CD / DVD Reviews



The Who
At Kilburn, 1977
Image Entertainment

First off, let's ignore the introductions. If you are a fan of The Who, you must own this DVD set or your collection is incomplete. After being off the road for a year, The Who threw together a last minute show in December 1977 in order to gain movie quality footage for their in production The Kids Are Alright biopic. When the band got there, they were rusty, they were agitated but they were completely themselves and it was all filmed gloriously with 6 movie cameras (which was unheard of at the time) and amazing sound quality.

At this point in time, Keith Moon was terribly out of shape and heading for the end. During this show, he has a hard time keeping up in quite a few places. The instigator known as Pete Townshend doesn't have any sympathy and lashes out verbally and in his actions. Pete is in a mood at this show, always ahead of the beat, seeming pissed off and ready to steamroll anyone in his vicinity. The intensity of his performance alone is something to behold. The energy is violent and non-stop. Between the reckless insanity of Pete Townshend and the sluggish attempts to keep up by Moon, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle just to try to find a happy medium.

For the most part, it works brilliantly. John Entwistle's “My Wife” takes on a particularly powerful upgrade from the Who's Next edition of the song while “Baba O'Riley” and “Won't Get Fooled Again” (despite a false start from Moon) are everything you'd want in arena rock legends. From there, things get sketchy. “Dreaming From The Waist” and “Pinball Wizard” both suffer from rusty gaffes so bad that Pete Townshend declares this performance “not worth filming” and encourages the cameramen to go home. At one point, he even becomes threatening with the audience, daring hecklers to try and take his guitar off of him.

To be truthful, seeing a band of this stature go through embarrassment and on stage disappointment is part of what makes this show so important to see for the true fans. I was entranced to see Townshend get more and more agitated with the band's performance. After “Pinball Wizard” nearly breaks down, Towshend tries to abandon the Tommy portion of the show. This leads to Moon threatening (playfully) to walk unless they do the one song that he sings, “Tommy's Holiday Camp”. The band can't find the key to the tune and wind up doing it impossibly high for Moon to sing. Daltrey can't help laughing, and you'll find it hard not to join in when you see the panicked look on Moon's face as he tries to hit the notes.

For the rest of the show, Pete Townshend is particularly hard on Moon, pushing him further and further into challenging territory. The final push from Townshend is during an extended jam in an otherwise ferocious “My Generation” where Pete takes the band into a sloppy attempt at (the unreleased-at-the-time) “Who Are You”. Keith is visibly uncomfortable but trying to keep up. He barely hangs on before Townshend abandons it, soon winding up the gig with “Won't Get Fooled Again”.

The rumor is that after this show, Pete swore he wouldn't tour with The Who again. He surely didn't realize how prophetic his words would be. This gig, after all, turned out to be the final full concert of Keith Moon's short life. For music geeks, The Who At Kilburn 1977 is a fascinating document of a band trying to recapture, reclaim and reinvent themselves all at once. It is a fitting tribute to the completely on-the-edge mentality of perhaps the greatest live rock and roll band of all time and it is the bittersweet final act for the original, legendary lineup of The Who.

If the At Kilburn disc is not enough, a “bonus disc” has also been included in this set. From a musical standpoint, it outshines At Kilburn . Filmed (with minimal lighting and cameras) at London Coliseum in 1969, this disc includes the first recorded performance of Tommy in its entirety. For some inexplicable and frustrating reason, the Tommy portion of the Tommy concert has been, for the most part, relegated to a bonus feature on the bonus disc (with a heavily edited version of the show as the main feature). Still, seeing the band rip through “Young Man Blues”, “Heaven And Hell”, “A Quick One (While He's Away)” and of course, the 19-song Tommy set leaves that a minor quibble on a major DVD set for every fan of rock and roll.

