Thursday, December 15, 2016

...and In the Winter, There Were Wizards


Ever since I discovered the music of Trans-Siberian Orchestra I really enjoyed the group and their style of electric classical.  Having seen them several times to live, and being unable to see them for a variety of reasons for the last two years, I jumped on the chance to pick up tickets for the Wizards of Winter who were performing at Kalamazoo State Theatre.

The Concert

The Wizards of Winter are a group of playing a similar style of strong Classical and Progressive Rock and since the concert was in December I made the safe assumption that it would include a Christmas style program similar to TSO.  The band even boasts of having several former members of TSO (Guy LeMonnier and Peter Shaw) as part of their current lineup.  Given the more intimate and close setting available in the State Theatre, I was hyped to go to the concert.

Overall, I really enjoyed the concert. There are specific things about different performances that were less than enjoyable and I will get to those in a moment, but as a group the show presented was tight and well-rehearsed. The music and segues from song to song showed a great deal of attention to the kind of story they were trying to tell and showed off the skill of Scott Kelly the music director.

One of the most beautiful voices that I heard during the concert was from Sharon Kelly, who in addition to playing flute also had several solo performances that were outstanding. The perfect voice that matched the songs being sung.  

Likewise, vocals presented by Vinny Jiovino, their tenor, were also note for note perfection.  Whereas Mary McIntyre, keyboardist, had a lovely voice I don't think it was strong enough for several of the songs that she was attempting. Not sure if the problem was sound mix or the dynamics of her voice, but it was not an appropriate match of voice to song.   Shawna Marie provided additional background vocals, she was fun to watch perform because of her facial expressions and her beautiful smile. Her voice was sweet and harmonious.

Guy LeMonnier, lead vocals, had a very strong voice and his performance was just fine. However, he didn't appear to meld as part of the group.  To start with, he wore a suit versus the similar style black Steam Punk jackets that the rest of the band wore. Also, his jacket was not black, it was charcoal and had a white pocket square.  LeMonnier also seemed to be putting forth some sort of attitude that he was different or separate from the rest of the group. Perhaps I was misreading this, but that is the way it came across in almost every number. I think the reason why it stood out so much was the fact that the rest of the group seemed to be perfectly matched and he seemed to be the odd man out.

On the musician side:  Tommy Ference, Drums aka T4 -- indicating he was the fourth drummer with the first initial T, did a great job of keeping the rhythms driving and forceful.  Over the summer, I had seen Greg Smith on bass guitar at least twice at DTE Music Theatre with various groups. He was not a dancer like a lot of the bass players I have seen in the past year, but he did have a great guitar face and was playing one of the first five string bass guitars I've ever seen life. He was driving at and fully into the music.  

Fred Gorhau and T.W. Durfy supplied the heavy metal style guitar riffs that was the key factor in most of the songs performed. Both the excellent job, I just wish the sound mixer had cranked the guitar a little more so that you could hear those solos good and loud. Durfy, BTW was also known as Pantene Guy -- take a look at the photos you can tell why.

Jenn Hamilton was the most fun to watch during the entire show. Apparently, this was her first year with Wizards and she was having a blast performing. Her smile was genuine, as were her body motions as she moved along with the songs and laid into the violin during her solos.  I've noticed that with TSO they seem to rotate violinists every season, for Wizard's sake -- I hope she stays around for many years.

Tony Gaynor was the Narrator, his voice was a nice argument to the music being presented and he also participated supplying some backup vocals at various times during the show. WoW gave their narrator a staff that was topped with a lit snow globe to hold during the show -- nice touch.

Again, I really enjoyed the show and thought that it was a nice augment to my holiday season.

The Venue

The Kalamazoo State Theatre is the best venue in the state.  Nothing more needs to be said.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Got Cat Class & Got Class Style With a Christmas Twist

First, some history….

In the spring of 1982 I happened to be watching a show called Friday's on the Armed Forces Network while I was in Berlin. The show was sort of a Saturday Night Live clone, on a different network, and like SNL featured sketch comedy and a musical guest. I was about to flip the TV off and had out when a trio appeared on camera dressed like something out of the 1950s rockabilly era and started playing the Stray Cat Strut.  That was my introduction to The Stray Cats and I was immediately hooked. I watched the rest of the show and they played several other songs -- to include Rock This Town.  During the closing credits there was a notice that the band was not even signed to a contract in the United States.  Fortunately, they did have a recording contract in the UK which meant I was able to find some of the recordings in the local German music stores.

