Archive for the ‘Rock’ Category

Tom Petty (1950-2017)


Tom-Petty_2016-06-20For most of my life, I have not been a Tom Petty enthusiast, although I definitely enjoyed the original 1988 release by the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that included Petty, the late Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and drummer Jim Keltner.  I changed my tune about Petty in the last three years or so.

The late Tom Petty obviously was one of a long string of rock artists that emerged during the mid- to late-1970s. But in my opinion, what set him apart from most of the rest, and what gave him such longevity in his career, was his song styling. Yes, he had some brazenly pop-flavored hits (“Don’t Do Me Like That”) and the occasional hazy, crepuscular detour (“Don’t Come Around Here No More,” co-written with David A. Stewart). But otherwise, Petty’s music had a distinct flavor of Americana, with the southern-American influence coming chiefly from his guitar timbre and phrasing.

This does not mean that Petty’s music sounded all the same – a well-worn perjorative that critics have taken at Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti for a couple of hundred years. Instead, Petty’s “Americana” is diverse and evident, in part in Petty’s music, but also in Benmont Tench’s organ and piano sounds. And even when Stan Lynch was replaced by veteran session ace Steve Ferrone, the drums had a consistent sound, feel and style. This often changes from drummer to drummer, so this stands as a compliment to Ferrone’s musicianship.

A number of fans, including Wikipedia contributors, have referred to Petty’s music as “heartland rock.” And while this is not a misnomer, “heartland rock” pigeon-holes Petty’s music a bit too much. The southern influence of the guitar work by Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell stands out, but the song styling is not as brazenly “redneck” as, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Oak Arkansas, and other similar acts.  For me, this is what makes Petty’s recordings that much more enjoyable.

Eddie Van Halen has said, “You want to be a rock star? Rock stars come and go. Musicians make music until the day they drop.” The ultimate compliment to Tom Petty is that he was a musician, not a “rock star.”

His songs did not all sound the same – but a measure of his consistency is that his newer material stands nicely alongside his late 1970s and early 1980s work. Played one next to another, very few of his compositions stylistically clash.

And as for the musicianship on those records, it is almost impeccable. The studio playing is clean, spotless, tasteful, and a comfortable blend of aggression and restraint. Likewise, in his occasional forays into side projects, Petty remained true to the music he was contributing, without losing his identifiable voice. His work with the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys remains a fine example, nearly 30 years on, and remains on my CD shelf for that reason.

The measure of strength of a musician’s output includes how long his records are enjoyed after their commercial release.  We still enjoy The Beatles, for good reason. But virtually nobody listens to Oasis, Bush, or the like – to say nothing for the unending junk-food diet of boy bands and girl groups like The New Kids on the Block, Bananarama, the Spice Girls, etc.  (Bleah!)

But we have been enjoying and appreciating Tom Petty’s recordings since the 1970s – and, undeniably, we will still enjoy them for decades to come.

Speaking as a bassist, I know that neither Ron Blair nor Howie Epstein was terribly prominent on Petty’s records. But speaking also as a studio bassist, I can safely opine that both of them turned in fine recorded performances that were not sloppy or ill-conceived. They supported the music in character and in time — and in fine form.

Thomas Earl Petty was born October 20, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida. He passed away following cardiac arrest on October 2, 2017 in Santa Monica, California. And while his life, like many of ours, was not perfect and occasionally messy, his was a musical life well and abundantly lived among musicians he admired.  They admired him in return – and that is why Petty’s passing is more sad than of the “average rock star.”

Rest in peace, sir.


(image via Wikipedia)


The “Watchtower Bass”


If you are a cellist or bassist, the concept of “purgatory” has a real-world example in the eight-note ostinato ground bass of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  If you play bass in a rock or blues band, your equivalent is the three-chord bass line for “All Along The Watchtower,” by the folk-rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.  In both cases, it is the same, mind-numbingly repeating pattern through the entire song.

If you are a bassist with an IQ of at least 95, you know that “All Along the Watchtower” is five minutes of your day that you will never get back—longer if your lead guitarist is particularly greedy “inspired.”  But if you’re stuck on stage during a performance of “Watchtower,” and you want to make better use of your time, I humbly recommend that you arrive at the gig armed with a “Watchtower Bass.”

Like most of my ideas (well, except the solar-powered night-vision goggles), the concept is both elegant and simple:

If you don’t happen to have a second bass guitar, simply buy any crappy old used 4-string bass guitar; nobody will notice the difference.  Equip your extra bass with three strings.  Since my band (Elephant In The Room) plays the song in A, the bottom string would be an E-string tuned to F (F1).  The second string would be another E-string tuned to G (G1), and then the third string would be an A-string tuned to A (A1).  The fourth string is utterly unnecessary and can be discarded.
Before the set begins, arrange with your food server to deliver a cheeseburger and soda pop just before the band plays “All Along the Watchtower.”

Once the song begins, simply begin playing the three notes on your three open strings. Your left hand is now available for holding your cheeseburger and/or glass of soda pop.