Chris McKay /


Rocket Man – Number Ones
Universal Records

Is it possible to put out a “greatest hits” by Elton John that includes every song a fan would want to hear? Of course not. But this new compilation comes as close as one can get and is the best single disc collection that I've come across. Almost all of the must-haves from the ‘70s heyday are here (“Crocodile Rock”, “Your Song”, “Bennie And The Jets”, “Philadelphia Freedom”, “Daniel”, “Rocket Man”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Candle In The Wind” and on and on) as are a few others from the tail end of his hit single days in the early ‘90s. Every song is one that you can sing along to and relive your younger days. Phenomenal melodies, quirky characters and strong memories fill every track. In my opinion, the only misstep was in placing Elton's cover of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” in a slot that could've been filled by “Levon”. If you're a fan of the ‘80s Elton, you will be disappointed that there's no “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”, “I'm Still Standing” or “I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues”. Still, when you're humming along with “Don't Go Breaking My Heart” or shouting along with “Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting”, all else must be forgiven.

Chris McKay /


At San Quentin
Columbia Legacy


This is what it's all about. Columbia Records has made a career out of re-releasing historic albums and this one is a testament to why they should never, ever stop.

For the first time since this legendary concert occurred 37 years ago, the entire show is available in pristine, remastered audio. Hearing the vintage, now classic takes of “A Boy Named Sue” (finally in all of its non-bleeped glory) along side the outtakes (as they happened) puts the show in a whole new light. From Johnny's off-the-cuff comments warning a camera man not to bend over to allusions of his own drug usage; this is a raw, intense recording that hasn't been heard outside of San Quentin until this definitive version. Along side Johnny for this trip were The Statler Brothers, The Carter Family and Carl Perkins. Each of them adds another dimension to this stellar evening and Carl Perkins nearly even upstages the Man In Black every time he straps on his guitar. Perkins had soul and it's on fine display here. But Cash is the clearly the star of the show and it's his undeniable charisma that is captured in every second. Even when he's not on stage, his presence seems to loom over everything and everyone else!

To make this package even better, Columbia has thrown in a DVD of the British documentary of the concert. Far too raw for American broadcast in 1969, this film doubles as an exploration into the prison, its keepers and its inhabitants. One particularly chilling segment finds a man on death row explaining what got him there and how he expects his death sentence to be carried out. Cash's rendition of “Peace In The Valley” sets the tone as the warden then tells of his experiences with execution. It's clear that the British filmmakers intended this as a subtle commentary on the barbaric nature of capital punishment but there's never any heavy-handed rhetoric or narration other than what was provided by those involved. This is real.

Johnny Cash At San Quentin spans the gamut of human emotion from comedy to tragedy. It's astounding that the show has never been released in its entirety and that the documentary has been out of print for so long…until now. This is a must have.

Chris McKay /


Kissology Volume 1 (1974 – 77)
VH-1 Classics Records

I've heard about this long-rumored collection for years. It's been dubbed “The Holy Grail of KISS releases” by those often maligned and misunderstood creatures known as KISS fans and they've waited patiently for this project to gestate. Well, it's finally here and to nearly everyone's surprise (especially to the non-fan), it lives up to and maybe even surpasses expectations. For a mere twenty bucks, you get four full concerts from the band's hungry heyday (five if you include the bonus disc in initial shipments), hilarious TV appearances, promo clips, commentary and amazingly rare “Easter eggs” that will lure even the most closeted KISS fan into the open. The first full show, from the Hotter Than Hell tour is shot in black and white and shows how the band's take no prisoners attitude polarized and galvanized a generation looking for something other than the peace and love vibe that they felt had failed them. The band continues to fire on all cylinders during the Alive Tour which is represented here by a show from Detroit 's Cobo Hall, a venue that's legendary in KISS lore. In early 1976, the band staged a triumphant 3 night return and celebrated to the fullest. It's great that this show was captured on film as it perfectly captures the exuberance (sometimes over exuberance) of a group of four young guys and their legions of followers. The only thing missing from this box set is a show from the breakthrough Destroyer Tour but all is forgiven with the inclusion of the legendary Budokan show from Tokyo . By 1977, KISS was a worldwide phenomenon and they shattered The Beatles' decade old records with their Japanese tour. Even with minimal pyrotechnics, the KISS juggernaut is at its peak and anyone who doubts the band's skill as musicians or entertainers need only see this show as evidence that they were solid and nearly untouchable at this time. The final complete concert is from Houston , Texas during the Love Gun tour. As 1977 came to a close, the band was starting to fray around the edges. They had released eight albums in just over three years and had gone from heavy metal madmen to the decoration for elementary school lunch boxes. This volume of Kissology ends just as the cracks begin to appear. If you look closely, you can see the tension of egos, fame and mega-stardom beginning to take its toll. The literal fire may be licking the sides of the Houston stage but the metaphorical fire is dimming.

