Sunday, June 25, 2017

Substituting for The Who

A while ago, I was talking to a friend who was regaling me with stories of seeing The Who in New York on their first American tour. He told me how knocked out he was by their set, how he later managed to sneak into their hotel, and ended up spending the evening hanging out and chatting with bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon along with a bunch of fawning groupies.

He mentioned how he used to have the original 45 rpm single of “Substitute,” which was extremely rare because of the B-side, “Waltz for a Pig,” a strange, plodding, horn driven instrumental which, as far as he remembered, was composed by Entwistle, and was never re-released. After losing the single in one move or another, he never heard the song ever again.

I had never heard the song, but I’d heard of it. However, I remembered hearing that it was done by a different band, The Graham Bond Organisation. I wasn’t sure how the arrangement came to be, but I’d always assumed that it was a case of two British bands on the same label doing some kind of double A-side arrangement to break into the new American market. Why he didn’t remember that the flip aide was by another band was strange to me.

Evidently, he wasn’t the only one. The song appeared on several bootlegs of rare Who tracks, most notably the Trademark of Quality double LP Who’s Zoo. How did nobody know that this song was by another band?

As I looked into it (first reading about it in Tony Fletcher’s wonderful biography of Keith Moon), I discovered that it was not merely confusion or faulty memories. It was part of a bizarre incident that came out of an all too common story of a band starting out, signing a bad contract, trying to break free, and then finding themselves being bitten in the ass by old associates.

Like so many other London bands in the early 60s, the members of The Who were just a bunch of teenagers who were hungry for a life that broke away from staid Britishness and had been intoxicated by the R&B and soul records coming over from America. They had no plan and no business sense. Their first manager, Helmut Gordon, was so hands-off that he has become no more than a footnote in the band’s bio. However, through Gordon the band became connected to publicist Pete Meadon, a pill-popping mod who occasionally made up for his lack of stability and business sense with vision. It was Meadon who helped to give the band direction and associate them with the mod subculture. It was not until the band’s management was taken over by aspiring filmmakers Kit Lambert and Christ Stamp that there would be true forward momentum. The pair had a keen sense of drama (something the young band had in spades) and boundless imagination.

Left to right: Townshend, Talmy, Moon
To make their first recordings under this new arrangement, they reached out to American-born producer Shel Talmy, who had produced all of The Kinks’ recordings up to that point. Guitarist Pete Townshend was a huge admirer of the songcraft of The Kinks’ leader, Ray Davies, and fashioned his song, “I Can’t Explain,” to appeal to Talmy. It worked. He would sign the band to his production company and produce “I Can’t Explain,” backed with the Talmy-penned “Bald Headed Woman” on the B-side (it was not uncommon at the time for producers to have acts record their compositions, or to attach their name to songwriting credits, in order to reap royalties). The single made it into the top ten in England. They were off.

Soon after, the band went into the studio to record their first LP, My Generation. It was a hodge-podge of Townshend originals padded out with the James Brown covers that front-man Roger Daltrey favored singing. While it only hints at what the band would become, it was a raw, aggressive outing, and one that truly stands the test of time. However, the band was unhappy, partly because Townshend had greater artistic ambitions than garage rock and soul covers, but mostly because the contract with Talmy was highly unfavorable for the band.

Inevitably, the band acrimoniously broke with Talmy. This began a strange period during which Who singles would appear in shops under different labels. The band would record their new tracks with co-manager Kit Lambert at the helm and, having struck a deal with impresario Robert Stigwood, they would release them on his new label, Reaction. Talmy, however, would continue to issue singles from the My Generation album sessions on Brunswick records, often with such timing as to suggest that he was deliberately attempting to sabotage the band’s new releases.

The first recording they made after their break from Talmy was their classic, “Substitute.”  It was a definite step forward for the band, which had previously merely replicated their live sound in the studio. With the oblique and witty lyrics (including the nearly impossible to sing “the north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south”) to the inclusion of acoustic guitar for added color, it was a far cry from the work they did with Talmy.

“Substitute” was released in England on March 4th, 1966, The B-side was a track called “Instant Party,” a re-recording  of a song that they had previously recorded with Talmy under the title “Circles.” The problem was that Talmy had been set to release “Circles” as the follow-up single to the band’s breakout hit, “My Generation.” (The B-side of that intended release was to be a bizarre doo-wop pastiche song called “Instant Party Mixture,” which evidently provided “Circles” with its new name. That track was ultimately shelved for the next several decades.) If the name change was intended to throw Talmy off the scent, it didn’t do a very good job. Talmy placed a legal injunction on the single, and to add insult to injury, issued the single, “A Legal Matter,” on March 7th. “Instant Party” was the B-side.

