My 2014 in rock, etc., was like most of those before it: rich in surprise, assurance, discovery and loss, some of it close: Ian McLagan of the Small Faces and Faces; Paul Revere of the Raiders; singer Doc Neeson of Australian ragers the Angels. What follows, in no ranked order, isn’t everything I heard, saw and wrote about (or wished I had). But it shows why I still love what I do – and where my standards are for 2015.
King Crimson, The Egg, Albany, NY, September 9th; The Elements (DGM); Starless (DGM)
The best new, touring band of 2014 was history with a twist: a British exploratory institution revisiting deep catalog with a tripled emphasis on rhythmic exchange and propulsion. Founding guitarist Robert Fripp presided over the premiere performance by his Mark VIII Crimson with deceptively guarded relish: perched to the far right and rear of the three drummers, cutting across their thundering math with heated-needle distortion and angular, melodic decision. The history of composed drama and improvising duty in the set list – long-dormant, progressive bedrock like “Sailor’s Tale” and “Starless” – was affirmed in The Elements, a two-CD set of rare, archival live tracks sold at the merch table, and the gargantuan Starless box, a two-dozen-disc concert account of the thrilling free-form Crimson of 1973-74: an era and ambition still surging through Fripp’s new ship.
Hedvig Mollestad Trio, Enfant Terrible (Rune Grammofon); SXSW, Austin, TX, April 13th
Set up with her power trio in the tight corner of an Austin bar, guitarist Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen – a petite, Norwegian dynamo with a wide-body axe – stalked the whole floor in spangles, heels and feminine-avenger vogue, carving the air with an avant-fusion swordplay that suggested Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow fortified with Arctic death-metal ferocity. Enfant Terrible, her second album, has everything I got live, except the exultant body language – which is not hard to imagine.
Bo Ningen, SXSW, Austin TX, April 15th
Savages/Bo Ningen, Words to the Blind (Stolen/Pop Noire)
Bo Ningen were the last thing I expected at a British alt-rock showcase: a Japanese quartet in black priest-like robes and waist-length hair. Founded in London in 2006, the expatriate ninjas are descended, in fuzz, feedback and singer-bassist Taigen Kawabe‘s neo-operatic bark, from Sino-psychedelic overkillers such as Boris, Acid Mothers Temple and Seventies bizarros Speed, Glue and Shinki. But there is a surprising momentum in the melee: danceable rhythms somewhere between Can’s hypno-march and New Order’s “Blue Monday.” III (Stolen), Bo Ningen’s first U.S. album, is inevitably a cryptic fury: the group’s physical exaggerration in performance is half the high. Words to the Blind, recorded live with the four women of London’s Savages, is a single 37-minute turmoil of the bands’ respective, punky dada, pushed to a combined extreme.
Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Caldo Verde); Town Hall, New York City, July 24th
This show – singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek leading the long-running successor to his Nineties ghost-song band Red House Painters – was a lesson in the great weight of bare minimums: guitars plucked and strummed in improbably slow motion, through lakes of reverb; the suspense of deep breath and gathering storm in Kozelek’s baritone crawl. But this was a stasis that covered long ground: particularly, in the Town Hall set, the distance travelled on Benji – the latest of Kozelek’s more than 30 releases just since 2001 – between decisive, adolescent revelation (“I Saw the Film The Song Remains the Same”) and more recent confrontations with aging and loss. Kozelek may work in quiet, brooding strides, but he’s no quitter, as he pointed out at Town Hall in the lethal ballad “Hey You Bastards, I’m Still Here.”
Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, Deconstructed (Sub Pop)
Like Drive-By Truckers and Bloodkin, these rebel yellers from Georgia and Alabama are the product of a South still under economic and spiritual Reconstruction and long marinated in AC/DC. “We were whooped with the Good Book/Wound up shamed, sorry and worse,” rails Bains, the Fires’ singing and writing ignition, giving back as good as he got across a crunch of thorny guitars and smackdown drumming. Deconstructed is the kind of grass-roots politics most politicians don’t like to hear: “The Weeds Downtown,” the straight-up blowback of “We Dare Defend Our Rights!” But Bains is just as severe with his own kind, the milennials too drunk on tweets and couch life to get busy on the ground. “Get off the fucking internet, and cut off the cable/The mind is static, but the body’s still able,” Bains commands in “Burnpiles, Swimming Holes.” I didn’t get to see this band live in 2014; I won’t make that mistake in ’15.