I'm interested to see how the next volume covers the band's lineup and directional shifts as the excess of the ‘70s gave way to the desperation of the ‘80s. Perhaps the fact that I still want more after this six and a half-hour set is the best testament to the quality of this collection. Kissology Vol. 1 is a necessity for any fan of arena rock or “the big show”. Check it out.

Chris McKay /



The big news for Cars fans was supposed to be the release of the Unlocked DVD. Chock full of live performance from 1978 – 1987, the footage shows a band at the peak of its artistic power. Unfortunately, the choppy editing style and constant switching to behind the scenes footage detracts from the feeling of the event. The hand-shot stuff is intimate, puts life-on-the-road in focus and is quite amusing but it's intrusive because of the way it shows up between nearly every song. As soon as you get revved up by a performance, you wind up at another stoplight! It would better serve the DVD to have the option to watch the concert with or without the behind the scenes footage (or simply have the non-concert portion as a “special feature”).

Because of the problems with the video, the real gem of this package is the CD that is included as a bonus. It manages to steal the DVD's thunder by weaving together the full concert experience. Hearing so many great hit songs back to back is also a great reminder of what The Cars were and continue to be for so many. It's really a shame that Cars bassist / vocalist Ben Orr didn't live to see how the band's music has survived. If he had, we may have been able to experience a real reunion this summer instead of the Todd Rundgren fronted, non-Ric Ocasek group calling itself The New Cars. Since a heyday reunion is no longer a possibility, The Cars Unlocked is as close as we can ever get. And it is welcome for just that reason.

Chris McKay /


Live To Win
New Door Records


There are ten songs on the brand new, self-produced Paul Stanley solo album and every one of the tracks is a hit. Unfortunately, they're not hits for Paul Stanley ! The KISS lead vocalist and guitarist has instead released an album of songs that the likes of Evanescence, Kelly Clarkson or even Kenny Chesney could burn up the charts with. But Stanley's over emotive vocal style and super-clean production simply sound out of place on the rock charts of today. “Lift” is possibly the most successful attempt at merging his vocals with a current sound. If Amy Lee and her crew latched onto it, this could be huge. Meanwhile, Chesney could take the power ballad “Second To None” to the top and possibly even cross over to the pop charts. “Every Time I See You Around” and “Loving You Without You Now”, the other two ballads, should go to the next couple of American Idol finalists. The problem here is with Stanley 's delivery. And the sad thing is that there's nothing that can be done to improve this album. It's perfect for what it is. It's concise, sounds great and is full of well-written songs! If it was 1986 – 1990, this would be a classic pop-metal album. As it stands in 2006, it's a case of too little, too late. One thing is clearly evident from listening to this album, if Stanley were to move out of the performer realm and into the role of a pop-rock producer; he could be a real contender. He's damn good at that. Unfortunately, his days as a relevant recording artist are over.


Chris McKay /



On The Third Day
Face The Music
A New World Record
Columbia Legacy Recordings

With the exception of the previous reissue of 1974's El Dorado , the most popular and important era in ELO's career has been sorely under represented on store shelves…until now. Now the crucial 3 rd , 5 th and 6 th ELO albums have been given the grand treatment and all I can say is that it's about time!

