Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

Despite the varied features, album reviews and artist overviews, the day-to-day draw of the old site – which I launched 23 years ago this month – can be summed up with a name: Neil Young.

To give you an idea of what I mean: I created two mirrored versions of the same basic content: The Unofficial CSN/Y Pages and The Unofficial Neil Young Pages. By the time of the Y2K tour in 2000, the Neil pages were attracting 300+ unique visitors a day, the CSN/Y-branded pages about 50, and the rest of the site – en masse – maybe 25. As a result, my Neil pages – along with a few other NY-centric sites – were spotlighted in the short-lived Mojo Collectibles, which spelled my name wrong, and Record Collector.

(After the Y2K tour ended, I feel compelled to mention, the boom in overall visitors slowly dwindled to about a hundred a day.)

Mind you, folks weren’t visiting for my thorough album discography, which included useful links to CDnow.  They were seeking information on bootlegs. Neil bootlegs, to be precise. And with the help of a handful of fellow (and metaphoric) longhairs, I delivered: The site was home to 100+ bootleg reviews. We dove deep into the music, sound quality and other esoteric stuff, and advised folks on what to look for and what to ignore.

This review focuses on a set that collects Buffalo Springfield’s Monterey Pop performance and various sundries. It’s a good example of what we aimed to do: educate, ruminate and pontificate.

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“I’d like you to welcome now–with a great big, fat round of applause–my favorite group, the Buffalo Springfield…”

With that introduction from The Monkees’ Peter Tork, the Buffalo Springfield took to the stage at the now-legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival missing an important ingredient: Neil Young. The enigmatic guitarist had quit the band a month earlier, on the eve of the Springfield’s Tonight Show appearance. In his stead at Monterey sat replacement lead guitarist Doug Hastings and, on rhythm, none other than Byrd David Crosby.

In John Einarson’s For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield, bassist Bruce Palmer claimed that Crosby “stunk to high heaven.” Doug Hastings’ take was that, due to David’s deficiencies as a rhythm guitarist, “he would rush the tunes.” While agreeing that their performance was rather lacklustre, Richie Furay shifted the blame from the Byrd to the Springfield itself, and their lack of rehearsals sans the absent Neil Young. “We were struggling because we didn’t have the whole band, the family.”

Since the band’s performance was inexplicably left off of the mammoth Monterey Pop box set from a few years back, fans themselves haven’t been in a position to judge – oh, sure, there was a Monterey Pop bootleg series in the early ’90s, but finding it was just about impossible then. Besides, it only contained four of the songs from what was a six-song set. Do you really want to pay $50 for four songs? I thought not. Along comes Monterey, Mannix & Gold Star…a one-CD affair that comes close to collecting the entire Monterey performance, adds in the two songs the band performed on a truly weird appearance on Mannix, as well as recordings from the Gold Star Studios that date from early- to mid-1967.

Like most rock scholars, the Old Grey Cat has always considered the Springfield to be “Stephen’s band.” Stephen Stills was the glue that held the group together; and the Monterey set offers strong supporting evidence…forget what the band members themselves thought. Musicians – like most artists – are their own worst critics, after all. The band cooks, especially on “For What It’s Worth,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” and “Bluebird,” with the latter two joined at the hips in an unintentional – but fantastic – medley. Richie Furay also comes off very well with his two forays into the spotlight. To these trained ears, David Crosby more than holds his own.

Now for a few quibbles: “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and “Pretty Girl Why” are displaced in the lineup. In fact, they weren’t the concluding songs that night; they were the third and fourth numbers. But my main gripe? “Pretty Girl Why” cuts off midway through the first chorus!

The sound quality is good, if somewhat muffled.

The “studio out-take” of “Bluebird” is the nine-minute version found on the double-album best-of titled Buffalo Springfield released in the early ’70s, as well as on several bootlegs, most notably the cd version of CSNY’s Wooden Nickel. It’s Stills at his best, pure and simple.

