Daily* Deep Track: Steve Miller Band “Love’s Riddle”

I have a ritual on my 25-30 minute drive into work every day. I flip around the radio to see what my station (and our competition) is up to, drop by the Big Sports Talk station to see if they’re talking baseball (they weren’t today), and then spend a few moments with my own tunes.

I tripped upon a little-known Steve Miller Band track on the way in today. It didn’t match the warm, sunny weather, but I let it play because I hadn’t heard it in a while: “Love’s Riddle” off the forgotten 1972 album “Recall the Beginning… A Journey from Eden.”

If you know me, you know I’ve been a major booster of the early Steve Miller Band: basically the core of Steve Miller, Lonnie Turner and Tim Davis that created five excellent psych-blues-rock albums between 1968 and 1970. Certainly the 1973-1982 “hit years” have their moments as well; some of which I still dig (“Fly Like An Eagle”), and some of which constant radio play has ruined for me (“Swingtown,” “The Joker,” “Rock’n’Me,” and “Abracadabra.” Okay, I never liked “Abracadabra.”)

So, what of that gap of 1971-1972? Steve recorded two albums that, to this day, have never been issued on CD, though they are available to purchase digitally. The first was “Rock Love,” which I’ve listened to a couple times and really didn’t develop a passionate feeling for or against, it’s just kinda “there.”

1972 delivered “Recall The Beginning… A Journey From Eden.” If this album is known for anything at all, it’s where Steve would introduce his “Maurice” character on side one, on this goofy doo-wop mini opera called “Enter Maurice.” It’s a tough listen, honestly. The rest of side one bounces all over the place from there, and is largely forgettable.

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I’d post the cover, but it’s beat up, and I love those 70s Capitol labels

Flip it over to side two, and you’re treated to a side-long suite of elegant (for Steve) mood pieces, ranging from the mournful, autumnal “Love’s Riddle,” to the more upbeat “Fandango,” the elegiac “Nothing Lasts,” and ending with the wistful, nocturnal “A Journey From Eden.” Though “Journey” is perhaps my all-time favorite Steve Miller track, “Love’s Riddle” is the perfect table-setter for the side, drenched in lethargic acoustic guitar, Nick DeCaro-arranged strings, and Steve’s multi-tracked harmonies. When I get into this track, I don’t even notice the slightly dopey lyrics (a Steve Miller trademark).

Most will tell you Steve Miller’s greatest album is 1976’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” I’ll likely tell you his greatest album is 1969’s “Brave New World.” If I were to rank and album side, however, it’s a draw between side one of his debut, “Children of the Future,” and side two of “Recall the Beginning…” which just happen to be the opening and closing parentheses of the true first chapter of his career, and still my favorite chapter.

By the way, Steve, you didn’t have to be a dick to The Black Keys at the Hall of Fame. They didn’t deserve that.

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Daily* Deep Track: James Gang “Take A Look Around”

My day was more or less bookended by Joe Walsh. It began this morning, after listening to a bit of my radio station’s morning show, when I settled in to do a little get-ahead work at home and I put on the James Gang “Live In Concert” CD. I picked this up for cheap a couple of weeks ago when I went on a little Bull Moose Music spree, which finally filled the final hole in my Walsh-era JG collection (three studio albums, one live). The other end of the equation was finding out Joe Walsh would play Portland this summer. I really ought to check him out while he’s still alive, well and active.

Of all the phases of Joe Walsh’s career, his James Gang period is still the phase that resonates with me the most. Yes, this power trio cranked out some legendary rockers like “Funk #49,” “Walk Away” and especially “The Bomber,” but they were also capable of creating more atmospheric moments like “Ashes, the Rain and I,” “Tend My Garden,” and today’s DDT, “Take a Look Around.”

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James Gang on the Cuyahoga River, conveniently not on fire that day

“Take a Look Around” was the first impression the listener had of Joe Walsh/The James Gang’s career, leading off their 1969 debut “’Yer Album.” I first got to know it via the double-disc Walsh retrospective “Look What I Did!” which I picked up around age 18 or 19. Being that age, I picked it up because I really dug “Life’s Been Good,” “Rocky Mountain Way” and the two James Gang tunes our local classic rock stations in Massachusetts would play. I would quickly learn there was a lot more to Joe Walsh than the self-deprecating (reformed) partying rock and roller you get from most of his hits.

