Blair's Blog

BJ’s Holiday Gift Hodgepodge

Lookin’ for a cool holiday gift for a friend or significant other? Have some cash on hand to treat yourself to something special? Here are 12 fall releases—DVDs, CDs and music-oriented books—that jumped out at me from the piles of dreck that have accumulated in my office over the last couple of months. Think of it as a rockin’ and groovin’ “Twelve Days of Christmas,” if you like, without all those leapin’ lords and milkin’ maids and the friggin’ birds in the tree. Instead I give you leapin’ Mick, a tank of nitrous oxide and salacious posters depicting big-busted devil dolls. In other words, a holiday from reality…


Los Lobos Live at the Fillmore (Hollywood Records) Celebrating 30 years together, this American institution has never sounded better, as they bring their roots-rock, heavy guitars and infectious Latin sounds to the Fillmore in San Francisco. The 21-song sets draws from every album the group has made, with an emphasis on the last two: Good Morning Atzlan and The Ride. The sound is clear and powerful and the visuals a nice blend of band shots, audience perspective and grooving dancers in action. The sparkling interaction between guitarists Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo, Louie Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano shows what so many years of playing together does for a band, and let’s not forget the contributions of reedsman/keyboardist Steve Berlin (who’s got a full-on Pharoah Sanders beard!) and drummer/percussionists Cougar Estrada and Vincent Bisetti. Los Lobos is truly one of America’s greatest bands…ever, and this DVD shows why.

Branford Marsalis: Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ Live In Amsterdam (Marsalis Music) Marsalis raised a few eyebrows when he tackled John Coltrane’s masterwork, “A Love Supreme,” on his 2002 album Footsteps of Our Fathers—after all, how could he improve on the original? That’s not the point. This is jazz, and as such, everything is fair game when it comes to reinterpretation. And who better to tackle a musical Mt. Everest than the prodigiously talented saxophonist Marsalis and his nimble group—pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and Jeff “Tain” Watts? This DVD captures the group in action at an Amsterdam jazz club Bimhuis in March 2003, and the wondrous improvisational interaction among the players is truly something to behold. Whether navigating dense dissonant passages or floating through beautifully lyrical moments that simultaneously sing and cry, the quartet is up to the challenge, always bringing their own sensibilities to this music that seems to just miraculously unfold in front of them. The DVD also includes interviews with John Coltrane’s widow Alice (see below for more on her) and the members of Branford’s band, and also more footage from other venues on that same European tour. But wait, there’s more! Disc two in the package is an audio CD of the Amsterdam set.

The Grateful Dead Movie (Monterey Video) Shot over five concerts at Winterland in San Francisco in the fall of 1974, this is the definitive document of the Grateful Dead experience. Directed by guitarist/group leader Jerry Garcia, the film features plenty of footage of the band jamming and rocking out before ecstatic hippie throngs (which included yours truly at three of the concerts; alas, I do not appear in the movie), but also lots on the crowd and even the band’s crew; its quite all-encompassing. There’s lots of humor, courtesy of some spaced-out fans and the party animal roadies who are captured in the middle of a nitrous oxide party backstage, even handing a hose from a nitrous tank to the cameraman. The movie kicks off with some wonderfully trippy animation by Gary Gutierrez, and from there, it’s a parade of GD favorites played by some believe to be the strongest incarnation of the group. Wonderfully restored with concert quality sound, the package also contains a second disc with more than an hour and a half of previously unseen performances from the same set of shows (including favorites such as “Dark Star” and “Uncle John’s Band”), interview footage shot at the time of the film, and several documentaries about the making of the film. A must for the Deadhead on your Xmas list.

The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC Video) The OGWT was a British television show in the ’70s and ’80s that gave plenty of much-needed exposure to up-and-coming UK and American bands. This first volume of clips from the show is packed with amazing performances, including early performances by then-new acts such as Emmylou Harris, Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Freebird”!), The Police, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, U2 (who look like they’re about 15), The Specials, REM (when Michael Stipe still had hair!) and more; and songs by established artists like Elton John, John Lennon, Roxy Music, Curtis Mayfield. It’s not all hitmakers, either—there are cuts by Little Feat, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart and The Damned, among others. Sound is top-notch, the visuals crystal clear and the between-songs commentary by various alumni of the show gives context for most numbers. Very highly recommended!