In the late 90s, I was attending COMDEX in Las Vegas when I heard that Brian Setzer was performing a corporate charity gig at The House of Blues. I did everything I could to talk my way into tickets for the show, but had little success. Someone had heard a rumor that they were going to sell a few more tickets that have been held back at the door, I considered it worth taking a chance and made the trip over to the Mandalay Bay casino to see if I could get lucky. I arrived at the ticket window of The House of Blues just in time to see them hang the "Sold-Out" sign. I stood there for a minute to let it sink in and as I was turning to leave someone who was in line waiting to get into the venue, asked if I might be interested in a ticket.  He explained that their group was waiting on one more person to show up, and if that person was a no-show that would be more than glad to give me the ticket because it was obvious I was a fan. I stood in line with the group of folks, who were also COMDEX attendees and when their friend failed to show I gladly took the ticket off their hands and got to see my first rockabilly performance by Brian Setzer live.  I did send a round of drinks over to my benefactors as my way of saying thank you.

Fast-forward some two and a half decades later and I am once more given a chance to see Brian Setzer live. This time it was the 13th Annual Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Show. I was able to secure really good seats and it was in one of my favorite venues the Kalamazoo State Theatre.

The Concert

The orchestra featured a 15-person band (horns, woodwinds, keyboard, stand-up bass), 2 backup singers (The Vixens), and of course Brian on lead guitar.

They kicked off the night with a cover of Brenda Lee’s Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree and then went straight into Hoodoo Voodoo Doll.  This was not your usual Christmas concert and I was glad of it because there were just too many other songs I wanted to hear and see played.  Brian did not disappoint as the next song up was Stray Cat Strut which featured an awesome guitar solo by him that really brought the level of the evening right up.

The rest of the evening followed the same pattern with songs like Gene & Eddie being sandwiched Boogie Woogie Santa Claus and Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane).    Some serious rockabilly was set loose with (She's) Sexy + 17, Jump, Jive an' Wail and a BSO version of AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock.

Towards the end, Brian sent the rest of the orchestra off stage and then did a very intimate acoustic solo performance of The Christmas Song (aka Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire).  It was perfect for getting you into the Christmas Spirit and bringing back memories of holidays past.

The concert also featured a spotlight performance of Brian performing with just two other musicians (a’ la Stray Cats).  With Johnny “Spazz” Hatton slapping a standup bass and Daniel Glass playing a stand up drum set they truly channeled the spirit of rockabilly bands past into that theater.  They tore up a Little Junior's Blue Flames cover of Mystery Train, and also played Put Your Cat Clothes On plus the Setzer original Fishnet Stockings.  Once again I was witness to a bass player who was anything but boring. Hatton was fun to watch and his playing was so top notch that it went from

fun and into deep appreciation. Glass not only managed to play the drums “old school, drummer standing style” but he kept the driving rhythms solidly steady.   Setzer’s playing was so slick and polished, the man does not miss a 

A feature performance of the Nutcracker Suite (I love updated rocked up classics) was another stand out number that led to a two encore finish. 

I talk a lot about the attitude of musicians when I see them perform live.  Their attitude effects the entire feel and experience of the performance.  The one word that describes Brian Setzer’s attitude for this entire performance was relaxed – and I mean that in the most positive way possible.  From the minute he walked on stage until he took his last bow the entire experience felt comfortable and personal.  He appreciated the audience’s responsiveness to his performance and he was indeed the master of the stage from start to finish.  It was a perfect performance for the mix of music presented. 

The Venue

 The Kalamazoo State Theatre was built in 1928 and was constructed at a time before electronic amplification when the concentration moved from quality to quantity.  As a result, acoustics mattered since you had to be able to hear every voice on stage from any seat in the house.  It is, therefore, a spectacular place to see a concert.  A performer does not have to over amp (“Turn it up to 11, Dave!”) to fill the house with sound and as a result the front seats can be enjoyed without hearing protection as well as the cheaper seats in the back of the house. 
The interior borderlines a baroque feel with gold gilded wall stylings, stone (maybe plaster) busts and heavy (velvet?) curtains and wall coverings.