As trios do, The James Gang did a bit of overdubbing, and on this track Walsh handles organ, piano, and of course guitar. You don’t even hear Walsh the guitarist for the first time on “’Yer Album” until nearly three minutes into the track.  “Take a Look Around” rides along on a constant bed of Hammond organ, and the moment when you finally hear the guitar is as transcendent as a Joe Walsh recording could ever be; it’s like you’ve reached altitude, cruising above the clouds, and that airy haze is pierced with a graceful Walsh solo.

Of course, it’s interesting to hear how Walsh handles this track on the live album: no guitar, just organ, and a straight segue right into the keyboard-heavy “Tend My Garden.” I’ve always been intrigued by power-trio live albums, especially in how they arrange their most complex recordings for stage. Yes, you lose something in the live version here, but it’s honest with no trickery, and that’s to be respected. (Plus, I could listen to a Hammond Organ drone on for an hour and love it.)

I’ve always enjoyed the mellow, slightly brooding side of Joe Walsh. He would explore that avenue a bit more on a few tracks on the next two James Gang albums, and on his excellent “Barnstorm” solo debut album of 1972.

And then in 1983 he would record a song called “I Like Big Tits.”

And that’s Joe Walsh.

Daily* Deep Track: Air “How Does It Make You Feel”

Four years ago, I walked into a gym for a first time. I felt out of shape and out of sorts and really felt that getting more fit would help my morale, not to mention help in my desire to run my first-ever 5K. I was making decent progress, ran my first couple of 5Ks, and then the inevitable happened: Winter, and my crazy double-duty work schedule.

Fast forward four years: I’ve run a few 5Ks, even two 10Ks, and in the past two years I’ve run those 10Ks mostly right “out of the box,” with minimal training and maximum willpower. Of course, it showed in the time: a few minutes over an hour each time. I really hope to shatter the one-hour barrier when I run the Beach to Beacon this August. After my poor showing at this past Saturday’s Hard Cider Run 5K in Portland (bad race, good Urban Farm Fermentory cider at the end), I knew it had to be done: I had to get back into a gym groove. Now, I could have been all dramatic, walking into the gym with my race bib and my cheesy “everyone gets a trophy” medal, plunking down my debit card, saying “hit me.” Nah, I gave it a couple of days, decided this is something I definitely want to do, and lo and behold, I’ve become a Planet Fitness lemming.

Today was my first time back in a gym in nearly two years. It was a “get a feel for it” workout, if anything. A little stretching, a little balance work, working with some small-ish weights for a while, and then getting a good half hour on the treadmill (okay, 23 minutes.) It was important to ease into things so that meant the earbuds had to have airsomething to suit that approach: I popped on Air’s 2001 “10000 Hz Legend” album.

It’s widely agreed that Air’s “Moon Safari” is their masterpiece; of all the Air albums I’ve listened to, I’d have to agree. I’d put “10000 Hz Legend” down as a close second. It came out in 2001, a year when, I didn’t find a whole lot of new music that excited me. “10000 Hz Legend” had plenty of those Air trademarks, washes of analog keyboards, vocoders, occasional guest vocalists and languid beats. Where “Moon Safari” truly floated, “10000 Hz Legend” has a slightly darker hue overall, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humor, as evidenced on “How Does It Make You Feel.”

My mind often drifts back to the summer of 2001 when I hear “How Does It Make You Feel.” I barely lived paycheck to paycheck, and looking back, I enjoyed most every minute of it. It was my second full year in the radio business, I was the afternoon drive guy and music director at Q106 in Claremont, New Hampshire, and I had just launched my deep-cuts show called “Beyond and Before,” which lasted through my entire tenure at the station. I was driving a beat up old Oldsmobile. My sound system consisted of a Discman with a cassette-player adapter.  I didn’t have a mini-beer gut yet. Late that summer I fell in love like I had never done so before (that torrid romance lasted two months and change). I didn’t realize it at the time, but life was pretty good, and outside of figuring out which bill to pay which month, life was pretty footloose and fancy free. “10000 Hz Legend” was my chill-out album of choice that summer.

