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an ode to vinyl…

June 29, 2015

Photo by Monkey Business Images / Rex Features

Photo by Monkey Business Images / Rex Features

I have a confession to make. Well, maybe more than one. But for the past year I’ve been living without vinyl. My records made the move from Minnesota to Colorado with us last summer, along with my turntable, and my sweet old receiver, and my big, warm vintage speakers. But, while the movers managed to only mangle beyond recognition one item of furniture, it seems as though they made a concerted effort to lose every screw, nail, or knob that could be wrested free from wherever it belonged. One such lost accessory was the grounding peg to one of my old speakers. Sidenote/digression: “grounding peg” may or may not be an actual term, I might have completely made it up. But it’s the tiny peg that sticks out from the back of the speaker that you fasten the grounding wire to, with whatever you call the fastening part. While I may love records, I’ve never claimed to be adept at the technical side of record-listening. I’ve spent more time on the phone with my dad in my life trying to troubleshoot my assorted turntables and stereo set-ups because I insist on buying actual old school stereo components that still use tubes and belts and different colored wires and things I don’t understand – instead of just buying the new digital equipment that some 19-year-old at Best Buy could actually help me with. It’s silly, and self-inflicted but it’s the path I’ve chosen.

So anyway, the “grounding peg” is gone – it’s sitting along a highway between Minneapolis and Fort Collins or in the back of a moving truck somewhere in North America, but either way, it’s gone. So my second confession is, I’m also lazy. When I realized the speakers were kaput for the time being I put fixing them on my to-do list and there it stayed for roughly 8 months. I also needed a new stylus for my turntable. But getting it without having speakers to play through seemed silly so I turned to my iTunes library and felt a pang of guilt every time I passed my poor neglected shelf of albums.

The treasure chest...

The treasure chest…

And then, my future in-laws turned everything around with possibly the world’s greatest engagement gift. We went over to their house for dinner a few weeks ago and a huge, colorfully wrapped box was sitting on the table. I assumed it was a kitchen appliance or some other usefully functional household item. It turned out to be about 50 of their old records, in ridiculously good condition, AND their Bang & Olufson turntable from 1986. (I know it’s from 1986 because the receipt is still included in a bag with the operating instructions. $269 from Classic Stereo Ltd. in Kalamazoo, Michigan…) We brought the box of treasure home and, while putting all the records on the Shelf of Guilt, I could almost hear them crying out at me – “Why did you bring us here? To rot on a shelf? Fix that stereo and let us rip!” (If you haven’t noticed, I have a tendency to personify inanimate objects.) So, the gift spurred me into action. Still without a lead on the piece I needed to fix the speakers I jerry-rigged a solution by getting a few connector pieces from RadioShack (yes, we still somehow have one in our town) that would let me run my turntable, through my receiver, and into our digital speakers. Okay, we had sound. Then I got the new stylus and rebalanced the tonearm –woefully out of wack from bumping along a 900-mile journey in the back of a moving truck. I’m glad to report that victory is mine and the sweet, sweet sound of vinyl is now filling our home once again.

Sometimes I wonder why I even bother with the added hassle of maintaining a record collection and a way to play them that doesn’t suck. Why not just plug my monster iTunes library into my speakers and call it a day? I’ve gone through other periods of record neglect but something always draws me back to them. I can’t say what, exactly. But I think it’s the whole experience. The multi-sensory engagement with the music that digital options just can’t touch. Growing up, my family played records all the time. I have vivid memories of holding records in my hands, running my fingers over the bizarre cut-out faces on Some Girls, and knowing every song on both sides of The Traveling Wilburys: Vol. 1 without having any sense yet of the legends who comprised the band. I remember nights when my mom would push all the furniture to the walls in the living room and we’d dance (but never jump) to the Born in the USA album. And I knew which one it was because it was the one with the guy’s butt on the front. I remember seeing my mom’s maiden name scribbled across all her many, many John Denver albums and as I got older, even without reading the names, I could start to tell which albums were hers and which were my dad’s. (Gordon Lightfoot = not my dad, Thin Lizzy = not my mom, it wasn’t that hard).

