Mark Eitzel is almost pathologically disinclined to talk shit. Even in situations where it might be in his best interest to offer up some sort of self-serving statement, he seems practically honor-bound to push a pin into the balloon. For instance, in analyzing his upcoming release, Don’t Be a Stranger, the erstwhile American Music Club singer/songwriter admits his affection for the record but immediately follows up by observing that he usually hates his own albums. It’s hard to be subjective about the things you make, he explains. Actually, if I was a real rock person I’d say ˜No, it’s fucking great, it fucking rules, it’s the best thing the world has ever fucking seen!’ That’s what I should be saying. ˜This turd I just took is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ I respect people like that; we need them. No, we don’t, he recants, they become Presidential candidates.
So it’s no great surprise to venture into Don’t Be a Stranger and encounter songs like Oh Mercy, containing the wry lines I’ve got party talk for all your party guests/my topics include facism and rising crime/and when I outline the coming doom of the USA, well that’ll insure everyone’s good time. Despite having earned enough critical plaudits for his songwriting to fill a grain silo, Eitzel is similarly unsparing of himself in looking back at 2009’s limited-edition Klamath. I didn’t want it to be [a small pressing], he says, but I could only afford to make, like, 500 of them. The album’s genesis was me at a friend’s place in Happy Camp [Calif.], and it was so beautiful up there. The first piece I wrote was an electronic piece, to the absolute horror of my fans, but I really love electronic music, even though I’m no good at it. I wrote this electronic piece about a tree, and it started from there. At the mention of his earlier electronic-oriented album, 2001’s The Invisible Man, Eitzel says, That was another mistake. I’ve done a lot of electronic music but I stopped because the people who buy my records hate it with every fiber of their being. But I still make it for myself. I’m a songwriter, you know”I get booked at Americana festivals [laughs].”
It’s something that I didn’t think I’d be doing again is the first comment out of Annie Haslam‘s mouth about the revitalization of Renaissance, the legendary British prog-rock band she led to fame in the ˜70s. On such classically tinged art-rock milestones as Ashes Are Burning, Turn of the Cards, and Scheherazade & Other Stories, Haslam’s crystalline vocals blended with Michael Dunford‘s deft acoustic guitar work and John Tout‘s vivid keyboard flourishes on epic tracks brimming with invention and energy in equal amounts. Renaissance was a leading light on the ˜70s progressive rock scene, but since the ˜80s, their live activities have been sporadic, and the 2001 release Tuscany has been their only studio album since 1983’s Time-Line.
I kind of wound down my solo singing career in about 2002, says the Bolton-born songbird, who now makes her home in Bucks County, Pa., and started painting, which is my other love, just as much as singing. I’ve been painting nonstop since 2002 now. So I didn’t really have any interest in going back into music, I liked the fact that it was just me, and not a lot of other personalities to deal with. Then Michael Dunford contacted me in 2008, and before he opened his mouth, I just knew. He said, ˜Annie¦’ I said, ˜No.’ [Laughs] And that’s basically how it started up again.
A revamped Renaissance ended up touring in 2009-’10, playing their classic cuts for grateful fans. Soon, some new work found its way into the set list. We added a new song Michael and I had written together called ˜The Mystic & The Muse,’ expains Haslam, We don’t ever remember having a standing ovation for a brand new song, which we had every time we played it, so that was very encouraging for our future writing. Before long, Renaissance was embarking on two equally ambitious projects”staging a new tour to perform Turn of the Cards and Scheherazade & Other Stories in their entirety, and putting together their first new album since 2001.
Turn of the Cards was really one of our most popular albums, says Haslam of the full-album shows they started doing in 2011, with ˜Mother Russia’ and ˜Running Hard’ on it, and Scheherazade we felt was really a huge album”when Michael and I decided to do that, we were talking about it and we both thought, ˜My gosh, this is a huge piece of work to give to the musicians to do.’ It was huge when we did it [originally]. Actually it was probably bigger [to undertake] in the ˜70s, because we didn’t have the technology. They pulled it off though, it was brilliant. I love that piece so much, ˜Scheherazade’ in particular. When I’m onstage I get so into the music that I just barely remember to come in with the tambourine and come to the front of the stage. There’s a lot of music in it so I kind of step back, and I just get lost in it.
In the late ˜60s and early ˜70s, you could scarcely swing a Gibson acoustic without hitting a great singer/songwriter whose work went unappreciated by all but a tiny cult following. Some of them got a second shot at fame in the ˜90s and ˜00s through reissues and revivals of interest”Terry Callier, Vashti Bunyan, and Gary Higgins are among those that come to mind”but no underground balladeer has been aided in their comeback by a high-profile documentary film. Until now, that is.
