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Retro-Rock, Roots Rock, and Classic Rockers Kept Old School Flames Hot and Alive in 2013

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These days, I can’t see how any single reviewer can credibly proclaim an annual “Best of” list for rock and roll releases. Speaking for myself, nearly every day I see avalanches of press releases, announcements, and links for countless artists/bands I’ve never heard of, much less heard. My mailbox is full of CDs sent by publicists and agents hopeful some of their clients will trip my writing trigger. Admittedly, I’m sure 90% of what I haven’t heard I’m glad I missed.

At the same time, while trying to digest at least part of what’s available, I fear I don’t give enough in-depth attention to some of these discs, downloads, and streams that cross my desk. So I’m puzzled when I hear the music industry is in bad shape. You’d never know it by the volume of material coming out in so many venues and formats. This is true even if you narrow your scope to roots rock, retro-rock, or whatever label you care to use for music that appeals to more than one generation.

Thus, looking back over 2013, I don’t want to proclaim anything the “best” of any genre or style, but I do have some favorites that strike me as being very memorable old school rock listens. There are a number of albums and DVDs that didn’t get their due in 2013, so I thought I’d emphasize some projects here you might not see on other lists. And I’m going to start with an off-beat category.

Music History

One contribution to our understanding of pop music this year wasn’t a film or disc, but a book. The Soundtrack of My Life by Clive Davis of Columbia, Arista, and J Records was more than a reminder that the often maligned “suits” of the industry have had a major impact on what we hear. Davis, along with folks like Berry Gordy (Motown), Ahmet Ertegan (Atlantic), and Mo Ostin (Warner Brothers) made it possible for an endless parade of performers to make their creative stamp on us all.

The Soundtrack of My Life reads much like a victory lap where the greatest “suit” of them all recounts how and why he signed everyone from Janis Joplin, Springsteen, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Barry Manilow, to Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Alicia Keys. How can you spot a talented artist destined for longevity? What makes for a smash hit? How does diversification ensure a record label’s success? Davis shares all the secrets, and with style as well.

Also going back to the ’60s, the Grammy-nominated The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story is a DVD documentary that tells the story of the Turkish composer, arranger, engineer, and producer who wanted to be a jazz musician before helping shape the studio sounds for artists ranging from the Young Rascals, the Bee Gees, and Aretha, to Bette Midler, Phil Collins and Norah Jones.

Co-produced by Arif’s son Joe, The Greatest Ears in Town is a revealing portrait of one man’s life and music as told by Mardin himself as well as many of his peers and many of the musicians who recollect their work with the gentleman’s gentleman. While released on a very limited basis in 2010, this year saw the first edition of the documentary for the general public with a ton of bonuses. We see Mardin working in the studio, especially setting up Midler’s tribute song, “The Greatest Ears in Town.” The DVD is a delight for the ears, eyes, and heart.

Box Sets

While Sony Legacy has put out a number of major artist retrospectives this year, it’s hard to beat their The RCA Albums Collection, which is 17 discs of the Harry Nilsson canon.

From the get-go, singer/songwriter Nilsson was a pioneering innovator who rarely appeared live but was a master of what one man can do in a studio long before being a one-man band was easy. This was demonstrated on his first four releases beginning in 1967 and culminated with 1971’s Aerial Pandemonium Ballet. Then came the zenith of his popularity with the Richard Perry-produced Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) and Son of Schmilsson (1972). Arguably, but not by much, his final indispensable release was A Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973) which preceded, by decades, the trend for pop stars to sing standards from the (pre-rock and roll era) American Songbook in front of an orchestra.

Not everything on this collection is vital, and the re-release of the lackluster final albums is for the Nilsson completest only. Still, if I were to give only one box set to friends and foes alike this Christmas, this would be it.

Well, I’d have to stop and ponder giving another gift from Mr. Ian Anderson, the wonderful performances collected on the lavish DVD set Live Around the World. On the heels of Thick as a Brick 2 (2012) and this year’s marvelous remix of the original Thick as a Brick (itself an easy “best of” for 2013), Around the World is four discs of live Jethro Tull gigs from 1970 to 2005.

