enough of both Riverside and The Flower Kings. Riverside’s foundational trilogy of albums, Out of Myself, Second Life Syndrome and Rapid Eye Movement are all killer, no filler, prowling a failed empire wasteland with barely controlled sonic menace. But their two subsequent albums, Shrine of the New Generation Slaves (2013) and Anno Domini High Definition (2009) stretch the musical landscape even further, with a more refined, even subtle sound that as always is buoyed up by Duda’s plaintive, haunting vocals. Although the ‘definitive’ Riverside sound is arguably staked out in the territory covered by the trilogy, the band courageously—and successfully—reinvents itself on these two later albums. Love, Fear and the Time Machine (2015) follows in this vein but doesn’t quite have the snap of its predecessors. Eye of the Soundscape (2016), based on outtakes and unreleased studio tracks and experiments, is a disappointment, given such an excellent body of work to date. However, it may be partly a tribute to the tragic, premature death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński, who surely must go down in history as one of the truly great guitarists of Prog.

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Transatlantic’s ‘Kaleidoscope’: great music unburdened by Morse’s sermonizing.

Transatlantic: Bridge Across Forever and Kaleidoscope. This so-called ‘Prog supergroup,’ comprised of members of Spock’s Beard (Neal Morse), The Flower Kings (Roine Stolt), Marillion (Pete Trewavas) and Dream Theater (Mike Portnoy), has the star power and first-class musicianship of a ‘supergroup’ but hardly the commercial reach of the supergroups of yesteryear. Unlike Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Rest in Peace Greg Lake and Keith Emerson), who were a ‘Prog supergroup’ in both critical and commercial senses, Transatlantic had the misfortune to be born in the wrong era for that kind of success. Watching these guys perform is a treat for the eyes and ears—they clearly love playing together and their concerts become something of a love-in with the audience. So who cares how famous or rich they are or aren’t? Prog is about the music, not the egos. As soon as it isn’t it starts to fall apart, like Yes at its worst moments.

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‘Bridge Across Forever’: great music, occasionally annoying lyrics.

Transatlantic’s first album, SMPT:e, hits the ground running with stellar Prog musicianship but doesn’t quite gel into a musical whole. Morse has probably the strongest Prog Rock voice going today, rich and resonant and quickly recognizable. Trewavas, a virtuoso bass player who caught the tail end of the ’70s Prog Rock movement with Fish-era Marillion, clearly relishes being back in the fold after the more mainstream direction the band took after Fish’s departure. Bridge Across Forever, The Whirlwind and Kaleidoscope are all equally powerful musical statements that achieve a high level of cohesion and cinematic scope.

Unfortunately, Morse’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity mars the proceedings as he injects repeated references to the Bible and Christian themes. At times it threatens to derail the entire project into the dreaded Christian Rock of yesteryear. Even Bob Dylan fell into this trap briefly, before realizing that it can lose you as many fans as you might gain. For this reason, my pick of Transatlantic’s catalogue would be 2014’s Kaleidoscope, in which Morse seems to have finally got the message to back off with the sermonizing. Once again the musicianship and compositional skills are phenomenal.

In a culture sliding into vacuousness and narcissism, the fact that we have music of this depth and feeling is a heartening sign. The standard of musicianship is stunning. This is about far more than reliving the Golden Age of Prog, or the stoner-induced trippiness of ’70s album rock. This is where musicians really get to soar, where the rules are made up as you go along. Where you’ll hear an ancient tar alongside a howling Gibson Les Paul (Steve Hackett’s Wolflight.) Where folk, rock, roots, blues, jazz, metal and classical collide and anything is possible. This is where the spirit is allowed to freely glide and explore.

The only other thing I know of that can do that is poetry.

