Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Putting ZZ Top's Fuzzy Past in Focus

What’s underneath those beards, anyway? Anyone who has ever lent an ear to the legacy of long-lived boogie rock legends ZZ Top can tell you that there’s a fair share of Texas blues in the band’s background. But as an elegantly appointed new boxed set makes clear, the backstory of Billy Gibbons”the Top’s singer and guitarist since their ’69 inception”also boasts a heaping helping of psychedelia.

Moving Sidewalks “ The Complete Collection, just released by reissue specialists Rockbeat Records, chronicles the journey of a young Billy Gibbons through the Houston music scene of the mid-to-late ˜60s on his way to forming the band that would become a rock & roll phenomenon. If you’ve ever yearned to peek beneath the fulsome facial hair of the famous frontman, either literally or figuratively, all you have to do is open up this enticing package. Not only does the photo-laden 54-page booklet offer up images of a clean-shaven, baby-faced Billy in his teens as a member of The Coachmen and then the Moving Sidewalks, the two CDs encompass the entirety of both bands’ output. (more…)

Stream Thrice's Live Album – "Anthology"

Still heartbroken about Thrice breaking up? Well don’t you worry. They understand, and just to show how much they care, they’ve put together a 24-song collection of select live recordings from their farewell tour. The limited edition physical 4-LP/2-CD box set is set to be released next week on October 30 by Staple Records, but you can hear it right now streaming on SoundCloud! So grab your buddies and some tissues, sit back, and enjoy the final recordings of Thrice as you weep for the demise of one of our generations greatest bands. (Suck it up. There’s probably gonna be a reunion anyway.)

If you like Thrice, then you might also like OurStage’s own This Armistice.

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Sufjan Stevens, New Video Includes Christmas, Claymation, Zombies, Bloodshed, And More!

Prepare yourselves for the best video of the year. Experimental indie artist Sufjan Stevens has a new video for his song “Mr. Frosty Man” from his upcoming 58-track Silver & Gold Christmas box set. The footage is a full 2 minutes of complete claymation carnage, with zombies, brains, bloodshed, a heroic snowman, references to The Evil Dead, and an unfortunate Santa Claus. The song itself is a silly sloppy garage style romp of out-of-tune guitars and “whatever’s around” percussion, and like most Sufjan Stevens songs, it doesn’t seem to resemble anything else he’s made. The Silver & Gold box set will be released on November 13th. Check out the video for “Mr. Frosty Man” below.

If you like Sufjan Stevens, then you might also like OurStage’s own The Tiny Tin Hearts.

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Riffs, Rants and Rumors: How Tom Trumped Bruce on 'Live Anthology'

Within the upper echelon of heartland rock, at this late date, it all boils down to a crucial question: Springsteen or Petty? The third member of the Holy Trinity, Bob Seger, more or less took himself out of the game over the last couple of decades, while John Mellencamp‘s never really been much more than a dim reflection of the others to begin with, so at this juncture”with all the aforementioned Americana rockers having reached sexagenarian status”it’s basically about Bruce and Tom.

Even the members of roots-rock royalty are only ever as good as their bands, be they E Street, Silver Bullet, or Heartbreakers, and there’s no better measure of a great band’s prowess than the mark they make in concert. So the ultimate proving ground in the recording realm becomes not the studio album but the live anthology. But we’re not talking about your standard-issue live album here”both Petty and Springsteen have released those. No, a grand-scale summary of the concert repertoire is what’s really required to take the artistic temperature of an act in this arena (pun only partially intended).

In this context, one might suggest that Springsteen made a crucial mistake by playing his hand too soon, releasing the three-disc box set Live/1975-85 in 1986, even though he couldn’t have known how many subsequent years of concert triumphs he’d be excluding from the collection. But to call a spade a spade, Bruce’s biggest blunder in our little imaginary competition was in valuing strength over subtlety. They don’t call him The Boss for nothing”Springsteen’s sound has always been about larger-than-life statements delivered with an almost Wagnerian grandeur. As he’s the master of the mode, it’s often thrilling, but it also precludes the possibilities inherent in a lower-key lean, especially live, and that’s where The Heartbreakers come into the picture.

