Sunday, September 18, 2005

DVD/CD Review: Dickey Betts and Great Southern - Back Where It All Begins—Live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

On September 29, 2004, Dickey Betts and his band Great Southern entertained a packed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. September 20, 2005, will mark the first time a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has released a recording created at the hall when Eagle Rock Entertainment releases this concert on DVD with a bonus CD as Back Where It All Begins—Live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Betts, who was inducted into the hall in 1995 as a member of the Allman Brothers Band, has been a repeat visitor to the hall since his induction and now has earned the honor of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame first.

“Back Where It All Begins” is not only the name of a 1994 Betts-penned Allman Brothers Band song (and one of the songs in this collection), it’s also a nod to the concert’s location, Cleveland, Ohio, the purported birthplace of rock and roll (though that’s Cleveland’s claim, not mine).

The DVD opens with Dickey Betts and members of the current Great Southern lineup talking about, among other things, how great it is to be a member of the band and playing at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Betts obviously chose this band because of their skills over their reputations. I was only familiar with former Allman Brothers guitarist “Dangerous” Dan Toler, who looks and sounds very comfortable on stage with Betts.

The first track on the DVD is Allman Brothers Band classic “Statesboro Blues,” which is one of the few on the DVD/CD that Betts didn’t write. For the most part, the concert is made up of classic Allman tunes, many of which he also provided vocals. But time can be cruel on a rocker’s voice, and Betts’ vocals barely resemble what was once a smooth and sweet tenor tone. Betts thankfully shares singing duty with keyboardist Michael Kach, who, not coincidently, sounds like Gregg Allman in his prime.

In all, the DVD has 12 tracks (with a 152-minute run time) and 2 bonus tracks (for a total of 14 songs) contained in the above average Special Features section.

In addition to the two bonus tunes, the Special Features section contains a great radio interview for WCPN in Cleveland (videotaped so you don’t have to look at a black screen) in which Betts cites The Grateful Dead as a major influence on the Allmans and talks about Duane Allman and the effect his death had on the band.

The Special Features section also contains a feature called “Dickey on,” which is actually an interview (conducted at the hall) with Betts broken into 13 topics. Discussed topics include Dickey taking about his first gig, discussions about some of the more popular Betts-penned classics Dickey wrote while with the Allmans, and what Dickey thinks of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The accompanying CD includes five tracks, but make no mistake, this is no EP. This is a full length CD clocking in at a little over 60 minutes. It includes sound check versions of “Blue Sky,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Southbound.” The CD versions of “Southbound” and “Blue Sky” are identical to the ones buried in the DVD’s Special Features section, just without the video. The CD also contains a Dickey Betts Band track called “Donna Maria” (erroneously listed as “Donna Marie” on the DVD packaging), which actually reminds me of every Santana song recorded in the last 10 years, but with better guitar work. Finally, an alternate version of “Jessica” in all its 17-minute glory closes the album.

The DVD has three audio channel options (a nice feature for a live performance video): two-channel stereo (standard), Dolby Surround 5.1 (now were getting somewhere), and DTS (that’s what I’m talking about!). While I was somewhat disappointed with the 5.1 mix, the DTS mix is great, especially when played loudly (is there any other way?). If you have a DTS receiver, you’ll have no use for the 5.1 mix. If not, I recommend going with the two-channel stereo mix, even if you are set up for surround sound.

Though not as technically sharp as he was back in the day, Betts is still a helluva player. He takes chances with his instrument that most guys aren’t willing to take. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But it certainly solidifies his place in rock as one of the “guitarists/songwriters who matter.”

I’m finding myself watching and listening to Back Where It All Begins over and over. And each time I notice things I hadn’t before. This is a great collection to just sit down and “actively” listen to.

If you are curious about Betts, the origins of the jam band sound, or guitar virtuosity, I would suggest starting with some early Allmans like Idlewild South, At Fillmore East, or Eat a Peach. If you’ve been there and done that, I think you’ll be pleased with these new versions of many of the Allman Brothers Band’s biggest hits. If you are already a huge Dickey Betts fan or just a bonafide guitar freak, you need this.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Review: Switchfoot - Nothing is Sound

“And the award for the best rock band named after a surfing move goes to…Switchfoot!”

San Diego’s modern rock quintet Switchfoot, indeed named after a surfing move (an antiquated one at that) is back with Nothing is Sound, their latest release for Columbia Records and the follow-up to 2003’s double-platinum The Beautiful Letdown. It was with The Beautiful Letdown where the band really broke through into mainstream rock glory. So, after two years and two top-five radio hits, what can fans and critics expect from the new effort?

To give you a general idea of how Switchfoot sees it, vocalist/guitarist Jon Foreman says the new album “…might be the most important thing we’ve ever done together.”

Remember that this is a band that is trying to build on a reputation of a “great band” that and not just a “great Christian band.” Switchfoot wants the rest of the world to know what Christian rock fans have known since 1999’s New Way to be Human—these guys are really good.

My first impression from this album is how different the production quality is from The Beautiful Letdown. While the former was certainly well produced, Switchfoot, with help from John Fields, has created a beautifully lush and dense sound, at the same time not interfering with the effectiveness of the songs themselves.