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Dead Crow: Prologue update

INTRODUCTION: Having launched the video production of Dead Crow: Prologue last October, followed by a brief performance tour of the West Kootenay, it occurred to me that the last time I’d posted the text for the poem was in 2012. The poem has undergone many changes since then, while retaining the integrity of the original piece. It should be noted that in the interests of continuity the interpolated verses of Dead Crow’s various names was not used for the live show. On the page, these one-line verses act as a kind of counterpoint voice, shifting from Dead Crow’s speech to that of a narrator’s voice listing off his many names in an almost incantatory manner.

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Sean Arthur Joyce as Dead Crow. Photo by Kim Walker.

Dead Crow: Prologue (Exile) 

“You want my name? Which one? I’m known by many names: Dead Crow. Jackdaw crook. Split-tongued muse. Dark rook in a bleak rain. What’s in a name? Only millennia of lives lived. I’ve been here so long I’m starting to look human. Time has filed down my voice with a rasp.”

“Emperor of the Crossroads, I nest over the forked path. You think I care about spells, incantations, alchemy? These are just artifacts of what I already know. My only interest in bones is to pick them clean. Blood-cloaked loner on a trail of fingerbones—that’s me. Black as the womb before star seeds snap life into being. Black as the feathers that fly straight from the eye of God.”

Dead Crow. Shadow eater. Blackfeather acrobat. Walks with a slight limp.

“Stare into my left eye—I dare you! See what happens. Reality here moves like mercury, not iron. In my realm, stones on the beach are black embers, barely cooled. Leaves raven-sheeny in red moonlight. That sound you hear is not wind but souls drifting past. Wind a deft pianist and every leaf another key. I’ve given up flying because thought is faster. If I only need to go short distances—hell, the walk will do me good.”

Dead Crow. Charcoal sunfire. Bleak prophet. Speaks with a slitted grin.

“In my realm, thought translates directly into reality. Karma stops lying on its ass in front of the TV all day. Equal forces are met with equal and instant reactions. You think you hate your enemy and want him dead, and CAAW!—he’s dead. You wonder one summer afternoon why grass isn’t orange instead of green, and before your eyes the entire landscape turns Mandarin Impressionist. You think something hurtful about the person you love and she cries. Suddenly loving becomes much, much simpler. Then again, maybe not.” 

Dead Crow. World sculptor. Michelangelo of tongues. Sings in a broken key.

“Once I was white as the Arctic Circle, pristine as sunlight on a wall. Once, my world was green and full of flowers, just like this one—meadows alive with birdsong, streams flowing mountain crystal. Then one day Skunk came by. “Be careful, Crow,” she said. “Be proud of your thought magic and all the wonderful things it makes. But be careful.” It was then I began to realize—I was a god!”

Dead Crow. Stone render. Planet furnace. Semen of dusky angels.

“Every day, Skunk would come by and warn me, “Be careful.” At first, I just laughed her off. But gradually my patience flaked away like mica. Finally one day, when Skunk came into my sight, I exploded—a total eclipse of rage. I envisioned my world engulfed in flame and it was so—every living thing charred black. Now I was Dead Crow, King of Shadows.”

Dead Crow. Black curtain slasher. Hell-delver. Well of constant sorrow.

“Dawn Bringers and World Seeders that they are, the Makers sensed a great threat. With power like that I could black out an entire galaxy. In the past, only the coiling, bottomless throats of black holes could do that. Something had to be done. But I’m nobody’s fool. A simple frontal attack would never work on me. Trickery would have to be employed. So the Council of Gods invited me to a banquet as guest of honour. “A tribute to your genius,” they said. Damn my vanity!”

Dead Crow. Galaxy burner. Star furnace. Last among godly equals.

“But, Oh—I was a brilliant sight—feathers white-hot, a prime specimen of White Crow clan. Goddesses purred over me, stroking my plumage into light. Gods praised me for my mental powers, to turn an entire world black like that. Their singers sang me songs. Poets composed epic verses—all to commemorate Dead Crow’s great deed. I confess, I let myself get sloppy with wine, dancing on the table, answering song with song, poem with poem, joke with joke. Did they butter me up!”