I have seen several shows there, and have tickets for 2 more in the coming months.  Given the choice I would gladly see a show here over any other venue in Michigan.  It is a unique gem that truly must be seen and experienced to be appreciated.

NOTE:  If I ever get entry into the theatre with my Nikon, I would love to do a photo essay of the building for the blog.  


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My Summer of Live Rock & Roll Act VIII: Jonny 2 Bags & ZZ Top (Alphabetical Order Puts ZZ at the End)

Whenever I provide a review or write up, it means that I have bought and paid for the item or admission costs myself.  In the rare instance when items or admission are being provided free of charge or at a discount, I say so.  This site is non-monetized therefore the opinions provided are truly free of influence.

This concert was very different, in that the tickets were provided to me as a result of my being a veteran and by someone other than the act being reviewed.  Therefore, I will explain a little bit about Vet Tix before I talk about the concert itself.  

From their website:  

Vet Tix provides tickets to events which reduce stress, strengthen family bonds, build life-long memories and encourage service members and veterans to stay engaged with local communities and American life. We support our troops by honoring their service and providing positive family and life experiences, during and after their years of service to our country.

There are too many details as to how all this works to get into here, but if you are a veteran I would recommend you check it out and sign up.    Short version:  They go out and seek donations (and ask that you help), they have a fair way to make sure every Veteran gets a chance at what tickets are available and the manage the administration of the distribution of the tickets very well.  This was only my second event for which Vet Tix supplied admission, but they have recently started offering a lot more shows and events in my area.  

As a Cold War Veteran, it is nice to be included in this recognition, especially since (even though we won) we got no parades, medals, or veteran’s hiring preference.

Jonny 2 Bags

Photo Copyright 2016 Chris Schwegler
Ever heard of him?  How about Jonny Wickersham?  The Punk Rock band Social Distortion?  Me neither on all three counts.  He was the replacing Gregg Allman as the opening act for ZZ Top.  I was looking forward to Gregg, now I had someone I had never heard of opening for one of my favorites – I had a friend tell me that when he saw ZZ Top that REO Speedwagon opened for them – a good band but a poor matchup that led to REO being booed off the stage.  I wished Jonny more luck as I took my seat and turned my attention towards the stage.

Photo Copyright 2016 Chris Schwegler
He walked out by himself, carrying an acoustic guitar and stood behind a single mic on a stand.  Then he started to play.  I had no expectations, I had no knowledge of what he was going to play, but before he got to the first bridge, I was interested.  A t first I thought he had a John Mellencamp feel to his ballads – but his voice was similar to Tom Petty.  It was an unexpected combination but a pleasing one.

Two songs form his set list that I particularly liked (music & lyrics) was One Foot In The Gutter and Clay Wheels.  Stories told through melody and backed by the sound of an acoustic guitar.  Simple and easy, yet deep and complex.  My kind of music – music you can sit and listen to by yourself while enjoying the miles rolling by or clouds crossing the sky. 

Jonny did not get booed but I felt bad the applause was not more.  The DTE crowd does not really fill out before the opening act is about to start – tonight they missed something really worthwhile.  I think he (like REO) was a poor match for ZZ Top, but I am glad fortune had him cross my path so that I could discover his music.  I now have his 2014 album Salvation Town and I am enjoying what I am hearing.
Photo Copyright 2016 Chris Schwegler

Now if you ask me about Jonny 2 Bags or Jonny Wickersham, I can tell you he is an American balladeer and if you get a chance go see him – GO – at the absolute least be sure check out his music.

I spent some time looking, but could find no reference as to where the “2 Bags” part of the name came form or what it meant.   If I find out I will post an update here. 

Umleitung:  I truly believe one of the most terrifying performances you can give is one in which you are truly a solo act, supplying both the vocals and the music.  The first time I did something like this, I was performing a Jim Croce song at a high school guitar concert. It was one of the first times that I had sung in public, and at the same time I was playing a rather tricky guitar accompaniment. The problem with being both the sole vocalist and musician is that if you screw up either part, it can have an instant effect on the other. In other words, if you are playing and miss a chord change, you might stop singing or your voice might change as you try to get back in the groove.