The classic lineup of the Graham Bond Organisation.
Bond, Heckstall-Smith, Bruce, Baker
Bruce would leave prior to "Waltz for a Pig."
In order to get “Substitute” back into stores, they needed a new B-side, and fast.

Enter the Graham Bond Organisation, the seminal British jazz/rhythm & blues combo. While never hugely successful commercially, the band was one of a handful of acts that instigated the blues/R&B boom in London in the early 60s, and the band’s alumni would later form some of the most venerable bands in the jazz/fusion and progressive rock genres.

The Organisation (British spelling), had played a number of dates with The Who (Stigwood was the booking manager for both bands), and apparently, due to this connection, were called upon to provide a triage recording to replace the contested “Circle/Instant Party” side. Within days, “Substitute” was re-released with “Waltz for a Pig” as the B-side, credited to “The Who Orchestra.” When released in America shortly thereafter, it would be credited to “The Who,” in spite of their complete lack of involvement. Discovering this, I could finally see that my friend, while technically incorrect, had not been wrong.
"Waltz for a Pig"
Credited to "The Who Orchestra"

The line-up that recorded “Waltz for a Pig” consisted of leader Graham bond (duh) on organ, Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax, Ginger Baker on drums, and Nigerian-born trumpet player Mike Falana, who joined the band after the departure of founding bass player Jack Bruce. (Bruce had left the previous year due to frequent, violent clashes with Baker. He vowed never to work with the brilliant, but notoriously unstable drummer ever again.)

The song itself is no masterpiece, but it was definitely a huge and delicious “fuck you” to Talmy (presumably the titular “Pig”). It’s an odd little instrumental, not even attempting to fashion itself in the style of The Who, but it does have an oddly arresting sound, with the horn section playing a dirge-like melody over the booming bass notes of Bond’s organ and Baker’s forceful beat. The writing credit was given as “Butcher,” but was in fact written by Baker (Get it? Butcher? Baker? Candlestick maker?). Though The Graham Bond Organisation did not receive an official credit at the time, it would eventually be released under the band’s name in 2012 on their retrospective box set, Wade in the Water: Classics, Origins & Oddities, long after the track had been forgotten by most Who fans.

The American pressing, credited to "The Who."
And after that? Well, The Who continued recording with Kit Lambert producing, their new output moving in a more inventive, pop-art direction, sharply contrasting with the “maximum R&B” of their early work. The legal battles between the band and Shel Talmy ended up hindering the band’s financial fortunes for the rest of the decade and lasted long enough to prevent a remastered CD version of the My Generation album from appearing until after the turn of the millennium.

Talmy’s output would soon slow down. He would continue to record The Kinks and other bands through 1966 and 1967, including the classic hit by The Easybeats, “Friday on my Mind.” However, by 1968, Ray Davies would take over production of The Kinks’ recordings. Sadly, changes in the music scene ultimately rendered his approach passé. It may be easy to vilify Talmy in this story, but it needs to be remembered that he helped bring The Who to prominence, and he did so by making records with such a rawness and immediacy that they would influence virtually every kid who would ever start a band thereafter.
Ginger Baker

The Graham Bond Organisation would break up not long after. Reed player Dick Heckstall-Smith would subsequently do a stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before forming the jazz/rock outfit, Colosseum, with drummer John Hiseman. Ginger Baker would grudgingly reunite with his old nemesis Jack Bruce at the insistence of Eric Clapton to form Cream. The pair would be thorns in each other’s sides until Bruce’s death in 2014. Little information was available about Nigerian-born trumpet player Mike Falana, apart from that he passed away in 1995. Bandleader Graham Bond never achieved the success that he arguably deserved. He died on May 8th, 1974, having either fallen or thrown himself in front of a train at Finsbury Park station in London. His growing obsession with the occult has some curious music fans speculating on the nature of his death to this day.