Dead Crow. White star blossom. Snowfire bard. Master of song shards.

“Next thing I knew, the Makers set a mirror on the table with liquid surface still as a pond. “What will I see?” I asked. “The truth of yourself,” they said. But—Oh gods! What I saw—! My beautiful white feathers—black as coal in the belly of rock! Black as the world my thought had consumed! Desperately I turned to stare into a silver platter, hoping it wasn’t so. But no! I was black, black, BLACK!”

Dead Crow. Black matter king. Brokenwing god. Messenger of tears.

“What have you done to me?” I screamed. “We’ve shown you the truth of yourself,” said the Makers. “But I only used the power you gave me,” I protested. “How was I supposed to know how dangerous it could be?” But the party was over and they were in no mood for discussion. Said they had a job for me. Made me step up to the mirror again. Sober now, my every step quivered. A weird incantation was uttered. Found myself being pulled inside the mirror in a slurry of atoms. Thought I was being torn apart, yet I felt no pain.”

Dead Crow. Dark mirror diver. Blank slate diviner. Voice of all regrets in one.

“When my vision cleared I had to check all my parts. Found myself on a completely unfamiliar world. Gradually I realized this was the place they call Earth. “But WHY?” I begged. “Why take me from my home?” To my shock, my lovely singing voice—once the pride of White Crow clan—rasped horribly. I tried to sing once or twice more but it was no use. I’m not ashamed to say I wept. Lifting on an updraft, I slid over forests and fields. Time weighed like the sun on my wings. My guts felt a terrible sense of millennia washing over me. Didn’t know how long I could take it. Decided to smash myself into the highest crag I could find—just get it over with. Then there was that voice again—the Makers. “You must not die, Crow. You are our Watcher, and this is now your home.” “But for how long, how LONG?” I demanded. But too late.” 

Dead Crow. Earth wanderer. World watcher. Quintessence of loneliness.

“You can imagine the comedown—from Sovereign of Shades, Alchemist of Secrets, Magi of Creation—to a lowly carrion eater. From a thousand languages to a hinge’s rusty growl. And in this galactic backwater! Worst of all, a scavenger kicked around by Humans, who shit their own nests. Prisoner and warder in one—freedom a distant, torturing dream.”

Dead Crow.Crab Nebula outlaw. Dog star wild card. Cassiopeia’s Twilight Angel.

“I’ve seen a helluva lot over the millennia. I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in in 40,000 years. 1 You want me to start coughing up the secrets? Fine. The Book of Secrets is bound in crow feathers. You want all the arcane equations? Hyperspace, wormholes, time travel? Listen—I’ve seen the universe spread in every direction like strings of pearls. Every pearl another world, another dimension skating sideways across time. Past, present and future the nexus of thought. And every thought another world budding on the World Tree.”

Dead Crow. Stormcloud dancer. Dimension-bender. Shaman incognito.

“My time has ended. Yours is just beginning. You want evolution? Give me somebody who can think before they act. Give me poets who translate straight from Earth’s core. Her signs and wonders are not in vain. Her secrets are ours. You think this world is everything there is? We see the stars from the bottom of a well. This reality we signed on for—this world order? We can agree it has failed and sign off. Make up a new one.”

Dead Crow grins that long-beaked grin that has been the envy of every great smart-ass since the dawn of Time.

“But then again, I could be lying. Why not find out for yourself?”

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David Bowie One Year On: Blackstar Rising

INTRODUCTION: Anniversaries are often significant, painful milestones for the grieving, especially the first anniversary following the death of someone special. As I wrote last year when Bowie died, I was broadsided—shocked even—by the intensity of my grief. Once again on January 10th—the first anniversary of his death—I felt a profound sadness at his loss, a melancholy creeping in and suffusing my day, prompting this prose poem, Blackstar Rising.

