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The Rockologist - by Glen Boyd

Queen Rocked Once. Yes, "That" Queen

September 7th 2014 07:43
Music DVD Review: Queen - 'Live At The Rainbow '74'

Although they are historically more associated with the pomp of songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the flamboyant fabulousness of their late lead singer, at one time Queen were one of the more kick-ass bands in rock and roll.

Yes, “that” Queen.

The complex, intricately synched harmonies that became their eventual calling card, anchored by Freddie Mercury’s pitch-perfect voice, were still very much in evidence on the early albums Queen, Queen II, and Sheer Heart Attack.

But they were matched by a primal, ferocious style of slightly proggy, but undeniably hard rock that nearly disappeared altogether by their fourth album, the breakthrough megahit A Night At The Opera, and all else that followed. If those early records created a sense that the wheels could come flying off the wagon at any moment, once that train left the station it was gone for good.

Drummer Roger Taylor and criminally underrated bassist John Deacon laid down the hammer that powered this engine, while Brian May’s thunderous riffage mowed through the din like a buzzsaw. May’s playing remained brilliant throughout the band’s latter, more commercially successful years even as Freddie Mercury proceeded in getting his full Liberace on. But it became much more measured in short, staccato blasts of power, than the way he used to simply let rip on Queen’s rawer, early records.

Sadly, in particular for those of us who remember and miss them most, this seems to be the Queen that history has largely forgotten.

Recently unearthed and restored to perfection by the fine folks at Eagle Rock, Live At The Rainbow ’74 seeks to rectify this by making one of Queen’s most legendary performances available at long last commercially. Although Queen had recorded their March 1974 performance at London’s Rainbow for a proposed live album (four of the songs from that show are included here as DVD extras), they were a much more formidable live band by the time they returned later that same year for the sold-out November show that comprises most of what is seen and heard here.

When the footage is viewed back-to-back, the differences between the band who had just come off a tour opening for Mott The Hoople in March, and the triumphant headliners on the verge of much bigger things by November are palpable. Playing with the same high level of intensity they had just months before, but with the new found confidence and polish that comes when you know that destiny has just come calling, Queen’s performance on this set is literally off the charts.

Even more astonishing though, is the way that Queen recreate the dense layers of sound heard on those first three albums in a live setting.

Long before “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the most difficult to sing karaoke song of all time, and “We Will Rock You” became the anthem of choice at many a professional sports stadium, Queen’s trademark was this thickly layered wall of sound. This same aural density was made even more inexplicably impossible for the fact that it was recorded by the traditional rock and roll lineup of just four guys with guitars, drums and voices.

Although they could no longer make the same claim with some of their later records, the early Queen album covers always proudly boasted that the music heard within contained “No Synths!” Appropriately, they are now, decades later, able to repeat that braggadocios statement with Live At The Rainbow ’74.

Not surprisingly, they do.

As a document of its time, Queen’s Live At The Rainbow ’74 is a long overdue historical reminder of just how much these guys used to rock prior to adopting the more pompous, grandiose, and some would argue, pretentious sound that made them jet-setting zillionaire rock stars. Not that some of Queen’s early music didn’t have its own pretentious lapses into ogres, faeries and assorted other manner of prog-rock lyrical silliness.

They just rocked so hard that it could be overlooked.

But as a performance, this set is nothing short of stunning. Hearing these guys rip through the early classics like “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Ogre Battle,” “March of the Black Queen” and the rest, it’s hard to fathom that this is even the same band later responsible for all those campy, showy tunes about bicycles and fat bottomed girls.

I suppose a lot of that can be blamed on Freddie Mercury.

But he sounds nothing short of magnificent here, particularly on songs like “Father To Son” where his range soars high above the glorious racket being created all around him in ways that would swallow other, less gifted singers whole. With barely enough time to catch his breath, Freddie then rips through the borderline speed-punk of “Stone Cold Crazy.” It’s an undeniable early display of the star power that would manifest itself so much more fully a few short years down the road.

Available in a variety of formats including Audio CD, DVD and Blu-ray, anything that captures both the visual and audio elements of the show is the way to go here. But however you choose to get this, just make sure that you do get it.

You will then discover for yourself one of the best kept secrets in rock and roll: Queen – yes, “that” Queen – were once a kick-ass rock band. The evidence is right here.

*Article first published at Blogcritics.

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

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