A road warrior band, most of Nothing is Sound was written and recorded while the band was touring in support of The Beautiful Letdown. Because of this, the band was able to test the songs out on live audiences and tweak them between shows instead of spending a lot of time in the studio doing the same thing, but without any fan feedback.

Another thing that immediately hit me is that the songs are full of honest and thought-provoking lyrics – questioning lyrics, which is actually typical for a Switchfoot record. But Foreman and company must have lived quite a lot of life since the last record because lyrically this record blows away The Beautiful Letdown. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s a little bit of Bono in Jon Foreman.

Musically, I’d have to say that this album, though it doesn’t surpass The Beautiful Letdown, certainly matches it with its smart melodies and catchy hooks and riffs. The tunes have that familiar ring to them without sounding like knock-offs of songs from your dad’s record collection.

Here’s a quick look at some of the tracks I think deserve some extra attention:
  • “Happy is a Yuppie Word” – The title was attributed to an answer Bob Dylan gave to a journalist who asked him if he was happy. This is probably my favorite song on the album for musical and various personal reasons too uninteresting to get into here. But if I may get Biblical for a moment, this song is based on Ecclesiastes, one of the more confusing books of the Bible. I think that one might even say that the whole album deals with themes explored in Ecclesiastes.

  • “The Blues” – Man, this is a heavy song. So what will it be like when the world ends?

  • “The Setting Sun” – Probably the record’s most pop-friendly song (yes, even more so than “Stars”). This should prove to be the tune that wins the band even more fans.

  • “Golden” – I really like this track for its acoustic rhythm guitar and the catchy chorus, though I’m not really sure what it’s about yet.

  • “Stars” – I didn’t include this song in my first draft, but upon my ninth listen to the album, I’ve decided that it’s most representative of the sound Switchfoot is known for. Well, that and I can’t get it out of my head.

There’s no need to convince old-school Switchfoot fans to buy the album. You won’t be disappointed. But if you’re a modern rock fan who likes music that sounds like it took effort to create, I recommend you give Switchfoot a chance.

Nothing is Sound will be released on September 13, 2005, and the band will kick off their new tour in Ventura, CA on October 17. For detailed tour information, see Switchfoot on the web.

Please note that this review is for the CD release. There is also a DualDisc version that contains a 5.1 channel Surround Sound mix of the album and behind-the-scenes video footage of the band on the road and in the studio.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Review: Public Enemy - Power to the People and the Beats, Public Enemy's Greatest Hits

Public Enemy, arguably the greatest hip-hop group of all time, has released Power to the People and the Beats - Public Enemy's Greatest Hits, an 18-track best-of compilation that reminds us how much the majority of today’s hip-hop sucks.

Public Enemy was and still is the benchmark by which all other hip-hop artists are measured. Always a lightning rod for controversy (though it can be argued that they brought this on themselves), PE perfected the political rap/house style, incorporating intelligent and thought-provoking lyrics with infectious beats and first-rate mixing and production. Nobody has even come close to duplicating what PE did musically.

PE was reportedly mentioned in an FBI report to Congress entitled "Rap Music and Its Effects on National Security."

The strength of PE’s catalog lies in its first four albums; and fortunately, that’s what this collection features, with three additional tracks coming from later CDs. Each PE album reflected a particular time and place. Because so much of the music is political and social, the topics of the day played a big part in each album’s subject matter. This, in part, gave each record a cohesive feel. Additionally, PE sometimes incorporated various between-song “shorts” that were comprised of short musical interludes or spoken-word samples from famed speeches. These elements combined to encourage fans to listen from beginning to end instead of jumping from track to track. Unfortunately for compilations such as this, you can’t really duplicate the flow of a single studio album, much less a PE studio album.

But as far as compilations go, this one flows smoothly, with not much of an indication that its music was recorded in an 11-year span. Actually, the stuff from Yo! Bum Rush the Show sounds more like LL Cool J than the PE you know and love.

Public Enemy’s legacy in suburban America is twofold: a lot of kids went out and read about the civil rights leaders they heard referenced in PE’s lyrics, and white kids everywhere told each other daily to “fight the power.”

This is not PE’s first foray into greatest hits compilation-dom. There are at least two other legitimate collections, with the only notable one being 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of Public Enemy. And though that collection includes two of my favorite PE tracks that were omitted here (the Anthrax version of "Bring tha Noize" and the classic "Nighttrain"), it pales in comparison to this album in every other way.

As I stated in the introduction, this collection has 18 tracks, with no throwaways. It is the most definitive PE compilation available. My personal favorites from this CD include "You're Gonna Get Yours," "Don't Believe the Hype," "Brothers Gonna Work it Out," "Can't Truss It" and "By the Time I Get to Arizona." Yes, I know I left out some of the obvious ones. I like those, too. I just like these more.

PE was the Hootie and the Blowfish of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. You have never seen so many inebriated college kids jumping around to “911 is a Joke.”

Keep in mind that there are two versions of this album, the first carrying a parental advisory label on its cover, and a second “clean” version sans the foul language, which is fairly minimal to begin with. PE has never been a big player in the f-bomb dropping department.