2011: The Year in Music

January 1, 2012 2 comments

2011 rocked.

That’s really the best that I could do in coming up with an intro because, in all seriousness, 2011 rocked. Pearl Jam’s Ten turned twenty years old (as did Nirvana’s Nevermind). The Ramones turned 35. The Foo Fighters brought rock back to whatever exists of rock radio nowadays. Oh, and Dying Scene. As you’re probably aware by now, I started writing for Dying Scene, a punk music website, about a year ago, and that has reignited my passion for uptempo beats and power chords like it was 1994 all over again.

But it wasn’t just all about punk music. As you’ll see in a minute, some of my favorite releases of the year were from across the rock and hip-hop genres, including one from a two-piece that plays Mexican-inspired folk music and features a donkey jaw bone as a percussion instrument. That, of course, is the David Wax Museum. I was lucky enough to catch them open for the Josh Ritter Trio (with the Mrs.) at a hole-in-the-wall in Milford, CT, back in May.

In fact, I consider myself lucky to have seen all of the live shows that I did this year. Being a suburban professional (and a dad) and a homebody by nature, it’s always nice to venture out to catch live music. And when you only catch four or five live shows a year, it’s nice when each one of them is a great, truly inspiring performance; the reason live music far exceeds its studio-recorded counterpart. My live music year started in February with Scott Hutchison (of Frightened Rabbit) opening for Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band at a special “Valentine’s Day Brawl” in Boston. It was followed by Face to Face and Strung Out in Boston, and again in Philly, in May. June brought the aforementioned Josh Ritter Trio/David Wax Museum show. Finally, December closed out the year with Matt Pryor (The Get Up Kids/The New Amsterdams) and Brian Fallon (The Gaslight Anthem/The Horrible Crowes) playing a special acoustic show at Northeastern University.

But you aren’t here to read me go on-and-on about how luck I was this year; you’re here for the music (right?).  Without further pomp-and-circumstance, here’s my favorites of 2011 (in painstaking order). As usual, no live albums, reissues, compilations, etc. Here we go…the top 23 releases of 2011, as chosen by me. Truthfully, any of the top seven albums on the list could have been #1, or at least #1B. Suffice it to say, 2011 rocked (especially if you’re a Shiflett).

22. David Wax Museum – Everything Is Saved. The Boston-based duo features David Wax on the jarana and Suz Slezak on the donkey jawbone playing infectious, Mexican-inspired folk tunes.

21. Tom Waits – Bad As Me. This album has gotten a lot of love in a lot of places. To me, it’s too similar to Real Gone and most of Orphans. But still…rehashed Tom Waits is better than original most-everything-else.

20. City and Colour – Little Hell. Former Alexisonfire frontman steps out for his most sparse, haunting solo album yet.

19. The Roots – Undun. The only hip-hop band that matters released their third album in eighteen months, this one  a concept album about growing up in bleak, rough-and-tumble Philadelphia. The title character was named after a Sufjan Stevens song. This is why The Roots are The Clash of the hip hop world.

18. Thrice – Major/Minor. Sadly, this is probably the last we’ll see of Thrice, as the post-hardcore giants have gone on indefinite hiatus. At least they dropped this gem on us before leaving (though there is one song that sounds too much like a Creed track).


17. Thursday – No Devolucion. Sadly, this is probably the last we’ll see of Thursday, as the post-hardcore giants have gone on indefinite hiatus. At least they dropped this gem on us before leaving. (Yes…this was a good year for post-hardcore “legends”, but a bad year for their longevity).


16. Blink 182 – Neighborhoods. I didn’t want to include this album. I really didn’t. But go ahead, pull my street cred card. It’s actually a (mostly) solid album. But I still want to punch Tom DeLonge.

15. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs. At first I thought this was just a way to cash in on those of us who buy anything Pearl Jam related (hey, Ed’s got a family to feed now). But the more you listen to this album that was in the works for almost a decade, the better it gets.

14. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – The Magic Of Youth. Most of them don’t even live in Boston anymore (Dicky lives in LA, for God’s sake). And, frankly, I couldn’t even tell you who is in the band anymore. But they still know how to make a killer album, easily their best since I was in college.

13. Social Distortion – Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Here’s my review from earlier in the year.




12. Vacation Bible School – Ruined The Scene. Self-depricating, middle-finger-raising skate punk that reminds me of my youth. Opening track is called “Douchebag.” ‘Nuff said.



11. Radiohead – King Of Limbs. Loop-heavy stroke of shoegazey genius. Watch the video.


10. Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones. There’s been a trend lately in which punk rock/hardcore frontmen branch out with more acoustic, folk-driven side projects. The Englishman Turner is the best of the bunch with his beer-soaked pub sing-along anthems.


9. Banquets – Top Button, Bottom Shelf. Great riffs, great melodies and great harmonies make for a great post-punk album. Banquets hit on all of them.

8. Andrew Jackson Jihad – Knife Man. The razor sharp wit and self-deferential sense of humor is always enjoyable, but it’s the occasional glimpses of  heart-attack seriousness and “it’s funny because it’s true” moments (take “Sad Songs (Intermission)” or the closing line in “Fucc The Devil” for example) that give Knife Man its depth and importance.


7. No Motiv – Winterlong. Though it’s only an EP, the band’s first release since 2004’s semi-breakthrough, appropriately named Daylight Breaking album serves as (hopefully) a forceful return to the game, and proof that there is still room in the game for the old guard of the emo game.