“Waltz for a Pig” faded into obscurity, and probably rightly so. It’s not a Who song. It’s barely even a good song. However, it served its purpose at the time: To get “Substitute” back on the shelves and help usher in the next phase of The Who, when they wanted to broaden their sound and extricate themselves from a creative and financial relationship that they believed was toxic. It’s a wonderful little curio, one of those little lost gems that sounds good in context of a broader story. It’s one of those tracks that obsessive weirdoes like me love.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

(Probably Not) The Final Word on the Pronunciation of "GIF"

The pronunciation of the popular image file, "GIF," (an acronym standing for "Graphics Interchange Format") has been a subject of intense debate over the last few years. There are those who argue that the "G" is soft, choosing to pronounce it like the ubiquitous mass-marketed, over-sugared peanut butter, and others who maintain that it should be pronounced with a hard "G," like "gift" minus the "t". And then there are others who wonder what the hell these geeks are arguing about.

Well, I happened to be one of those geeks and I will say that arguing about minutia is a proud past time of geeks everywhere, and we are not ashamed of this. In addition, I will propose that accuracy and correctness are still important, in spite of what an increasing number of people seem to believe these days.

Some have tried to say that both pronunciations are acceptable.  I disagree. GIF is a recent entry to the lexicon, so it has not been subject to the same linguistic evolution that older words were, with their pronunciations changing over time and being twisted with regional accents. The word "aluminum" may sound completely different on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, but there should be agreement on GIF.

So how do we decide who's right? For me, it's simple. Go to the source. Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the GIF declared in a comment to the New York Times in 2013: “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations... They are wrong. It is a soft 'G,' pronounced 'jif.' End of story."

That should be the end of the story, right? Yet, people come out of the woodwork to contradict the man on how to say the name of his own invention. Really? Would you go up to a mother and tell her that she is mispronouncing the name of her child?

Personally, I always said it as "jif." I don't remember anyone telling me that was how is was said. That is simply how it sounded in my head when I read it off the screen (if it was "Graphics Interchange Format File" or "GIFF," I would definitely pronounce it with a hard "G.") But I must be a weirdo because culture writer Joanna Brenner declared in a Newsweek article last year, that "our brains logically just want to pronounce it with a hard G."

So I guess I do not have a logical brain, at least as far as Brenner would define it.  And, evidently, that is the case for many others as well. The fact that this argument rages on is a testament to that fact.

To be fair, Brenner does make a compelling point in her article when she asserts that "every word that starts with G, then a vowel, then an F, is pronounced with a hard G... For example: Gaffe. Gift. Guff. Guffaw."

I am tentatively willing to concede that point, even though I cannot attest to the veracity of this claim. I do not have a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to pore through to find a counter-example. All I can respond with is that English is a highly irregular and elastic language, that there is a first time for everything, and that this linguistic observation is not enough to dissuade me from my immediate impulse.

The biggest argument that I hear all the time, though, is that the "G" stands for "Graphic," and thus should be pronounced with a hard "G." Mic drop.

I will admit it. That one had me stumped for a while, but the other day I realized something. Yes, GIF is an acronym, and acronyms can get tricky. Even looking at acronyms of other file formats, we can see how the rules of pronunciation can be fluid. JPEG (short for "Joint Photographic Experts Group") is pronounced "JAY-Peg," and not "juh-PEG." To be fair, two consonants together can make things difficult, and JPEG is really a compound of an initialism (like "BBC") and an acronym. The pronunciation is merely something that is easy to say and easy on the ear.

GIF (consonant-vowel-consonant) is relatively straightforward, though, and follows the definition from Merriam-Webster, being " a word (such as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term."

Examining the examples provided in that definition, one would immediately find that the pronunciation of acronyms are unrelated to the sounds that the letters made in the original words. For example, though the "A" in NATO represents the word "Atlantic" (as in "North Atlantic Treaty Organization"), it is not pronounced as such. The "A" in "Atlantic" is pronounced as an open front unrounded vowel, the same sound as in "at" or "apple." However, the acronym, NATO, is pronounced "NAY-to." The letter "A" sounds quite differently in the acronym from the way it sounds in the original word.

While we're at it, let's look briefly at the other two examples in the Merriam-Webster definition. We pronounce "Radar" (RAdio Detection And Ranging)  as "REY-dahr," but if one would pronounce the word with the second a representing the word "and," it would sound more like "rey-DARE." Breaking down "Laser," normally pronounced "LEY-zer," given that the "E" represents the word "emission," it would be pronounced  "lahy-ZEER. "

So even though these are vowel sounds and not consonants that are being twisted around, I still will put forth that within this specific published definition of the word, acronym, there is evidence that the pronunciation is independent of the original words.