What follows next is definitely not Stills at his best – though it’s not really his fault. In one of the most surreal moments in the history of the band, the Springfield guested on an episode of the TV series Mannix – yes, you read right. Mannix. In the episode (taped on August 14, 1967, but not aired until October), they provided the “atmospherics” in a bar … the only member of the band to be clearly seen on camera was Stephen, who was decked out in hippie regalia. The two songs they performed, “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” are featured complete with the dialogue from Mannix’s Mike Connors and the episode’s other actors. In other words: “Ugh!”

Perhaps the most startling factor of the appearance was that Neil had rejoined the band three days earlier. One assumes, then, that he also took part in this Mannix episode – Mannix but not The Tonight Show!? Go figure….

Now for the Gold Star material (much of which can also be found on the Stampede and Down to the Wire bootlegs): Forget what the accompanying liner notes claim; these songs were not the band’s “first attempt to make an album.” Rather, they’re demos and studio out-takes, primarily from early 1967 when the band was marking time. Sound quality is on par with Stampede (which is to say so-so), but the material itself is – for the most part – wonderful. Neil’s demo of “One More Sign,” for example, features a tender vocal. The two takes on “Down to the Wire” are great, too, with Stills’ lead vocal a delight to be heard. The only difference between this material and Stampede is that, here, “Come On” is replaced by an early run-through of “Mr. Soul.” (A-)

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As part of The Old Grey Cat’s ongoing 23rd anniversary shindig, here’s a favorite review/Q&A from 1999.

New England-based singer-songwriter Dana Pomfret came to my attention by way of her husband, guitarist Jeff Pevar (they since split up), who I interviewed in early 1999. I soon checked out her CD, Soul Collage, and was surprised at just how good it was. In fact, I liked it so much that I reached out and asked if she’d answer a few questions; she graciously consented. (Although the album is no longer in print, her 2004 Tracks compilation is available on the usual streaming services. It’s well worth a few dozen listens.)

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Soul Collage is the audio equivalent of a powerful, seductive drug: One listen and you’ll be hooked. Dana’s intoxicating vocals weave in and out of the catchy melodies, conjuring comparisons to such singers as Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Laura Nyro and Carly Simon, among others. Soon enough, however, those comparisons fade and you’re left with Dana, who takes you down funky and slow, alternately wooing and cooing you into her soul.

It was toward the end of my interview with CPR’s Jeff Pevar, I’d asked about his work with his wife, the singer-songwriter Dana Pomfret. I’d never heard of her and, as is my wont, admitted my ignorance. “You’d like her,” he assured me. Spoken like a proud husband? You bet. Yet, to be honest, I harbored my doubts. Blame it on my ever-increasing cynicical outlook on life. I mean, what was Jeff going to say? “She’s terrible”?

Imagine my surprise, then, when a few weeks later I plunked Soul Collage into my CD player. “In the ’50s they had the hula hoop” – Dana’s vocals immediately swoop in, and swoop you into the groove from the get-go. The first song, “Buttermilk Highway,” hitches a hook-laden ride into a then-now comparison of the ’50s and the present. A lot’s changed. A lot hasn’t: “Riding high on a buttermilk highway/Keepin’ tight on a jigger of gin/On our way to the pearly skyway/Pass the buck and I know I’m in…” Kids gunned down in Denver, hate crimes on the rise, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo…the list goes on. And rather than doing something about it, we tend to look the other way and pray the problems will disappear on their own. “Buttermilk Highway” makes you think – as well as hum its chorus while walking down the hallway at work.

The rest of the album’s just as potent as that opening track. “Girls In Their Cars” is a mid-tempo gem that comes across–to my ears, at least–as a marriage between early Rickie Lee Jones (minus her hipster lingo) and the Beach Boys. “Girls in their cars sing with the radio….” 

