Echo in the Canyon — Straight-Up Nostalgia Buzz: Folk Meets Rock ‘n’ Roll

Echo in the Canyon. With Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Lou Adler, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor, Graham Nash, Cat Power, Michelle Phillips, Norah Jones, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater. 82 minutes; PG-13. Grade: B+

echo poster new

Sure, “Echo in the Canyon” is a straight-up dose of nostalgia buzz, and potentially not of enormous interest to those under 35 or so. But anyone, regardless of their age, who is fascinated by the personal stories behind pop-music history will be charmed by the film, a part documentary, part concert affair “hosted” by Jakob Dylan (of the Wallflowers, and son of Bob), who also performs in the film.

The story is fairly narrowly focused on the years 1965 through 1967, when folk knocked knees with rock ‘n’ roll to create a new sound. And many of the originators of that new pop music — nominally focused on the artsy and the poetic rather than silly love songs, as the typically unrestrained David Crosby points out — congregated in the woodsy Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles.

“Echo,” directed by newcomer Andrew Slater, is packed with vintage clips of performances by Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys, and recent interviews with members of some the above and others: Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash (but why not Neil Young?), Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, Jackson Browne, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton.

In what feels like the most emotional component of the film, there are several sequences with the late Florida-bred Tom Petty, interviewed at a vintage guitar store. “This is a folk-rock special,” Petty says, as he plays a few chiming, ringing chords on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker (feels unimaginable that Petty wouldn’t live to see the film’s release).

McGuinn, chatty as ever, effectively describes how the Beatles, who initially drew from skiffle and other Brit folk forms, played the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that inspired the Byrds’ electric folk-rock, which was initially dissed by folk audiences in New York City and on the West Coast. And, of course, as the stories go, the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” influenced the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” which in turn helped spark the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s.”

Crosby relates the story of how he was kicked out of the Byrds — his bad attitude, not the band’s decision to keep his risque song “Triad” off their album “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” he says — and Stills sheepishly recounts the time he jumped through a bathroom window to escape from the police when they raided a party at his house; other celebrity guests were arrested on marijuana charges and carted off to jail. Phillips talks about how her free-love lifestyle led husband John Phillips to fire her from the Mamas and the Papas.

The film also is spiked with fun performances of those old hits by a younger generation of artists, including Dylan, Cat Power, Norah Jones, Beck, Fiona Apple, and Regina Spektor. Thus we get new versions of “In My Room,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Questions,” “Go Where You Wanna Go” and “Never My Love” that are largely faithful to the originals, rather than reinventions. Some of the performances are live in the studio, and others are taken from a 2015 concert at LA’s Orpheum Theatre.

What’s not to like? Well, to be honest, as much fun as Slater’s film is, particularly for someone like me who clearly remembers at least 75% of the music (I was 4 to 6 years old during the film’s target years), “Echo in the Canyon” sometimes feels like it could double as a feature-length commercial for the soundtrack album.

Also, the multiple clips of “Model Shop,” a mostly forgotten 1969 film said to represent the SoCal vibe of the time, add little to the proceedings. I would have liked to have heard some of the artists’ opinions on why they think this particular body of music — made by a group of singers, songwriters and instrumentalists who practically lived in each other’s homes for a period of time — resonated so strongly with the public.

And there are no (or only minor) references to several major artists who were central or tangential to the scene, including Joni Mitchell, Carole King, the Eagles, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, and Jim Morrison.

Still, “Echo in the Canyon” works well as a broadly entertaining record of a long-vanished, highly creative artistic flourishing resulting in music that continues to resonate. Highly recommended for music lovers and pop-culture fans.

Aaron Neville, “My True Story” (CD review)


my true storyAaron Neville, “My True Story” (Blue Note)

Fans of the Neville Brothers, whose combination of sweet soul singing, deep R&B grooves, jazzy touches and Caribbean influences practically define the sound of New Orleans, doubtless have been feeling a bit blue lately.

Why? Angelic-voiced front man Aaron Neville has opted to officially exit the group and focus on his solo career. He, rather than the Neville Brothers, will play the closing set at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, while siblings Art, Charles and Cyril, rechristened “The Nevilles,” will cap the first weekend and, one guesses, resume touring — no doubt they’ll be lighter on the sweet harmonies if heavier on the funk.