You may say that I have not proven myself completely right, and I will respond by saying that I don't have to. In this case, all I have to do is prove that I'm not wrong. And I think that even if I may not have completely discredited them, I have at least challenged most of the arguments that say that "jif" is not a viable pronunciation. Given that, I think maybe it's time to drop the arrogance and defer to the designer.

Get my gist?

(Now for those who would dismiss my analysis by scoffing and saying that I have too much time on my hands, I am issuing a preliminary middle finger.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Larry Coryell: Ruminations

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Larry Coryell, the pioneering jazz/fusion guitarist, passed away on Sunday.

I'm assuming that anyone who would be reading this knows that already, so I don't have to go into the details.

I do get tired of my blog looking like one long series of obituaries, an effect that was particularly pronounced in 2016, but when artists who were so prominent in my mind and often were so pivotal in my aesthetic development pass on, I am simply forced to try to process my thoughts the only way I know how: To sit down, put on a record, and try to describe what I loved about their work, how they influenced me, and how grateful I was to have experienced their artistry in a live setting (or regretful If I didn't). Often, these musings are more for my benefit than anyone else.

As I sit here writing, I am listening to my old LP of Larry's solo guitar arrangement of Ravel's "Boléro," and thinking about the last time I heard that piece. It wasn't that long ago. In fact, it was last Friday, February the 17th when he was performing at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.

He was playing a set with his trio which included the rhythm section of drummer Steve Johns and the young upright bass prodigy Daryl Johns. The band wound their way through a set including old standards and Larry's own compositions, with the father-son rhythm section locking into a psychically linked groove with Coryell weaving his own lines within.

Coryell, always generous in sharing the spotlight and showcasing his fellow musicians, gave Daryl ample space to solo. Playing with a steely intensity, the young musician showed the audience why he has generated such a buzz in recent years. He was equally generous in his praise of the drummer, complimenting him on his sophisticated economy of style. "When the drummer is so unobtrusive, it shows what a great drummer he is."

And then he played "Boléro."

Iridium Jazz Club 2/17/17
Playing acoustically on his own, he freely explored ideas and textures, improvising a beginning to the piece based on mood and atmosphere before laying down Ravel's melody. Though he had been playing the piece for decades, it felt like he was exploring it for the first time, toying with the familiar melody, leaping off from it, and touching base again just before he went too far. Even when he started to sing along with his playing (I never thought that Larry's singing was his strong suit) his delight in rediscovering the piece and seeking out sounds in the moment was infectious. The performance was thrilling and made my hair stand up on end. Concluding, he received a well-deserved standing ovation.

As the band returned to the stage, Larry welcomed up saxophonist Bob Mover, with whom, he hinted, a collaborative recording was in the works. As the band tore into the last piece of the evening (I honestly don't remember what it was) Mover, in spite of his seeming frailty contributed some thrilling be-bop inflected soloing, ending the set on an energetic note.

Of course, I had no inkling as I left the club that that would be the last time I would see Larry Coryell perform. I simply assumed I would be seeing him in the summer with a reconstituted version of his old band The Eleventh House, as they toured in promotion of their new album, the yet to be released, Seven Secrets. The last I saw of him, he was looking to the future.

It's just weird to wrap my brain around it. His passing in his hotel room on Sunday doesn't fit the narrative that I had in my head. These shows at the Iridium were supposed to be the beginning of the next chapter.

By the end of last year, I was so shell-shocked by the sheer number of beloved artists that were leaving us, I think part of my subconscious felt that if we just survived 2016, we would somehow become immortal, and we would never have to bury another hero ever again.

2016 had been a rough year for Larry as well. He had seen the loss of longtime collaborators including bassist Victor Bailey, and his Eleventh House co-founder, drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Furthermore, he did not get out of the year unscathed himself. He had had severe health issues last summer after a botched sinus surgery resulted in a viral infection, leading to several cancelled shows and a long painful recovery.

But he had seemed to come through it all. He appeared to be in fine health and seemed full of new ideas, speaking about numerous new projects and collaborations. There was no hint of the turmoil of the previous year.  It still seems unreal.

Obviously, my thoughts go out to his family. I think about his wife, Tracey, and her sorrowful note regarding how he died on the road. "I'm heartbroken- you never came home." Though I never knew either of them personally, it's hard not to feel a personal sadness at such a sentiment.

