Sunday, March 24, 2013

Third Man Records vinyl exclusives, Part 15

I've received the fifteenth set of exclusive vinyl items offered to platinum members of Third Man Records’ Vault service. For those who are unaware, Third Man Records is the label owned by Jack White, who is the leader of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, and is now a solo artist as well. The Vault service promises to deliver exclusive vinyl-only records (one full-length album and one 7” single) to its platinum members every three months. According to the postal service, my package was sent on March 19th. I received it on the 21st.

This fifteenth set of items features two pre-Raconteurs collaborations by Jack White and Brendan Benson: a live LP by a short-lived White-led band from 1999, and a 7-inch single containing two studio recordings from the duo from two very different time periods. The third item in this package is a DVD with film clips from a 2002 tour by the White Stripes and Whirlwind Heat, titled White Heat.

The 7-inch single, pressed in “electric-yellow” vinyl (which looks orange to my eyes), contains two demos recorded by White and Benson in Benson’s home studio. The A-side is a 2004 demo of the Raconteurs song “Steady, As She Goes”, recorded two years before the Raconteurs’ version was released. This version is mellower and organ-dominated, though the basic groundwork remained the same. It’s interesting to hear, but the finished version with the other two Raconteurs (bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler) was certainly an improvement. The B-side is a 1999 demo of the White Stripes ballad “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known”, recorded two years before it appeared on White Blood Cells. This version was done by a full band, giving it a noticeably fuller-bodied sound than the Stripes version, with less rigid drumming. Is it better or inferior? I’d say it’s about equal.

The LP Live On The Garden Bowl Lanes captures a half-hour-long set performed by a quartet called Jack White and the Bricks, inside the historic Garden Bowl bowling alley in Detroit. (The record is pressed in white vinyl, to resemble the color of a bowling pin). The Bricks were comprised of Brendan Benson on guitar, drummer Ben Blackwell (from the Dirtbombs), and bassist Kevin Peyok (from the Waxwings). The set took place in July of 1999, one month after the White Stripes’ debut album was released. The band played five White Stripes songs (four of which turned up on White Blood Cells two years later), two Bob Dylan covers (“Isis” and “I Threw It All Away”), the traditional Scottish tune “Black Jack Davey” (which has been covered by both Dylan and the White Stripes), and a ? And The Mysterians cover (“Ain’t It A Shame”).

It’s an energetically played set, definitely worthwhile listening for White-philes, although it is very badly recorded. An unrelated radio commercial seems to have been inadvertently taped over the beginning of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, and an unusually harsh anomaly disrupts “Isis”. Once the listener gets past this problem, the set is highly absorbing. The White Stripes songs take on a whole extra dimension when they are played by four musicians instead of two, and Blackwell’s drumming is significantly different from that of Meg White. This version of “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” has an even denser sound than the demo version included on this package’s single. When the quartet plays (as White says) songs “in a country vein”, such as White’s own “Now Mary” or Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away”, it’s in a very electric kind of country vein. The set closes with an intense rendition of the Mysterians’ “Ain’t It A Shame”, transforming a Michigan-grown garage rock obscurity into a powerful electric blues jam that sounds like one of Jack’s own. It’s only fitting that White got star billing in the Bricks. Although he was working with different musicians than usual, there’s no denying that Live On The Garden Bowl Lanes is quintessential Jack White.

Footnote: During the set, Jack can be heard telling the Garden Bowl crowd that the Greenhornes would be playing next. The four Raconteurs guys sure do go back a long way.

