Sunday , October 25 2020

Music Reviews: Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Plus Johnny Iguana and Rich Krueger

Compared with Roger Waters and David Gilmour, the other surviving members of the original Pink Floyd, drummer Nick Mason has been relatively quiet. Largely retired for two decades, the now 76-year-old musician has contributed to a handful of projects over the years, but he has issued no albums under his own name since 1981.

That changes with this month’s release of Live at the Roundhouse by Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, which you can buy as a double vinyl LP set, a double CD set that comes packaged with a DVD, or a Blu-ray disc. (For some reason, no CD/Blu-ray combination is available.) The release finds Mason working with Guy Pratt, who previously played bass with Pink Floyd and Gilmour; guitarist Lee Harris, from Ian Dury’s Blockheads; guitarist/vocalist Gary Kemp, from Spandau Ballet; and keyboardist Dom Beken, a composer and producer. The 97-minute program preserves versions of Pink Floyd material from concerts the band performed in 2019 at London’s Roundhouse, a venue where the original group also appeared in their earliest years.

Don’t look here for songs from Dark Side of the MoonWish You Were HereAnimals, or The Wall, the megahits that turned Pink Floyd into an international phenomenon—or, for that matter, for anything that doesn’t predate Dark Side. Mason’s focus is solely on the earlier, more psychedelic (and to these ears, significantly more exciting) material from the group’s formative years, at least some of which has rarely been performed on stage.

From Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut, come “Astronome Domine,” “Lucifer Sam,” “Bike,” “Interstellar Overdrive,” and “See Emily Play.” And from 1968’s Saucerful of Secrets, the concert includes “Remember a Day,” “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” and “Let There Be More Light.” Mason’s outfit also serve up “The Nile Song” and “Green Is the Colour” from 1969’s More; the title track and “If” from 1970’s Atom Heart Mother; “One of These Days” and “Fearless” from 1971’s Meddle; and the title track, “When You’re In,” and “Childhood’s End” from 1972’s Obscured by Clouds

Speaking of obscurity, the band additionally offer Pink Floyd cofounder Syd Barrett’s “Arnold Layne,” the group’s 1967 debut single; “Point Me at the Sky,” a 1968 single by Waters and Gilmour; and “Vegetable Man,” a 1967 Barrett composition that remained unreleased until 2016, when it showed up on Pink Floyd’s mammoth box set, The Early Years 1965–1972

Mason’s focus on the period from 1967 to 1972 is quite deliberate. In a recent Billboard interview, he spoke somewhat negatively of the aforementioned blockbuster albums and said, “I’ve always been interested in the idea of exploring the old catalog. After the Pink Floyd Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition [in London in 2017], I was reminded how special and undervalued the early period of Pink Floyd is. It has been [about] 25 years since I’d been out with a band playing live, but it made me realize I wanted to play this music live again.”

Mason’s idea was not to ape the old album versions and become “my own tribute band,” but rather to echo the spirit of the originals, which were loose, fresh-sounding, and at times improvisational. His band succeeds at that, delivering exciting, edgy music that includes new embellishments—“The Nile Song” appears to reference the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun,” for example. The songs manage to sound reimagined while also seeming redolent of the old Pink Floyd records.

Any fan of those albums should relish these performances. “One of These Days,” a bass and keyboards showcase, has never sounded more menacing, for example, and a 12-minute “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” combines sections that are hypnotically rhythmic with moments that are as trippy as the sounds you hear near the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. “Atom Heart Mother” also shines, as does a tightly constructed reading of “See Emily Play.” Moreover, these and all the other tracks pack an even bigger punch when you see them performed—and hear 5.1 audio—on the DVD and Blu-ray.

Also Noteworthy

Johnny IguanaJohnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!. This is the first blues album with a starring role for Johnny Iguana, whose most recent work has been with the idiosyncratic (and excellent) rock group the Claudettes. But he has been a blues fan since he was a kid and has performed and recorded with a wide variety of the genre’s legends from the Windy City, his current home base. 

This album, billed as a “celebration of Chicago blues piano,” finds him playing keyboards in a band that includes such veteran artists as singer and harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and vocalist and guitarist Lil Ed. The set list mixes classic material from giants of the genre like Willie Dixon, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Elmore James with a handful of Iguana originals. On standouts like James’s “Shake Your Moneymaker” and Williamson’s “Stop Breaking Down” the performances remind me of the irresistible high-energy blues rock that the original Fleetwood Mac delivered on 1969’s Blues Jam in Chicago.

Rich KruegerThe Troth Sessions. Rich Krueger, who sounds a bit like Loudon Wainwright III, has been releasing albums only since 2018 but it turns out that he spent time in the studio much earlier than that. This third CD consists of demos he recorded way back in 2002. 

The stripped-down set, which features just the singer and his guitar, includes seven folk songs by Krueger and two that he penned with coauthors. The plaintive “The Ballad of Mary O’Connor” addresses 9/11 and its aftermath, but many of the numbers focus on relationships—some happy (such as “True True Love” and “Amazing,” both apparently written for the weddings of friends), some not so happy (such as “The One You Love”). The lyrics are literate, mostly cliché-free, and imaginative, and the performances are engaging.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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