6. Mastodon – The Hunter. The best metal band on the planet make their broadest, most accessible sounding album yet, and it’s an absolute monster. It’s on Spotify, so you have no excuse to not listen to it.

5. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie. The smoky blues-bar Waits-ian vocal stylings and solo Springsteen inspired sound give The Horrible Crowes the feel of more than just a throwaway, between-Gaslight filler album for Brian Fallon and longtime pal Ian Perkins.


4. The Black Keys – El Camino. The Akron duo teamed up with Danger Mouse for the whole album this time. The result is their most rocking, best sounding, most focused album today, filled with dirty, sludgy blues riffs.

3. Samiam – Trips. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it touches on a broad spectrum of sounds, Samiam’s first album in five years (and only their second in over a decade) is the most polished, best sounding , most accessible album of their long career. Let’s just hope they don’t go away for so goddamn long this time…


2. The Reveling – Tributaries. The Reveling provided me the biggest “holy crap these guys are good” moment from the beginning seconds of the album’s opening track, “Revival.” That feeling hasn’t let up one bit (and has, in fact, only gotten stronger) upon what is probably a couple hundred successive listens over the year. The Reveling are THAT GOOD, and it really is a shame that more people don’t know of them.

And now for the moment where I feel like Mr. and/or Mrs. Shiflett making a musical “Sophie’s Choice” between releases from two of my three sons…Chris with the Foo Fighters and Scott with Face To Face. As could be expected, I took the easy way out.

1A. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light. I could spend probably two thousand words explaining how amazing this album is and still not do it proper justice. Dave Grohl has written a career’s worth of hook-driven, thoughtfully-worded anthems. Wasting Light is the best album, start-to-finish, that he has ever played on, and solidifies the band’s status as one of the best American rock bands of the last several decades.

1. Face To Face – Laugh Now, Laugh Later. A lot has changed in the nine years since f2f’s last album was released. They’ve got a new drummer, they reunited with guitarist Chad Yaro, they’ve got a new label and new production partners. But the sound of Laugh Now, Laugh Later is every bit as strong and vital as it has been at any point in their twenty-plus year career.


“Ten” Turns Twenty – Volume Two

August 27, 2011 3 comments

If you’re just joining us, click here to read Volume One of my look back at Pearl Jam’s seminal debut album, Ten.

Anyway, we’re at the point in our journey where it’s time to look back at the album itself. The impact of Ten can still be felt on rock radio (that is, if you actually live in an area where there is a rock radio station). It should be noted that the impact isn’t necessarily a good one. Numerous bands citing Pearl Jam as a vital influence have spawned over the years, and most of them, well…suck. Sadly, Pearl Jam spawned Creed, which spawned Nickleback, which spawned Shinedown, which spawned me not listening to rock radio anymore. The imitators have tried to borrow pieces from Pearl Jam’s original sound: the heavy groove-inspired riffs, the swirling guitar solos, the baritone frontman’s ability to combine themes of love, loss, desperation, grief, homelessness, rape, and a descent into madness into lyrics that don’t sound like they came from the journal of a fourteen-year-old high school boy. Instead, their canned angst dude-rock may appeal to the masses but rings incredibly hollow to the discerning ear.

Okay, off the soapbox. Sorry for that. Now we’re on to the actual music (note: all videos are the album versions of the respective track unless otherwise noted)…

1. Once – Ten opens with the precursor to “Master/Slave,” the album-closing instrumental piece. The intro is haunting and sounds almost tribal (and would be almost directly ripped off by 90’s Seattle-sound cover band Godsmack on their hit “Voodoo“) before ripping into the opening D chord of the first track, “Once.” It is not an overstatement to say that the initial over-driven guitar riff set its hooks deep, and really hasn’t let go of me since. The verse and chorus sections are equally as haunting as the “Master/Slave” opener, albeit in a more aggressive, ‘climactic suspense movie chase scene’ sort of way. Though it is the opener to the album, the track actually stands as the second song in the three-song mini-opera known as “Mamasan,” (“Alive” and “Footsteps” make up Mamasan’s bookend tracks), and tells the story of a man who has become a victim of his upbringing and has, as a result, become a serial killer. Vedder’s gravelly voice is committed on every note, and he sounds every bit the crazy man incarnate. They lyrics to “Once” paint a very vivid, realistic picture of a man’s descent into madness:

“backseat lover on the side of the road/I’ve got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode/I’ve got a sixteen-gauge buried under my clothes/I play…”

“Once” – album version

2. Even Flow – The album’s second track, Even Flow, centers around a funky, tritone-interval riff written by rhythm guitarist (and principal music writer on Ten) Stone Gossard. It’s a steady, uptempo rock groove that has filled arenas and ampitheaters 672 times over the years, inspiring mosh pits for two decades. Lyrically, it depicts the life of a seemingly insane, chronically homeless male individual. Freezin’, rests his head on a pillow made of concrete again / Feelin’ maybe he’ll see a little better set of days. Our protagonist’s optimism is short-lived, however, as whispering hands gently lead him away. Though it features one of the heaviest grooves on the album, and one of McCready’s most Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired lightening-fast guitar solos (in an unintended, ironic coincidence, the album was released on the first anniversary of SRV’s death in a plane crash), the album version is somewhat lacking, primarily due to Krusen’s drumming. Thankfully, Krusen was replaced by Dave Abbruzzese (okay…first by Matt Chamberlain, then by Abbruzzese) and a more aggressive, raw sounding version would be recorded for the video version and is far superior to the original. Check it out…

3. Alive – If there were any doubts that Ten was not just another album, but something more…transcendental, “Alive” squashed them. Ten‘s third track was the band’s first single, and is the first act in the three-song Mamasan trilogy. “Alive” is a partly-fictional, partly-autobiographical tale of a man who learns that the man that he thought was his biological father was, in fact, nothing but a… More than that, his true biological father, a man that he knew only as a family friend, was now deceased. The song’s central figure takes the news, well, like you’d expect.