Do I really need to say more than that? We’re talking over six hours of music on international stages showcasing the visual antics and musical virtuosity of the various congregations that supported Anderson over the decades. From jazz rock to Celtic rock to prog rock, Jethro Tull has touched a lot of bases, and done so very well indeed.

Back in 1971, guitarist/singer Steve Marriott, guitarist Peter Frampton, bassist Greg Ridley, and drummer Jerry Shirley—collectively known as Humble Pie—released the hard-hitting two-album set, Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore. Forty years later, while largely ignored by devotees of hard rock and heavy metal, we now know Humble Pie was clearly an early example of a band belonging to a genre often credited to being founded by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and later groups like Rainbow and Montrose. But what didn’t Humble Pie have that these other bands did?

You can find out on Rockin’ the Fillmore-The Complete Recordings, a four-disc set that presents the four concerts exactly as they were played over two consecutive nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East on May 28 and 29, 1971. True, as the song list for each gig was pretty much the same, there’s a lot of repetition here. Well, don’t inhale the experience in one go unless you’re a serious headbanger. Unlike other bands of the genre, Humble Pie had two hot axemen, Marriott and Frampton. The belting, powerhouse vocals of Marriott were on a par with any other bluesy singer in the business, then or now. The Pie was clearly closer to their blues roots than many of their successors, which shows how hard rock would soon cut loose from its moorings and become a whole new rock animal.

So Humble Pie is a necessary lynchpin in heavy history. Like I said in my review of the set, Ozzy Osbourne and many others can’t hold Marriott’s metaphorical candle. Along with groups like Mountain and Vanilla Fudge, the roots of what was to come were in bands simply no longer getting their due. That includes Humble Pie.

Single Discs

This is where things get tough for your humble reviewer. There are many artists I’d like to give a boost here, but I know many of my choices would be for personal, not musical reasons. So I don’t claim what follows to be necessarily the cream of the crop of 2013, but if I could only keep a handful of “Desert Island” discs from this year, they would be:

Willie Nile – American Ride

By miles and miles, my top choice for 2013 is Willie Nile’s infectious and exuberant American Ride. Following on the heels of 2011’s equally infectious and exuberant The Innocent Ones, Nile’s newest collection is brimming with gems that are even better than his earlier work.

If “This Is Our Time” isn’t one of the catchiest and most jaunty singles you’ve ever heard, where have you been? Add in the title song, “Life on Bleecker Street,” and more serious tracks like “The Crossing,” American Ride is what rock should be. In fact, since it’s on my mind, I think I’ll play it again right now.

The Del-Lords - The Elvis Club

The Del-Lords were one of those ’80s roots rock bands that critics loved but many listeners missed. Twenty years after their break-up, they have successfully reunited and the critics still love them and listeners are still catching up.

Do song titles like “When the Drugs Kick In” and “Chicks, Man!” give you an idea where these guys come from? Sort of the Heartbreakers with a sense of humor. Great for parties and road trips alike.

Creed Bratton - Tell Me About It

Creed Bratton’s two main claims to fame were that he was once a member of the Grassroots and he was a cast member on The Office. This year, he issued Tell Me About It which he described as “An Audio Autobiography about LSD, Unemployment, and Third Acts.” That’s a good summation of the collection.

Tell Me About It has very different moods and tones with spoken word clips mixed in along the way. Act I is very psychedelic, with jingle-jangle guitars; Act II is more contemplative, with poignant character sketches. Act III is an affirmative look at our world now. Put together, all the songs and clips on Tell Me About It made it one of the freshest and most original releases of 2013.

Billy Talbot - On the Road to Spearfish

Since 1962, bassist Billy Talbot has been a member of Crazy Horse, best known for all those albums and tours backing Neil Young. On the Road to Spearfish is Talbot’s second solo album, which I described in my original review with a series of adjectives: “Stark. Sparse. Reflective. Moody. Plaintive.” That was because the very personal portrait of the open spaces of the North American prairie surrounding Spearfish, South Dakota was better suited to yearning ballads and atmospheric tunes rather than fuzz-tone Crazy Horse jams.