The “bonus” item in this package is a DVD containing footage from a 2002 European tour by the White Stripes and Whirlwind Heat, the Michigan alt-rock trio whose 2003 debut album Do Rabbits Wonder? was produced by Jack White. Titled White Heat (“a film by Brad Holland”, who is Whirlwind Heat’s drummer), the 44-minute DVD features concert footage, behind-the-scenes silliness, and sightseeing clips. It mostly resembles an amateurish home movie, but that was probably by design. Alternating between color and black-and-white and varying degrees of graininess, White Heat has the look and feel of an old underground punk doc, which may have been the intention. The quasi-hip technique gives an odd poetry to the filmed events. The four blues-rocking White Stripes numbers alone make the DVD worthwhile, the intense “Death Letter” being the high point. The four Whirlwind Heat songs are more chaotic, built mainly on a high-speed bass-and-drums combo, which their hyperactive frontman David Swanson wildly dances around (both physically and vocally). The disc concludes with Jack White joining Whirlwind Heat on stage to perform the Stripes’ song “The Big Three Killed My Baby”. A cool curio for fans of either band.

A note for fellow vinyl aficionados: the forgotten practice of engraving text in the dead wax, or runout grooves between the sticker and the last track’s grooves, is present on these items. The A-side of the single has “Sounds familiar” carved in the dead wax; the B-side has “I’m Tired” carved. Side One of the LP has “A Polaroid peppermint pastry possession?” carved; Side Two has “Hole burned in the canvas?” carved.

Brendan Benson & Jack White “Steady, As She Goes” b/w “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known” (Third Man single TMR198) 2013

Track Listing:

a. Steady, As She Goes
b. The Same Boy You’ve Always Known

Jack White - Jack White and The Bricks: Live on the Garden Bowl Lanes July 9, 1999

Jack White and the Bricks “Live On The Garden Bowl Lanes: July 9, 1999” (Third Man TMR199) 2013

Track Listing:

1. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
2. Isis
3. Do
4. Same Boy You’ve Always Known
5. Union Forever
6. Now Mary
7. Black Jack Davey
8. I Threw It All Away
9. Ain’t It A Shame

White Heat (Third Man DVD TMR-197) 2013

Track Listing:

1. JIMMY THE EXPLODER – The White Stripes
2. BLACK – Whirlwind Heat
4. TAN – Whirlwind Heat
5. DEATH LETTER – White Stripes
6. BROWN – Whirlwind Heat
7. I FOUGHT PIRANHAS – The White Stripes
8. THE BIG THREE KILLED MY BABY – Whirlwind Heat with Jack White

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bun E.'s Basement Bootlegs, Vol. 4: Semi-Acoustical

Bun E.’s Basement Bootlegs were CD’s sold through Cheap Trick’s official website and fan club. They contained previously unreleased Cheap Trick recordings from the band’s archives, compiled by drummer Bun E. Carlos. There were four separate volumes issued between the years 2000 and 2002. Each one was limited to 1,000 copies. Each CD was packaged in a plain white cardboard sleeve with a stamped illustration of the drummer’s face and his hand-autographed initials. The discs were numbered using black marker. Each disc had a different theme to classify the types of tracks included on it.

The theme of the fourth volume, issued in 2002, was “Semi-Acoustical”, and it contained live recordings of Cheap Trick playing acoustic renditions of 17 songs. Also, this volume featured a bonus disc, documenting early live performances from the band from 1976.

The Semi-Acoustical disc sounds like a great MTV Unplugged episode that never was. (I know why they called it semi-acoustic; someone obviously plugged in an electric guitar during “Voices”, and used a wah-wah pedal during “Downed”). The band mostly stuck to their own material for these performances, except for their expected covers of the Move’s “California Man” (the acoustic rendition of which makes you want to dance like the characters in the song) and the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man” (which sounds cool as usual with bassist Tom Petersson doing the lead vocal). Few, if any, of the Cheap Trick songs lose any of the feeling or intensity of their electric studio versions in these acoustic settings. In fact, these renditions draw more attention to Robin Zander’s powerful voice. Zander knows how to scale down his vocals for acoustic treatments without sacrificing any of their power. The entire band does a perfect job of scaling down “Wrong All Along” while preserving its intensity. This version of the psychotic “Ballad of TV Violence” moves along with brilliantly understated intensity, building up to Zander’s climactic primal screaming. Ballads such as “Ghost Town” and “Say Goodbye” sound simply lovely here; “Never Run Out of Love” is performed with a beauty that exceeds the studio version on Woke Up With A Monster. “Top of the World” sounds nearly flawless, with guitarist Rick Nielsen still displaying his usual flash without electricity in his axe. “I Want You To Want Me” has a campfire hootenanny feel to it; “Lookout” has a similarly infectious folk vibe. Semi-Acoustical is a delightful disc that shows an unusual side of Cheap Trick, although (to their credit) it doesn’t sound vastly different from their more familiar side. These power-pop legends do not rely as heavily on electric guitars and studio production as some people might think.