Before the concert, I came up with my own way of separating the two performances in my mind so that I could cope with the huge responsibility of trying to play both.  Some people call this compartmentalization, but I saw it more as a dual track way of mentally handling what was going on. Therefore, if my voice when a little flat, the guitar melody continued unabated and without being affected.

I think the longest performance I ever gave of that nature was 4 songs back to back in front of a crowd of about 400 or so at a coffee house. I have great admiration for anyone with the mental control necessary in order to handle a performance in front of 10,000 or so people. /Umleitung

ZZ Top

I have history with ZZ Top, from my love of double meaning lyrics, guitar heavy blues, and my early 80s love affair with MTV.  After you get done checking out the lyrics and real meanings of Pearl Necklace, Cheap Sunglasses and La Grange check out the YouTube collection of ZZ Top videos.  Almost every video featured the band as Karma overlords evening the score for someone who had been done wrong – and by the end of the song the oppressed was either riding or driving away in a 33 Ford Coup Eliminator along with three hot Graces courtesy of a key on a distinctive ZZ keychain supplied to them by the band.  What is not to love about this band – and the music.  For only three guys they pump out a fat sounding dose of Texas blues funk --   heavy on the guitar, bass, and driving rhythms.

I saw them 16 years ago at the Missouri State Fair (opened by Los Lobos) and they were great then – my expectations were sky high tonight.

The lights came up and there they were – Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons in their traditional uniform of hats and shades along with Frank Beard laying down a driving beat on the drums.  ZZ Top.

Any band that has been together almost 4 decades will be either tired or extremely polished.  You could see your face in the reflection of every surface of this performance. The Tres Hombres were in great form and they were enjoying playing with each other as well as the audience reaction and support.  Dusty and Billy were joking back and forth as well as synching their movements in some light choreography.  It was just a great performance – little more to say.

I have never just given the set list for a concert, but if I were to point out my favorite tunes from the show, I would end up doing just that – so I will save the discourse and just list the most dynamite set list of ZZ Top tunes heard to date (including 3 covers):

Got Me Under Pressure 
Photo Copyright 2016 Chris Schwegler
Waitin' for the Bus 
Jesus Just Left Chicago 
Gimme All Your Lovin' 
I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide 
I Gotsta Get Paid 
Rough Boy 
Foxy Lady (The Jimi Hendrix Experience cover)  
Catfish Blues (Robert Petway cover)  
Sixteen Tons 
Cheap Sunglasses 
Sharp Dressed Man 

Encore 1:
La Grange / Sloppy Drunk Jam 

Encore 2:

Photo Copyright 2016 Chris Schwegler
The only thing missing from this performance, that was in the 2000 show was the spinning rabbit guitars (check out the video for Legs).  They had fuzzy guitars but did not spin them.  That’s okay, the 80’s are gone but this music lives on and does not age at all.

Since I discussed 2 Bags’ name before, I will add this about ZZ Top’s – as the legend goes…. Billy noticed B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill used just their initials and thought of combining the two into "ZZ King", but considered it too similar to the original name. So he figured that "king is going at the top" which brought him to "ZZ Top".  The rest is rock & roll legend.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

My Summer of Live Rock & Roll Act VII: Journey & The Doobie Brothers With Special Guest Dave Mason (In Detroit Not San Francisco)

The show is formally billed as The San Francisco Fest Tour 2016, but I think many people found that confusing since the show was not in San Francisco but made up of bands that originated in San Francisco.   So, it was being called a Journey & The Doobie Brothers with special guest Dave Mason.  That works -- just make the music good.

Dave Mason

Unless you are really into late 60s music, were a fan of Traffic, or track Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, the name Dave Mason probably does not mean much to you.  He was the composer of one song, however, that almost everyone knows thanks to a cover done by Joe Cocker:  Feelin' Alright.  Dave mentioned before playing it that it was a two chord song that has been covered by more people than any other song ever written, if you count drunks doing a karaoke version of it.  He is probably right.  But this was another time when the opener could easily have been the headliner.