Those memories of flipping through records have always stuck with me and I look forward to someday flipping through records with my own kids. Answering questions about why this one has a butt on the front, and teaching them how to hold just the edges, and how to find the groove for the right song. It just isn’t the same as scrolling together through my iTunes library and trying to explain to them that this thumbnail image actually represents a big, wonderful, musty smelling, 12” square that they can reach into and pull the music out of. So yeah, cheesy as it may sound, carrying on the vinyl tradition means more to me than just having a cool vintage record collection. Or being able to hear songs the way they were first heard. Vinyl records are a big part of what music means to me, and I’m real happy to have them back.

i’ve got a rock & roll heart: my top ten wedding songs

June 5, 2015

044-jagger-theredlistI got engaged this past weekend and we’ve set a wedding date for later this summer. Of course, one of my first wedding planning tasks is creating the ultimate playlist. Me being me, I am handpicking every song. It’s a slow process and I usually sit down and add just a few at a time, then I use the playlist as it forms for background music whenever I’m cooking or cleaning, that way if I somehow hit a sour note in my selections I can make changes as needed. Or if my fiancée walks in while the playlist is rolling and says something like “I hate this song” I can at least consider removing it…. (Joking. Mostly… He’s stuck with me now.) I’m an Event Planner by trade – so ordering rentals and catering and figuring out logistics comes pretty easily and doesn’t inherently get me very enthused. But building this playlist is probably the aspect of the wedding planning that I am most pumped about (take that, dress shopping).

My best friend got married three years ago and he handpicked every song on his wedding playlists and I can’t even tell you the difference it made. Find me someone on earth who wants to hear “We Are Family” or “YMCA” at a wedding and I will find you a liar. The wrong music can take things south real fast and I’m not about to let “Celebrate” somehow sneak its way into my big day. So, I know what music I don’t want to hear – that part’s pretty easy, but what songs do I want?

I wrote a post several years ago about my top ten most romantic love songs and some of those are obviously going on the playlist. (My mom, who is being super chill about the whole wedding planning process has insisted on just one thing – that Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” be played at some point during the evening. Uhm, done.) But while I stand by the romance factor of all the songs on that list, I’m not sure “Lay, Lady, Lay” is exactly what I want to have playing in the background while I greet my grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins in the buffet line, if you catch my drift….

So, in that spirit I have created a list of my top ten wedding songs. Here they are, in no particular order, and I’d love to hear your picks in the comments. (Disclaimer: I will probably/definitely steal your picks and add them to my playlist. Obviously, this whole post is a pretty transparent ploy to get help with making it – so thanks, in advance).

My Top Ten Wedding Songs


1)      “True CompanionMarc Cohn – I’ve known this song would be part of my wedding since I used to play it on my CASSETTE player, so….

2)      “If I Should Fall BehindBruce Springsteen – This one has been on my wedding list almost as long as “True Companion.” Plus, the Boss and Patti Scialfa have been married for almost 25 years so he obviously knows what he’s talking about.

3)      “Give Yourself to LoveKate Wolf – This one is kind of a gimme because it’s literally written about a wedding day but it’s also just a beautiful sentiment.

4)     “True Love WaysBuddy Holly – Because you should always listen to your mother…

5)     “Angel Dream (No. 2)Tom Petty – Somehow, in a weird 90’s turn of events, Tom Petty created the soundtrack for the film “She’s the One” – one of Jennifer Aniston’s millions of romantic comedies. I don’t think I’ve even seen it, but the soundtrack is good and this sweet little song has always been one of my random Tom faves.

6)    “Baby, I Love You Terry Reid – Terry Reid’s version of this song makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. That voice…

7)     “That’s How Strong My Love IsOtis Redding – Because if you have a wedding without some Otis Redding, you’re doing it wrong.

8)     “If I Needed YouDon Williams & Emmylou Harris – Written by the incomparable Townes Van Zandt, this is just truly one of the loveliest songs I know.

9)     “Can’t Help Falling In LoveElvis Presley – Kind of an obvious Elvis pick, but it’s a classic for a reason.

10)     “If Not for YouBob Dylan – Because this is my list, and Bob Dylan is in the Top Ten of everything in my life.

So, what would your picks be? Let’s hear ’em!

gig grab bag: dylan goes “across the borderline”