The now-iconic "Stickman" cover art to PJ's first single

Though he shouts the now-anthemic chorus “I’m still alive…” he does so not out of a sense of empowerment (in that he is glad that he’s alive and able to work through the life-changing event) but out of a sense of burden; cursed by the fact that he is still alive, forced to come to some sort of terms with the news. Vedder has talked about how the song’s meaning has changed because of the way that it was interpreted by the fans, and that it has since become a source of power for him. In many ways, the song almost has two lead vocalists: Vedder’s trademark, heart-on-his-sleeve baritone and McCready’s best guitar work on the album; two guitar solos that contain at least as much emotion as Vedders vocals. Enjoy.

4. Why Go – Another tale of a descent into madness, this time told about a girl committed to an asylum by, of all people, her mother (she’s been diagnosed/by some stupid fuck/and mommy agrees). We don’t know why she’s there (depression? bipolar? rebellion? genuine insanity?), but we know that she has the opportunity to leave (she could play pretend/she could join the game, boy/she could be another clone). She rejects the chance at freedom because if your own mother is the reason you’re there (what you taught me/put me here/don’t come visit/mother), well, why go home? The track sounds dark, driven by a sludgy, lead bass riff. Also, more screaming, wah-infused guitar work from McCready. Vedder’s vocals sound not just like he is reading from a lyric sheet but really leading you through the highs and lows of the story. See for yourself:

5. Black – The album’s first ‘ballad,’ “Black” begins with a simple E-to-A power chord riff that is repeated for the bulk of the song. The instrumentation for the verse and chorus sections is understated, leaving plenty of room for Vedder to soar on this emotional tale of a man processing a love lost. Our central character proceeds through an escalating series of emotions, from an initial sense of dull lifelessness (now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn…), to passive-aggressive anger (and all I taught her was…everything), to scorned bitterness (I take a walk outside/I’m surrounded by some kids at play/I can feel their laughter/so why do I sear?), to delusional outrage (twisted thoughts that spin around my head). When the song reaches its emotional climax, our story-teller’s thoughts have unraveled to confusion and general loss (I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky/but why can’t it be mine?). The interplay between the guitars of McCready and Gossard escalates throughout the song, matching Vedder’s intensity note-for-note.

6. Jeremy – The song that would catapult Pearl Jam into the stratosphere of international superstardom (much to their chagrin, as it turns out), “Jeremy” is a song that is really like no other. It doesn’t sound like a classic rock song, it doesn’t sound like any other ‘grunge’ song. “Jeremy” sounds like…”Jeremy.” Centering on a riff performed on Jeff Ament’s Hamer 12-string bass, “Jeremy” is inspired by two different true stories (most notably that of Jeremy Wade Delle, the Richardson TX 16-year-old who stuck a .357 Magnum in his mouth in front of a class of thirty of his peers and pulled the trigger) and tells the tale of a high school kid who witnessed a classmate take his own life during class after years of torment from his mother, his father, his peers. The song really speaks for itself; a tidal wave of intensely haunting, emotional, vivid story telling. Because you haven’t seen the video in a while, be prepared…it’s a little unnerving.

7. Oceans – “Oceans” is a bit of a weird song. It is driven primarily by percussion and a slow bass groove, and is the first of many songs that Vedder would write that pertain to the ocean, spawned by his love of surfing. “Oceans” is a love song, written about the devotion that Vedder had for his then-girlfriend (and later wife, and even later ex-wife) Beth Liebling. As it appears on the album, “Oceans” is a perfect example of the over-production that plagues the album. It takes the band’s live performance (which, sadly, doesn’t feature the pepper shaker and the fire extinguisher that the album track does) to really pull out the song’s subtleties and emotional nuances. Here’s how it sounded when PJ took over MTV Unplugged:

8. Porch – Pearl Jam gets political for the first time, a sure sign of things to come (all the bills go by and/initiatives are taken up by the middle/there aint’ gonna be any middle any more). “Porch” is the only song on the album written entirely by Vedder, and draws equally from his punk rock and classic rock influences. It’s a high-intensity, all-out rocker, and my personal favorite on the album. Pardon the cheesy video…maybe just minimize it while you listen to the song…

9. Garden – A beautiful, powerful, intense, underrated song about being alone. Whether you interpret ‘garden of stone’ to be a cemetery or a euphemism for modern, post-industrial society, “Garden” is about being reclusive going it alone, not needing another’s hand to guide you (maybe a critique on religion?). All summed up in the song’s final line “I don’t know/I don’t care/I don’t need/You, for me to live.” We’ve all been there…

10. Deep – Another punk-inspired rock song that features Jeff Ament’s Hamer 12-string holding down the rhythm so that McCready and Gossard can trade aggressive, almost psychadelic lead riffs. The lyrics are profoundly disturbing. The three main verses to the song are individual stories of people plunging deep into individual types of despair. The first, a heroin addict: (on the edge, a windowsill/ponders his maker, ponders his will/to the street below, he just ain’t nothing/but he’s got a nice view, and he sinks the needle deep). The second, a suicidal/homicidal man (…to the sky above, he just ain’t nothing/but he’s got a great view, and he sinks the burning knife deep). The last, a girl being raped (young virgin down from heaven, visitng hell/to the man above her, she just ain’t nothing/and she doesn’t like the view, but he sinks himself deep). I know I’ve used the “powerful” and “intense” adjectives a lot in this blog post, but Vedder’s vocals are nothing if not both of those things.