But even if I never actually knew Larry, he was my guy, if you know what I mean. When I got into his music, I felt like I was joining a secret club. It's well known in jazz circles that, as time went on, Larry did not maintain the same profile as did many of his contemporaries and the musicians he inspired. Many see that as a gross injustice. Some view it as just bad luck. But in any event, Larry was not on my radar when I was first exploring jazz and jazz/fusion music. In fact, I didn't discover Larry until I had over a decade of rabid music collecting under my belt.

I remember the first album I bought. I was at a used record store in the East Village where I found a copy of Level One, the second album by The Eleventh House. I had definitely heard his name at some point, and I remembered pulling the album out, noting the presence of Mouzon, who I knew from his playing on the first Weather Report album. The guy behind the counter looked at my acquisition and commented simply: "The only word I can use to describe these guys is 'relentless.'"

That was enough for me. Listening to the album, however, I found that, while tracks like "Nyctaphobia" fit the record store guy's description perfectly, I found other words aside from "relentless." I heard pieces that were more lyrical, more funky , more wistful, more mysterious. It didn't become an instant favorite, but something made me want to find more.

As I searched out his material, I found that so much of it was difficult to find. Even now, some of his finest albums from the 70s are out of print. Of course, at the time, this was both frustrating and alluring. As a record collector, half of the fun was in the hunt, and scouring record stores throughout the city and beyond yielded little thrills whenever I would find clean copies of albums like The Restful Mind or Standing Ovation.

Furthermore, as I listened to his early work as a sideman, playing with the likes of Chico Hamilton, Gary Burton, and Herbie Mann, I started to really see what set him apart from guitarists like John McLaughlin and Al DiMiola, players of consummate skill who arrived on the scene slightly later, essentially walking through the door that Larry broke open. I began to notice that Larry's playing was the intersection between the past, present, and the future. More so than the guitarists who followed, I could hear the rhythm and blues influence, while at the same time hearing the echoes of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Barney Kessel .

Coryell in 1982
After he released two albums under his own name which melded rock, blues, jazz, and even country, he released Spaces, an album on which he brought in musicians John McLaughlin, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Miroslav Vitouš, and drummer Billy Cobham; All musicians who would change and define what jazz would be over the next decade. Even though I wasn't even alive at its time of release, listening to that album I can hear how he was straddling tradition and a thrillingly wide-open future. Along with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and The Tony Williams Lifetime's Emergency, that album was a pivotal point in the development of what would later be dubbed fusion, and more people should know it.

(Again, I know that I am probably preaching to the choir, and that most of people reading this are going through the same period of remembrance and contemplation. If you are reading, I thank you for indulging me.)

But beyond that, I just always found that his playing had an edge to it that I didn't find elsewhere. Whether that edge was anger, or vulnerability, or whether it was a burst of some other unforeseen emotion, there was simply this other intangible quality. Nobody played like he did. He wasn't simply about virtuosic pyrotechnics, there was a connectedness, and a spontaneous expression of an agile musical imagination. He didn't want to show what he could do. He wanted to see what could be done.

I think some Larry fanatics revel a little in his relative obscurity. It may be a bit (or a lot) pretentious, but there is some delight in being in the know about something that other people aren't. There have been times when I have been hanging with friends at my apartment, and after a few drinks I'll say: "Hey, do you want to hear something that will blow your mind?" and play them a track like "After Later" from the Live at The Village Gate album, or "Ruminations" from Offering. And I can think of a number of conversations that I have had with musicians who respected my opinions just a little bit more after they found out that I was a full-fledged member of the Larry club. If you were into Larry, you were definitely hip.

So, yeah. He was my guy.

I regret never meeting him. Obviously I wanted to. I'd seen him hanging around venues before or after shows, but I didn't want to intrude. When I found out that he would be playing at The Iridium, I planned to reach out and ask if I could get a few minutes for a casual interview, but I figured it was too short notice. Also, I'll admit it, I chickened out. Plus, I didn't know what to ask.

There were the obvious questions about new projects and whatnot, but there were other questions in
my mind that I wouldn't dare ask. I wanted to know how he was feeling after his health scare last year. I wanted to know how he felt about touring with an Eleventh House without Alphonse Mouzon kicking it behind him. I wanted to know his thoughts on growing older as an artist, what he felt like he's learned and what he thinks he might have lost. I wanted to ask if he felt as underappreciated as I believed he was. Maybe I should have just asked the easy questions and then thanked him. Maybe he wouldn't have been available anyway.