It would hardly be fair to blame Aaron for making his move. The time is right. After all, the family band, with “Papa Funk” Art Neville now 75 and in less than robust health, largely has been inactive in recent years. What’s more, at 72 and having survived the loss of his wife Joel to lung cancer and relocation from New Orleans to the Nashville area and then New York City in recent years, he’s more than earned the right to go his own way.

“I put the Neville Brothers on hold for a while so I could do my solo thing,” Neville told Relix magazine. “We’ve been together 35 years and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know how long I’ve got to do what I want to do.’ I need to take that time now and dedicate it to me, and just try to do my stuff I’ve been wanting to do all my life.”

“My True Story” suggests that Neville’s instincts were, well, true. Initially conceived as a doo-wop project reflecting his formative experiences in the art of street-corner singing, the album expanded into something larger. It’s a broader tribute to the pre-rock era, with a dozen retro pop radio favorites originally recorded during a roughly 12-year period ending in 1964.

Don Was, once part of soul-fired pop act Was (Not Was) and now head of the revived Blue Note label, put together a dream team to back Neville. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards leads a band that includes Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, on keyboards; guitarist Greg Leisz (Sheryl Crow, Beck); bassist Tony Scherr (Norah Jones, Steven Bernstein); New Orleans drummer George G. Receli (James Brown, Bob Dylan); and journeyman saxophonist Lenny Pickett (“Saturday Night Live” band, Tower of Power).

The band, with Was and Richards co-producing live-in-the-studio sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, reportedly cut nearly two dozen tracks, all of which benefit from an appealing immediacy — the stuff sounds fresh.

For the first volume of what may become a series, Neville applies his rich, shivery, tenor vocals to material that still comes with a kick after all these years. He opens with the rollicking, starting-stopping “Money Honey,” a 1953 chart topper by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, this time featuring Richards’ slinky six-string stabs, and closes with a suitably light and altogether effervescent version of the much-recorded “Goodnight My Love” (Pleasant Dreams).”

In between are 10 other gems that ought to be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with pop music history.

Neville’s voice slides into the falsetto stratosphere on the title track, a 1961 single by the Jive Five that soared up the R&B and pop charts.; the tune, like many on the disc, is bolstered by a blue-chip backup crew of old-school singers, including the Jive Five’s Eugene Pitt, Bobby Jay of the Teenagers, and Dickie Harmon of the Del-Vikings.

There are plenty of other finger-snapping delights here, including “Ruby Ruby,” with its infectious call and response, and Pickett’s crunching bari sax; “Ting A Ling,” all romantic frustration and pounding piano and sax; a pleasantly streamlined “Be My Baby”; heartbreak ode “Tears On My Pillow”; a laidback, gently grooving “Under the Boardwalk”; a chug-a-lugging “Work With Me Annie,” with “Papa Funk” Art Neville on B3; and a medley stitching “This Magic Moment” to “True Love.”

Yes, these tunes inherently come with a strong whiff of nostalgia. Give Neville and Co. credit for reinvigorating these classics in a manner that’s often irresistible. Great concept, beautifully executed. Now, about that sequel.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Mojo” (CD review)

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who remain one of my favorite American rock bands, are back with new material. My review of the CD was published recently in Las Vegas City Life – Click here to read or see the full text below.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Mojo (Reprise)

That old appealing Heartbreakers sound is all there on Tom Petty’s first official studio recording with his reliable bandmates in eight years. It’s a durable blend of rootsy garage rock and Americana — Petty’s pleading, drawling vocals and jangly rhythm guitars, Mike Campbell’s bluesy leads, Benmont Tench’s oozing B3 organ and sturdy rhythm-section grooves. There’s a certain aural spaciousness at work, too, as listeners can hear every snap of the snare and crackle of a pick on the string of a guitar, each one of which is identified by year, make, model and, in some cases, color.

The Heartbreakers’ songwriting mojo, though, is another matter. Nothing on this set of music, recorded live without overdubs, smacks of instant classic.