May 17, 2015

gig grab bag logoWith Bob Dylan’s 74th birthday coming up on Sunday, and his appearance confirmed as David Letterman’s final musical guest on Tuesday night, it seems an appropriate time to feature my main man in the Gig Grab Bag. This video comes from Farm Aid 1986 where Dylan appeared via satellite with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from their joint True Confessions tour. (Sidenote: since I was just shy of 2-years-old at the time, this tour will always remain near the top of my concert time-machine list.) I like this performance for several reasons. Partly, because it’s two of my favorite artists performing together, and also partly because it features Dylan covering someone else’s song. “Across the Borderline” was written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and Jim Dickinson and appeared on Willie Nelson’s album of the same name in 1993. Dylan had debuted his version of the song at the opening date of the True Confessions tour in New Zealand in February of ‘86. With a catalog hundreds of incredible songs deep, Dylan certainly doesn’t need to add any covers to his live rotation, but I’ve found that when he does they are often some of my favorite performances. For example, in the fall of 2002 I skipped my senior-year homecoming dance to drive down and see Dylan at good ol’ Mac Court on the University of Oregon campus. This was right during the time that news broke of Warren Zevon’s terminal mesothelioma diagnosis, and Zevon was at work on his final masterpiece of an album The Wind. That night in Eugene Dylan performed a breathtaking version of Zevon’s “Mutineer” in a nod to his ailing friend and it was one of the most beautiful moments I can remember from all of my 13 Dylan concerts. I digress, but the point is I love the opportunity to hear Dylan’s interpretations of other writers’ songs and this performance is no exception. Bonuses: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as Dylan’s backing band, a virtual jewel-tone-rainbow of perfectly 80’s fringed jackets on the back-up singers, and Dylan’s vest/pants combo creating the illusion of black leather overalls…. (seriously, does anyone else see that??) Essentially, there’s something for everyone in this video. Enjoy.

gig grab bag: history of the eagles

April 22, 2015

gig grab bag logoI finally watched the History of the Eagles documentary last weekend and it more than lived up to all the hype I’d heard. It’s a tremendously well done portrait of one of the most successful and least simpatico bands of all time. I’ve read that Don Felder wasn’t totally pleased with how the film portrayed his involvement and subsequent falling out(s) with the band. But, while Glenn Frey definitely did get some jabs in during his interviews, I really didn’t think the film glorified any of the members. In fact, some of the more groan-worthy sound bites from Don Henley and Frey especially could have been lifted straight out of the lead singer meltdown scene in Almost Famous. Ah, band dynamics.  Spinal Tap will be funny forever because as long as there are bands there are egos, personality clashes, and varying degrees of talent. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Eagles earlier work, especially the two albums produced by Glyn Johns.  I also think Don Felder was a great addition to the original lineup but they kind of lose me in the Joe Walsh era. Today’s Gig Grab Bag is a 1974 performance of “Already Gone” from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert featuring my favorite incarnation of the band. I’ve got a particularly soft spot for this song because my darling dad, who happens to be a phenomenal guitar player, has always said that the signature screeching guitar lick in the album version (Felder doesn’t do it in the video) was the reason he wanted to play the instrument. So, thanks Don Felder. Without that guitar of his my dad may never have scored my mom and created me, so hat tip for that because I’m pretty glad to be here.

History of the Eagles is available for streaming on Netflix now. Watch it and then mentally fast forward six years from this performance to Frey literally threatening to kill Felder on stage, during a song. Nothing lasts forever…

behind the venue: a brief history of red rocks amphitheater

April 19, 2015

It’s no secret that Red Rocks Amphitheater is an epic venue. It’s always topping lists of the most beautiful, best places in America to hear music – and for good reason. Proximity to Red Rocks was one of the things I was most excited about when we moved to Colorado last summer. With the 2015 concert season kicking off this weekend I thought it was an appropriate time to look a little deeper into the story of one of Mother Nature’s greatest musical gifts…

TPHB at Red Rocks

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Red Rocks, October 2014

I’ve been to three shows at Red Rocks so far – Bob Dylan with My Morning Jacket in 2007, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Joe Cocker in 2010, and most recently, another round of Tom and the boys with Steve Winwood this past October. At this latest show my Tom Petty partner-in-crime and I found ourselves wandering backstage with All-Access passes. (You’ll have to buy me a beer to hear that whole story…)  I mention the passes because while we were actually backstage for part of the 2010 show as well, we didn’t have the same freedom to wander that the passes gave us this time. And let me tell you, if there’s a place that’s fun to wander – it’s backstage at Red Rocks. The walls are lined with framed prints of the legends that have graced the stage in this historic venue and the stairwell to the stage is covered with hundreds of scrawled signatures from those performers. Even without such decoration the backstage is unlike any other, built as it is around the natural rock formations of this incredibly unique place – some rooms have huge boulders for walls, bringing the outside right in. Wandering these hallowed grounds we did our best to balance freaking out and keeping our All-Access cool.  But it got me wondering – how did this majestic venue, 15 miles outside of Denver and surrounded by wilderness on all sides, come to be?