Where the inspirations for the E Street approach come from Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound productions and Roy Orbison‘s pathos-ridden rock operettas, the comparatively laconic Petty and his Gainesville gang were modeled more after the supple, sinuous feel of the famed Southern soul sessionmen of Muscle Shoals, AL, the minimalist R&B grooves of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, and the laid-back country funk of J.J. Cale. Those are the roots The Heartbreakers bring to bear while breathing life into Petty’s tunes, but while there’s nary an ounce of flash or bombast to be found anywhere near a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concert, there’s no shortage of soulful fire and pure rock & roll energy either. With characteristic caginess, Tom waited another quarter-century after Bruce to bring out his big live box set, simply dubbed The Live Anthology, released at the tail end of 2009. In its deluxe version, it took five CDs, two DVDs, a Blu-Ray disc, and a wealth of graphic-oriented extras to tell its tale of a band with three decades-plus of tasteful-but-torrid road-rocking behind them.


Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Boxing The English Beat With Dave Wakeling

The late ˜70s and early ˜80s were a boom time for bands blending New Wave’s urgency and energy with the Jamaican rhythms of ska and reggae. The biggest-selling exponents of that musical merger were The Police and Men At Work, but a whole ska-rock subculture developed in England around a handful of bands working under the Two Tone banner. Two Tone was first and foremost a label, with a roster that at one time or another included The Beat, Bad Manners, The Bodysnatchers, Madness, The Selecter, and The Specials, among others, but it also evolved into a genre tag, partly due to the label’s black-and-white logo and iconography, and partly because of the groups’ commitment to actively opposing the racism that was prevalent in England at the time, through songs, benefits, and activism. The Beat (who became known in the U.S. as The English Beat due to another band’s claim on the name) were Two Tone’s poster boys, as much for their unity-boosting lyrics as for their integrated lineup, and they eventually had the biggest impact in America of any Two Tone act. (more…)

Motörhead Rebels Against Greed

Outraged by the extravagant cost of their new 15 disc box set, Motí¶rhead has told their fans not to waste their money on the overpriced trinket. At $600, the box set’s coffin-like case houses each disc with a Motí¶rhead skull emblem fastened to its lid. Open it up and you’ll find several singles and eight earlier albums, from their self-titled to No Remorse. In addition, the package contains some posters and a photo book.

According to CNN, frontman Lemmy Kilmister stated, “Unfortunately greed once again rears its yapping head… I would advise against it even for the most rabid completists!”

The band claims, “Motí¶rhead has no control over what’s done with these early songs, and don’t want fans to think that the band is involved in putting out such a costly box set.”

If you’re simply too much of die-hard fanatic, the group recently put out a new (reasonably priced) album and DVD titled  “The Wí¶rld Is Yours” and “The Wí¶rld Is Ours – Vol 1 – Everywhere Further Than Everyplace Else” late last year.

Click here to see images of the box set and its outrageous $644 price tag on Amazon.

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Richard Barone Regains His 'Cool Blue Halo'

The rock world was getting ugly in 1987”the fresh fruit from the first half of the decade began to turn rancid as New Wave pioneers lost the plot and either fell apart or fatally tarted up their sound for more commercial appeal. Things were just as bad on the mainstream end of the spectrum as big-time rock acts got bigger and dumber, often simultaneously. But amid all the sonic Sturm und Drang, a soft, subtle little gem slipped in, showing that it was possible to turn people’s heads without blowing their ears out. And now, twenty-five years later, that unassuming classic is set for a rebirth.