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Bowie circa mid-1990s. Photo Mayayoshi Sukita.

In the poem I refer to the fact that Bowie was an avid reader and was known to carry a suitcase of books with him during his tours. By one estimate he ended up with a library of some 45,000 books. This is one reason for his brilliance—reversing the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out,’ it’s ‘brilliance in, brilliance out.’ And it’s one reason why so many current celebrities seem to create such paper-thin work: they clearly don’t read much. All part of the general ‘dumbing down’ that’s occurred over the past several decades. It’s a shame Bowie had no interest in writing his autobiography, but then you get a pretty good idea of his thinking by listening to his interviews over the years. Most celebrity interviews are vacuous at worst, merely entertaining at best. Not so with Bowie. His wide-ranging interests—as I write, “from Crowley to Nietzsche, Blake to Jeff Beck, English music hall to Broadway”—would have made any interviewer’s job a rare treat. (Another example would be Jeff Martin of The Tea Party, whom I interviewed for this blog in 2011: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/jeff-martin-the-erudite-rock-star/)

Modern celebrities would do well to learn by Bowie’s example, not just in the importance of a wide and deep reading habit, but also in his handling of fame with such gentlemanly grace, “speaking softly in Oxford shoes.” To his credit, he avoided the cockfighting arena of social media, something the President-elect of the United States could learn from. But then, for all his cultivation of media images of himself, Bowie doesn’t seem to have been much of a narcissist. For him, it was all theatre—a total immersion in art. It’s as he says in the newly released BBC documentary The Last Five Years (before the lawyers got it removed from YouTube), “You get into this so you can express yourself as a way of discovering how you relate to the society you live in.” (Not an exact quote.) What began in the ’60s as an adolescent urge for fame had clearly matured into a realization of his real motive—the artist’s unstoppable urge to create. Despite the offhand callousness of youth and the excess of the Seventies, Bowie had the grace to age well. He seemed as much committed to becoming a better person as a better artist. By all accounts he’d come a long way from the days of firing the Spiders from Mars on the final night of a tour with no prior warning. “Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been,” he said later in life.

And like a slow-motion supernova, radiating as much light as the Sun during a brief lifespan, David Bowie shone brilliantly before collapsing like a Blackstar to mortality.

Blackstar Rising

Sean Arthur Joyce

Our Jean Genie, our Rebel Rebel, our Major Tom, our Aladdin Sane, our Thin White Duke. Andromedan[1] astronaut, marooned alien, rock star boy. Outside chance in a million whose pen struck stardust. Dragging your suitcase library from Station to Station.

Wild-Eyed Boy, Wild as the Wind. Walking the streets of Supermen, demigods and half-wits. Speaking softly in Oxford shoes. From Crowley to Nietzsche, Blake to Jeff Beck, English music hall to Broadway. You strike fire from ashes, turn junkyard mutts to Diamond Dogs.

Brixton shapeshifter, flame-haired Coyote, heart too weak to resist love. O you who loved All the Madmen crammed in their German Expressionist garrets. O you, who loved the fey boys straining on their chairs for a better look at Ziggy.

And all the silver screen refugees you paroled for a day. Rule Britannia and all its bastard empires permanently out of bounds. The Man Who Sold the World a gravedigger on Wall Street. Ashes to Ashes you will never be—

Blackstar rising—the event of event horizon. Memory of moisture in the blood-dust of Mars and always, always Loving the Alien. Man of many masks—in the end you became transparent, clear as arctic air. A leaf pulling nourishment from the sun, lungs thinning to smoke.

You saw the Beast for what it was, early on, and named it Fame—that scruffy Lucifer “crouching in its overalls,” fixing us in its hypnotic stare. Beelzebub who puts a world under its spell, mistaking the ‘selfie’ for the soul.