Ian McLagan, Iridium, New York City, June 17th
With McLagan’s death on December 3rd after a massive stroke, this record-release show for his fine solo album, United States (Yep Roc), and our cheerful exchange of hellos and chatter afterward are now treasured memories: my last night with McLagan’s buoyant wit, welcoming charm and rich body of tunes and tales from his heydays with the Small Faces and the Faces. At 69, he was the same peppery showman I saw with the Faces in 1971 and still devoted to those who fell too soon. McLagan’s Iridium set included a tribute to Small Faces singer Steve Marriott – that band’s ’67 nugget “Get Yourself Together.” And in the Faces gem “Glad and Sorry,” McLagan celebrated the soul and pathos of its composer and his dearly-missed friend, bassist Ronnie Lane. A full life of session work ensured that McLagan now has peers and fans to pay him honor such as Gov’t Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, who finished the Mule’s December 30th show at the Beacon Theater with the Faces’ “Stay With Me” – a fine blast of affection and missing.
Sloan, Commonwealth (Yep Roc)
The Vines, Wicked Nature (Wicked Nature)
There are four sides to every rock & roll quartet. The Beatles spread theirs all over “The White Album” in 1968; Pink Floyd had the solo-tracks half of 1969’s Ummagumma. On Commonwealth, the Canadian modern-power-pop band Sloan combined those approaches in a double-album suite of individual license, with each of the four members taking the vocal-composing lead. The chiming result: respective strengths and intent (the symphonic McCartney of guitarist Jay Ferguson‘s “side”; drummer Andrew Scott‘s closing parade of instrumental miniatures) rendered with glass-fireworks jangle, airtight harmonies and enthusiastic union.
In September, 2002, the Australian atomic-pop trio the Vines appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, with singer-guitarist Craig Nichols looking like the maniacal proof of the headline, “Rock Is Back!” So, at last, are the Vines – with Nichols leading a new lineup – after a mess of overnight-infamy blues, dashed expectations and a few under-the-radar records. Wicked Nature – 22 songs across two LP-length CDs – is a matured return to the rushed, dense-fuzz battle of the Vines’ 2002 knockout debut, Highly Evolved, and that great, profane finish to 2004’s Winning Days, “Fuck the World.” World, come on back.
The Allman Brothers Band, Beacon Theater, New York City, October 28th, 2014
What a way to say goodbye: As much of the first five albums as they could fit in three sets and a final, poignant bow in the early hours of the 29th, the fortieth anniversary of the death of founding guitarist Duane Allman. He was inevitably present in the room all night. The first set opened with guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks quoting Duane’s last composition, “Little Martha,” in tender electric harmony before easing into “Mountain Jam” from Eat a Peach, his final album with the group. But even on this night before retirement, the Allmans – in the lineup I saw more than any other during those spring flings at the Beacon – was still a band busy being born. As I wrote in my review the next morning, “The lightning, frenzy and swan dives in ‘Hot ‘Lanta,’ ‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘Dreams’ . . . were acts of acknowledgement and summation, charged with the pursuit of the unfinished.” A three-CD set of this Beacon climax, available from the Allmans’ website, is on the stereo as I write. The road may not go on forever, but this show will stay in heavy rotation.