Richard Barone, who had spent most of the ’80s making moody, mysterious power pop as the frontman for The Bongos, ventured out on his own for the first time with Cool Blue Halo, an all-acoustic album recorded live in concert at New York’s intimate Bottom Line club. “I was trying to do something that was not the Bongos,” says Barone. “I didn’t want to replace my best friends, so I didn’t go look for a bass player or drummer, I just tried to be open to other ideas.” The personnel for Barone’s new project fell into place with very little effort”he found cellist Jane Scarpantoni playing solo cello for the lunchtime crowd at Maxwell’s, the Hoboken club that had been The Bongos’ home base. Barone had just produced acoustic guitarist Nick Celeste‘s band, In Color, and the last piece of the puzzle fell into place when someone recommended Valerie Naranjo, who played both African and symphonic percussion.

Though The Bongos were never to release another album, they were still touring at this time, and the kind of quiet, folk-pop magic the Cool Blue Halo band began weaving in its performances made for some serious schizophrenia within Barone’s otherwise amped-to-eleven world. “This was like playing hooky from The Bongos,” Barone recalls. “I was doing the Richard Barone Cool Blue Halo shows and then the next night sometimes performing a Bongos show somewhere. And they were very opposite kinds of energy completely. Ivan Julian [of Richard Hell & The Voidoids] was playing with The Bongos at that time, so the band was really high-powered…It was a blurry period for me.”

The performance you hear on Cool Blue Halo was the first time the foursome had ever performed in public together, Naranjo having joined the band a week before, and the new lineup squeezing in only a single rehearsal before the Bottom Line show. “There’s so much improvisation in that album,” remembers Barone, “because we hadn’t really played as a quartet before until that show. There’s something magical about that for me. I don’t know how we pulled it off.” In keeping with Barone’s vow to diverge from the beat-driven rock of The Bongos, this group took a much more abstract approach to rhythm. “Cool Blue Halo doesn’t really have any backbeat,” explains Barone, “That was one of the rules on that album…it’s all around the beat on the percussion.”

Barone also decided to honor a few of his key influences, but in unexpected ways. “I thought I should do a Beatles song, but I had to find the most obscure one I could¦I always loved ‘Cry Baby Cry’ from the White Album. I loved the way they did it, but I always felt like it was kind of an unfinished production¦I fleshed it out a little bit more, as far as the cello line and the marimba. And then I wanted to do a Marc Bolan song. I had already done ‘Mambo Sun’ with The Bongos, but I wanted to do a really obscure Marc Bolan song, so I did ‘The Visit.’ It’s about a love affair with an alien”I thought that was really romantic. And then I wanted to pick a Bowie song. At the time, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ was very obscure, it had been covered only by Lulu in 1973, produced by David! I have the vinyl single of that. So I had Beatles, Bolan and Bowie. I couldn’t go wrong with that. And then I framed it, the first and last songs are Bongos songs. I kind of built a house with Cool Blue Halo where I had these pillars of the Beatles, Bowie, and Bolan in the middle holding it up, and the Bongos are the outside walls, and I could go in with my own new songs in between.”

The hushed and haunting sound the Cool Blue Halo band created might have been at odds with its era, but it had at least a partial precedent in the quietly elegant chamber-pop sounds of some of the 1960s’ more sophisticated bands. “The minor key feel of The Zombies and the harmonies of The Left Banke, those are in what we were doing,” Barone allows. “Never intentionally, because we weren’t, like, studying them, but it’s definitely in there.” In 1987, the approach was different enough to strike a chord with the curious, and the quartet spent the better part of the next two years touring in the US and Europe, even though the album’s American label, Passport, went under shortly after the record’s release. “We were still touring,” Barone recalls, “we didn’t really care, it went under and the copies were still floating around. It could have gotten around a lot more if the label didn’t die in the middle of the process, but in Europe it was on different labels, so that was fine.”