Would I go back given the chance? Nah. I prefer the sound system in (and reliability of) my new-ish Subaru over the whole Discman getup. I’m a bit wiser to most things. I make better facial hair decisions (usually). I’ve had enough tenure to get four weeks of vacation per annum. And I’d much rather listen to “10000 Hz Legend” on a treadmill in Portland, Maine than in a little leaky-ceiling shoebox apartment in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Daily* Deep Track: Fleetwood Mac “Although The Sun Is Shining”

May can be a frustrating month on the Maine calendar. Far more frustrating than a snowy March, or a December that just won’t cool down sufficiently for mountain snowmakers. May 2016 weather-wise has been all over the place: gray and 40s for a week, followed by a few warm, sunny days that felt like sweet release from the grips of our wretched spring, then briefly right back into the wind-whipped misery of Miserable Maine May.

I took the “other” way into work this morning as I am occasionally wont to do: an extra mile but less overall stop-and-go often buys me an extra minute or two off my normal commute time. As I was flipping back and forth between the radio and my own tunes, a song came on that was perfect for the moment: “Although the Sun Is Shining” by Fleetwood Mac, from their 1969 album “Then Play On.” It was in the forties, a bit of sun was cutting through the clouds, but you barely noticed because a cold wind was blowing, making the mid-morning temperature feel as if it were in the thirties. Very un-May 16th like, if you ask, well, anybody.

“Although the Sun Is Shining” is written and sung by guitarist Danny Kirwan, described by many as the cool undercurrent to then-band leader Peter Green’s fiery intensity. Both were wonderfully expressive guitarists, with Kirwan always in the shadow of the legendary Green. Kirwan’s songs always had a tinge of melancholy to them, making him a pretty heavy hitter on my gray/rainy/miserable day playlists.

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No penguins anywhere on this album cover

For a very brief time Kirwan was, by default, the de facto leader of Fleetwood Mac, following the departures of founder members Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer within a year. Kirwan essentially set the artistic tone for early 70s Mac albums like “Future Games” and “Bare Trees.” This role would prove to be too much for him, and he end up getting tossed from the band following a backstage guitar-smashing incident following a heated argument with early 70s member Bob Welch. He would record a few solo albums before drifting into a life heavily affected by mental illness. He is still alive, but no longer involved in music.

The rest of this week looks like it’s going to finally warm up again, thankfully. I love my sad bastard music, but sometimes you just want to crank Asia with the windows down and the sun out.

No, you really don’t. But sometimes you do.

Daily* Deep Track: Flash “Small Beginnings”

The late Peter Banks isn’t the most well-known rock and roll guitarist. He helped found a legendary group, was kicked out before they achieved fame, went out on his own and scored a minor hit with his new band, and then pretty much fell off the face of the earth as far as record sales were concerned.

The band he was a founder member of was, of course, Yes. He even came up with the name of the group. He contributed often jazzy, improvisational guitar and backing vocals on the first two albums, and after butting heads with other band members over musical direction, found himself out of a job after their second album, “Time and a Word” was completed (when the US version came out, his replacement, Steve Howe was pictured on the cover, though he didn’t play a note on the album).

He would bounce around with a couple of bands before founding a new group that attempted to carry on the early Yes tradition, called Flash. They recorded three albums for Capitol sub-label Sovereign, but only the first LP really sold, thanks in large part to the Top 40 hit single, “Small Beginnings.”

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(L-R) Peter Banks; Peter Banks

I used to have the double-album CD of the group’s first two albums, and honestly, I never really got into most of it and eventually reassigned it from my CD rack to the “sell back” pile. I did make sure to preserve “Small Beginnings” in my digital music collection, however.

In my travels over the weekend, I chanced upon this song and gave it a nice loud listen for the first time in a while. The main riff comes dangerously close to aping “Pinball Wizard,” but this might not be the greatest of musical sins as Banks and Pete Townshend apparently were very chummy in the London club scene in the late 1960s, and no one seemingly made much of a fuss over it. It’s certainly one of the more driving, energetic hits in the progressive rock genre, as minor a hit as it was.

