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Friday, October 5, 2012

(40th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Getting Style Points for Substance"

Song: Honky Tonk Women
Album: Released as a single
Released: July, 1969

Though it ultimately comes down to the songs themselves that make or break an album, there can be no denying that musicians and fans put plenty of value on the ‘extras’.  I covered many of these fringe factors in a series of ‘top’ lists at the tail end of each “Gem Music Video of the Week” from #’s 92-96 (the GMVW’s are accessible in the 2008 and 2009 entries of this blog).  Included were lists for ‘best album covers’, ‘best album titles’, ‘best band names’, ‘best song names’, and ‘best lyric one-liners’.  The winning bands/musicians in each of these categories ended up encompassing the entire breadth of personality types in the Rock ‘n’ Roll world, which is due to the fact that even the most minimalist of songsmiths cannot deny one simple truism:  Fringe elements do, on occasion, capture all of our imaginations.  And rightfully so:  The more insightful the ‘extras’, the more you can glean from the music. 

This week I thought back on those ‘best’ lists and realized that none of them have much to do with the many live performance ‘extras’ that musicians include in their tours.  Some might describe these stage-related novelties as artistic enhancements which help to boost the musical experience.  Others might call them theatrics, antics, sideshows, or props.  Whatever the case, these stage-centric add-ons can be as subtle as Dylan’s white face paint during his ’74 Rolling Thunder Review Tour (the anti-minstrel?) or as overt as the giant arachnid stage constructed for David Bowie’s 1987 ‘Glass Spider’ tour. 

And so, below are the top-ten, live concert “extras” which I have witnessed over a lifetime, ending with a Rolling Stones ‘89 live performance of this week’s Stepping Stone as my number 1.  Ok, there’s no Spinal Tap “Stonehenge”, or Alice Cooper snake, or Flaming Lips “hamster ball”, or Elton John crocodile rock suit in my list, but there have been many a “wow” moments nonetheless.

# 10 > A Bloated Elvis Moment: As I’ve stated before in earlier entries, 1989 was a big concert year for me.  Heavy hitters, including the Who and the Stones were rolling through the Boston region, and I was gobbling it all up.  In the midst of all this, Mac and I attended a Joe Jackson concert at Great Woods, and got to see up close the amazing abilities of Jackson’s bass guitarist, Graham Maby, who performed the fast-paced I’m the Man to perfection near the end of the show (which included a mad rush of fans to the stage that appeared to rattle the band).  Joe Jackson himself, however, was primarily focused on the songs from his new album at the time, ‘Blaze of Glory’.  One of these was Nineteen Forever, which harped on rockers past their prime.  Knowing very well the big guns were touring that year (stating something to this effect), he took particular glee in the concept, dressing up as a bloated, drunken Elvis as he sang the song.  It was all rather impressive, but I do recall thinking he was a bit off the mark:  Had Jackson actually seen these shows that the Who and Stones were performing that year?  Was this an honest evaluation?  Joe Jackson is touring this year at the age of 58. I wonder if he’s playing Nineteen Forever?

# 9 > Raw Emotion:  I’m pushing things a bit here in terms of “extras”, but in an intimate live setting, there are certain emotions you can garner from a musician that are near impossible to interpret on a recording.  And few artists express themselves as well as Jonathan Richman.  This man wears his emotions on his sleeves, expressing himself primarily through vivid facial expressions. His face can wear a pleading look at times:  “Please try to understand what I am saying!” is what comes across.  Aside from his great writing ability, this is a big reason why Richman has such a cult following.  When he’s getting a point across in song s like Pablo Picasso, That Summer Feeling, Let Her Go into the Darkness, and Everyday Clothes, you can hear a pin drop. 

# 8 > The 3rd Best Garage Band in the World:  In 1986 my friend Bob Bouvier took me to a Neil Young and Crazy Horse show at Great Woods.  Of all the shows I have seen, this was the one I was the least prepared for.  I remember thinking, “ok, I’ll go for Bob”.  It did not take long to realize this event was something special (aren’t the best of the unexpected moments in our lives as good as it gets though?).  The stage was set up like the inside of an old garage.  The band played Powder Finger, Needle and the Damage Done, and Hurricane (as well as many other songs) with reckless abandon.  And when the “fire-hydrants” burst and the garage flooded up in low-lying fog, Neil Young emerged from the mist and blew us all away by “dancing across the water” with Cortez the Killer!