11. Release – Though not a part of the Mamasan trilogy, to me this song is its logical, real-life end. Where “Alive” was inspired by Vedder’s mother telling him that his biological father was both A)deceased and B)not the person that he was raised believing was his dad, “Release” is Vedder’s letter to his father, asking him to release him from the aforementioned curse. “Oh dear dad, can you see me now/I am, myself, like you somehow/I wait up in the dark, for you to speak to me…” The lyrics to this song were not included in the album’s liner notes, leaving the listener to form their own opinion as to why (my guess at the time: too personal).

There you have it; a nineteen-hundred-word track-by-track rundown of Ten. This album changed me. It didn’t save my life (my life was pretty good). I couldn’t identify first-hand with a lot of the themes (I knew, and loved, both of my parents; I wasn’t a murderer – also, I’m still not a murderer; I’m not crazy), but I could identify with the way that Vedder told the stories. You could tell that he was committed to every word of every line on the album. His voice was unique; at times delicate, but generally a gravelly, intense (there’s that word again) baritone that prompted some members of older generations (like my Uncle Dave) to remark at the time that it sounded like he was singing while having open-heart surgery without the requisite anesthesia (and he meant that in a bad way). Pearl Jam became the first band that was really mine; my generation’s Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, minus the synthesizer that plagued the middle, Born In the USA phase of the latter band’s career.

I don’t count Ten as being Pearl Jam’s best work; it was only my favorite PJ album until their sophomore release, Vs., debuted. I love the individual songs, though some of the b-sides from the Ten sessions and the pre-Vs. era are equally as good as anything on the album, if not better. But the fact remains that Ten stands the test of time, in all its over-produced glory. For that, I wish the album a very, very happy twentieth birthday.

“Ten” Turns Twenty – Volume One

August 27, 2011 1 comment

Assuming I finish this post in time, today (August 27th) marks the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s Ten. In fairly short order, the album would become, arguably, the most influential non-parental piece of my adolescence. The album, and the band in a larger sense, would help shape what I’d become as a person; how to think, how to listen to music, how to question authority. It would become the first real album in the soundtrack to my life, the cornerstone on which twenty years of musical experience would build, introducing me to the worlds of punk rock, folk rock, acoustic rock and indie rock, in addition to providing me a better perspective on the classic rock that I grew up on but abandoned for a time as a youngster.

If you’ve known me for a while and you know my penchant for A)all things Pearl Jam and B)writing stream-of-consciousness, music-related posts on this little blog o’ mine (whose very name is a rather obscure PJ reference), you probably figured an ode to Ten was coming. It’ll be tough to encapsulate exactly what this album has meant to me over the years but that doesn’t mean I won’t try. Join me on an all-encompassing trip, won’t you?

You probably know the story by now, but in brief: Pearl Jam had formed roughly ten months earlier from the ashes of a few seminal Seattle bands (Green River and Mother Love Bone, primarily), when when Jack Irons (ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers) obtained a five-song demo tape that longtime bandmates Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass) had been working on with Mike McCready (lead guitar) and gave a copy to a surfer dude that he knew in Southern California. (Interesting aside: the drummer that the newly formed trio recruited to play drums on their demo was none other than Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, who, in 1998, would become Pearl Jam’s fifth drummer in eight years after Soundgarden dissolved and the very same Jack Irons would resign his post as Pearl Jam’s drummer. Cameron is still drummer for Pearl Jam, as well as the newly-reformed Soundgarden.)

Rare early PJ picture, featuring the short-lived original lineup. From left: Ament, McCready, Krusen, Vedder, Gossard

That “dude,” Eddie Vedder, would write and record vocals to a few of the tracks (which would later become known as the ‘Mamasan Trilogy’: “Once,” “Alive” and “Footsteps”), and send it back to the other three in Seattle. Long-distance flights would take place, fruitful jam sessions would happen, Dave Krusen would round out the early lineup and the rest, as they say, is history.

The unlikely inspiration behind Pearl Jam's original name and the title of their debut album

As stated above, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten,was released via Epic Records on August 27th, 1991, a full month before Nirvana’s Nevermind.By this point, the band had shed their previous moniker, Mookie Blaylock, though due to love of basketball (primarily shared by Ament and Vedder), they would proceed to name the album after the aforementioned point guard.

I’ve spent a long time pondering exactly what form I wanted my “Ten Turns Twenty” post to take. Ten was an important album in my formative years; perhaps the single most important one. I was raised on a steady diet of what we now call ‘classic rock’ – The Beatles, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, John Mellencamp, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Montrose…oh, and of course Bruce Springsteen (with and without the E Street Band). At some point, I started the “my parents’ music is lame” phase, so my tastes shifted to R&B-infused early hip hop: Bell Biv Devoe, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, Another Bad Creation, Marky Mark & The Funkee Bunch, etc. Forgive me…I was like nine years old.