Much like Yes’ contemporaneous hit “Roundabout,” the album version of Flash’s “Small Beginnings” stretched out beyond eight minutes, while the single version barely clocks in at three minutes. In Yes’s case, the single edit was pretty much a “Light My Fire”-esque hack job. I’d have to say that the single cut of “Small Beginnings” definitely trimmed out a lot of fat, though I’m sure a four-and-a-half minute edit could have included a few more ear-grabbing bits that were left off, and still have made an impact as a single. I have only ever played this song on the radio once in my professional career, and that was back in my New Hampshire days when I had a weekly deep-cuts show, where I often got away with commercial radio murder.

I haven’t really heard much of Peter Banks’ work following Flash, aside from his solo debut “The Two Sides of Peter Banks,” an instrumental album that I highly enjoy (I bought it at age 17. What 17-year old buys 20 year old solo albums by forgotten prog rock guitarists? This guy, apparently). He put together another intriguing prog band called Empire that never quite got off the ground (their three albums were released about 20 years after they were recorded), and pretty much did sporadic solo albums the rest of his career.

Banks always gave intriguing and insightful interviews, but there always seemed to be an undercurrent of bitterness in some of those interviews that he never got his due. He’s allowed, I guess. I hope he found some modicum of peace before his 2013 passing.

Daily* Deep Track: Elton John “The Cage”

Okay, so this is my first “cheat” since re-invigorating this blog. My Friday consisted of a 12-hour work day, must-do errands, and a failed power nap thanks to clumsily breaking a glass full of water on the nightstand. Time to put my thoughts in pixels was lacking. No matter, after all that, I managed to get out to see my buddy Kris Rodgers’ Elton John tribute show at Empire in Portland last night.

Oh, there were hits, for sure. “Bennie and the Jets.” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” “Your Song.” All played with enthusiasm and reverence. I’m always impressed by which deep cuts make the set list at a tribute show, and there were some killers. “Amoreena,” for instance, was done in an “11-17-70″ type arrangement with just piano, bass and drums. So was the extended workout on perhaps my all-time favorite Elton track,”Burn Down the Mission” (“Tumbleweed Connection” is not only my favorite Elton album, but easily on my list of 50 desert island albums.) The full band tore into favorites like “All The Girls Love Alice” and “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” A trio of backing vocalists lifted classics like “Border Song,” “Harmony” and especially “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to lofty heights (could you imagine those Elton records missing those wonderful backing vocal arrangements?)

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True Elton tributes require proper attire.

The surprise of the evening was hearing perhaps my favorite track from Elton John’s self-titled second album, “The Cage.” This is prime early Elton, and a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on his little-heard debut album “Empty Sky.” True to form, a horn section helped power this song along on stage, even covering that proggy synth part from the original record. (It then dawned on me it had been forever since I listened to Elton’s self-titled breakthrough, so a full listen was inspired today.)

Thanks to Kris, the Dirty Gems, the horn players, and the singers for a fine evening of entertainment! (Kris Rodgers has some great albums with his own tunes, too. Great musician and an all-around good egg.)

 

Daily* Deep Track: The Kinks “Picture Book”

Okay, real short one this evening as I have a long wire-to-wire Friday packed with work, social and cat obligations, and it all begins with a 4am alarm. As a current radio guy (and former minor-league baseball public address announcer), I have to tip my cap to the individual in the booth at Hadlock Field, who keeps the musical selections interesting pre-game and between innings.

For instance, at a game earlier this year, I heard a snippet of “In the Street” by Big Star. Certainly known to many as the “That 70s Show” theme as done by Cheap Trick, not as many know of the original. One night I was there on Irish Night, and they spun Thin Lizzy “Whiskey In the Jar.” Awesome.

Tonight was company night at the Sea Dogs, complete with the upper-level box, food and the obligatory mascot visit, so I checked out about 7 innings of the game before I had to head on home. When the announcement came to plug the team’s Instagram account, anyone could just plug in the predictable “Freeze-Frame” or “Photograph.” Yawn. No, at Hadlock Field, you get “Picture Book,” as in the beloved Kinks song off “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society.”

I’m sure about three people noticed or even cared at the ballpark, but I’m proud to say I was one of ’em.