This volume came with a bonus disc titled Cheeseland ’76, which contained 12 live tracks recorded the year before the release of Cheap Trick’s 1977 debut album. The band may or may not have been aware of the growing punk rock movement that was happening at that time, but this disc is as good a document as any from that pivotal moment in music history. The not-yet-famous quartet cheerfully indulged in wild electric jams that could make Neil Young and Crazy Horse jealous. It was certainly brazen for Nielsen to introduce a song called “Taxman” as if it was a familiar Beatles cover, when the band was actually playing a Cheap Trick original of the same name (for obvious reasons, that song was retitled “Taxman Mr. Thief” on the debut album). Some of the other songs performed here also turned up on Cheap Trick’s studio albums, while others did not quite make the cut (“Lovin’ Money” was destined to be an outtake from the first album; an instrumental version of “Oh Boy” would be used as the B-side for the studio single of “I Want You To Want Me”). The set includes heavy-rocking early versions of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Downed” (titled “Down Down” here), and a version of “High Roller” that is marginally different than the studio version. Their cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” seems more restrained at first than some of the band’s later renditions of the song, until it faithfully climaxes with the same Plastic Ono-style screaming as Lennon’s original. “Girls On Fire”, written by Bun E., sounds like a new wave song just ahead of its time, except that most new wave songs weren’t nearly as long. Cheeseland ’76 is the exciting sound of a still-hungry rock and roll band sowing their wild musical oats, before they were refined by the machinery of the record industry.

Carlos saved the best Basement Bootlegs for last, because this fourth volume is arguably the best of them – and, so far, the last. Bun E. has stated that he has more archived material that he would like to issue on future volumes, but the issuance of more volumes is unlikely to happen. Although the drummer/archivist is still officially a member of Cheap Trick, he is not currently touring with the band, and he has said he is not on speaking terms with them, either. Those of us who love these Bun E.’s Basement Bootlegs discs will have to settle for these four volumes for now – and maybe for forever.

Bun E.'s Basement Bootlegs "Semi-Acoustical" (no label, AMG-BENSEMI) 2002

Track Listing:

1. Baby No More
2. I Can't Take It
3. Ghost Town
4. Ballad of TV Violence
5. Waitin' (For The Man)
6. Oh Caroline
7. Wrong All Along
8. I Want You To Want Me
9. Never Run Out Of Love
10. Voices
11. Top Of The World
12. California Man
13. Downed
14. Lookout
15. Say Goodbye
16. Oh Claire
17. Goodnight

Bun E.’s Basement Bootlegs "Cheeseland '76" (no label, AMG-BENCHEESE) 2002

Track Listing:

1. I Want You To Want Me
2. Do You Believe Me
3. Fool
4. Taxman
5. High Roller
6. Cold Turkey
7. Lovin' Money
8. Younger Girls
9. Please Mrs. Henry
10. Oh Boy
11. Girls On Fire
12. Down Down

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

Rarebird’s Cheap Trick Reviews

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bun E.'s Basement Bootlegs, Vol. 3: Covers '74-'00

Bun E.’s Basement Bootlegs were CD’s sold through Cheap Trick’s official website and fan club. They contained previously unreleased Cheap Trick recordings from the band’s archives, compiled by drummer Bun E. Carlos. There were four separate volumes issued between the years 2000 and 2002. Each one was limited to 1,000 copies. Each CD was packaged in a plain white cardboard sleeve with a stamped illustration of the drummer’s face and his hand-autographed initials. The discs were numbered using black marker. Each disc had a different theme to classify the types of tracks included on it.

