Sunday, April 27, 2014

Change Your Evil Ways: Mark Farner Rocking for God and Against Injustice

In the long annals of rock and roll, no one stood larger in the hearts and minds of teenagers than Grand Funk Railroad in the late 1960 and early 1970s. Led by drummer Donny Brewer and guitarist Mark Farner, they set the standard for hedonism by which all following rockers are to be judged. The lyrics to their seminal hit “We’re an American Band” are a prime example of the hijinks they were up to in the 70s:
Four young chiquitas in Omaha | Waitin' for the band to return from the show | Feelin' good, feelin' right, it's Saturday night | The hotel detective, he was outta sight | Now these fine ladies, they had a plan | They was out to meet the boys in the band | They said, “Come on dudes, let's get it on” | And we proceeded to tear that hotel down
Grand Funk Railroad peaked out about 1976 and Farner and Brewer and the other members of the band went their separate ways. Farner tried his hand at a solo career without much success or acclaim. Brewer and the other Funkers remained together and released one album under the name Flint, an ode to their hometown, which went mostly unnoticed. Farrner, Brewer and Grand Funk reunited in the early 1980s and were included on the soundtrack to and in the 1981 full-length animated sci-fi movie Heavy Metal. After that, the band remained moribund until 1996.

In the meantime, Mark Farner underwent a spiritual awakening and became a born-again Christian. He reemerged on the musical scene in 1988 with his Christian-oriented rock album “Just Another Injustice.” I saw him on tour that year in support of this album, but unfortunately, he was unable to play the worldly “We’re an American Band,” although he did go through the repertoire of other Grand Funk hits that night in Long Beach at the Bogart’s nightclub.

Even while wearing his faith literally on his crucifix-encrusted armband, Farner does not come off as overly preachy on an album that has an admittedly niche audience. To show he was still capable of rocking it up Farner’s album opens up with “Airborne Ranger” and a set of double-meaning lyrics that can be taken either for a patriotic serve-your-country anthem or a faithful call to action against “the darkness all around you” Actually, the double meaning is not that cloaked, but it’s an enjoyable song to blast with the four windows down and blowing the doors off some lucre-loving snob in his new BMW. His solos are more restrained than in the 70s on FM heavy rotation album cuts such as “Shinin’ On” but he gets in his hot licks.

Perhaps a better cut is the pure blues jam “Judgement Day Blues.” Farner really blasts the materialistic culture of the late 80s as suffering from a “vast epidemic” of people breakin’ all the lord’s rules. A great day is a comin’, and Farner proceeds to explain it on his axe, sinfully soloing over the slow beat backed up at the bottom end by some funky bass playin’.

It’s probably just serendipity, but a track that still really speaks to me is “The Writing on The Wall” about a world full of lies, confusion and illusion. If the country was in a spate of moral crisis in the 1980s, what about today? Farner warns us not to watch it slip away again. If only we would or could learn from the examples of past generations. Every generation faces its own temptations—ours is no different from our predecessors. Hopefully, we’ll heed Mark’s warning and change our evil ways before the Day of Reckoning comes post-haste!

Whether you’re a believer or just a fan of overlooked rock albums from the past, “Just Another Injustice” is worth a look and a listen. If you’re a traditionalist, it’s available in limited quantities on Amazon, but if you tend to a more 21st century based solution iTunes and Spotify also seem to have at least the title track, if not the entire CD, online.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Not Who You Think it is: Getting it Wrong with Kingdom Come

By the mid-1980s, the music listening public was so thirsty for a Led Zeppelin reunion, any rumor of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the lead vocalist and lead guitarist of Zep, respectively, working together again would spread like wildfire. Flash forward to 1988. Hard rock radio stations begin playing a song that sounds very much like Zeppelin—something in the spirit of “Kashmir.” At the time in the Los Angeles-Long Beach market of Southern California, KNAC disc jockey Long Paul would introduce the song saying “It’s not who you think it is.”

