For those of us who write about music, this time of year is all about one thing. And for those of you wondering, it isn't holiday parties or hopeful encounters underneath the mistletoe. Nope. The end of the year for us music scribes means one thing and one thing only: time to do the year-end top ten list. Which brings me to my problem this year.
You see, for the life of me, I haven't been able to come up with a list of ten new CDs I heard this year that I felt were great enough to warrant inclusion on such a list. Oh, don't get me wrong. I heard a lot of good music this year. I just didn't hear that much I thought was truly great. That's as in great and, by all indications, timeless as previous years' best-of CDs.
Take the list I compiled last year for example:
My #2 choice was Neil Young's Prairie Wind, which I felt represented a return to form after disappointing recent efforts like Are You Passionate and Greendale. This year Neil Young gave us Living With War, his politically charged, and heavily amplified call to arms against Bush. Living With War was certainly topical enough, and if you like the cranked-to-eleven sound of Neil shredding away on Old Black (which I do), it also has some really good music. But it's just not a great Neil Young album. Rust Never Sleeps is a great Neil Young album. Living With War, in my opinion at least, is simply a really good one.
My #1 choice for last year was Bruce Springsteen's Devils & Dust, which for my money contains the most vivid lyrical imagery to come from the pen of the Boss since Nebraska. This year Bruce gave us We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album whose concept of folk-based cover songs had me skeptical going in. Happily, those same misgivings were just as quickly dispelled once I heard the joyous noise of these great songs (especially "O Mary Don't You Weep").
So Bruce makes my very short top three list this year. He joins Bob Dylan's Modern Times which is my choice for best album of 2006, and possibly the icon's best overall release since the classic Blood On The Tracks. Rounding out my very short top three this year is Johnny Cash's final (?) posthumous release in the American series, American V: A Hundred Highways, an album which finds The Man in Black coming to terms with his mortality in his final days.
So after going over all the music I've written about this past year, I realized that in 2006 I wrote an unusually high number of reviews about reissues. Maybe it's just because there were so many of those "remastered versions" of classic albums this year. I'd hardly consider myself an exclusively classic rock type of guy, but the evidence doesn't lie. From ELO to Alice Cooper to Jeff Beck, I wrote about a lot of repackaged oldies for Blogcritics this year.
So that's when it hit me. As I considered compiling a Top Ten reissues list, I realized that the coolest thing I'd come across this year in music period was Wolfgang's Vault. Even better, breaking events just this week may also make it among the year's most topical music news stories.
On it's surface, Wolfgang's Vault is merely just about the coolest rock memorabilia site on the Internet, period. Especially if you are a fan of the late sixties and early seventies psychedelic rock era. Basically home to the collection of the late concert promoter Bill Graham, it houses rare, hard to find items like original artwork from the legendary Fillmore East and West. But as of November of this year, it also became home to something much bigger, and — if you are a seeker of rare music from that same period — something way, way cooler.
At the Concert Vault, which links from the main site, you can stream hundreds of previously unheard concerts from the same period from the top artists of the day. Right now. And they are pretty much all there, from the Airplane to Hendrix to Miles to Zeppelin.
Apparently Bill Graham himself recorded just about everyone who ever played such venues as the Fillmore (East and West) and Winterland, and the files are now on the Internet for anyone to hear, absolutely free.
At least for now anyway.
Earlier this week, representatives of several of the bands whose previously unavailable concerts can be heard there — bands like Zeppelin, Santana, and the Grateful Dead —filed suit to stop the free streams on the grounds that they are unauthorized.
Now if history tells us anything about "free music" on the Internet, it is that such unrestricted access is rarely legal, and that it even less rarely lasts. The difference here is simply that the streams themselves do not involve any type of ownership. Why? Because they can only be played, rather than actually ripped or downloaded. Unlike the Peer To Peer sites of the past, the user risks nothing legally because ownership — in the form of "stealing" an artists work — cannot be claimed simply by hearing it.
Legal and moral issues aside, if your experience with Peer To Peer servers has been anything like mine, frying your hard drive with all of the spyware hidden in downloaded files isn't worth the risk anyway.
Still, if history is any indicator, outside of an unlikely settlement being worked out, the goldmine of rare, historic performances now available free at The Concert Vault isn't likely to last.
Which means one thing. Get it while you can. And remember, you are only "listening" to this amazing music, the same way you would on a radio. It's not possible to rip yourself a copy. So even if fear of arrest or a hard drive fried by spyware overload never scared you away before, your conscience can remain free here. There is nothing here to steal. But there is a mother lode of previously unreleased stuff to hear, with new shows being added every week.