Anyway, in late 1992 came my introduction to Ten. I’m not going to pretend that I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, though I have a pretty good idea. Gym class. That’s right, gym class. I had just turned twelve and was thus in seventh grade at Pennichuck Junior High. The boys’ gym teacher, “Coach” Connolly, was a rather demonstrative individual, very much a presence in the way that boys’ gym teachers can be. He was also a big music fan, and frequently had the tape player out in the gymnasium while we were playing basketball or handball or the like.

Somewhere along the line, somebody had given Coach a sort of Pearl Jam mix tape. It contained most of the tracks from the band’s performance on MTV Unplugged and some live rarities, including an improv cover of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” which came from the band’s June 1992 performance in Zurich.

That mixtape, which Coach was kind enough to copy onto an old 60-minute Memorex tape, would serve as the spark that lit the fire that would become my Pearl Jam obsession for, well, the next twenty years. Christmas 1992 brought with it my first CD player and my first two CDs: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and, finally, Pearl Jam’s Ten. (Related side note: I still have one of those CDs, jettisoned the other long ago.) I’m not too proud to admit that I actually obtained my own copy more than a year after the album debuted: remember, I was 11 years old when the album came out. But I finally had my very own copy, and would proceed to spend endless hours unfolding and examining the nine-panel poster that contained the now-iconic, magenta-hued artwork on the front and hand-scribbled lyric sheets to most of the song on the back.

Obligatory picture of the original, unfolded, magically magenta album cover artwork.

Ten is, by no means, a perfect album; far from it in fact. It is by no means Pearl Jam’s best work, nor is it the best example of Pearl Jam’s influence on the so-called ‘Seattle sound’ (that title belongs to the band’s sophomore album, Vs.). In fact, I find it almost unlistenably over-produced in hindsight; I went several years without listening to the original album until about a year ago, when I started revisiting it from time to time, knowing that the twentieth anniversary was approaching. (Related side note: the original album was rendered much-more listenable after hearing Brendan O’Brien’s remixed/remastered, comically bad Ten Redux edition that came out a couple years ago; my hatred of Brendan O’Brien knows no bounds).

Don’t get me wrong: the songs on Ten are great. The album has sold roughly ten million copies to date, and stands as the band’s most commercially successful for good reason. Eddie Vedder’s voice would become a mouthpiece for alienated, disconnected, troubled kids the world over in a more real sense than his ‘grunge’ counterpart Kurt Cobain (be honest: you didn’t really identify with Cobain’s nonsensical lyrics most of the time, just like you didn’t really identify with Jim Morrison’s a generation before him), much like his idol Pete Townshend was before him.

I guess that brings us to the logical point where we re-examine the original album and all of its mystique. If you’re still with me, thanks…we’re up around 1200 words at this point, and my consciousness stream shows no signs of drying up. So I’m going to stop now and call this “Volume One.” When I’m done the next part, I’ll link to it here.

The Josh Ritter Trio and David Wax Museum, Daniel Street, Milford CT – 6/17/11

June 20, 2011 1 comment

After last month’s Face to Face debacle in New Haven, southern Connecticut ‘s musical scene left a fairly poor taste in my mouth. Learning that Josh Ritter would be playing an exclusive “Josh Ritter Trio” gig a hole-in-the-wall in Milford (which is, in and of itself, a virtual hole-in-the-wall outside New Haven) with the likes of David Wax Museum would certainly do a lot to improve southern CT’s standing in my mind. Learning that said show would be an early show because the club was already booked out to local cover band Darik and the Funbags (you read that right) knocked it back down a few pegs, but I digress.

If you’ve never been, Daniel Street is a decent venue: small, roughly square shaped with the stage oddly placed in the back right hand corner. There is no dedicated artist entrance to the stage, and in fact the artist’s “green room” is at the front right hand corner of the venue, meaning that the artist needs to walk directly through the crowd in order to get to the stage. Interesting dynamic, to say the least.

The gig started with the aforementioned David Wax Museum. If you’re not familiar (as I admittedly wasn’t until about a week before the show), the band consists of David Wax on (primarily) jarocha (an eight-stringed traditional Mexican instrument) and Suz Slezak on fiddle and donkey jawbone. Yup, the jawbone of a donkey (it’s played like a percussion instrument, if you hadn’t guessed). The Massachusetts-based duo made the trek down for the show (and the following day’s Clearwater Festival in upstate New York) and were apparently in a rush in doing so, as Slezak forgot her fiddle at home, meaning the band’s stripped-down Mexican-inspired Americana folk sound was even more stripped down than usual. The result was a very intimate set that allowed the audience to focus on the vocal interplay between Wax and Slezak.

Slezak and Wax (Zachariah Hickman on the upright)

And concentrate they did…eventually. Typical of small bar crowds, there was a lot of talking going on early in their set. Midway through, this changed drastically. Wax and Slezak made their way, unamplified, to the center of the audience (accompanied by Mark Erelli of the Josh Ritter Trio on mandolin) for a very sparse version of “Let Me Rest” that allowed Slezak’s voice to really soar (and not just because she was standing on a chair).

Wax, Erelli and Slezak play "Let Me Rest" amidst the crowd

That’s a video that I didn’t take (as should be fairly obvious if A) you watch it and B) you know me. If only the former is true, yours truly is directly opposite this video’s taper, over David Wax’s right shoulder.