1973's On The Third Day was the first one that really bore the band's trademark sound. The first two albums were more experimental in nature. The mixture of classical instruments and rock and roll was still a bit of a novelty and it took a couple of albums to get past the temptations of the format. By '73, ELO's captain Jeff Lynne had gotten back to the concise pop and rock songs that made his pre-ELO band The Move so irresistible. “Bluebird Is Dead” and “Oh No Not Susan” are prime examples of the post-Beatles swing that was Lynne's specialty. In fact, no less of a source than John Lennon dubbed ELO “son of Beatles.” And while those Beatle-flavored songs didn't dent the chart, Lynne's growing love of soulful dance music provided the inspiration for the song that would. “Showdown,” which became ELO's first international smash single, was Lynne's attempt at Motown but it's really more of a predecessor to disco (by a good year or two). “Showdown” was only the beginning of ELO's hit making stature. On The Third Day also features “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”, a sluggish hard rocker that tore up the charts in early 1974 and boasted T. Rex's Marc Bolan dueling with Lynne on guitar. Bonus tracks for this issue of On The Third Day include a couple of early takes of “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”, an alternate mix of “In The Hall Of The Mountain King”, classical interludes that were excised and a beautiful lost track called “Everyone's Born To Die” that sounds like a duet between Lynne's future Traveling Wilburys band mates Bob Dylan and George Harrison. It's hard to believe that “Everyone's Born To Die” was cut from the album as this song alone is worth the purchase price to these ears.

By 1975, ELO were certainly commercially and critically successful. Still, it took Face The Music to take them to the next level of popularity. At last, ELO had reached the right balance as the artsy album cuts were augmented by perfectly pristine and absolutely shameless pop songs. The gorgeous ballad “Strange Magic” graced AM radio and skating rinks throughout 1976, carrying on the momentum set by their lead-off Face The Music single “Evil Woman”, a danceable, falsetto laden mega-hit that to this day sets off sing-a-longs whenever its played. The album is anchored by rockers like “Poker” and “Fire On High” while dreamy songs such as “Waterfall” and “Nightrider” reach for the skies. There's not a bad song on Face The Music . By the tail end of the accompanying tour, ELO were headlining football stadiums in the U.S. and they had earned it with tasty little pop songs, not tabloid theatrics. That feat is nearly unique to ELO to this day!

In the first 6 years of the ‘70s, ELO had released 6 albums and each had gone further than the last. The late '76 release of A New World Record was no exception. It's amazing that Jeff Lynne managed to continue releasing albums of such high quality while his time was divided as the songwriter, producer, lead singer and guitarist. On top of that, whenever the band wasn't in the studio, they were on the road. Burnout should've been inevitable. But it didn't happen. The original release of A New World Record contained 9 songs and 4 of them were bona fide masterpieces of the pop form. “Living Thing” carried on in the tradition set by Face The Music's “Evil Woman”, “Rockaria!” deftly mixed rock with not only classical but opera (thanks to a guest vocal appearance by Mary Thomas). There was also a remake of Lynne's “Do Ya”. He had originally done it with The Move but as ELO had kept it in the set list, he decided to do an even bubblier, more deliberate version for A New World Record . As great as all of those hits were, they all paled next to the album's moody masterpiece “Telephone Line”. In the space of 4 and a half minutes, there is melancholy, comfort and emotion with which anyone with a soul could relate. Its futuristic-retro production only added to its intrigue and it stands as one of the best sounding recordings of its time. “Telephone Line” was one of the biggest hits of 1977 and the band was on an amazing roll that wouldn't end until Jeff Lynne eventually turned his powers to focus on production in the late ‘80s. The outtakes here include several alternate mixes and a fun little ditty called “Surrender” that not only sounds like it could've been another hit, but predicted the sound the band would turn to as the ‘70s turned to the ‘80s.

It's really a shame that America , the country that so embraced ELO back in their heyday, seems to have more or less forgotten about them. Maybe these reissues will be a step in the right direction. If you're a fan of pop music and haven't fallen under the spell of Jeff Lynne and ELO, you owe it to yourself to delve into this catalog. You won't be disappointed!

Chris McKay /



Greatest Hits
Columbia Legacy Recordings

Laugh if you want but pound for pound, Journey was one of the most important and crowd pleasing bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These first 4 Journey re-issues (of 9 planned) amply display the musical chops, big melodies and tight jeans of the era.

Starting off with 1977's Infinity , the first record after Journey took the chance on hiring an unknown new lead singer by the name of Steve Perry, the band immediately hit on the band's template. “Lights”, “Feeling That Way” and “Anytime” kick it off with what would become the signature radio rock sound of the next 10 years. The ballad-like vocals, soaring guitar solos, thick harmonies and soulful grooves were there from the start. Aside from the previously mentioned tunes, you can add this albums' “Wheel In The Sky” to the list of classic rock anthems. There are a couple of cringe-worthy moments but for the most part, Infinity is simply a great AOR album.

