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The Rockologist - by Glen Boyd

Music Review: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - 'CSNY 1974'

When Crosby Stills Nash & Young reunited in 1974 for the stadium juggernaut that would come to be historically known as the "Doom Tour," it was definitely a huge deal.

But several reports from the road at the time were an equally mixed bag. After a very promising start in Seattle - described by most who were there (including this 18 year old at- the-time observer), as an epic four-hour blowout - many later accounts from the tour focused as much on the clashing egos and all-around backstage excess, as they did on the music itself.

By the time of the final shows, much of this had spilled over to the performances themselves.

Besides those four famously harmonizing voices starting to show certain signs of road-wear, the tension between them - by this time, Neil Young was traveling separately from the others - began to manifest itself onstage as well. Some shows, despite production values (particularly in sound and lighting) which were state-of-the-art at the time, were also reportedly just plain sloppy.

Which coming 40 years after the fact, makes CSNY 1974 a particularly remarkable achievement.

Like the "Doom Tour' itself, a lot of what you get on this 3-CD boxed set (which also includes a bonus DVD featuring eight of the performances) is hit-and-miss to be sure. The harmonies are not always as perfectly in synch as you'd like, and occasionally the music meanders a bit too ("Wooden Ships").

But for the most part, this boxed set manages to bottle the magic, both of the time and of CSNY themselves, pretty well. The audio quality, overseen by Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein, is mostly immaculate, particularly considering both the vintage of these recordings, and the size of the venues they were sourced from.

The oft-reported onstage bickering from the tour, is replaced here with a sense of warm - albeit possibly manufactured - camaraderie between the four men. While there may be a legitimate suspicion of some revisionist history in the editing room going on here (they did have 40 years to work on this, after all), there is also no question that for purposes serving this project, it works, and in that sense, that it's also appropriate.

The really good news here though, is that some of these performances are also positively stunning. With each of these four individuals bringing fresh, new solo material to the table, CSNY had a wealth of great new material to choose from for their 1974 reunion tour. The Neil Young songs represented here sound particularly good, including rarities like "Pushed It Over The End" and "Love Art Blues."

But on the title track of his then current solo album On The Beach, Neil turns in the single greatest performance of the entire boxed set. He really leans into the vocal here, bringing a rare intensity and stretching his range far beyond what you hear on the studio version. He even improvs a few new lines, such as "that may mean nothing to you, but I was alone at the microphone." There is also a fiery, if regrettably brief, exchange of guitar fireworks between Young and Stephen Stills near the end.

If there is any legitimate complaint to be made here, it's that you don't hear more of that on CSNY 1974.

In addition to "On The Beach," you do get a few more tastes of those storied guitar shoot-outs on Young's "Revolution Blues" and "Ohio"; Stills' "Black Queen"; and Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair." Curiously, although you can find several lengthy jams from CSNY's 1974 tour simply by searching them out on YouTube, you'll find nothing here that matches the epic versions of "Carry On" and "Southern Man" heard on CSNY's first official live album, 1970's 4-Way Street.

As a pristine sounding, if likely somewhat sanitized document of the historic "Doom Tour" though, CSNY 1974 works much better than it has any right to. It also makes you wonder what might have been, if they'd only put the egos and the substances aside, and made that third studio album back then.

Sadly, we'll never know.

*Article first published at Blogcritics Magazine.

Music DVD Review: 'Super Duper Alice Cooper'

If much of the story told in the "doc-opera" Super Duper Alice Cooper seems all too familiar, that's because it is.

Longtime Alice Cooper fans will instantly recognize all of the key elements here - from his meteoric rise as the mid-seventies king of theatrical shock-rock with the original Alice Cooper band; through the ultimate breakup, solo career and subsequent bouts with addiction; to his inevitable comeback as the Godfather of 1980s glam-metal.

In many ways, the Alice Cooper story follows the same classic cycle of rock tragedy commonly seen in any random episode of VH1's Behind The Music series (including the one they did on Alice Cooper himself). But if the script is easily recognized, the filmmakers still do an admirable job of expanding on it with Super Duper Alice Cooper. Following its successful limited theatrical run this past spring, this questionably titled, but otherwise nicely done documentary gets a home video release next week on DVD and Blu-ray formats from Eagle Rock.