U2: How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb (Interscope) U2’s multi-Platinum, multi-Grammy-winning album of our years ago, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is a tough act to follow, to say the least, and to their credit U2 haven’t just made ATYCLB, Part 2. However, the emphasis is still on riff-laden muscular rock tunes, the sort of soaring anthems that were the group’s stock-in-trade until their wandering and somewhat lackluster mid-’90s phase. You might already be sick of the first single, “Vertigo,” from its endless plays on I-Pod commercials, MTV, sporting events and seemingly every other media outlet in the universe, but the fact is, it’s a great song, and there are lots more on here that are nearly up that level. As usual, though, some of the most affecting numbers are ballads, particularly Bono’s moving song about his father (who passed away a couple of years ago), “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” As always, the musicianship and arrangements are as spectacular—when will people finally give The Edge props for being one of the most inventive guitarists out there? I can’t wait.

Chris Isaak: Christmas (Reprise) Why is it not surprising that Chris Isaak and Christmas are a perfect fit? Few in contemporary music of any style are able to capture that end-of-the-year loneliness and longing as well as Isaak, and there are so many great Christmas songs that speak to those feelings. With his soulful croon that always seems to be part Elvis, part Orbison, but still mostly Isaak, he’s a total natural on ballads like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” Willie Nelson’s moving “Pretty Paper” and “Auld Lang Syne.” He’s also written a handful of new Christmas songs—a couple of ’em beautifully sad in that Chris Isaak way—the best is called “Washington Square.” But this being Chris Isaak, there’s also plenty of fun to be had, as he leads his band through several rockabilly-flavored work-outs on favorites such as “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Blue Christmas,” and the original “Christmas on TV.” Hawaiian Christmas is celebrated on “Mele Kelikimaka” and there’s even a rousing gospel quartet number, “Last Month of the Year.” This is good enough to enjoy year round, but I’m sure I’ll still stash it with my other holiday CDs. A new classic!

Alice Coltrane: Translinear Light (Impulse) Has it really been 26 years since Alice Coltrane put out an album? I’ve long been a fan of her sonorous, deeply spiritual jazz—whether playing piano or harp (as she did on some of my favorite of her earlier albums) Coltrane is able to tap into the transcendant in much the same way as her famous husband, sax titan John Coltrane, did. (Alice played piano in John’s last bands.) This “comeback” album finds her teaming up with her son Ravi, who produced the disc and shows himself to be a formidable tenor and soprano saxophonist in his own right. Other musicians on the disc include heavyweight jazz players such as bassists James Genus and Charlie Haden, and drummers Jack DeJohnette and “Tain” Watts. Another Coltrane child, Oran, turns in some nice work on the alto sax—quite the talented family! While past Alice Coltrane records have drawn heavily from Eastern spirituality and musical styles, this one features a broader palette. “This Train” is from the early black gospel tradition, “Walk With Me” has a more contemporary gospel feel, and then there are powerful takes on a couple of John Coltrane tunes, as well. Alice mostly plays piano, but there are also tracks featuring Wurlitzer organ and synthesizer. A welcome return indeed.

Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise) I was understandably suspicious when I started hearing about Green Day’s “punk rock opera,” American Idiot, but damn, they really delivered! If you’re thinking The Who and Tommy and all that, you’re partially right: There are parts of this album that definitely recall The Who, but it’s more the earlier Who that made “A Quick One While He’s Away”—short bursts of stylistically different songs that go into and out of each other with surprising grace and fluidity. The two big suites—“Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming”—are loaded with fantastic riffs, memorable hooks, energetic playing and incisive lyrics. There’s a level of musical sophistication on this album that will doubtless surprise those who still think of Green Day as a sort of poor man’s Clash—in fact they’ve always been much more than that; they’re witty provocateurs with a definite viewpoint and a boatload of cool rock ‘n’roll influences that they’ve blended into an original sound. There are shimmering acoustic guitars, bright harmonies, folky melodies and all sorts of things you might not expect from Green Day, but there’s still enough crunch and drive and barbed cynicism and social and political commentary that prove Billy Joe and the boys haven’t gone “soft” on us. No, they’ve just gotten better.