“Hmmm.. I wonder when Mitch is done with his guitar solo?”  Urrrrrrrp!

The longer the band plays the song, the longer you have to savor your food and beverage without having to worry about annoying little details like fingering notes on your neck.  And since the bass line contains only three notes, playing a wrong note is virtually impossible.

By the time the band has finished playing the song, the lead guitarist, lead vocalist, and drummer will have gotten their jollies. Meanwhile, you have had time to savor some food and a refreshing beverage without having expended an ounce of worry or effort for a bass line nobody cares about, anyway.

Bassists of the world, you are welcome.

Dissonant Creatures with The Swallows, May 27, 1010


Cellist Aaron Kerr is like some musicians in that he has several projects going these days.  His own group, Dissonant Creatures, was paired with collaborator Jeff Crandall’s band, The Swallows at a slightly unusual venue — Station 4 (previously known as Ryan’s) in downtown Saint Paul on Thursday evening, May 27, 2010.

Make no mistake, Kerr’s musical background is solidly classical, but his music with Dissonant Creatures’ could be described as ‘atmospheric’ jazz and features some interesting work from his five-stringed electric cello, equipped with a low F string — and Kerr really knows how to make his instrument sing here.  The first of four songs the group performed was “Head Down Slowly Onward,” in which Kerr made his cello really sing and guitarist Jeff Crandall channelled The Edge (guitarist Dave Evans of U2) with his rhythm playing.  “Born Bad” is a 6/8 piece with bassist Matt Kanive pulsing underneath, subliminally urging on Aaron’s pizzicato melody, which was colored one octave above by Tyson Allison on synth.  “Scorpio Rising” is a C minor tune in 7/8 time featuring an ostinato bassline from Kanive; after Crandall’s guitar solo Kerr used his cello to signal some distant ‘lightning strikes’ while drummer Justin Deleon echoed him with a few blasts of thunder on his toms using mallets instead of standard drumsticks.

While the group’s music could have served well as the audio soundtrack to some of NASA’s Apollo documentary films, the sound definitely feels more rootsy than jazzy.  That said, Kerr and his group provided a few pleasant echoes of the seminal jazz-fusion group Weather Report, spiced with some tasty rhythm guitar from Crandall.

Kerr and Crandall’s group, The Swallows, took the stage for the evening’s final set and immediately showed how much of the group’s music is eminently airworthy.  They opened with “Clear Sky Relapse,” a C major tune in which Kerr straddled the line between being playing the bass line and providing some of the melody on electric cello.  In “Hardball,” Kerr really muscled the low end while drummer Ben Steen went with him stride-for-stride, getting people moving on the dance floor with his drums and open hi-hat.  Crandall provided nice vocals and Allison, by now playing guitar, provided solid backup vocals in “Bottom Feeder,” which featured a nice cello solo by Kerr.  The fact that there was no bass line underneath his solo helped the song, rather than hurt it.  Likewise, Mike Nordby provided nice texture behind Kerr with his mandolin.

After “The Devil’s Hole,” which featured some excellent Hammond B3-flavored keyboards from Allison, Kerr’s nicely pensive bass line provided the structure for “I Won’t Let You Down,” which featured some excellent drumming from Steen, who delivered some thoughtfully-placed snare drum flams to spice up the rhythm and enhance the organic, rootsy flavor.

Four of the group’s best songs closed the evening: “Witchin ‘n’ Divinnin” has a subtle flavor of a lullaby and featured Crandall on steel-string acoustic guitar, which works beautifully over Kerr’s electric cello.  (Extra points to Nordby for his mandolin part that underpins Allison’s xylophone lines.)  “Long Long Shadow” found Allison on melodica, Nordby punctuating the song with some high Ds from his mandolin, and Ben Steen powerfully driving the song with an almost tribal feel, courtesy of his intelligent use of mallets.

In “Home,” Crandall delivered a Springsteen-esque vocal riding on top of Kerr’s double-stop cello, while Allison provided dollops and dashes of harmonica in-between B3-style keyboards and solid backup vocals, with Nordby accenting the overall sound, this time on percussion.  The Swallows closed with two other strong compositions, “Rattle Them Bones” and “Roam”, both of which could easily fly on radio.

The Swallows’ appeal is more than just that Kerr replaces the traditional bass guitar; his electric 5-string cello vaults back-and-forth from a cello lead to bass underneath.  With more than just well-written and eminently listenable music, The Swallows also deliver solid musicianship, which makes this group more enjoyable than quite a few others in the Twin Cities area.

Super Bowl 44 halftime show


A review (in haiku) of The Who’s halftime performance at Super Bowl 44 (CBS-TV) on Sunday, February 7, 2010:

Marketing research?
halftime stuck in classic rock
What is hip, Goodell?

Uneven playing
drummer missed the closing chord
find two marching bands

KISS on Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)


A review, presented in Haiku, of KISS’ appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, October 7, 2010 (CBS-TV).

Thirty-five years on
still can’t play decent music
freaking loud paint job