Accompanied by a deft backing track (featuring a nice mandolin solo plucked by the omni-present Jeff Pevar), it could very easily be a trip down a foggy nostalgia lane, but it’s not: “And girls on their feet/still raise up their kids alone.” There’s more going on here than the lush, to-die-for vocals, in other words. Rather than hitting the listeners over the head, Dana seduces us into the groove, into the stories she tells, and allows us to draw our own conclusions. Another such moment arises with the album’s gorgeous closing track, “Sally,” which draws us into prepubescent innocence, painting a picture of kids playing kick-the-can.  “I’ve been waiting on my change,” she sings. “Sitting here waiting for my change/thinking I would shed my skin/come back new and strange.” But innocence isn’t as innocent as we might like to think: “I see her Dad’s belt buckle out/He ‘really means it this time’/so banged up – she never cried.” 

That’s not to say Soul Collage is just about “important” issues. To the contrary, it’s about life large and small–the world around us as well as the world within. For every “Buttermilk Highway” there’s “Trick’s on You”: “When my Grandma calls out to me/I curl up on her breast/she says ‘don’t sweat the b.s. baby and just forget about the rest.'”

Like many of the albums – CPR’s, Stacey Earle’s – reviewed within these pages, this one stands head-and-shoulders above the “product” the major labels and today’s static radio stations routinely push at consumers. As I stated above, I approached this disc with some trepidation–and wound up a convert.

My (Email) Q&A with Dana:

You dedicate the album to Sammie Coleman. Who is she?

Sammie Coleman was a brilliant, poetic, fierce, funny woman. Born and raised in rural Georgia, she came North to try and make a better living for herself after graduating high school. When we moved to NYC, mom went back to school to get her teaching degre–and Sammie came to take care of my little brother and me, Tuesdays and Thursdays. She was my “second mom”–as she put it. We baked, played, danced and sang. Early on, she was one of the people who gave me genuine, unconditional support and love–and she encouraged me to become a singer. “Don’t be a doubtin’ Thomas” and “take what you got and get what you want” were two of her favorite expressions. She taught me to follow my heart and never give up. Sadly, she died in Feb of  ’98, so I dedicated the CD to her…

Looking back at when you recorded Soul Collage, is there any moment that crystallizes the process? In other words, what’s the first thing you think of?

Heh…Here are a few:

  • Doing vocal takes in between plane landings (we’re in a bucolic spot – but close to the airport).
  • Living with ALL the musicians in our little cabin while we recorded the basic tracks nearby at Jim Chapdelaine’s studio – who worked long hours with his screaming cockatiel Dizzy perched on his shoulder.
  • Taking the drummer, Franck Ridacker–who’d come all the way from Paris to record–on 
  • a 2 a.m. tromp through the woods, where we got lost. All he could say was, “where is my bed?”

Where’d the title come from?

I’d written a little poem with that title – just a word list, really. I thought it applied to the record; the cover painting ended up being a collage, the music is an amalgam of styles, all music comes from the soul, and a wonderful mix of people came together (from Paris, NY, CT, past & present) to help make it happen. My whole feeling about life-on-the-planet is that it’s a kind of moving collage – everything all-at-once: choose your vision.

Who are your influences? I hear Laura Nyro in there…

It’s funny – because I never had any of LN’s records – but I heard her on the radio and liked her a lot. My folks were into wonderful jazz – Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, etc. – and classical (courtesy of my dad). And incredible folk stuff – everyone from Odetta to Pete Seeger to Woodie Guthrie to the Weavers (courtesy of my mom). My own picks were Marvin Gaye – his hits as well as the more obscure stuff – the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone, CSNY, The Persuasions, The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha, Jethro Tull, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Sweet Honey in the Rock. ETC! – everything I could get my hands on and especially music that moved and harmonized. Couldn’t get enough.

What comes first – the words or the melody?

It depends on the day, the minute, the mood. Sometimes it’ll be a bass line, sometimes a rhythm, sometimes (and I kiss the floor when this happens) whole songs just seem to spontaneously write themselves. I carry a tape recorder everywhere because inspiration always hits in the weirdest places.

For “Tricks on You,” you credit the novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer… 

The book is a big, moving picture about the underbelly of the ‘wild west’. It’s poetry, pornography, love, tragedy, humor. An inspired yarn with a lot of soul and some incredible images.