Technically, you could start a history of Red Rocks about 160 million years ago. Contained in the two gigantic sandstone monoliths which form the natural amphitheater, Creation Rock and Ship Rock, are fossils and tracks from life in the Jurassic period. But, this isn’t a science blog so let’s skip ahead a few million years. In the early 20th century a magazine publisher named John Brisben Walker (fun fact: the founder of Cosmopolitan magazine) recognized the incredible natural acoustics at work and began producing small concerts on a temporary stage built into the space, then known as the Garden of Angels. The City of Denver purchased the land containing Red Rocks from Walker in 1927 and began expanding on what he had built there. After the onset of the Great Depression labor from the Works Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps built the venue, with a strong focus on maintaining the natural integrity of the area.

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1947 saw the first official concert season at Red Rocks, kicked-off as it has been every year since with a sunrise Easter service. Performances in that era were largely visiting symphonies, ballets, and big bands, with legends like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald making appearances. But on August 26, 1964, the sea change that was washing over the country swept Red Rocks up with it when The Beatles made it a stop on their first U.S. tour. Interestingly, it was the only date on that historic tour that didn’t sell out. Some blame the distance from downtown Denver and the lack of public transit options available at the time. Others blame the steep ticket price ($6.60), but for whatever reason only about 7,000 of the 9,000+ seats were officially filled. The Fab Four played a 30-minute set out of a two-hour show that also included The Righteous Brothers, The Bill Black Combo, Jackie de Shannon, and The Exciters. The 6,450-foot altitude hit the lads from Liverpool hard and they had to use oxygen canisters on the side of the stage during their performance. More than fifty years later, Red Rocks is one of only four venues played on that 24-city tour that is still operating today.

After The Beatles, Red Rocks hosted a stream of legendary performers. While the concert seasons were still dominated by the kinds of shows it thrived on pre-Beatles, a new wave of popular acts were now sprinkled in the mix. Artists like Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, The Mamas & The Papas, and Peter, Paul, and Mary all made it onto the roster.

In September 1968, Jimi Hendrix took the stage for a concert with Vanilla Fudge and Soft Machine that remains the only known contemporary show at Red Rocks without a single documented photo or video. I‘m sure there must be fan photos stuffed away in shoeboxes somewhere but not a single official photo exists. Sadly, it is left purely to the imagination but the sonic prowess of Hendrix bouncing off Creation and Ship Rock could certainly have created something approaching a religious experience.

Also in 1968, Aretha Franklin refused to take the stage for a scheduled performance due to a contract dispute. The news caused the crowd to storm the stage, destroying the venue’s piano and causing a riot scare. The city, shocked and concerned by the intense reaction of the crowd, enacted a one-year ban on rock concerts at Red Rocks. But the worst was yet to come…

A stage built in stone

A stage built in stone

While Red Rocks sat on the musical sidelines during the summer of 1969 (no big deal, just WOODSTOCK and whatever…) they were back in the rock game the following year, but not for long. On June 10, 1971 Jethro Tull stopped at Red Rocks for the second date of their Aqualung tour. In the post-Woodstock world the unpleasant phenomenon of “rock should be free” gate-crashers was a plague on festivals and concerts nationwide. When an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 ticketless gate-crashers showed up at the sold-out show police tried to direct them to an area outside of the amphitheater where they would be able to hear, but not see, the concert. But the crowd wasn’t looking for a compromise and many attempted to storm the gates, scrambling over fences and past barriers into the seating area. A full-scale riot broke out, culminating with the Denver police chief himself dropping tear gas onto the crowd from a circling helicopter. The members of Jethro Tull fought past police barriers to take the stage, in an Altamont-type effort to calm the crowd and end the riot. Emergency medical efforts were taking place backstage as Ian Anderson urged the crowd to cover their faces with clothing and bring any children up to the relative-safety at the front of the stage.

After that disastrous debacle, deemed “The Riot at Red Rocks” Denver’s mayor, William McNichols, vowed that there would never be another rock show at the venue so long as he was in office, and enacted a ban on rock performances that stood until it was challenged in court by concert promoter Barry Fey in 1975, where it was overturned.

So from 1971 to 1975 while albums like Exile on Main Street, Eat a Peach, and Led Zeppelin’s IV were being released, the Red Rocks concert seasons included performances by Burt Bacharach, Pat Boone, The Carpenters, and Johnny Mathis… To be fair, these were also the years that songs like “Seasons in the Sun” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” were topping the Billboard charts, but Red Rocks was once again sidelined from the rock & roll scene.

Folk acts did thrive at Red Rocks during the rock ban. Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, and Arlo Guthrie all made appearances in those years, along with acceptable popular artists like Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Merle Haggard. When the ban was lifted in 1975 Red Rocks didn’t exactly dive headfirst into the rock scene – booking artists like James Taylor and America. But it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things, and by the end of the decade Blue Oyster Cult, the Eagles, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, the Kinks, Cheap Trick and many more would grace the stage.