Master of Alchemy, Heathen priest, exile from Tir ná Nog.[2] The Cracked Actor rewriting his lines: “Forget that I’m sixty cause you just got paid.” Picture of Dorian Gray—beautiful to the last, exquisitely laboured breath of song. Your heart mothwings faltering on a windowpane.

No Ché Guevara slumped over a smoking barrel in a Detroit hovel could bribe Time, “whose trick is you and me,” endlessly born and dying, born and dying. This—a life lived—your only lesson, Fantastic Voyageur. To burn and burn and burn to the last scrap of wick.

© 2017 Sean Arthur Joyce

[1] According to Wikipedia, “The Andromeda Galaxy… is a spiral galaxy approximately 780 kiloparsecs (2.5 million light-years) from Earth. It is the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way and was often referred to as the Great Andromeda Nebula in older texts.”

[2] Tir ná Nog is the mythological Land of Eternal Youth of Irish mythological lore.

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The New Prog Masters Part 1: The Inheritors

“Why, why do we suffer each race to believe/ That no race has been grander.” —Genesis, Time Table, from Foxtrot

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One of Prog Rock’s godfathers: Steve Hackett. Courtesy Wikimedia.

As Mark Twain once quipped, “Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” It’s a statement that applies equally to modern Prog Rock. Okay, so I’ve been living under a rock when it comes to the current state of Prog Rock, or Progressive Music as Steve Hackett and others prefer to call it. With the devolving of radio—once the margin zone where new and innovative artists were launched—into demographically programmed commerce, it’s tough for anyone beyond global celebrities to get any attention. Possibly our best equivalent to college radio now (besides those few college stations still on air) is YouTube. It’s the positive side of Google algorithms—once it sees that you’ve been listening to the classic Prog acts it puts newer Prog bands into your search results. This has introduced me to a whole stable of bands continuing the grand tradition—The Flower Kings, Haken, Unitopia, Transatlantic, Magic Pie, Riverside, et al.

Like it or not, aging tends to make you something of a traditionalist. Pound for pound, the ’70s produced more classic albums than any era before or since. It truly was the Golden Era of Prog. But there are clear inheritors of the tradition. With a caveat: while there are some exceptional instrumentalists out there now, unique voices like Jon Anderson, Peter Gabriel and Greg Lake don’t exactly grow on trees. So allow me to make up for my ignorance and the oversight of mainstream media by recommending a list of recent Prog albums that could very well earn the status of classics in years to come.

  1. The Flower Kings: Flower Power, Banks of Eden and Desolation Rose. Having been immersed in this band in recent weeks, it’s tough to choose only one album as a potential classic. Their closest musical counterpart in the Prog canon would clearly be Genesis, although their vocals at times reach the soaring heights of Yes. Bandleader and guitarist Roine Stolt has even performed with Steve Hackett on his Genesis Revisisted tours. Stolt maintains a seemingly superhuman work schedule, contributing not only to solo efforts by other band members but also performing with the ‘Prog supergroup’ Transatlantic. And it’s Stolt’s guitar stylings that both connect the Kings to Genesis and carve out his own sonic niche.
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Roine Stolt, guitarist and brainchild behind The Flower Kings. Courtesy Wikimedia.

As to picking the cream of their crop, several epic tracks that predate Banks of Eden and Desolation Rose are a no-brainer for any Prog fan: Stardust We Are (from the album of the same name), The Truth Will Set You Free (from Unfold the Future), and of course the entire Garden of Dreams suite that comprises Flower Power. On these earlier albums the grand scope of these marathon compositions echoes epic classics like Supper’s Ready, with the same dizzying shifts of mood, rhythm, and eccentric phrasing. Space Revolver is an excellent example of this, its complex structure nevertheless as seamless as Pink Floyd’s multifaceted classic Dark Side of the Moon, with electronic flourishes reminiscent of that timeless album. Like so much of the best Prog, it’s a challenging listen, impossible to take in at one sitting.

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The Flower Kings’ 2013 album Banks of Eden. Courtesy band website.