Two years later, the band had replaced drummer Ansley Dunbar with Steve Smith, but the song basically remained the same for Evolution . By now, the band's pre-Perry jam band history was nearly forgotten. Hits like “Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'” and “Just The Same Way” now shared air time with the Village People and The Bee Gees and stood out to the meat and potatoes American audiences as a more down to earth option. Evolution doesn't quite measure up to what came before or after it but there are remarkably few honkers and at least one lost classic in “Too Late”.

In 1981, with the departure of founding keyboardist / vocalist Gregg Rolie, the band finally crystallized into the radio monster that it was destined to be. Jonathan Cain, formerly of The Babys, replaced Rolie's Hammond organ with piano and a more modern sound for Escape . Within a year, the band had wracked up four massive hits in “Who's Crying Now”, “Don't Stop Believin'”, “Open Arms” and “Still They Ride”. The fledgling MTV even made a video staple of a live version of “Stone In Love” (included here as a bonus track). All of those were co-written by “the new boy” along with Perry and guitarist Neal Schon. Beyond the hits, nearly every song from this lineup's debut is an example of the top of its genre. Whether it's the surprisingly hard rocking and dense Neal Schon guitar workouts on “Lay It Down” and “Dead Or Alive” or the more progressive leaning deep cuts of “Escape” and “Mother, Father”, Escape is arguably the best album Journey ever did.

The last of these new re-issues is 1988's Greatest Hits collection. It's hard to argue with the songs here and it's good to have non-album smashes like “Only The Young” and “Ask The Lonely” beside the more familiar fare. The one major flaw is that so much is missing. Columbia should've taken the time to add in more of the band's hits for this re-issue. Where are “Send Her My Love”, “Chain Reaction”, “The Party's Over”, “After The Fall”, “Still They Ride”, “Stone In Love” and “Only Solution”? And those are just the good ones that are MIA. The one bonus track is the 1996 reunion track “When You Love A Woman” but by this point, the band were perilously close to becoming Michael Bolton. The hits included are impressive back to back, but if they were doing it right, they would add in Steve Perry's solo hits and release Greatest Hits as a definitive 2-CD set.

Chris McKay /


Tom Petty
Highway Companion
American Recordings

So what exactly is the difference between a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album and a Petty solo release? I'm not sure but the solo releases are the ones that really last. 1989's Full Moon Fever revived a career suffering from the band's mostly lackluster ‘80s offerings, 1994's Wildflowers was an epic masterpiece that stands as Petty's peak of power and 2006's Highway Companion is a hybrid of the previous two.

This is a softer Petty than on The Last DJ , which was an acerbic rant about the state of the music industry. While I was one of the few champions of that last Heartbreakers disc, I have to admit that the quiet grace of Highway Companion is most welcome in this summer of world turmoil. It comes across as the soundtrack to a journey taken to reclaim some long lost sense of personal peace. The songs are about traveling but unlike most rock records that tackle this topic, this one's not about moving out or on. This one's about going back home. On “Down South”, he's seeking out the ghosts of his past. He's now come to terms with them and the demons that once sent him on the run. Now he's back to make amends to former friends and acquaintances. He's ready to put himself out to pasture as a Southern gent in “seersucker and white linens”. Perhaps it's Petty's age speaking. Maybe it's one too many California winters but the South of his youth is calling him and he can't ignore the pull.

Producer Jeff Lynne (former ELO maestro) wisely keeps the focus on Petty's lyrics by keeping his trademark bells and whistles to a minimum. There's delayed percussion on opening rocker “Saving Grace”, echoed vocals in “Turn This Car Around” and the full on Traveling Wilbury swing of “Big Weekend” but other than that, there are no odd twists or turns. These songs deliver what's needed, nothing more and that's just fine. Petty and Lynne delve into their collective love for The Byrds on “Flirting With Time”, revisit “Mary Jane's Last Dance” on “This Old Town” and do it all with familiar, relaxed choruses, Ringo Starr-type drums fills, tasteful piano, mellotron flutes, strumming acoustics, 12-string icing and fellow Heartbreaker Mike Campbell's soaring leads. You don't even notice the bass because it's so intrinsically a part of everything else that it's merely a heartbeat. Over it all is Petty's simple and friendly vocal melodies. You hear them once and it feels like you've heard them a thousand times. Of course, you probably have since he so liberally robs from himself but there's nothing wrong with that either. Tom Petty is the best Tom Petty out there.