Since then, Red Rocks concert seasons have included a steady stream of up-and-coming artists, megastars, jam bands, and legends. A staggering number of live albums and videos have been recorded at the venue, trading on the incredible natural acoustics of the space. U2, The Moody Blues, Stevie Nicks, Neil Young, John Denver, The Dave Matthews Band and many more have all released live Red Rocks performances.

The 2015 season promises more memorable performances at the legendary venue. Jackson Browne, Mark Knopfler, Steely Dan, John Prine, Steve Miller, and many others are all scheduled to take the stage before the Colorado weather shuts the place down in mid-October.  If you haven’t experienced the splendor of Red Rocks I would certainly encourage you to make the pilgrimage to this great national treasure.

PHO-Red_Rocks_Amphitheatre_with_Shiprock-Don_Peitzman-photo_contest-10.13.09_small_2

sound man: glyn johns

April 1, 2015

9780399163876_large_Sound_Man3If you don’t know who Glyn Johns is, let me just introduce him with this quote from his book:

“The following day I returned to California to start the Steve Miller Band’s third album, Brave New World. We were getting on fine until I got a call from The Beatles, asking if Steve would let me go for a couple of weeks, to return home to London to do some sessions for what became Abbey Road… I went straight from the plane to Apple for a couple of days, and then to Olympic Studios for an all-night session with the Stones till six a.m. Then to Apple again in the afternoon before going on to the Albert Hall that evening to record Jimi Hendrix in concert.”

So yeah, that’s Glyn Johns.

If I asked you to name a dozen landmark rock albums from the Sixties and Seventies, chances are your list would include several that Johns mixed, engineered, and/or produced. His staggering discography includes Let it Bleed, Abbey Road, Harvest, Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin I and those really aren’t even the tip of the iceberg.

After getting his start through a chance connection with IBC Studios in London, Johns became easily one of the most sought after men in the business when it came to creating phenomenal albums. And last year, after decades of being behind-the-scenes, he put his incredible story to paper and gave us Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, the Faces. . .

I just finished this delightful little read and the best way I can describe it is that it’s like skipping stones over the vast, deep, and murky sea of rock & roll history. Anyone who authors a memoir has the absolute right to relinquish as much or as little of their personal story to the public as they choose. Sound Man is refreshing in that it isn’t a lascivious tell-all, and it isn’t driven by any personal vendettas (cough, This Wheel’s On Fire, cough). He stays remarkably above-board when describing the many characters he has worked with over the years; more often than not, heaping generous praise on his colleagues and only occasionally indulging his less favorable opinions. Those rare flashes of actual scrutiny are some of my favorite moments of the book, for example when describing his discarded mix of Let It Be: “John [Lennon] gave the tapes to Phil Spector, who puked all over them, turning the album into the most syrupy load of bullshit I have ever heard.”

The book moves swiftly and slightly haphazardly through time, touching down for the brief vignettes that form each chapter. He never lingers too long on any particular experience or album, but the stone keeps skipping and the stories keep coming. It’s especially fascinating to hear the perspective from the other side of the glass as these legendary albums were being made. Like, who knew that Keith Richards only ended up singing “You Got the Silver” because Johns accidentally erased Mick Jagger’s vocal while Jagger was out of the country and unable to rerecord it???

Glyn Johns has given us many incredible albums over the years and his contribution with Sound Man is no less of a gift. I can only be thankful that he has offered us this glimpse into his extraordinary story.

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Johns in the studio with Keith Richards

 

gig grab bag: grateful dead – jack straw

March 10, 2015

gig grab bag logoGrateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter might be my favorite songwriter after Bob Dylan. The beauty in his lyrics has always resonated with me – especially on masterpieces like “Box of Rain” and “So Many Roads.”  Reading Hunter’s recent interview with Rolling Stone inspired me to share one of my favorite Grateful Dead videos. This performance of “Jack Straw” comes from the 1972 concert in Veneta, Oregon that went on to become the Sunshine Daydream film. The concert was a benefit to raise money for the Springfield Creamery, run by Ken Kesey’s family. Part of my fondness for this footage is that it takes place in my home state, only miles outside of Eugene – that sweet, glorious little city of my alma mater. My other favorite thing about this video is obviously the opening moments captured between the dog and the baby in the tire… a pairing of words I truly never thought I’d write on this website. See for yourself but I’m pretty sure it takes ‘heartwarming’ to a whole new level. So here is the Grateful Dead performing “Jack Straw” and if you haven’t yet seen the Sunshine Daydream film from this concert I highly recommend it.