Still, fans will warm to the jazzy sprawl of the Allmans-esque “First Flash of Freedom,” the gritty R&B bounce of “Running Man’s Bible” and “I Should Have Known It,” a surprisingly raw rocker with Led Zeppelin writ large all over. The closing “Good Enough” is a laidback-to-nervy ode to an American girl, a song equipped with some of the disc’s most vivid images. Throughout, Campbell, sounding newly invigorated, is given more space than ever to wail, and he does.

Pleasant, and occasionally engaging? Yes. A fully satisfying return to form? No.

The Boss at the (Super) Bowl: Over-Exposed?

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, although looking pretty long in the tooth, put on a reasonably impressive performance during the Super Bowl halftime show.bruce

Nice hearing solid versions  of oldies “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” “Born to Run” and “Glory Days,” along with the supposed-to-be inspirational title track from his new CD, Working on a Dream.

Credit goes to the NFL powers-that-be for choosing to showcase genuine American music royalty, rather than subjecting viewers to, say, 12 minutes of Kanye West or ‘Lil Wayne.

Still, it might be said that Mr. Integrity didn’t exactly stay true to his school of blue-collar rock. New York Times reviewer Jon Caramanica notes in a story published today that the Boss dropped verses from each of the four songs.

The Times, for the most part, liked the performance:

“Springsteen appeared in good cheer throughout, sliding across the stage on his knees (and into a camera) at the end of ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,’ and singing a collegial duet with the guitarist Steven Van Zandt on an ecstatic ‘Glory Days,’ ” Caramanica writes. ” ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ was warm and bluesy, with Springsteen building up energy for ‘Born to Run,’ which concluded with a spectacular burst of fireworks. For the measured ‘Working on a Dream,’ Springsteen was backed, in triangle formation, by Van Zandt and Patti Scialfa (also Springsteen’s wife), all of them flanked by a gospel choir, the set’s most heavy-handed moment.”

He also altered several lyric lines to reflect the show’ s setting. Said Todd Martens, in his item posted on the L.A. Times music blog: “Give Springsteen credit. He was clearly enjoying the stage, although he misfired by changing the lyrics to “Glory Days,” swapping out the dead-beat baseball player references for lame nods to football. But this was a Springsteen clearly caught up in the advertising-driven spectacle of the Super Bowl, and completely unashamed about all of it.”

Stephen Metcalf, writing in Slate, is a little more harsh: “Springsteen has evolved, in the 35 years I’ve adored him, from an acquired taste that almost no one acquired to America’s favorite karaoke act.”

It wasn’t coincidental, as even Springsteen has admitted, that the performance in part was a pitch for lots of new “product” – including CDs and concert tickets – sure to generate hundreds of millions when all is said and done.

The new album was released on the Tuesday before the performance, and advance-sales tickets for the forthcoming E Street tour went on sale, convenently enough, this morning. Also just released, as Jonathan Cohen points out today in his Billboard piece, is a new greatest-hits disc, available only through Wal-Mart.

And the payoff stands to be strikingly immediate for Springsteen, Martens writes: “In the days following his halftime performance last year, Tom Petty saw a 352% increase in digital track sales. The four songs performed today — the set ended with “Glory Days” (you were expecting something else?) — are surely rocketing up the iTunes sales chart as this quick reaction blog is being typed.”

I suppose all this is win-win, in the short term, for Springsteen.

But, as a fair weather fan — yes, I was entirely blown away by the E Street band’s 1985 performance at the Orange Bowl in Miami — I have to wonder a couple of things:

1)How’s all this working out for his artistic credibility?

and, related questions:

2)Isn’t Springsteen moving into the land of the over-exposed? Is he risking a backlash?

I mean, Bruce has been all over the media recently because of:

  • A good deal of critical slobbering, as well as prominent placement and cover stories, tied in with the release last week of his new album. Brian Hiatt, in his Rolling Stone review, praised the CD’s “romantic sweep and swaggering musical ambition.”
  • His countless pro-Obama efforts in the fall, culminating with his headlining of the pre-inauguration concert (with a gospel choir, natch, a device that’s way over-used), aired live Jan. 18 on HBO. His assumption, a risky one, was that all of his fans shared his political views. I’m guessing that some sort of concert DVD is in the works.
  • His Golden Globe, which he picked up on Jan. 12, for a song, “The Wrestler,” contributed to the Darren Aronofsky film of the same name.

When is a lot of Bruce, too much?

I’d say … about now.