Just listen to the smarmy, incest-hinting, hilarious “Ankle Deep” or the hymn like “Damaged By Love”. It's clear that this is the Tom Petty that we thought had disappeared inside of his own bitterness. He seems to attack this directly on “Square One”. “Last time through I hid my tracks so well I could not get back / Yeah, my way was hard to find / Can't sell your soul for peace of mind…It took a world of troubles, it took a world of tears, it took a long time to get back here.” It may have been a hard journey for him but it was worth it for the listener. Now we have Highway Companion to accompany us on our own journey, whether we're on the way out or on the way back.

Chris McKay /


Cheap Trick
Big 3 Records / Cheap Trick Unlimited

So what's all the fuss about Rockford ? It's only another great album in the Cheap Trick catalog. Maybe those gushing that this is the best thing since Dream Police never heard 2003's Special One or 1997's eponymous Red Ant release (or maybe they just didn't listen to them fairly). The only real difference is that Rockford 's not as heavy as those last two releases. Here, poppy melodies and lush harmonies share the spotlight equally with stinging guitars. But don't think for an instant that this one doesn't rock. “Give It Away” and “Come On Come On Come On” both kick as hard as anything in the band's history (even if they're a bit slicker than one might expect). Lead-off single “Perfect Stranger” even packs a mighty wallop for such a catchy, radio-friendly tune. And therein lays the beauty of this release. Rockford simply contains the perfect mixture of muscle and melody. “Dream The Night Away” is amped-up Hollies while the following tune, “All Those Years”, is a gorgeous ballad that still manages to fizz with distortion as it subtly references both Elton John (lyrically) and Electric Light Orchestra (musically).

Throughout the disc, the actual playing is also stellar. In fact, Rockford may be the best Cheap Trick album ever at capturing the strengths that each individual brings to the table. Drummer Bun E. Carlos sounds like a crunchy cross between Ringo Starr and Keith Moon while his rhythm section partner Tom Petersson adds depth and texture by not necessarily choosing the obvious notes on his 12-string bass. The thickness that this provides only makes the huge guitar attack of Rick Nielsen sound more immense. Of course, over it all is the voice of Robin Zander which has only gotten stronger and more nuanced over the years. He can scream like Cobain (who, in fact, screamed like Zander) or be as gentle as Nick Drake. And when that voice is relaxed, he's one of the greatest, most recognizable voices in the history of rock and roll. The vocal performance on “O Claire” actually gave me chills when I first heard it. When I recovered enough to hear the rest of the song, I realized just how potent the Cheap Trick magic still is.

Despite never receiving the accolades and success that lesser peers have achieved, this band just keeps moving forward. Maybe that's the best revenge. While those contemporaries are now defunct or working the nostalgia circuit, Cheap Trick is still putting out music that stands up to their greatest work. I won't say that this is the best Cheap Trick album since the ‘70s but I will say it's the best power pop album by anyone in many, many moons. If you're even a passive fan, you need this.

Chris McKay /


The Futureheads
News & Tributes
Vagrant Records

By choosing to utilize thicker production skills that enhance the light, shadow and atmospherics of the band, The Futureheads have managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. And though News & Tributes rarely reaches the caffeinated highs of the 2004 self-titled debut album, this is a different enough beast to make that not such a bad thing. “Skip To The End”, “Cope” and “Worry About It Later” come close to the earlier bouncing, out of control swing but even with interesting detours such as the thrashy, garage sound of “Return Of The Berserker” and the acoustic based “Face”, this is not as instantly gratifying as the first record. You have to dig deeper here. And maybe that's the point. On the debut, everything seemed to be happening at once and its flat recording gave every sound equal importance. It was overwhelming and a blast of energy. Here, the ear-bending harmonies are even denser and the music takes a backseat to the vocals, bringing the lyrics way up to the front. And since the songwriting has matured so much, that approach is warranted. Heartbreak, separation and loss have taken the place of garages and going out on the town. Thankfully, even with more darkness than energy permeating the album, the band's trademark angular, sputtery sound is intact. I don't believe that News & Tributes is as essential an album as their first one but the growth of the songwriting along with the willingness to experiment sonically hints to News & Tributes being an ultimately satisfying bridge to the next must-have Futureheads release.