The theme of the third volume, issued in 2001, was “Covers”, and it contained recordings (mostly live) of Cheap Trick covering various songs both classic and obscure. These tracks were recorded at various times during the years between 1974 (when Cheap Trick was just beginning) and 2000. Also, this volume featured a bonus disc, documenting early live performances from the band from 1975.

The Covers disc has nary a dull moment, with the song selection serving as a window into the band’s musical loves and influences. There are plenty of British Invasion songs covered here, including faithful renditions of the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” and the Small Faces’ “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”. Two lesser-known Rolling Stones songs made the cut: “Parachute Woman” and “Heart of Stone”, both of which sound like short but efficient rehearsal takes. It’s no secret that Cheap Trick love the Beatles, but this collection shows a partiality towards John Lennon’s solo work, containing a studio recording of “Cold Turkey” (less polished than the one on the 1995 Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero) and a live performance of “It’s So Hard”. Their rocking cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is clearly based on Lennon’s version. Ironically, their grandiose rendition of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” almost bypasses the Beatles and acknowledges the song’s R&B roots, as it features ornate horns and female backing vocals; it was originally released on the 1988 soundtrack to Caddyshack II. The “Medley” on track 13 is an instrumental mixture of three Yardbirds classics: “Shapes of Things”, “Heart Full of Soul”, and “For Your Love”.

The band also pays homage to some early rock and roll classics, performing Elvis’ “All Shook Up” (which they presumably named their 1980 album after) with an odd but entertaining bagpipes arrangement. They don’t mess around with Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over”; they just give it the straight-ahead Who-like rock and roll treatment it deserves. They also do Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Ramblin’ Rose”, but it’s totally based on the anarchic pre-punk version by the MC5. Guitarist Rick Nielsen takes the lead vocal, clownishly mimicking the falsetto of the MC5 rendition.

Also, the band covers Harry Nilsson’s wild “Jump Into The Fire”, and they pull it off very well – better than lead singer Robin Zander did on his self-titled 1993 solo album. The live version of “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace”, the Terry Reid song that Trick covered on their 1977 debut album, features a five-minute instrumental intro that will delight their fans. A major standout track is their rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man”, sung by bassist Tom Petersson. It has sparser instrumentation than the similar version on the box set Sex America Cheap Trick. It has an effective small-club blues-rock feel, and inserts a verse from “Heroin” at just the right moment.

Although the Covers disc has the type of loosely-assembled presentation that one would expect from an official boot, it has more value than many covers albums that other artists have released commercially.

This volume came with a bonus disc that actually has even greater value. Beertown ’75 contains 14 live tracks recorded two years before the release of Cheap Trick’s 1977 debut album. The band was still in its infancy at the time of these performances, during a twilight year when glitter-rock was about to fade and punk rock was waiting to explode. Four of these songs turned up on the first two albums (“Richard Speck” was renamed “The Ballad of TV Violence” on the debut), “You Talk Too Much” eventually turned up on the 1983 album Next Position Please, and “(We’re Gonna) Rock n Roll Tonight” is the same Roy Wood song that the band did in the studio for Busted 15 years later. It’s certainly interesting to hear the early performances of those songs, but the revelations on this disc are the songs that never made it onto a Cheap Trick album. Most (if not all) of them are of the same quality as the songs on the first three albums, from the band’s essential period, and are similar in tone to the songs on the superb debut. Robin Zander’s youthful voice is a marvel; the energetic instrumentation is particularly impressive on the extended jams of the six-minute “Tom’s Blues” and the eight-minute “Dealer”. The opening track “Pain Pain” follows its soft, lilting stanzas with hard, punchy choruses, a practice which was probably unusual in 1975. Oh, if only there were studio versions of all of these songs!