# 7 > The Bridge to Somewhere: For their Bridges to Babylon tour, the Rolling Stones would include a 3 or 4 song set on a mini stage which sat 30 yards in front of the main stage.  How to get out there? :  A retractable cantilever bridge that extended over the crowd.  The mini stage was a mood shifter.  When the Stones played on it, you got a feel for what it was like for them to play in a smoky Scottish hall or German hofbrauhaus in the mid 60s.  The band seemed to morph into younger versions of themselves out there.  And I was impressed that they did not simply play their old songs:  They mixed things up, playing a couple of latter day hits.  The concept worked wonders. 

# 6 > When Style Matches Substance:  I missed out on John Entwistle’s skeleton suit, but I have seen some fascinating complementary garb in my day.  David Bowie drew everyone’s attention on his ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour in ‘83.  Mick Jagger was something else in a fine blue Sgt Pepper looking outfit while singing Ruby Tuesday on the ’89 ‘Steel Wheels’ tour. Mike Mills added spice to the R.E.M shows of the early to mid-90s in his rhinestone cowboy “nudie suits” (Mills bass playing on What’s the Frequency Kenneth was for me a mind expanding experience).  There was also the whirling dervish effect of Natalie Merchant in full length gown singing What’s the Matter Here in front of (and behind) 10,000 Maniacs.  More recently there was the likes of Gandalf Murphy and his Outer Slambovian Circus of Dreams:  Gandalf would make Wavy-Gravy proud.  For my money, though, nothing beats Neil Young’s faded, un-tucked plaid shirts.

# 5 > The Ladies from Planet Claire: Nancy Wilson and Kate Pierson are something to behold.  These ladies captivated me with their bee-hive hairdos and new-wave stage presence.  As opposed to my first time seeing Neil Young with Crazy Horse, I had high expectations for the B52s.  They did not disappoint, as the musicianship was impeccable.  Wilson and Pierson proved to me that even a band that sings Rock Lobster could be taken for real.

# 4 > Happy New Year! :  The Band’s stage setup at the Paradise on New Year’s Eve ‘93-‘94 was as funky as it gets.  Rick Danko stood in a spot that literally looped out over the crowd.  Levon Helm’s kit was so close to the front of the stage, you had the sense that if he hit the bass drum too hard, it could topple into the lot of us.  Garth Hudson and his massive organ were easily accessible stage left.  And what better ‘extra’ than The Band joining us all for a champagne toast at midnight?  Nancy (pregnant with Charlotte) and I were in our glory. 

# 3 > The Band That Never Needed Props:  Well, I never did get to see Keith Moon’s drumming or any of his other antics (such as descending to his drum kit from high above the stage via a pulley system on the Who’s ’75 tour).  But I’ve seen Pete Townshend as “Bird Man”.  And I’ve seen Roger Daltrey spinning his microphone as if he were dicing a salad.  And I’ve seen John Entwistle’s nimble thunder fingers at work.  This is a band that stands up as its very own real-life prop:  A four-ring circus in the early days, and more manageable three rings by the time I got to see them.

# 2 > The Wall in front of The Wall: The stage set that ranged from the Fisk pole to the Pesky pole at Fenway Park was astoundingly intimate for such a large event.  Roger Waters take on “The Wall” is verrrrrry serious, and I have absolutely no reason to disagree:  Europe went to hell and back in the 20th century, and he captures it all here.  In terms of stage dynamics, Waters pulled out all the stops on this tour: The crashing plane to start the story; the characters in front of and behind the wall; the amazing imagery, the machine-gun mow down of the crowd; and the pig blimp (representing excess).  In the end Mr. Waters marveled at the unique Fenway atmosphere that surrounded him.  We marveled back.

# 1 > Honky Tonked:  Yes, the number one entry is the ‘89 Rolling Stones live performance of Honky Tonk Women (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-hMQWqVVzw ).  Why # 1?  Well, we are talking 60 foot inflatables here:  I guess if you have been to the Macy’s Day Parade (which is not the case for me), it’s no big deal.  What really impressed me, however, was how the Stones set the mood many years earlier with the penning of this song in 1969.  In other words, it was all there for the taking; they simply had to seize the moment, which they did.  The entire atmosphere came together perfectly.  This is what separates a great ‘extra’ from a dud:  The idea that a prop can reinvigorate, or even recreate an atmosphere.   Which leads to yet another reason why this entry is winner:  Those blow-ups were true props, giving this entry a few bonus points over some of the others.  Finally, the brass band moving to the beat rounded out this masterful vision.

In the studio version of Honky Tonk Women: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6M77oHD110 ), Mick Taylor introduces himself as a Rolling Stone at the 48 second mark and does so again, a bit more assertively at the 1:35 mark.  This is followed by a very nice bridge jam with Keith Richards.   Yes, it was a solid song listening to it on ‘Hot Rocks’ years earlier, but it evolved into a Stepping Stone in 1989.

-          Pete

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