But now Cool Blue Halo is about to have a second life in time for its twenty-fifth anniversary, as a deluxe, expanded, five-disc box set. Barone says the idea came from author and music executive Jay Frank, who’d been getting set to start a new label. “When he said five discs, I was taken aback at first, but then I realized that there are five discs here. One is the original album, which we’ll have to remaster. I think it’s gonna reveal a lot more of the detail of that album when we put it back up on the machine. Then I think we’ll do Live in Berlin for the live album, it’s a different show completely, even though it’s the same songs. Also on that same second disc could be Live in Paris. Then there’s the demos; I did make demos for the musicians on multitrack cassette, that’ll be an outtakes disc”demos and recordings that we did to learn the songs. And there are rare videos from the era, that’ll be on the outtakes disc as well. Then on May 4 at [New York club] City Winery we’re gonna do a new show, we’re gonna recreate the album, but with special guests. That will be recorded as an audio disc, and it’ll be filmed with several cameras. One of the discs will be the DVD. Then there’s also vinyl, there will be a single, that’s the fifth disc.”

As if that wasn’t enough, extra enticements will include a t-shirt and a lithograph, as well as a hardcover book containing photos, essays, album reviews from the time and more, all in a limited edition of 1,000 numbered and signed sets. To help offset the cost of things like the multi-camera video shoot, there’s a pre-order site where fans can kick in to get one of several variations on the reissue package, from the remastered original album alone to the full-blown box set plus tickets to the City Winery show.

Ultimately, Barone”a hardcore record collector himself”wanted to create a collectible item on a par with the collectors’ pieces he personally cherishes. “Right now in my apartment I’m surrounded by collectible things from different artists that I’ve collected all my life,” he says. “I just want to make this as nice and beloved as those items I’ve collected. This is the right album to do it with, maybe because the label went under, maybe because it had a limited run in America, maybe that’s why it’s interesting now to bring it back in this way. It was thwarted when the label went under then, it didn’t really have a chance. So I think now maybe more people can have a chance to hear it.”

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Rockin' Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday season is supposed to appeal to all of our finer instincts as sentient earthlings ”at least that’s the idea that’s been inculcated in us practically since birth. So why is its annual arrival commonly greeted with the kind of dull-eyed existential dread otherwise reserved for tax audits, traffic court and other such frivolities? Maybe it’s because of the stress that comes along with finding just the right gifts for all the loved ones on our lists. After all, some folks are a snap”another Xbox game, Scotch bottle or sweater, and they’re set”but everyone’s holiday shopping list always contains at least one or two of the type we’ll term “The Difficult Ones.” Their tastes are micro-specific, and they usually seem to want nothing, already have everything or both. With that in mind, in the interest of sucking some of the stress out of the season, here are a few humble holiday gift suggestions for “The Difficult Ones” in your own life, conveniently organized by personality type.

The Classic Rockers

Jimi Hendrix – Winterland

Do you have a dude in your life”and in this context, “dude” couldn’t be a more appropriate designation”whose idea of extreme sports is playing air guitar to Bachman-Turner Overdrive while pedaling his exercise bike? Someone whose TV remote has somehow been programmed to never depart from the VH1 Classic channel? He may already have every classic-rock reissue, remaster and repackaging you could conceive of, but he hasn’t gotten around to this one yet”five live discs featuring Jimi Hendrix in his prime at the legendary Winterland Ballroom. Iit’ll send any card-carrying Classic Rocker into a state of six-string ecstasy.


Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Paul Kelly Knows His ABC's

In the US, Australian songsmith Paul Kelly‘s cult-hero status was cemented by a pair of late-˜80s A&M releases”Gossip and Under The Sun. Kelly’s concise, cutting lyrics and no-nonsense tunes suggested sort of an Aussie answer to Graham Parker, with the sharp, sympathetic backing of The Messengers revving things up in a rather Rumour-like way. Leaving The Messengers in the early ˜90s after two more albums, Kelly ultimately embraced his folk and country influences and pursued the rootsy, acoustic-based singer/songwriter path he treads to this day, having slowly but steadily expanded his American audience over the years.