The song being played was “Get It On” from the German heavy metal band Kingdom Come. Reportedly, the buzz from the song was so strong, someone at the recording studio released a rough demo to several U.S. rock radio stations even before the final tracks for the album were completely mixed. Legend has it that Kingdom Come lead singer Lenny Wolf and producer Bob Rock were at the board at the famous Electric Lady Studios in New York City when they heard their track on the radio.

Not to be caught flatfooted, they quickly rushed the finished master tracks to the record label and Kingdom Come’s eponymous debut album shipped Gold (i.e., 500,000 units sold). To further capitalize on their unforeseen good fortune, they were quickly signed onto Van Halen’s Monsters of Rock tour. With Van Halen, Scorpions, Metallica and Dokken on the bill, Kingdom Come was instantly legitimized as a rock ‘n’ roll heavyweight.

Unfortunately, the comparisons to Led Zeppelin hung heavily on Kingdom Come, with some wags tagging them with the moniker “Kingdom Clone.” Others came up with an epithet even more unsavory that cannot be repeated in polite company. The band persevered with their tour and a subsequent followup album. But they quickly disbanded with only Wolf remaining into 1992 still performing under the Kingdom Come banner. By that time, any heavy metal bands from the 1980s not named Metallica were speedily swept into the ashbin of history caught under the undertow of Grunge. That’s too bad.

Kingdom Come’s debut album showed much promise. Beyond the Zeppesque “Get It On” there are several standout tracks including “Living Out of Touch,” “Now Forever After” and “Shout It Out;” all hard rocking and blues based without any pretentiousness of the Led Zeppelin supergroup mentality of the 1970s. Not one to give up the dream, Lenny Wolf/Kingdom Come continues to release albums, with the 13th studio release “Outlier” coming onto the market in May 2013.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Man on Metal Mountain—Ronnie James Dio: This is Your Life

The dark poet of heavy metal, Ronnie James Dio, has been departed from those of us in the rock ‘n’ roll community for almost four years, having died in May 2010. Though a man of slight stature, he left behind a towering musical legacy to which all sectors of the metal brotherhood continue to pay homage. In that spirit, titans of the genre united to record cover versions of some of Dio’s greatest work from the Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio—his eponymously named group—eras on “Ronnie James Dio: This is Your Life,” with all proceeds dedicated to the Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. The record has been out since early April 2014 and has charted at No. 20 on the Billboard Top 200 list.

But for all his success as a member of supergroups along with the likes of Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow and Tony Iommi in Black Sabbath and phenomenal solo work, Dio’s music was about beautiful, surrealistic lyrics evoking paradoxical imagery of “shadows shining ever-bright” and “rainbows in the dark.”

But more than anything else, Dio wrote anthems that made people jump out of their seats and wave the two-fingered, so-called “devil’s horns” salute. Most of the cuts on this tribute to Dio are of the full-throttle anthem variety.

To prove the point, Anthrax comes out all guns blazing on “Neon Knights” to start. Just like the original version from Black Sabbath’s first collaboration with Dio on 1980’s “Heaven and Hell,” Anthrax sounds like a B-52 bomber with a full payload carpet-bombing the Viet Cong with napalm on the Mekong delta. Joe Belladonna channels the vocals of Dio spot on and Scot Ian shreds on the Iommi riff.

What may be the best track on the album is turned in by Adrenaline Mob covering, naturally “Mob Rules” from the Black Sabbath album of the same name. Anchored by Mike Portnoy, the drummer of Dream Theater fame, the Adrenaline Mob thunders ahead with this fist pumper. There’s nothing quite like cruising down the freeway with the moonroof open and this track singing your eardrums with the volume at 11! The full visual power of Dio’s lyrics comes to the fore as the song opens with “Close the city and tell the people that something's coming to call | Death and darkness are rushing forward to take a bite from the wall, oh.” Adrenaline Mob lives up to its name upping the pace and the volume in salute to Dio.