Chris McKay /


Willie Nelson
The Complete Atlantic Sessions
Rhino / Atlantic Records

Willie Nelson is everywhere at all times. Maybe that's why people don't appreciate him the same as they do Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. Or maybe it's just because he's still breathing. Whatever the reason, he's every bit as iconic and important. The latest evidence to support this is the new Complete Atlantic Sessions box set. Documenting Willie's transition from an incredibly gifted Nashville square peg to a genre-bending musical outlaw, this beautifully packaged 3-CD set is a must have. We begin as Willie's coming off of his 1971 concept album Yesterday's Wine . The country establishment didn't know what to do with it. According to the liner notes, they said it was “too spooky”. That's when Atlantic 's Jerry Wexler stepped in. He took it upon himself to pull Willie out of Nashville and starting with 1973's Shotgun Willie , the two of them set off to find a way to capture the rebel energy of Nelson in a studio setting. They didn't get there on the first try but when listening to Shotgun Willie today; it's hard to believe that it was virtually in its own time. Not only does it contain slower, funkier versions of the concert staples “ Whiskey River ” and “Stay A Little Longer” but gorgeous and heartbreaking renditions of “Sad Songs & Waltzes”, “So Much To Do”, and “A Song For You”. Done over 4 days in New York City, Willie still hadn't stumbled on to that stark sound that meant gold a couple of years later but he was definitely getting closer. In this collection, Shotgun Willie is filled out with 12 bonus tracks, 7 of which are songs that were never released. Every one of these is a gem as well. You also get alternate band and solo versions of several of the tracks.

For their next experiment, 1974's Phases & Stages , Wexler plugged Nelson into the musical hotbed of Muscle Shoals, Alabama . Nelson's concept for this album was to tell the story of a doomed relationship. Side one told the female perspective and side two was the male point of view. Each goes through shock, denial, anger and acceptance and the songs follow these characters on into rebirth and redemption. The band (including David Hood, the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood's father) was adept enough to know when to lay back and when to kick it up. This is evident throughout, but the slippery soul of “Pretend I Never Happened” is perhaps the best example. “Bloody Mary Morning”, “Heaven & Hell” and “Pick Up The Tempo” are other standouts. The bonus tracks on this disc aren't as essential as the ones included on Shotgun Willie but they still offer a behind the scenes look at what went on in the studio.

To round out this box set, Rhino has included the long out of print Live At The Texas Opry House . Recorded by Wexler during the summer of '74, this is where the Willie Nelson that we all know really found his footing. Playing to an audience of both hippies and rednecks (both of whom were Willie's peers), the tracks from the two studio albums really come to life. “ Whiskey River ” and “Stay A Little Longer” have sped up and taken on a refreshing sense of chaotic rawness. There's also what may be the definitive take of his live medley of hits that he'd written for other artists. “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Crazy” and “Night Life” bleed together better than any McCartney splice job. It flows like good liquor and every note drips with sweat and honesty. And you can just smell the various types of smoke in the room. From this point on, there was no looking back. Within a year, the stripped down masterpiece Red Headed Stranger was released (using his real band) and the anti-slick “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” took the charts by storm. That all served to usher in Willie's household name status. After that, it was one peak after another. Listening to these three discs, you can hear the transition and eavesdrop on the bottling of magic.