The David Wax Museum garnered lots of support from the crowd from then on, and their half-hour set was a perfect warmup for the Josh Ritter Trio show. Ritter, in his seemingly endless quest to keep himself challenged (interested) in playing his music has typically played gigs either backed by a full band or solo and acoustic. For this gig (and the aforementioned Clearwater Festival), his accompaniment was the Josh Ritter Trio, composed of Ritter himself on Gibson acoustic, his long-time left-hand man Zachariah “Obediah Book of Revelations” Hickman on upright bass and Mark Erelli (himself a noted folk musician from Reading, Massachusetts) on electric guitar/tenor guitar/lap steel/harmonica/mandolin.

The JR3 set started with a very stripped down version of “Rumours” from Ritter’s 2007 “Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter” release. The album version of the track features the whole band, and the song’s lyrics focus on how big and impressive Ritter’s Royal City Band really are, so it was interesting to hear it very slowed down and without the standard instrumentation. For those that are interested, the full setlist will be posted below. If I were to give the show the adequate treatment it deserves, this review would clock in at a  solid two thousand words. And I would “stick to the highlights,” but honestly, there weren’t many (any?!?) low lights (aside from the fact that the front left part of the audience was dominated by individuals who dwarfed my 6’1″ frame).

Josh Ritter, in a rare 'eyes open' moment

Ritter’s set drew heavily from his two most recent albums (the above-mentioned “Historical Conquests” and 2010’s “So Runs The World Away“) with the requisite ‘Josh Ritter show staples’ included for obvious good measure. The nineteen-song set did include a few tidbits that were on the more rare side. The humorous, Holy Grail epic new-ish song “Galahad,” has quickly become a personal favorite of mine. A brand new (and seemingly untitled) song about having a new relationship after the recent demise of his marriage to fellow singer Dawn Landes was well crafted (though sounds similar to “Lark”), and reveals that post-breakup lyrical stylings of recent tour partner Scott Hutchison (of Frightened Rabbit) has rubbed off on him. Also, Ritter gave the other two-thirds of the Trio a rest and came to the front of the stage sans microphone for a beautiful rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” which I was not quite expecting yet managed to capture most of on video.

Ritter and the band decided to forgo the generally inevitable encore due to the tight time constraints (remember…there was a Darik and the Funbags show waiting in the wings) and plowed straight ahead, managing to get through a lot of ground. The Trio format gives new life and weight into older Ritter songs like “Golden Age of Radio” and “Me & Jiggs,” neither of which are particular favorites of mine (“I totally prefer the new stuff”) as they appear on the album, but both of which I found immensely enjoyable in this format. The group played with “full band energy,” which is no small task with lack of, well, a full band.

Here’s the whole setlist…

1. Rumors

2. Wolves

3. Southern Pacifica

4. The Curse

5. Rattling Locks

6. Long Shadows

7. Harrisburg

8. (new song – perhaps titled “New Lover”)

9. In The Dark

10. Girl In The War

11. The River (Springsteen)

12. Galahad

13. Monster Ballads

14. Right Moves

15. Golden Age of Radio

16. Kathleen

17. Change of Time

18. Everything in Ruins (Mark Erelli solo song)

19. Me & Jiggs

If you are interested in a free, fairly high-quality bootleg download of the gig, click here.

Here are some more pictures…

Zachariah "Obediah Book of Revelations" Hickman

Very rarely is Josh not smiling. More on this later.

Josh, getting his inner wolf on

Still "wolfing," this time in color

I don't think he was looking at me

The early time slot allowed ample time to mingle after the show. David and Suz from the David Wax Museum were hanging at the merch table after the gig, and were more than willing to talk all things music, particularly their unique instrumentation.  Both were very gracious and humble, and they are very deserving of whatever success comes their way (an opening gig for the Dave Matthews Band is lined up for this summer). Not long after, Josh Ritter himself made his way out of the gig and met with a couple dozen fans on the sidewalk right in front of Daniel Street. This made for several awkward conversations with passers-by, as the line to meet Josh was longer than the nonexistent line to get in for Darik & the Funbags’ set.

The impression that I had of Josh Ritter as a person prior to meeting him was that he was warm and gracious and humble and entertaining (based strictly on his stage persona). Now that I’ve met him, I can confirm that he does come across as all of those things in spades. One gets the sense that, however brief your conversation with him is, he is genuinely paying attention and interested and thinking about what you are saying. I had him sign the lyric page for “Thin Blue Flame” from his songbook, as I continue to think that it is one of the better songs ever written by anybody, and that you can listen to it one hundred times continuously and get one hundred different impressions of the song, hearing new things for the first time with each listen. He appeared genuinely touched by my thoughts on the song (though he still wouldn’t spill the beans as to what it was really about).

And of course, the obligatory fan photo. Again, note the smile (on him…and on Natalia…not on me…I look, well, I look like I’m missing my upper lip and like Natalia was my chaperone for the evening and that I should be wearing a soft, padded helmet).

Face to Face in Philly – 5/21/11

May 23, 2011 1 comment

The road to Face to Face show #13 took a much different route than expected. As I said in my last post, show #13 was set for Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut, on May 19th. Sadly, Face to Face doesn’t draw particularly well in Connecticut (I can’t think of them playing a non-Warped Tour show in CT since probably 1995/6), as evidenced by the small crowd that was present for their mid-afternoon Warped Tour slot last summer. So, the day before the New Haven gig brought with it word that there would, in fact, not be a New Haven gig.

As such, it seemed there would be no show #13, at least on this tour. The band played May 20th in Sayreville, NJ, which is a couple of hours from my in-laws house in CT. Certainly doable, but did I really want to go to New Jersey? May 21st was set for the Trocadero in Philadelphia, and the tour would continue to head south thereafter. While Philly has always been one of my favorite cities, this certainly didn’t seem like a realistic option. That is, until Natalia said “I’d go to Philly.” That was all it took; Philly it was.