Garnering a lot of attention and a big piece of the room on this disc is Metallica covering not one but four Dio songs from the Rainbow era in a medley aptly called “Ronnie Rising Medley,” melding the original tunes “A Light in the Black,” “Tarot Woman,” “Stargazer” and “Kill the King.” Metallica hasn’t sounded this good in years, with James Hetfield back to his old surly self from the “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets” period, barking out lyrics like a drill sergeant. Kirk Hammett scintillates on lead guitar as always. And Lars Ulrich keeps it all very martial sounding on the kit. Hetfield has been quoted as saying the group couldn’t settle on one song and that jamming on all four was something they’ve done in the past, so it came together very quickly. A definite highlight for any dyed-in-the-wool Metallicat!

Other nice performances are turned in by Scorpions on “The Temple of the King” and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford on “Man on the Silver Mountain.” Both tap the spiritual energy of Dio with understated performances.

Overall, an excellent album. And an excellent cause. Well worth the price of admission. “This is Your Life” is available at Amazon and any record stores remaining near you!

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

When it Pours: Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors (Disc 2)

The 1989 all-star double-CD set “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors (Disc 2)” is a fascinating collection of tracks by a who’s who of modern and roots rock at the time (for this review, only the second platter is discussed—I’ll get to disc 1 if I can find it). It continues the proud tradition of high-profile rock performers banding together to help a worthy non-profit cause that started with George Harrison’s 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh” recording and was continued by the 1979 “No Nukes” triple live album (double CD when reissued in 1997).

However, “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors” is not a live ensemble but a collection of some of the best of what the 1980s had to offer. Assembled to raise money for the mission of the Greenpeace non-governmental environmental organization to protect whales and other sealife and a raft of other ecological causes, artists like Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bryan Adams and Sade donated use of some of their best A-sides for this compilation.

Overall, the theme of the album is one of hope and sometimes defiance of authority—a natural attitude for the namesake album of a small ship that attempts to block large whalers in the open oceans. Another overriding subtext of the album is the reoccurrence of imagery of water.

The CD opens with Simple Minds doing a live version of “Waterfront.” Lead singer/guitarist Jim Kerr hoarse singing style and all revs up the crowd. Most famous for their top pop hit “Don't You (Forget About Me)” from the movie The Breakfast Club, “Waterfront” is more representative of their gritty, working-class sound but embellished with keyboards. Continuing on, Peter Gabriel croons his best on “Red Rain” with the water washing away all iniquity. As in baptism, the red rain has the power to expiate sin. Like much of Gabriel’s material, “Red Rain” has an ethereal, dream-like quality.

The liquid metaphor continues on “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors” with the Waterboys offering an ode on “The Whole of the Moon.” One of the rock critics’ favorites in the late 1980s, the Waterboys combine Celtic musical influences from their native Scotland with a light rock sensibility. It’s quite infectious as you singalong to the chorus of the title, keeping time as you tap your toes.

Irish group Hothouse Flowers follows up the water theme again with “Hard Rain.” Although heralding from the Emerald Isle, the Hothouse Flowers channel their inner soul effectively to survive the hard rain in the ghetto. The tune really pumps with the piano playing a central role. It has the feel of a good jam from accomplished jazz musicians.

The disc saves one of the most legendary performers for close to the end in the person of Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, Bob Dylan’s backing group on some of his seminal electric work in the 1960s. In a half-song, half-spoken-word performance, Robertson takes a journey “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” Throughout Greek Mythology and Biblical Scripture, rivers have played important roles as conduits, barriers, boundaries and sources of renewal. Robertson’s journey is more modern with the river standing in as a symbol for his urban meanderings to Nick’s CafĂ©. Robertson brings a quality of world-weariness to this track packed with allusions and other figurative language devices.

Considering this is the trailing CD in the two-disc set, it makes me wonder what I’ll find on “Greenpeace Rainbow Warriors (Disc 1)”—provided it’s still somewhere to be found. It’s such a revelation and revitalization, the sound just washes over me. Hopefully you can hold on with me.

-Derek Handova
Appreciative Listener