With well-respected documentaries on Rush and Iron Maiden already under their belts, Sam Dunn and Scot McFayden bring instant rock-cred to the project. Teaming here with Reginald Harkema (best known for his critically lauded film Monkey Warfare), they break the stereotypical rock-doc mold here by replacing the usual talking heads video interviews, with a more animated style of storytelling. Vintage, still photos of Alice and the other key players are brought to life here through the magic of motion graphics. It's a refreshing approach that mostly works, but is also occasionally confusing because you don't always know whose voice (mainly those of Alice, bandmates Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith, manager Shep Gordon and producer Bob Ezrin) is narrating the dialog off-camera.

The idea makes perfect sense on paper. As a device that helps explain the split-personality of Vincent Furnier and his Alice Cooper character, the 3-D illusion is very effective. But the introduction of clips from the 1920's silent film Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde into the mix - while driving home this strange, schizophrenic relationship - only further confuses the issue of not always knowing who is voicing what. If you are a fan who knows the story, you might get it. For newer converts, not so much.

As for the story itself, the filmmakers cover most of the bases here, and even manage to uncover a few new ones. Alice's struggle with alcoholism has been well covered in previous documentaries like Prime Cuts and the aforementioned Behind The Music episode. But a subsequent, less publicized bout with cocaine abuse gets equal attention here. One horrific clip from a 1980s TV interview with Tom Snyder during this period shows a frightfully emaciated Alice looking near death, from what appears to be the ravages of coke.

The film also incorporates commentary - which likewise takes place off-camera - from peers like Elton John, Dee Snider, Iggy Pop and John Lydon. This is mostly the sort of gushing praise you'd expect, although the use of the Elton John song "All The Young Girls Love Alice" adds a nice cinematic touch. Of all these rock figures, Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin comes across as being the closest to being an actual friend. Taupin even seems to express a genuine sense of guilt for the role he may have played in enabling Cooper's problems with substance abuse. Taupin, along with Cooper himself, was a one-time member of the infamous rock star drinking club The Hollywood Vampires. Membership in this boozy fraternity also included now deceased rock star pals like Keith Moon, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

Super Duper Alice Cooper also recounts the story of how Phoenix school pals Vincent Furnier and bassist Dennis Dunaway initially bonded over a common love of the Beatles and surrealist artist Salvador Dali, forming the Earwigs with schoolmate Glen Buxton to cover Beatles tunes at the high school talent show. The story takes a sadder turn much later as Dunaway recalls events leading to the breakup of the original band, including how he wasn't even invited to join Alice in an exclusive media event with Dali, the mutual idol who first brought them together in high school.

"I was happy for him," Dunaway says in the film. "But it was something we should have shared."

The evolution of the band continues through various incarnations like the Spiders and the Nazz (a name already taken by Todd Rundgren), before settling on the name Alice Cooper and getting discovered by Frank Zappa in Los Angeles. When the band's outrageous stage antics were less than well received in L.A. clubs, they left ("with our tails between our legs," as Dunaway puts it).

But they found a much more receptive audience in the Detroit scene, performing alongside that town's grittier acts like the Stooges and MC5. The regional buzz over the band's bizarre stage show, soon began to draw national attention after the infamous "chicken incident" at a Toronto rock festival. This was followed by the two year string of hit albums from 1971 to 1973 (Love It To Death, Killer, School's Out, Billion Dollar Babies), and sold-out tours that rocketed the original Alice Cooper Band to both super-stardom and infamy.

Most fans would agree that Alice Cooper's subsequent fall began when he broke up the original band and began to shed his outlaw persona for a more "legit" Hollywood image, complete with celebrity golf pals and TV appearances on Hollywood Squares and The Snoop Sisters. There were a handful of decent albums - most notably, his solo debut Welcome To My Nightmare. But nothing like that amazing run of hits with the original band.

Which leads to the one major complaint with Super Duper Alice Cooper:

As a documentary, it tells the Alice Cooper story well enough. The schism of how the Alice Cooper character consumed Vincent Furnier to the point of threatening to swallow him up completely, is given the necessary emphasis to make sense of how he nearly self-destructed. The story of his 1980s comeback, and how he eventually found himself again with the help of his faith and his family makes for very compelling viewing. Alice's present status as a revered icon whose trailblazing stage theatrics paved the way for everyone from Kiss and Motley Crue, to Gwar and Marilyn Manson, is equally rewarding to watch unfold onscreen.

But for all the attention given Alice's well-earned reputation as a visual innovator, the lack of focus on the music here is perplexing. Shock tactics and stage theatrics aside, you won't find a stronger, more remarkable set of songs from this period then the likes of "I'm Eighteen," "Be My Lover," "Under My Wheels," "Billion Dollar Babies," "School's Out," "Elected" and the rest. When live clips of "Halo Of Flies" and "School's Out" (from the Hollywood Bowl), and studio performances of "Ballad Of Dwight Fry" and "I'm Eighteen" are too briefly teased here, it just leaves you hungry for more.