On the Road to Spearfish is one of those albums akin to reading a carefully plotted novella, where the lyrics match the subtle and idiosyncratic colors of folk/country/rock instrumentation layered with solo trombone and saxophone lines. Clearly, Talbot learned much from his time with Young, especially with phrasing and choruses.

Alvin Lee - The Last Show

The music world felt a deep loss when Alvin Lee, former main motor of the legendary Ten Years After, unexpectedly died in Spain on March 6, 2013 at the age of 68. So it’s hard not to feel some sadness when listening to the CD of Lee’s last show, a gig at Raalte, Holland on May 28, 2012.

While few songs from the Ten Years After canon are represented on the 14 jams, you’ll think you’re hearing late ’60s guitar god blues rock, complete with extended, melodic guitar solos typical of the era. Along the way, Lee makes this connection overt with quotes from Cream and Jimi Hendrix along with the obligatory song he made famous at Woodstock, “I’m Going Home.” Lee was showing his age as he no longer knocked out speed demon leads, but this was one tight band and there’s only one regret to feel. There will be no more music from a legend who should never be forgotten.

61nHFMVKbkL._SY300_Joe Grushecky – Somewhere East of Eden

As with Willie Nile, Pittsburgh’s Joe Grushecky is a singer/guitarist who was already on my radar screen. While I had heard his work with the Iron City Houserockers back in the ’70s, I wasn’t really blown away until his 2009 East Carson Street, an album I thought should have gotten much, much more attention than it got. The same is true for Somewhere East of Eden.

Through the years, Grushecky has been categorized as “heartland rock” alongside the likes of Springsteen, Bob Seger, and John Mellencamp. That’s fair, especially as Springsteen and Grushecky are occasional songwriting partners. Somewhere East of Eden is full of story songs about children, vets, the unemployed, and the downtrodden. But Grushecky isn’t giving us bitter pills dripping with the depression blues. Rather than doing that, he is affirming the strength and will of America, and this means an America that knows how to rock. So it’s an album to appreciate for its lyrics and range of musical settings.

Solomon Burke – Live at Montreux 2006

To close off this overlong overview, I thought I should get in at least one of Eagle Rock Entertainment’s many fine Blu-ray and DVD editions in their “Live at Montreux” series. Keeping with the spirit of plugging underappreciated artists, I chose Solomon Burke’s Live at Montreux 2006.

While the term “soul music” was coined especially for him back in the ’60s, Burke never cracked into the heights that contemporaries like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, or Percy Sledge did. Still, before his death in 2010, baritone Burke was one of the most colorful personalities in the music business. For 55 years, Burke released 38 studio albums and had 38 charting singles. But he never had that one magic hit.

By the time Burke earned his first Grammy Award win for “Don’t Give Up on Me” (2002), he was so heavy—weighing between 350 to 400 pounds—he had to be wheeled onstage where he presided over his concerts singing from his gold throne. As shown on Live at Montreux 2006, it’s clear Burke had become a living bridge between Gospel music, in both style and substance, rock, the devil’s R&B, and the showmanship of a performer who had been doing it all before James Brown began emulating Burke by wearing a cape.

It’s not astonishing to hear Burke blow the house down with his distinctive voice. But it is amazing to see how a man, who never leaves his throne, can put on such a show. Burke pumps up his audience by having them moving up and down the aisles, keeps his stage active by keeping his band and singers part of the proceedings, and never letting the energy lag. It’s a magical evening in any year.

So there it is, no doubt an offbeat list that won’t match up with many other end-of-the-year recommendations. But I hope some of these suggestions whet your appetite for some great music well worth your attention. To sign off, what could be more appropriate than Willie Nile doing a live version of “This Is Our Time”? Yes it is.

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About Wesley Britton