Crosby & Nash…how’d their contributions come about? Martin Sexton?

I met David & Graham through Jeff – and eventually they each got copies of my first disc. Graham knew I was recording a second CD, and emailed Jeff that he could “sing his ass off” for me if I wanted. WOW! I went through the ceiling, then emailed David and asked if he’d do it as well. He agreed – they are both incredibly generous spirits – and we did the back-ups to “Permanent Bitter Pill” and “Underground World” at Graham’s studio in Los Angeles. It was a lovely rush to work with them; I learned so much about harmony from listening to their records – and there we were doing “aaahhhhhs” together!

And Sexton… I saw Sexton sing his ass off one night at a little coffee shop upstate, so I called him up and asked him to sing on the disc. I was especially interested in his trumpet impersonation. He came down to the cabin with his daughter and just nailed it.

In celebration of the 23rd anniversary of The Old Grey Cat (sans the hiatus of about seven – or was it eight? – years), here’s a post from the original website. Just as I do on this blog at year’s end, I recapped one aspect of 1998 once December rolled around…

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DECEMBER 14th– This time of year, magazines, newspapers and the broadcast/cable networks look back at the year that was. And why not? It’s a cheap, easy way to fill space. Of course, few new insights are proffered; instead, we’re served clipped headlines and predictable analysis. For instance, 1998 is already being called “The Year of Monica.”

Uh, excuse me? As far as I’m concerned, 1998 was “The Year of Lucinda.”

Aside from being an instant classic, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was the best album of the year, hands down. In years to come, folks will write about it with the same reverence that they share for such albums as Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel or the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a genre-busting effort that is more than the sum of its parts. In a live setting, backed by a powerhouse band featuring the likes of guitar slinger Kenny Vaughn and vocalist extraordinaire Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda offered a stew of sublime, superb and incredible songs, tasty morsels all.

1) Lucinda Williams – June 26th – Philly/TLA – The circumstances were suspect, at best. Due to thunderstorms, Lucinda’s plane was detoured to NYC; she took a train south, and didn’t hit the stage until 10:30 p.m. Add to that the fact that she’d had two hours sleep the night before…but, to quote Stephen Stills, it’s “No matter. No distance. It’s the ride.” And what a ride this night was! She and her band were right in time; and we, the audience, were left moaning at the ceiling… especially on the extended guitar jam that brought bliss to “Joy.”

2) Steve Earle & the Dukes – Feb. 7th – Philly/TLA – The term “ragged glory” must have been invented to describe a Steve Earle show. After opening with the timely “Christmas in Washington,” Steve led the audience on a two-hour, 20-minute tour of society’s “other side”… “Taneytown,” “Copperhead Road” and Fort Worth were just a few of the stops. Others: “Guitar Town,” New York City and … the soul. This was a night of glorious, guts-first music that rocked the soul even as it connected with the intellect. I was lucky enough to see Steve twice this year, four months apart. The main difference? The band. Here, he was buttressed by Buddy Miller on guitar and Brady Blades on drums (half of Spyboy, in other words). Small wonder that, after Steve and the Dukes left the stage, the Philly crowd took up the chorus of the night’s closing song, “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” and brought him back for more.

3) CPR – July 1st – Philly/TLA – A sparsely attended show, but you’d never know it from the way Crosby, Pevar and Raymond played. Same goes for the magical opening act, Anastasia & John. An incredible, magical night. CPR remind me of Steely Dan, but minus (what to me is) the Dan’s smarminess. Crosby was in exc. voice, and the new songs are among his strongest. That’s not to say the old songs weren’t appreciated… don’t pass on seeing CPR, if given the chance. These guys rock (and Pevar’s guitar playing blows the mind).