Rolling Stones: Live Licks (EMI) There’s no way this album should be as good as it is. After all, haven’t we already heard half a dozen live Stones albums containing most of these songs? Probably, but there’s something remarkably fresh about this 2-CD outing. Mick Jagger is still at the peak of his powers, and the lean, mean band kicks some serious boo-tay as they power through some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” “Street Fighting Man,” “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll,” and others. A lot of the coolest stuff, though, is on Disc Two, which includes rarely played songs such as “Neighbors,” “Worried About You” (a neglected masterpieces from Tattoo You), “Rocks Off,” “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Monkey Man”; all sound remarkably fresh. There’s also an interesting take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard “The Nearness of You,” and soul belter Solomon Burke comes on board for the set-ending version of his own hit, “Somebody to Love.” You can make all the age jokes you want about the Rolling Stones, but they’re still great and their catalog is as deep as any in rock music. A delightful surprise!


Studio Stories, By David Simons (Backbeat) The title subhead on this book is “How the great New York records were made: From Miles to Madonna, Sinatra to The Ramones.” Simons weaves a compelling story about the growth of New York studio scene in the post-WW II era—how advances in technology, coupled with a new breed of savvy engineers and adventurous artists working in so many exciting styles, led to the creation of some of the greatest music this country has ever produced. Simons’ clear and informative narrative, which doesn’t shy away from (nor get bogged down by) illuminating technical data is broken up by a number of Q&A interviews with some of the great engineers and producers of different eras: Columbia’s Frank Laico and Mitch Miller, A&R’s Phil Ramone, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, the great Roy Hallee, up through Ramones engineer Ed Stasium. The book works neatly as a basic history of recording from the ’50s through the ’80s, and of the music that came out of The City That Never Sleeps. All in all a nice piece of work, and also dug the section in the back that tells tales about the recording of various specific songs—sort of a miniature version of Mix’s "Classic Tracks" column.

Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion, by Paul Grushkin and Dennis King (Chronicle) A follow-up to Grushkin’s fabulously comprehensive mid-’80s book, The Art of Rock, which focused on rock art up through early ’80s, with an emphasis of the ’60s and early ’70s (natch), this spectacularly illustrated large format book collects over a thousand posters and handbills from the past two decades, proving quite conclusively that the ’60s underground poster movement was really just the beginning. Touching on every rock genre imaginable and featuring artists from all over the country, the art in this book is endlessly fascinating—it could take years to digest all the nuances, the art historical references and quirky stylistic differences. The book’s many sections are divided by style, media, geographical regions and individual artists. Punk and new wave spawned a zillion cool posters, as you might expect, and it’s no surprise that the latter day keepers of the psychedelic flame, Phish, are represented by dozens of extremely creative works of art. There’s lots of dark heavy metal imagery, artists influenced by Northwest Indian art, Mexican folk art, Japanese anime; you name it. There’s a fair amount of bizarre sexuality…actually bizarre everything, so it may not be a good choice for younger kids. The text is lively and informative, the color reproduction is as good as it gets. It’s just a beautiful production all the way around…but also as grating, scary, explicit, twisted as a lot of the rock ’n’ roll it celebrates.

Rocklopedia Fakebandica by T. Mike Childs (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Griffin) This is exactly what the title implies—a nicely illustrated encyclopedia of fictitious bands and singers from movies and television shows. All the biggies are here, of course—Spinal Tap, Josie & the Pussycats, The Rutles, the Blues Brothers, the Partridge Family, The Commitments, etc. But the real fun is in reading about the truly obscure artists, like Freddie & the Red Hots (from a 1979 episode of Happy Days), Johnny & the Deer Ticks (from a 2000 Johnny Bravo cartoon), The Sharks (the #6 artist on the Top Ten board in the record shop scene from the 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange!), Danny Fisher (Elvis’ character in Kid Creole, 1958), and literally hundreds of others. This author obviously had a lot of time on his hands…and we’re glad he did! It’s well-written, funny but still seriously authoritative; a rock trivia lover’s dream book.