F. Sloan, Book Soup,. Los Angeles, July 14th
Sloan has a history that could fill a book: a golden ride through mid-Sixties folk-rock Los Angeles as a songwriter, session guitarist and producer for the Turtles, the Mamas and the Papas and the Grass Roots; then a famous spell of missing years immortalized in Jimmy Webb’s early-Seventies homage “P.F. Sloan.” Sloan has now written that book, What’s Exactly the Matter With Me? (Jawbone Press), with S.E. Feinberg. But in a remarkable promotional appearance at this store on the Sunset Strip, Sloan didn’t read much from his memoir, preferring to spin through more than two hours of impromptu storytelling – the guitar lick he wrote for “California Dreaming”; the writing of “Eve of Destruction,” his protest smash for Barry McGuire – with ample illustration, performing those songs and many others. At one point, Sloan brought out a friend, singer Creed Bratton of the Grass Roots, to help him sing that band’s hit “Where Were You When I Needed You.” Bratton is more famous now as a TV star, in The Office. But for a few minutes, it sounded like 1966 on the Strip again.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Phosphorescent Harvest (Silver Arrow)
Rich Robinson, The Ceaseless Sight (The End); City Winery, New York City, June 15th
Trigger Hippy, Trigger Hippy (Rounder); Gramercy Theater, New York City, November 20th
A feast of Black Crowes, in installments: Phosphorescent Harvest is the third, straight winner from Chris’ Brotherhood, a California dreaming of day-glo R&B, loamy country and easy-going ascension. There was a certain FM-radio hit in the first track, “Shore Power,” with its Kraftwerk-at-the-Fillmore electro-percolation – if last year had been 1973. Rich’s third solo album was a seamless, earthy whirl of electric-blues aggression and psychedelic introspection, with strong hints of Fleetwood Mac’s Danny Kirwan in Rich’s courtly vocals. He reinforced that connection at City Winery with a great cover of Kirwan’s “Station Man”, from the 1970 Mac gem, Kiln House. Drummer Steve Gorman and guitarist Jackie Green are the Crowes’ connection to Trigger Hippy, a hard-country quintet with jamming cred – Green, Rich’s foil on the last Crowes tour, is also a frequent member of Phil Lesh and Friends – and established blues power in singer Joan Osborne. The album is strong; the show had muscle and grooves; the future looks fine.
Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, by Joel Selvin (Counterpoint Press)
Huey “Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues, by John Wirt (LSU Press)
Smith and Berns came from opposite sides of the record industry, when rock & roll was in its explosive, high-speed infancy. Living with a damaged heart drove Berns, who died in 1967 at 38, to produce, write and arrange records like each one was his last. And he got a lot done in his boom years, from ’61 on: co-writing “Twist and Shout” and “Hang on Sloopy”; cutting classic R&B with Solomon Burke and Garnett Mimms and the first Them and solo hits for Van Morrison. Berns also did business like he had nothing to lose, often with sharks, at his artists’ expense. Selvin recounts Berns’ life, triumphs and ruinous taste in business associates with a crime reporter’s velocity. He also makes sure Berns’ genius in the studio never gets lost in the double dealing.
Smith, an R&B-piano contemporary of Professor Longhair and the young Fats Domino, was already top of the pops in the late Fifties, singing and writing the fundamental New Orleans-R&B hits “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and “Don’t You Just Know It.” Smith was a pioneer in getting fleeced too: losing his rights and royalties in shady deals that kept him in courtrooms for decades. Wirt’s account of Smith’s legal nightmares is detailed and unforgiving. But Wirt is even better on Smith’s early life in America’s greatest R&B city, the pianist’s high times in rock & roll’s first decade and the lunatic spirits he fostered in his band the Clowns (piano demon James Booker, the flamboyant vocalist Bobby Marchan). Smith never got the money he deserved, but he’s still a living legend, now 80, while the business that robbed him is in the toilet. Now you know who won.
Phil Lesh and Friends, everywhere, 2014
I caught the ex-Grateful Dead bassist and his mutating troupe of Friends at four stops on their year-long tour of the New York metropolitan area – at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in Central Park, then back at the Cap. And I came away from each night with something I didn’t get on the others in lineup, repertoire and ensemble conversation. Highlights included a blues-fusion roll through Aoxomoxoa‘s “St. Stephen” in April at the Capitol with ex-Miles Davis sideman Bill Evans and a late-May shock in Central Park as the tandem-guitar soloing of Warren Haynes and another Miles sideman, John Scofield, resolved into Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” via the long intro jam on Rock and Roll Animal. My last shot, on December 29th back at the Cap, was PhilRAD: Lesh with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, a repertory side project led by Lesh’s regular drummer. Like the other shows I saw and the several more I heard in tapers-section recordings, it was a superior group of disciples playing songs from an adored history with one of the creators – together forging new links in an unbroken chain.