I definitely would not have simply come out and told him to his face that I thought he was one of the most daring guitarists I had ever heard, how much I admired his capacity for invention and reinvention, how amazed I was with his ability to take risks, how exploring his catalog yielded endless delights, and that the hunt to track down those old LPs proved to be such a great source of fun and pride, and that seeing him perform live was enthralling. Maybe I would have said the last one.

But I'll always have "Boléro."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Sharrard with Connor Kennedy, Rockwood Music Hall, NYC 1/20/17

Scott Sharrard
Last Friday, at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, guitar ace Scott Sharrard and a group of musical cohorts marked the occasion of the Presidential Inauguration with a scorching performance of Pink Floyd's classic album, Animals.  By his side was guitarist Connor Kennedy, with whom Sharrard previously played this material at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, and who, additionally, handled much of the vocals. The band also included friends and frequent collaborators including Scott's bandmate in Gregg Allman & Friends, Brett Bass on bass, along with Eric Finland on keyboards, Fab Faux drummer Rich Pagano, erstwhile Ratdog sax player, Kenny Brooks, and Broadway performer, Joshua Kobak, providing additional vocals and spoken word interludes. Together, they blazed through the entirety of Floyd's scathing work of progressive rock socio-political criticism, making no bones about where they stood in regards to the events of the day.

The band bookended the set with other memorable Floyd pieces which highlighted the evening's theme. Opening  with "Us and Them" from Dark Side of the Moon, the show began on an apocalyptic note as the band vamped behind Kobak while he recited the classic Robert Frost poem, "Fire and Ice," in which the author asks himself in which of these two will the world end, and whether it will be brought about through passion or hatred. Segueing into the song, the sonic tone of the evening was firmly established. The dynamics inherent in the original material were even more emphasized in this intimate setting as the band glided between delicate passages and dramatic bursts of incredible power and flesh-melting volume.

The set ender, "Comfortably Numb" from The Wall, arguably one of Pink Floyd's most well known songs and a crowd-pleaser, provided a cathartic conclusion, and the audience was encouraged to sing along. The song, originally about a jaded rock star, took on a new meaning in the context of this performance, and contributed to the theme of the evening.

Sharrard and Kennedy
The event was organized as a benefit for ProPublica, a New York based, public interest oriented, non-profit newsroom. Sharrard was intent that the evening was to be "a celebration of freedom of speech and transparency in media that is vital for our collective survival." The band pulled no punches, musically or politically, but in the end, the feeling in the room was of unity and not anger. And though Roger Waters'  caustic lyrics on Animals seem even more relevant today, I felt that the real theme of the evening was summed up by the first and last songs, and that we must recognize and heal the divisions between us, that we must be vigilant and aware, and not allow ourselves the luxury of simply becoming "Comfortably Numb."

Monday, January 9, 2017

Brand X at Iridium, NYC 1/3/17

Founding members John Goodsall and Percy Jones
"Thanks for having us back... Especially after last time."

Sometimes it's tough to figure out English humor. The "last time" to which John Goodsall, founding guitarist of the classic progressive/fusion band, Brand X, was referring was the band's appearance in October at New York's Iridium jazz club, their first gigs in the city in over a decade. Goodsall's self-effacing jibe notwithstanding, the hotly anticipated reunion shows went off brilliantly, with the band proving that they were still a powerful force, musically: Tight, yet free, aggressive, yet ethereal. Brand X was back.

It was the initial run of shows with this new line-up, which featured Goodsall and co-founder Percy Jones on bass, along with Kenwood Dennard on drums, who had done a stint with the band in the late 70s (after the previous drummer, Phil Collins, went back to his day job in Genesis), and two new members, Chris Clark on keyboards, and Scott Weinberger on percussion. Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the release of their live LP, Livestock, the set lists of those shows had centered around material on that album and their previous studio releases: 1976's Unorthodox Behaviour, and 1977's Moroccan Roll. The reconstituted  band executed the material admirably, and the music felt energetic and fresh.

Percy Jones
However, the band that returned to the Iridium stage last Tuesday was even more confident, more cohesive. It was clear from the start that the band was gelling even more than they had in October, and the unique skills and personalities of the new members were becoming more evident. "We're a real band," Goodsall announced, and if the shows last fall had a feeling of testing the waters, on this evening the band's future seemed brighter and more certain.