Dave's music is rooted in guitar blues with a dash of 60's psychedelic thrown in on top.  He even did an awesome cover of a Jimi Hendrix tune, having been one of the musicians who helped with the original recording.  Another song of Dave's that met with great success was We Just Disagree -- awesome lyrics.  

His band line-up changed several times during the set as he brought up the Doobie Brother’s John McFee (guitar) and Marc Russo (saxophone) along with Journey bassist Ross Valory (nope, he did not dance).  As a result each song had a complete feel and well-rounded sound that is often lacking when a band is on the road.

The Doobie Brothers

When I was in High School, a friend of mine (Lelia Beakey) gave me the album Takin' It To The Streets for my birthday.  It was the first new album I ever owned and I wore it out.   I always liked the Doobie's style and vocal harmonies.   Growing up in the California Rock era, the band was a natural companion for a fan of Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.

I enjoyed the performance as it was neither over produced nor overly complicated.  They played their hits, interacted with the audience and everything they performed was done well.  

The set list, as I said, was all hits and the audience ate it up.  Most notable were:  Rockin' Down the Highway -- Part of my 50 Greatest Motorcycle Riding Tunes list for good reason, great road song;  Spirit --  Played totally acoustic,  sounded awesome;  Takin' It to the Streets -- brought back memories for me;  Black Water -- one of my favs (and the name of my first and only garage band); Long Train Runnin' -- Always loved dancing to this; and China Grove -- another of my favs and a great dance tune too.  They performed two encores:  Without You & Listen to the Music (my favorite Doobie Bros tune)

Overall, I considered the performance to be flawless and effortlessly enjoyable.  Just sat back and enjoyed every note played.


The first thing that comes up when talking about or going to see a Journey concert is "who" you are going to see.  Journey's make up has been fairly consistent over the years, with the exception of the lead singer.  There have been 4 of them to date.  The one who is most widely known and rightly admired for his vocal prowess is Steve Perry (and this will be the only time I mention his name).   But it has been 18 years since he has even performed with the band -- it is time to let go and decide if you are a fan of him or of Journey.  

Arnel Pineda is the current lead vocalist with the group, and whereas I was curious and leery as to how he would sound,  I will tell you that he has tremendous range and power in his voice and every song I heard this night was indeed a Journey song.  Arnel also has great stage presence and performs as a true member of the group and not as a typical front man/vocalist.  I have never seen another iteration of the band live before this performance, but after seeing it I can truly say I saw Journey at its best.

Before the concert started I was told by someone else on our row that if you closed your eyes Arnel's voice sounded just like the old Journey.  Why close your eyes?  With them open you can see and hear that Arnel is Journey -- 

The set list included all their hits plus a few tunes from their 2011 Eclipse album.  Before I get to the set list, I want to talk about the fourth selection:  The Star-Spangled Banner.

The song was done well and I personally like the anthem as a guitar solo. Having said that,  as a veteran I can't stand the way people ignore the tune's significance by remaining seated, talking, or shouting while it is being played.  I would suggest playing as the first song of the evening with an appropriate "Please rise for the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner," preface or removing the song from the playlist completely. 

What makes a Journey set list interesting is the mix of driving songs in their repertoire (like Separate Ways (Worlds Apart), Any Way You Want It, and Wheel in the Sky) along with slower deep meaning songs (like Lights, Open Arms, and Faithfully).   You can't just have a full concert of fast songs,  and their careful blending and mixing of tempos allowed you to recover emotionally from the fast songs so you are not always on the edge.  It provides a more rounded concert experience.    Aside from Arnel's excellent vocals I also, really enjoyed the Jonathan Cain keyboard work and solos.
 Last song of the evening made me know what it felt  like to be a small town girl born and raised in south Detroit -- by the way south Detroit is in no way a small town -- Don't Stop Believin'  It was UNBELIEVABLE live.

For the encore, they played what I consider one of the most passionate songs in Rock & Roll history:  Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'  -- the lyrics tell the story of a break up due to cheating but the longing in the melody and lyrics is just so relatable. In the end Karma takes her pound of flesh and levels the field, as Karma often does.

All in all -- great show.