Philadelphia is not a bad ride at all from southern Connecticut, as it turns out. I say “not a bad ride” because it does involve driving through New York and New Jersey, neither of which are overly appealing options even in the best of all possible worlds. A necessary evil, however.

On to the show…

The Trocadero in Philadelphia, for those that have never been there, is a pretty awesome venue. Though it has obviously been updated since its opening as theater in the 1870s, “the Troc” still contains a lot of classic, original charm.  Also, a lot of the original lack of bathroom sanitation, but I digress. The Troc holds about 1,200 people, and I’d guess there were between 900 and 1000 in the house for this gig (by the time Strung Out took the stage, anyway). Not sold out, but that wasn’t a bad thing as it gave the crowd a chance to really get “in” to the show (pretty solid ongoing circle pit for both Strung Out and Face to Face).

Before I get to Face to Face, allow me to expound a little on opening act The Darlings (I’m going to skip Cerebral Ballzy, because they are, quite frankly, not good). I at least saw most of their performance this time (missed all of Boston), and frankly I think they are awesome: very solid, younger band. It’s refreshing to see a younger band that isn’t doing the screamo/skinny jeans/Day Glo t-shirt/Jennifer Aniston haircut thing. Much props to The Darlings. Expect bigger things from them in the years to come.

The Darlings, from much farther away  than I should have been. If you are reading this and are planning on heading to a show on this tour, make sure you get there early: these guys deserve your support.

Strung Out came next and kicked the crowd’s collective ass for a solid 40 minutes. A large portion of the crowd was much more familiar with Strung Out’s body of work than I am (though I’m getting better), so there was a pretty solid pit from start-to-finish. As always, Strung Out were musically tight, and their high energy set does a great job of getting the crowd whipped into a frenzy.

The crowd at the Troc, actively participating in Strung Out’s performance

Strung Out’s Jake Kiley

Speaking of the crowd: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how stellar the crowd was. Not only was this the thirteenth time I’ve seen Face to Face, but those shows took place in thirteen different venues across four states. I’m not just being clouded by recent memory when I say that Philly’s crowd may well have been the best of the bunch. They seemed into the entire show from start to finish; aggressive without being overly rowdy. Admittedly, my vantage point during Face to Face’s set was fairly poor in order to get a true impression of the crowd, so I’m basing this portion of the review off of A)their performance during Strung Out’s set and B)Trever’s reaction. Trever seemed pretty genuinely impressed by this. If you’ve been to multiple Face to Face shows, especially on the same tour, you know that Trever can engage in a certain amount of canned stage banter, typical of most frontmen. I couldn’t help but get the impression on this night, however, that Trever was genuinely ‘feeling it’ tonight.

I’m not going to bother with a setlist this time, in part because the physical “setlist” was exactly the same for this show as it was for Boston. It is also wrong from song #1.

As you can see, “You Lied” is listed as the first song, and “Should Anything Go Wrong” is listed as the thirteenth. “Should Anything Go Wrong” was actually the band’s first song, and from there it just gets more jumbled. In glancing at the setlist pictured above, memory tells me that all of those songs were played, just not in that order. I didn’t notice any real banter between the guys on the stage that they were switching things up, so I’m not honestly sure how that all works. Why bother using a generic setlist if you aren’t actually going to come close to going by it?

Anyway, we had four songs from Laugh Now…Laugh Later at this gig, as opposed to three this time (“Bombs Away” was actually played, much to my delight as I find it one of the best songs on the album). Only one song from How To Ruin Everything, and none from Reactionary or Ignorance Is Bliss. I meant to ask why Reactionary is being largely ignored on this marathon of a tour, but it slipped my mind at the time. Most Face to Face “fans” tend to swear that only the band’s first three albums are worth listening to, so this setlist probably finds the band playing to that expectation. Not a bad decision from the perspective of luring people back to the band after a prolonged absence, I suppose, as long as it means the list gets broadened next time out.

Danny and Scott were in solid-as-ever form. Dennis’ sound was a little clearer than in Boston, which is good because that guy can really play. Aside from being a very likeable guy, he’s a hell of a guitar player. Trever was Trever…intense at some times, silly and playful at others. Classic Face to Face performance from soup to nuts.

Enough blabbing…here are some more pictures. Please to enjoy.

The one and only Scott Shiflett. Trever has made a habit of pointing out Scott’s awesomeness at shows on this tour, allowing Scott a minute to get into a bass solo. On this night, Trever also pointed out how great a guitar player Scott is, prompting Dennis to take off his own guitar and sling it over Scott. Scott proceeded to shred an impromptu lightning-fast metal-icious guitar solo. Pretty awesome…just wish I photographed it!

There are worse places to watch a punk rock show from, I’ve gotta say

Danny Thompson on drums. I really like the way the coloring worked out on this one. Just wish I could remember what setting I had the camera on!

Totally different coloring, but I still think it’s a cool picture

The closest I came to getting the four fellas in the same shot

Trever and Scott paying Danny a visit. That’s Corey Miller on the right.

Dennis, Trever and Scott and his maroon Docs

Messing around with long shutter speeds. I like the results.