These are the ten best performances I found at The Concert Vault:
1. Pink Floyd: 04/29/1970 Fillmore West
Described on the site as extending to the "outer reaches of exploration," this amazing set recorded before an absolutely rapt audience finds Pink Floyd at their most raw and experimental, and pre-Dark Side Of The Moon glossy best. It includes a rare, live performance of the complete Atom Heart Mother Suite that sounds nothing like the recorded studio version. Greatly extended versions of the psychedelic masterpieces "Saucerful Of Secrets" and "Careful With That Axe Eugene" likewise show an intensity only hinted at on the official live versions found on Ummagumma.
2. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: 12/15/1978 Winterland
A legendary performer captured on the legendary Darkness tour, performing what hardcore fans already know to be one of his best shows ever. You get the full three hour plus performance here with surprisingly great sound quality. The highlights are numerous, but fans still talk about the amazing version of "Prove It All Night" preceded by a blistering several minute long guitar/piano intro here. "Backstreets," here includes an amazing middle part where you can hear the early, improvised genesis of the song that eventually became "Drive All Night."
3. Genesis: 10/22/1978 Hofheinz Pavilion
This was probably the last tour where Genesis was still doing the sort of multi-layered progressive rock that earned them their original cult-like following, before Phil Collins took them once and for all in the more commercial direction of the eighties model. The recording is stunning, as Genesis put on a musical clinic of prog-rock virtuosity. Highlights here include the intense duel drumming on "Dance On A Volcano/Los Endos," and a gorgeously layered version of "Cinema Show" that segues into a majestic sounding "Afterglow."
4. David Bowie: 03/23/1976 Nassau Coliseum
Between the futuristic soulman of the Diamond Dogs tour and the Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno, Bowie adopted the cool European "Thin White Duke" persona for the Station To Station tour. This show finds one of Bowie's best bands barnstorming their way through hits from both Diamond Dogs and Station To Station as well as Ziggy Stardust era glam rock like "Suffragette City."
5. The Who: 04/06/1968 Fillmore East
There are a couple of amazing Who performances here, but I especially loved this pre-Tommy show from the Fillmore because of the way the band plays so ferociously. Townshend sounds like Hendrix in places here, and Keith Moon plays with an intensity I didn't think even he was capable of. It often sounds like the wheels are about to come off the wagon here. But for all the punk rock-like abandon, the Who always maintain a sort of control amid the musical chaos here.
6. Cold Blood: 06/30/1971 Fillmore West
This pioneering San Francisco funk-rock outfit never quite got their due despite having the tightest rhythm and horn sections this side of Tower of Power, and in the pint sized Lydia Pense, the gutsiest female blues shouter this side of Janis Joplin. There's your reasons why right there I guess. In an amazing performance here, the band plays so tight it hurts. But when Pense is singing her ass off, man does it hurt good.
7. Big Brother And The Holding Company Featuring Janis Joplin: 06/16/1968 Fillmore Auditorium
Speaking of Janis, this Cheap Thrills-era performance with Big Brother features the rarely heard "Catch Me Daddy" and some great call-and-response between Janis and the rest of the boys. From there they segue their way right into the more familiar "Combination Of The Two," and a version of "I Need A Man To Love," that while not quite matching the version found on Cheap Thrills, still features the same great duel guitar interplay between Sam Andrew and James Gurley. Janis herself is in top form here.
8. Quicksilver Messenger Service: 11/07/1968 Fillmore West
With an absolutely pristine sounding recording, another one of the great, but largely forgotten San Francisco bands is caught here during the same string of performances where their live Happy Trails album was recorded. The version of "Mona/Maiden Of The Cancer Moon" here matches the psychedelic blues intensity of the one on Happy Trails nearly note for note. Meanwhile, the rarely heard "Cowboys And Indians" and, especially, "Smokestack Lightning" find guitarist John Cippolina playing the sort of raga runs on guitar that Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen later made famous.
9. Traffic: 11/18/1970 Fillmore East
As always, a mixture of understatement and improvisational exploration fuels this performance by Steve Winwood and Traffic, finding Winwood sounding particularly strong on vocals. Meanwhile, Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and Blind Faith bassist Rick Grech stretch out musically with the jazzier songs of the then still new John Barleycorn Must Die album. Hands down, the best Traffic show I've ever heard.
10. Neil Young 03/23/1975 Kezar Stadium
Of anything you'll find at the Vault, this one is definitely the wild card. The sound quality is not that great. But as an historic meeting of giants, you'd be hard pressed to beat this. How about Neil Young and Bob Dylan together, backed by members of The Band and the Stray Gators? The setlist? Well, there's "The Weight" for starters. Then there's a segue of Neil's "Helpless" into Dylan's "Knocking On Heavens Door" with the curious chorus of "knock, knock, knocking on the dragon's door."
Just whose dragon? Your guess is as good as mine.