Bun E.'s Basement Bootlegs “Covers '74 to '00” (no label, CT004ENHANCE) 2001

Track Listing:

1. All Shook Up
2. Cold Turkey
3. Parachute Woman
4. Jump Into The Fire
5. A Well Respected Man
6. It’s So Hard
7. Whatcha Gonna Do About It
8. Waiting For The Man
9. Heart Of Stone
10. Shakin' All Over
11. Stand By Me
12. Ramblin' Rose
13. Medley – (instrumental medley of the Yardbirds songs “Shapes of Things”, “Heart Full of Soul”, and “For Your Love”)
14. Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace
15. Money (That's What I Want)

Bun E.’s BONUS Basement Bootleg “Beertown '75” (no label, CT 003 01) 2001

Track Listing:

1. Pain Pain
2. Punch Ya / Talk Too Much
3. Blow Me Away
4. Richard Speck (aka "The Ballad of TV Violence")
5. I Was A Fool
6. I Want You To Want Me
7. Rock n Roll Tonight
8. Not Fade Away
9. I Know
10. Southern Girls
11. Tom's Blues
12. Dealer
13. He's A Whore
14. Need A Little Girl

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 4

Rarebird’s Cheap Trick Reviews

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Alvin Lee of Ten Years After dies at 68

I was saddened to hear of the unexpected passing of Alvin Lee, the singer and guitarist from Ten Years After. Lee died suddenly on March 6th from complications caused by surgery. He was 68. Here is a Los Angeles Times article:,0,2836455.story

Lee's band Ten Years After are best remembered for their performance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 (their 11-minute performance of "I'm Going Home" is one of the high points of the documentary film), and for their 1971 hit single "I'd Love To Change The World". But the quartet had more chart success than their one-hit-wonder reputation would lead you to think. The British blues-rock band reportedly toured the United States an incredible 28 times in the eight years between 1967 and 1975.

Decades later, Mr. Lee has a less lofty reputation than many guitarists who had less talent. I learned of his death by way of the MSN home page, when I clicked on a link that read: "Guitar icon dies after surgery". It's nice to know that Mr. Lee is regarded as a guitar icon, but you would think his name would appear in the text of the link. Adding further insult, I still did not see which "guitar icon" they were referring to immediately after I clicked the link. The link led to an MSN music blog, and another unrelated post had since been published. So I had to scroll a good length down the page before learning that Alvin Lee had died. To my mind, this was a disrespectful reminder of how under-appreciated Alvin Lee has been for the last four decades.

For those who are not familiar with the band's work beyond the two aforementioned songs, I recommend the band's first two albums as a starting point. The self-titled studio debut Ten Years After from 1967 and the live album Undead from 1968 both present the band as a no-nonsense blues- and jazz-rock outfit, avoiding the psychedelic meanderings that many other bands fell prey to during that era. Their sound became increasingly mainstream after that point, up until their initial breakup in 1975. Their best albums from their more commercial post-Woodstock phase were Cricklewood Green (1970) and A Space In Time (1971). My review page for Ten Years After examines the band's lesser-known recordings.

For the past decade, the other three members of Ten Years After (bassist Leo Lyons, keyboardist Chick Churchill, and drummer Ric Lee) have toured and recorded with a younger singer/guitarist named Joe Gooch in place of Alvin Lee, who maintained a solo career until his death.

For your listening pleasure, I'd like to embed this YouTube video of a live track from the 1968 Undead album, a performance of Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball". This instrumental is a good showcase for Lee's talent, and for the other band members as well.

Rest in peace, Alvin Lee.