Trever and Scott

The view from Danny’s corner of the world

Seriously…not a bad spot to watch a show from

I really like this picture. Wish it was a little crisper, but still…

Trever keeping an eye on Scott

Face to Face w/Strung Out – Boston, MA

May 15, 2011 1 comment

For the first time in just about two years, Face to Face played within Boston proper last night (May 14th). The band are celebrating their twentieth year in business, and touring in support of their seventh studio album, Laugh Now…Laugh Later, which is due to be released this coming week (May 17th). Joining them for the duration of the two-plus month-long tour are fellow SoCal heavyweights Strung Out, themselves rounding the corner on 20 years (the band was formed in 1992).

As much as it pains me to say, I’m much less familiar with Strung Out’s catalog than I should be; this is certain to change in the near future. The band play a fast-paced, metal-infused brand of SoCal punk rock. I’m not sure how I never got around to seeing Strung Out before. Nevertheless, they put on a very enjoyable, high octane 40-ish minute set on this particular night. Their 7:50pm time slot was also notably earlier than anticipated; Brooklyn band Cerebral Ballzy (yes, that is their real name) were due to occupy one of the opening slots, but played in the UK the day before and didn’t make it back to the States in time for this gig.  Redondo Beach punk band The Darlings occupied the 7:00pm time slot, though admittedly, I missed their performance.

Anyway, here are a few pictures from the Strung Out set…

Frontman Jason Cruz

Jake Kiley and Jason Cruz
Jake Kiley and Chris Aiken

Aiken and Cruz

On to the headliners. May 14th, 2011, would mark my twelfth f2f gig. Paradise is a fairly legendary rock club in Boston, so I was pretty excited to get the opportunity to see my favorite band there for the first time. The boys took the stage promptly at 9:10pm. Thanks to our spot up front between Trever Keith and Scott Shiflett, we had a pretty good view of the setlist ahead of time. Here’s how it read:

You Lied

You’ve Done Nothing


Walk The Walk

It’s All About You


I Won’t Lie Down


Bill Of Goods


All For Nothing


Should Anything Go Wrong


I Want


Big Choice

Bombs Away




I’m Trying

It’s Not Over

As you might imagine from looking at it, that right there is a pretty solid setlist. The band’s first three albums were obviously very well represented (five songs from Don’t Turn Away, six songs each from Big Choice and the self-titled album), while Ignorance Is Bliss (to be expected) and Reactionary (unexpected) were unrepresented, and 2002’s How To Ruin Everything had only one song featured. The remainder were from the forthcoming Laugh Now…Laugh Later. “Should Anything Go Wrong” and “It’s All About You” were fairly well-received and several people seemed to know the words already.  “All for Nothing” occupied the space that “Bombs Away” was slotted for, the latter song not actually being played, and was met with nodding approval (no ‘thumbs-down, middle-finger-up’ this time around), a good sign for a song that isn’t full-throttle punk rock song.

The mostly-capacity crowd was pretty chipper for most of the set, and seemed to get rowdier from about the halfway mark on. Pretty decent pit ebbed and flowed for the majority of the set, and the number of crowd surfers was unexpectedly high. Frontman and band founder Trever Keith acknowledged that his voice was a little off (“phlegmy” was the precise word he used) and it was noticeable in some places, but by and large he sounded great for an “old guy.” About a third of the way through the set, Keith commented on how Face to Face crowds have grown decidedly older over the years, but pointed out that they were, in fact, old men themselves (prompting bass player extraordinaire to pretend to shuffle over to his spot aided by a walker). Keith also repeatedly commented on how the Red Sox were beating the Yankees, which always pleases him due to his noted hatred of the Bronx Bombers. That met with applause from the crowd, and didn’t come off as typical front-man pandering.

Despite the band’s age, they played with their trademark high energy and precision. New drummer (since the 2008 reunion) Danny Thompson served as the rock steady gas pedal behind the kit, keeping things plowing straight ahead. While longtime guitar player Chad Yaro was back home tending to “real job” duties, touring guitar player Dennis Hill continues to serve as a formidable replacement. Sadly, the sound was not mixed all too well, so his guitar was almost inaudible from our spot. Keith and Shiflett continued to do what they have been doing best for sixteen years (Shiflett took over for Matt Riddle in 1995): Keith’s power chord rhythmic assault on guitar continues to interplay with the melodically nimble-fingered Shiflett’s swirling bass lines.

But enough of my words. Here are some pictures for your enjoyment…

“You’ve got brains in your head…feet in your shoes…you can steer yourself…any way you choose…”

Scott doing the “duck face,” probably unintentionally…though, knowing Scott…

Scott either showing that playing bass is hard work, or trying to keep his dinner down

Danny, Trever and Dennis

Trever Keith

Scott, Trever and Danny. The banner behind them was designed by the one-and-only Corey Miller

I’m pretty sure Scott posed for this one…

I love this picture. Who says “old guys” can’t rock?!?

The man does have a thing for the Les Paul Studio, doesn’t he?

Danny, Trever and Dennis, seemingly enjoying themselves

Just sorta like the coloring on this one


A considerate crowd member shares a beer with mini Dennis

I have a tough time photographing drummers, I’m not gonna lie

More Dennis

In closing, I would say that my twelfth Face to Face show left me looking forward to another twelve, but I’m not that naive. Still, a boy can dream, can’t he? At least there’ll be New Haven on Thursday!

“Ramones” turns 35

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

The title of this one says it all. April 23rd marks the 35th anniversary of the self-titled, debut album by the Ramones. As such, it also marks the 35th anniversary of punk rock. To commemorate the occasion, I wrote a (fairly lengthy) revisit/review of the album for Dying Scene. Check it out here and leave some love!