In 1970 and ’71, the Detroit-based songwriter who went only by his surname, Rodriguez, released the albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, respectively, on the Sussex label, which was probably most famous for the classic catalog of another streetwise ˜70s troubadour, Bill Withers. Like Withers, Rodriguez served up a sonic cocktail of folk and soul, but with a pinch of post-psychedelic rock flavoring. Rodriguez’s songs also mirrored Withers’ early work in their mixture of sociopolitical and personal themes. But the Mexican-American artist born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez didn’t achieve the renown of his labelmate, or any renown at all, at least not as far as he knew at the time. Like so many talented contemporaries, Rodriguez wasn’t able to work the game in his favor despite being a gifted artist, and his records basically gathered dust. 1971’s Coming From Reality would be his last recording.
Like so many other things, it all began with The Beatles. The style that came to be known variously as baroque pop, orchestral pop, chamber pop, etc. can basically be traced back to 1966, when The Beatles started crafting their own brand of art songs with classically styled string arrangements, like Eleanor Rigby, right around the same time their American rivals The Beach Boys were getting orchestral themselves on Pet Sounds. Soon the world was awash in pop/rock combos with big ideas” tinkling harpsichords, tugging cello lines, and tart violin phrases were placed atop ˜60s pop songs like frosted flowers adorning a wedding cake. While the style would forever after be associated with the ˜60s, baroque pop never really stopped influencing subsequent generations of bands, from ˜80s acts like The Three O’Clock and XTC alter ego The Dukes of Stratosphear to the Elephant 6 collective of the ˜90s (Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, et al), and beyond.
But while the sound may have started in the busy brains of Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney, baroque pop’s standard-bearers, the artists who truly came to epitomize the style, were The Zombies and The Left Banke. For British Invasion heroes The Zombies, their 1968 swan song, Odessey and Oracle [sic]”recorded in ’67”was a high-water mark both in the advancement of orchestral pop and the oeuvre of the group itself. On the other side of the Atlantic, young New York band The Left Banke was already at work on its second album of baroque-pop gems by the time Odessey was released. Their ’67 debut had included such heart-stoppingly gorgeous hits as Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina, and even after boy-genius keyboardist Mike Brown departed, they soldiered on with 1968’s outstanding The Left Banke Too. But by the time 1969 rolled around, both bands were basically done, and only the aforementioned masterpieces were left to influence budding chamber-pop disciples.
For many people, The Grateful Dead have always been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. The band’s slavishly devoted army of Deadheads (which still exists today, turning up to see Furthur, the band that includes erstwhile GD singer/guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh) connects to the jazzy fluidity of the band’s instrumental improv, the killer catalog of classic songs penned by Jerry Garcia, lyricist Robert Hunter, and company, as well as the slightly stoned sense of bonhomie that has always emanated from the psychedelic warriors’ core. The Dead’s detractors, on the other hand, deem the band’s jams overlong and sleep-inducing, abhor the hippie aesthetic the group always embodied, and take issue with their hit-and-miss approach to vocal intonation. Apart from those who have never heard them, almost everyone has a strong opinion about The Grateful Dead, winding up either in the love or hate camp sooner or later.
So if someone’s going to write a critically-balanced book about the band, who better than one of the few music fans”and certainly one of the only rock critics”who has found himself on both sides of the fence at various points? Granted, veteran music journalist Gene Sculatti (author of 1982’s seminal Catalog of Cool and 1985’s San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, among others) isn’t exactly objective when it comes to the subject, but among rock writers, he’s in a unique position to discourse on the Dead”he was there from the start. I always get caught in the middle, says Sculatti, whose new Rhino eBook bears the self-explanatory title Dark Stars & Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leavin, and Making Up With the Music of The Grateful Dead. Because I saw them in the beginning, and most of the records I still evaluate in terms of, ˜Does this resemble the way it was then, live?’
Sculatti first saw the band at San Francisco’s famed psychedelic-era venue The Avalon Ballroom in the spring of 1966, about a year in advance of the first Grateful Dead album. That’s one of the greatest gifts anyone ever gave to me, says Sculatti, to be there then and see that. You’re 18 or 19 years old¦this brand new thing that’s never been before is springing up and you happen to be there a couple of feet from it. It’s just incredible to read in the paper about some group with a crazy name like Big Brother & The Holding Company or something and go to this place where it was and see it with light shows and everything that accompanied it. And that’s when I started writing, because there was a little paper there in Frisco. That was my impetus too for writing about the Dead this time”there were things I hadn’t said about seeing them at that time.
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.