Fortunately for hardcore fans, a deluxe version of Super Duper Alice Cooper includes a bonus DVD of a 1972 Montreal live performance, and a CD of a more recent 2009 show in Montreux. For the diehards, this is probably the way to go. For those less familiar, Super Duper Alice Cooper is a fine, if slightly flawed, retelling of one of rock and roll's most amazing stories.

*Article first published at Blogcritics Magazine

Music Preview: Nils Lofgren - 'Face The Music' (Box Set)

Over the course of an amazing career that is still going strong after five decades - just last week, he wrapped up two years on the road with the E Street Band - you'd think that Nils Lofgren doesn't have much left to prove.

Lofgren is of course, best known as Bruce Springsteen's "other" guitarist, ever since 1984's Born In The U.S.A. tour (his membership in the E Street Band just got him inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame this year), and prior to that, for his work with Neil Young on albums like After The Gold Rush, Tonight's The Night and Trans.

But in-between those high profile gigs, Lofgren has also quietly built an impressive body of work on his own. Turns out, he has also been even more prolific than many of us thought.

But we'll get to that in a minute.

As a solo artist, and on major-label albums like the now sadly, long out-of-print Cry Tough, Lofgren flew under the commercial radar for decades. Despite being recognized by critics as being just as formidable a singer/songwriter as he was a guitarist, the albums still didn't sell. The thing is, once the major labels lost interest, Lofgren kept right on going on his own. Adopting the now commonplace business model of selling his music through his own label (Cattle Track Road Records), and through his own website, Lofgren has released no less than ten solo albums since 1993, in addition to those he has put out dating back to the 1970s' and further.

Seriously, who knew?

A career-spanning, retrospective Nils Lofgren boxed set covering his work as a solo artist (and outside of his day job with Springsteen), has certainly been long-overdue. But even the most diehard fans may not be prepared for the sheer volume of material that makes up Concord's Face The Music (due in stores later this summer).

At ten discs and 169 tracks, this is nothing less than the motherlode. In addition to the seven discs worth of music history - from Lofgren's first band Grin (which he founded in 1968 at 17 years old), right up through 2011's self-released Old School - there are two discs of rare and unreleased material and a DVD of live performances.

A 136 page fully-illustrated book, edited by noted rock critic and historian Dave Marsh, also effectively functions as Lofgren's autobiography, written in his own words (including the war stories from the road with Bruce and Neil that one would expect). It also features Lofgren's track-by-track analysis and testimonials from many of the rock legends he has worked with, including Ringo Starr, Bono and Sting.

Although it may simply prove too much to digest for some (at least in a single sitting), those willing to dive into the wealth of material offered on Face The Music will be richly rewarded for taking the plunge. The songs included were all cherry-picked by Nils Lofgren himself, and despite what you might be inclined to think (and forgiven for thinking it), there are very few clunkers in the bunch.

The highlights here are way too numerous to mention, but a few can be singled out. The near-hits like "Cry Tough," "I Came To Dance," "Wonderland," "Back It Up," and "Incidentally...It's Over" are all here of course. There are the songwriting collaborations with Lou Reed ("A Fool Like Me"; "Driftin' Man"; "Life"), as well as the expected covers of songs from Springsteen ("Wreck On The Highway") and Neil Young ("Mr. Soul," "I Am A Child" and "World On A String," all drawn from Lofgren's 2008 Neil Young tribute album The Loner).

The rarities included here also yield a few gems. A touching eulogy to Clarence Clemons ("Miss You "C"), also name-checks Danny Federici and other fallen E Street Band comrades. A much earlier recording with Grin ("Beggar's Day"), that was also intended for inclusion on Crazy Horse's 1971 debut "solo album," similarly eulogizes original Horse guitarist Danny Whitten.

But what may be the biggest selling point of this boxed-set (at least for for those who think they already have it all), comes in the form of a previously unheard performance of Lofgren's cult hit "Keith, Don't Go," featuring backing vocals and piano from none other than Neil Young himself.

While a few of the more recently recorded rarities here - with titles like "Old School," "60 Is the New 18," and "Ain’t Too Many of Us Left" - may reveal a few things of their own, what Face The Music proves more than anything is that Nils Lofgren works just as well on his own, as he does with others.

First published at Blogcritics Magazine.

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