Still largely basing their set around Livestock era material, in the past several months, the band began expanding their repertoire, opening this show with "The Poke," from their 1978 Masques album (the first time with this current band, I'm told), and later including a playfully funky instrumental cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Also, the band continued to assert its musical identity by playing the older material based not on how it had been done before, but based on the styles of the current members. The differences were sometimes subtle, drastic at others, but always noticeable.

Scott Weinberger 
This band's reading of "Euthanasia Waltz" was more driving than its original recorded version, with drummer Kenwood Dennard creating a more propulsive groove while percussionist Scott Weinberger played on top and in between, alternately adding elegant splashes of color and jarring counterattacks. Weinberger's unique percussion rig, self-constructed of numerous disparate pieces, including an actual mounted garbage can lid, was sight to see, an ingenious construction, and he used it to great effect.

Meanwhile, "Born Ugly," from the band's debut album Unorthodox Behaviour had been taken down in tempo, with Dennard burrowing in deep alongside Jones' bass which churned out deep, gurgling, bubbling tones to create a raunchy, swampy funk that gouged right into the gut. All the while, Chris Clark's piano dexterously danced on top, weaving the melody in unison with Goodsall's guitar.

Kenwood Dennard
The band pulled out the stops on the concluding song of their first set, "Nuclear Burn." The hyper-
kinetic performance dazzled listeners with its frenetic pace and the band's ability to start and stop on a dime. Did I say a dime? I meant a goddamned ha'penny (look it up). Meanwhile, Dennard was playing with such head-shaking intensity, that his plastic New Years Eve prop hat fell off his head.

Jones opened the second set with a bass solo that exhibited his dazzling technique and his capacity to generate atmospheres. Improvising over a loop that evoked a digital didgeridoo, his bass work ebbed and flowed, harshly percussive one moment, lyrical and harmonically dense the next.

Dennard joined in with Jones and the two set off on a high energy, be-bop fueled duet , before the rest of the band came in to play "Nightmare Patrol," the opening track on Livestock. Co-written by Dennard, he displayed here an energetic, flamboyant showmanship that would appear distasteful on a lesser musician. As it stands, though, his pure, uncut chops stand above all else, and the visual element of his performance is simply icing on the cake.

Chris Clark with Jones, Goodsall, and Dennard
New member Chris Clark, on the other hand, showed himself to be the complete opposite, visually. In contrast with the with the cliché of the prog rock keyboardist, instead of hunching behind a giant array of keyboards, he sits high above his noticeably scaled back rig (after all, you can do more with far less these days)  perfectly postured, poignantly free of eccentricity while his interprets the songs with a dexterous ease (his reserved onstage demeanor is fitting given his time John Entwistle's solo band). His solo piano interpretation of "...Maybe I'll Lend You Mine after All" from Moroccan Roll, was a stand-out performance, working dazzling improvisations into the haunting, simple melody.

They concluded their set with "...And So to F...," arguably the band's best known song (mostly due to the fact that former drummer Phil Collins frequently would include it in his shows when he went solo). A good old fashioned rave-up, or at least the closest thing you'll find in the prog/fusion world, the high energy workout had the crowd enthused and chanting along with its wordless chorus.

After the band bid the crowd good night, the more astute members of the audience not only knew that there had to be an encore, but knew exactly what it would be. There was just a feeling like something was missing, like there was unfinished business. Sure enough, the band returned to the stage and broke into "Malaga Virgen." Originally featured on Moroccan Roll featuring Collins on drums, Dennard's version on the Livestock album reinvented the track with a mind drilling beat which he was more than ready, willing, and able to recreate here. For a band that refuses to be pigeonholed, "Malaga Virgen" does a great job of encompassing their style and strengths. At times propulsive and at others atmospheric and then somehow managing to be both at the same time, it features a delicate, tickling, crystalline melody dancing over an intense groove with sudden changes of mood and vector.

John Goodsall
In all, it was another excellent show by band that is continuing to coalesce. In retrospect, I think it was a bit strange that they ended their set with "...And So to F... " and encored with "Malaga Virgen." It was a little like having crème brûlée for dinner and a forty ounce porterhouse for dessert. But at the end of the day I'm always glad to see a band changing it up. They're trying out new things, rediscovering instead of rehashing, continuing to explore. After the show, Jones told me that they are going to continue to expand their set lists, both through further digging into the back catalog as well as writing new material for this current band. That, of course is welcome news indeed.

In short, Brand X came back, they delivered, and they showed that they still have more to deliver.

Photos by Jeremy Gordon