Even the compositional trajectory of The Flower Kings subtly mimics that of Genesis, from the epic-length tracks of Trespass, Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot to the more song-oriented works found on later classics such as Selling England by the Pound and A Trick of the Tail. (Hopefully they avoid imitating the descent of Genesis into the Phil Collins Pop Band.) The Kings’ most recent albums, Banks of Eden (2012) and Desolation Rose (2013), have reached an ideal synthesis of Prog transcendentalism with tight, focused songwriting. Gone are most of the meandering tempo shifts, replaced by a crispness and concision riding a muscular rhythm section. This remedies a weakness seen all too often on earlier albums, which were padded out to well over an hour with songs or instrumental rambles that were competently executed but ultimately forgettable. The trend began with Paradox Hotel, which employs a similar technique of powerfully tight numbers, but only occasionally mints a gem (such as the title track), whereas Banks of Eden and Desolation Rose are consistent throughout. Masterful stuff. http://www.flowerkings.se/discography.php

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    Norway’s Magic Pie: inheritors of the Prog Rock tradition. Courtesy band website.

    Magic Pie: The Suffering Joy. Over the course of their 10-year career to date, Norway’s Magic Pie have released four powerful albums, including The Suffering Joy—my pick for an instant Prog classic and winner of the Best of the Year album for 2011 at the Sea of Tranquility readers’ poll. Eirikur Hauksson’s lead vocals are rich and expressive, the lyrics of lead opus A Life’s Work gripping us instantly with its philosophical ruminations, grappling with questions that have plagued philosophers since Plato. As a writer, this is precisely what made me more of a Yes fan than a Bad Company fan, more a Gentle Giant fan than a Foghat fan, although I also loved the blues-based hard rock of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. Magic Pie’s lockstep polyrhythms—a staple of Prog—are laced with just enough crunching guitar to keep the proceedings from descending into Prog jazz, my least favourite offshoot of the genre. As with many of their contemporaries in the field, the guitars tend more toward hard rock or metal than folk or classical, as with classic acts Yes and Genesis. Magic Pie’s first two albums Motions of Desire and Circus of Life are also worthy compositions, demonstrating consistent growth and musical complexity. http://www.magicpie.net

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    Haken performing at the 2014 Ino Rock Festival. Courtesy Wikimedia.

     

    Haken: The Mountain. Haken is another modern Prog outfit that favours a heavy metal edge to their guitar sound but these guys are no mere Marshall stack riffers. Thankfully, current Prog bands are savvy enough to dispense with the demonic growl that passes for vocals in Death Metal or Thrash in favour of singers who can actually sing. As with Magic Pie, vocals alternate between the resonant clarity of Haken’s Ross Jennings and harmonies in the choruses and bridges. With the range of tonal colourings available to keyboardists these days, it’s no surprise that Haken’s range is broad—from piano stylings to classic Moog-like tones. The Mountain maintains the Prog tradition of following the thread of a theme all the way through the album while not necessarily being a ‘concept’ album. (Concept albums require an intimate familiarity with the literary sources that inspire them, a literacy few musicians seem to have.) However, when it comes to the Fathers of Prog, Haken are no ignoramuses. They demonstrate their vocal dexterity on songs like The Cockroach King, which employs Gentle Giant-style multi-layered polyphonics—likely an homage to songs like Knots on Octopus. This technique crops up again later in Somebody but is integrated seamlessly enough to avoid seeming gimmicky. Because It’s There exhibits a classical choral structure to the opening vocals. Still, compared to The Flower Kings, these guys are definitely heavier, erring occasionally on the side of metal bombast where the Kings sometimes err on the side of jazzy noodling. I found Haken’s albums Visions and Aquarius equally compelling, but perhaps not as fully integrated a musical statement as The Mountain. http://www.hakenmusic.com/music

            CONTINUED WITH PART TWO: The New Prog Masters: All About the Music

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