4) Maria McKee – Dec. 6th – Philly/Tin Angel – This year, the Absolutely Sweet Maria undertook a brief tour billed as “A Close Encounter with …” At the Tin Angel, those words are oh-so-true. It’s a small venue, fitting no more than 125. Despite suffering from a cold and “airplane throat,” Maria took hold of the audience for a good 75 minutes… yeah, 75 minutes. Too short, to say the least, yet it was a riveting show. Suffice it to say, she is not collecting dust. She opened with “Life is Sweet,” played a hand-full of new songs and just a few of her older classics. “Panic Beach,” for example, tho’ these ears missed “Breathe.” The night’s highlight: An intense “I’m Not Listening.”

5) Steve Earle – July 15th – Philly/TLA – Minus Buddy Miller and Brady Blades, but still damn good. “Won’t get far on 37 dollars and a Jap guitar… WANNA BET!” See him, buy his albums, help him pay off that 16,000 pound phone bill he racked up in London last year… I could go on, but why?

This month marks not one, but two noteworthy anniversaries within my online life: In February 1997, Diane and I launched the original Old Grey Cat website on GeoCities; and 15 years later, in February 2012, I joined the blogosphere via the Hatboro-Horsham Patch. I’ll save the latter for later this month, and focus on the former today and next weekend. 

Diane and I first traveled the electronic highway in the dirt-road days of 1991 on our IBM clone, prowling Prodigy’s message boards and trading tapes, making acquaintances, making friends. It was fun, if frustrating, due to the sometimes byzantine business practices Prodigy employed, such as charging per message and, later, by the hour. One could also access the World Wide Web, as it was known, but only through the Prodigy interface – which wasn’t that good. Then, sometime in the fall of 1996, offline friends who’d just made the jump to an ISP and Netscape Navigator introduced us to the Web proper.

Our minds were blown.

Within a few months, we shed Prodigy in favor of Erol’s Internet – and staked a claim on the Web thanks to GeoCities, where we “homesteaded” in the Towers section of the SunsetStrip subdivision. (For those unfamiliar with GeoCities, it was the WordPress.com of its day, providing free server space and a URL in exchange for modest advertisements on each page. And, just like WordPress, it provided an option to upgrade to a unique URL and no ads.)

For that first attempt at a website, I used Microsoft Publisher, a consumer-facing desktop-publishing program that included an option to convert pages into HTML files. We wrote a few reviews, which I then copied over to Publisher, and uploaded everything to the Web. I named the end result The Old Grey Cat – after our old grey cat. (His name was Smokey; he lived on the second floor.)

I also included this statement of purpose: “The aim of The Old Grey Cat is to bring back something that’s been missing from rock criticism in recent years: Passion. Back when the genre was born in the ’60s (via Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone), when you read a review of an album you were generally reading more than just a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” critique of the music. The writers went one step further and took you inside the music with their own words, reflecting the rhythms, melodies and themes so that the readers could/would get an approximation of what, say, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was about.”

That initial design, I should add, wasn’t very good: Microsoft was all about bucking HTML standards, as it wanted the Web for itself. Which is to say, the site looked as intended when viewed with Internet Explorer, but like a bazooka had made mischief with the layout when Netscape Navigator was used. I switched to Microsoft FrontPage, which did adhere to HTML standards, soon thereafter.

Unfortunately, my digital archives don’t include the original incarnation; I fear it’s been lost to time. (The above images are from sometime in ’99.) But, I did come across this on a backup CDR:

Yep, a page from the first year in which we celebrated all things High Fidelity – Nick Hornby’s novel, that is, not the movie (which wouldn’t hit the theaters for a few more years). Diane wrote the intro.

These were our Top 5 Albums of All Time:

These were our Top 5 Singer/Songwriters of All Time:

And, because the original aim was to be about more than “just” music, these were our Top 5 Novels of All Time (FGS is one of the offline friends who introduced us to the Web):

One present-day observation about the lists: I’ve become much less absolute when it comes to who or what ranks where in the pantheon that is popular music. By and large, it’s all good – and, as Neil Young famously says, “all one song.”

Another observation: Bruce Springsteen would place much higher on both our lists – he’d top Diane’s and place beneath Neil on mine (if I still made such lists, that is). Back then, we’d yet to recover from (and forgive him for) the Human Touch/Lucky Town debacle, not to mention ditching the E Street Band.