In his homeland, however, Kelly is a national hero regarded with an almost Springsteen-level reverence, earning just about every honor and award the Australian music industry has in its power to bestow. But with the current ramping-up of Kelly activity stateside, it may finally be time for America to begin playing catch-up. Not only has he got a new eight-CD box set, he’s written a book as the box’s companion piece (also available separately), and there’s a comprehensive, two-disc anthology getting its first US release.

The box, The A-Z Recordings, had its genesis in a series of specially configured live shows. I started doing these A-Z shows about seven years ago, Kelly explains, where I do 100 songs in alphabetical order by title, over four nights, twenty-five songs a night. It’s a sort of theatrical show, with the letters up [on a big easel onstage] and storytelling, and intermission. I found that audiences really liked the idea. I started doing them once or twice a year and recorded the shows as I went. That led to the idea of putting out the recordings. We ended up making it an eight-CD set so we could match the nights evenly, four nights, two halves each night.


Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Iggy Pop's Road Rage

The attention-grabbing image on the front cover of the new Iggy Pop box set, Roadkill Rising, offers an apt”if a bit unsettling”visual metaphor for the punk patriarch’s career. It’s a pulp-horror-style illustration of an undead-looking Iggy rising up from between two broken white lines on a moonlit highway, most of his musculature free of flesh and dripping blood, as he stares solemnly forward with a grim sense of purpose.

Not only has the real-life Iggy come disturbingly close to this depiction physically”with his leathery skin long stretched tight over a lean, lupine frame, and his onetime penchant for making onstage torso incisions”he has also embodied the image via his lifelong rock & roll mission, best described by his classic Stooges-era song, “Search and Destroy.” The man called Pop has been all about bringing his message to the people in the most visceral way possible since The Stooges started out in the late ’60s. Describing Iggy’s onstage agenda, former Minutemen bassist and current Stooges member Mike Watt recently told your humble correspondent “We’re there to work the gig, so he’s plugged into the people, but it ain’t schtick”he’s right in the moment.”

By the time Iggy ends a show, he’s usually stripped to the waist, sweating from every pore and has fostered a mental, spiritual, and musical connection with everyone in the house. Even in his 50s and 60s, he could frequently be found inviting a hardy phalanx of audience members up on stage, battling with venue security guards and physically and verbally exhorting the crowd to let loose in whatever way possible. And it’s that aspect of the rock legend’s work that Roadkill Rising spotlights over the course of its four discs of live recordings.

Due out May 17 on the Shout! Factory label, Roadkill Rising is a staggeringly exhaustive document of Iggy’s onstage antics throughout his post-Stooges career. Produced by David Skye, the set starts off in 1977 at the beginning of the Stooges frontman’s solo career, and moves through each era of Iggy’s development, going all the way up to 2009. There’s one disc per decade, covering pretty much every phase of Pop’s career, from the early, Bowie-assisted days of The Idiot and Lust For Life, through his various mainstream resurgences in the mid ’80s and early ’90s (the era of “Real Wild Child,” “Candy,” et al), and pushing onward to the twenty-first century reconstitution of The Stooges.

From a 1980 version of “Nightclubbing” that begins with Iggy shouting to the crowd, “Can I get a girl to come up here with me and go Nightclubbing?” to an ’87 performance that finds him barking like a rabid dog as an intro to “Real Wild Child,” you can hear the former James Osterberg Jr. putting all his energy into breaking the boundaries between performer and audience by any means possible. As Iggy begins to enter his elder statesman period in the mid ’80s, his backing bands begin to sound a little less punky and a little more pro, but by the time he brings The Stooges back to life in the 2000s, that ragged-but-right rock & roll roar is as raw as ever. And no matter what’s going on around him, Iggy never offers up anything less than 100 percent of himself to his fans.

With a total of sixty-six cuts covering a span of thirty-two years, it’s tough to imagine a more comprehensive audio investigation of Iggy’s live work than Roadkill Rising. And while the inclusion of liner notes might have provided a bit more context for this massive musical document, in the end all you really need is Iggy raging in your ear in order to immediately understand what “Raw Power” really means.