Chris McKay /




Tommy Live (With Special Guests)
Rhino Entertainment

If you're a fan of the out of control, manic original band, then The Who's Tommy Live (With Special Guests) may be a bit of a shock to your system. Culled from shows in Los Angeles during the 1989 25 th Anniversary (and first “reunion”) tour, this particular performance features a brass section, backup singers, extra musicians and special guest stars which render this more of a Who Revue than a Who concert. In fact, no less than 17 people are onstage during the course of this show. Steve Winwood, Phil Collins, Billy Idol, Elton John and Patti LaBelle even appear as different “characters”. To keep it all in check, Pete Townshend is more a musical director than a guitar player. He never even straps on an electric! He strums on an acoustic while a mostly unseen background player takes on the power chords. The other surviving members of the band don't shine as they should either. Lead singer Roger Daltrey appears out of sorts as he has to keep moving aside for the special guests while mega-bassist John Entwistle is mixed down so low that he's almost inaudible. Of course, there's no replacement for Keith Moon. His madness is sorely missed while listening to drummer Simon Phillips' rote (but tight) timekeeping. In fact, aside from the powerful delivery of Patti LaBelle as the Acid Queen, this show seems nothing more than a novelty, tepid one-off. It's a shame really. The worst part of all is that the second set, which found the band tearing through its greatest hits with a lot more spontaneity and spark (and no guests), is not included. Rhino, whose reputation for top-notch re-releases is usually impeccable, have dropped the (pin) ball here. The only redeeming feature of this disc is the “visual commentary” with Townshend and Daltrey. Rock history buffs and trivia geeks will find a treasure trove of information on the full story of Tommy , including surprising revelations and commonly misunderstood meanings. This may be the only DVD that I've ever seen where the commentary is worth more than the program content. If you're a fan of The Who, this behind the scenes info is the real reason to buy this DVD. For the completists, this was released in triple-DVD form along with Quadrophenia last year (plus a disc of extras). That would be the best way to go. On its own, Tommy Live With Special Guests just doesn't stand up.

Chris McKay /



The Who
Quadrophenia Live With Special Guests
Rhino Entertainment

The Who's Quadrophenia has always been the underappreciated little brother to Tommy. Admittedly, the story to Quadrophenia is bloated and harder to follow than its rock opera predecessor but the truth is that there's much more personality and depth here. This concert of the entire double album took place during the band's 1996 – 97 tour and is light years beyond the performances during the 1989 Tommy -centric tour. By now, Zak Starkey had taken over behind the drum kit. That alone makes this version of the band a force to be reckoned with. Starkey is able to conjure Keith Moon's spirit in a way that original replacements Kenney Jones and Simon Phillips couldn't. On top of that, Zak's able to bring back that loose, on the verge of implosion sound without sacrificing tightness. Sure, Townshend's still on acoustic and a ton of unnecessary supplementary musicians are on stage but the old magic rears its head every now and again. Just watch bassist's John Entwistle's extended solo during “5:15” and try to keep your jaw off the floor. State of the art video elements are successfully incorporated to help narrate the blurry bits of storytelling and give Quadrophenia fans the chance to experience it in a sensory overload fashion. The playing is solid and guest stars such as Billy Idol and P.J. Proby add to the fun without seeming like mere novelty. Quadrophenia never got its proper due during its time. This release sets that right. The visual commentary feature with Townshend and Daltrey is eye opening, in-depth and insightful. It also provides a vivid illustration of how much Daltrey brings to The Who table. Quadrophenia Live can be bought as a single disc or in a 3-DVD set with the much lesser Tommy Live With Special Guests (plus a bonus disc). If you've heard enough about Tommy , then this single disc is all you need. Quadrophenia Live is a must have DVD for not only fans of the album and The Who but for all fans of rock and roll and the lifestyle associated with it.

Chris McKay /



Dumbing Up
Seaview Records

World Party's Karl Wallinger has had a rough four years. He's lost his band, his manager / mentor passed away and then he went and got an aneurysm. Simply put - all has not been well in the camp.

Thankfully, Karl's head and World Party have been stitched back together and with the release of Dumbing Up , Wallinger's triumphant return is complete. Of the 12 songs on the album, there's not a misstep in the bunch. Every song is a gem even if some shine far more brightly than others. Whether it's the Electric Light Orchestra tinged soul of “High Love”, the George Harrison flow of “Best Place I've Ever Been” or the bittersweet moodiness of “You're A Hurricane, I'm A Caravan”, Wallinger has re-established World Party as the pinnacle of the “post-Beatles retro-melodic pop” genre.

Part of the beauty of World Party is the way that the influences are worn so literally on the sleeve. It's no accident that John Lennon is hiding there on the front cover. When you put this disc on, it's hard to imagine that it's anyone other than Lennon singing “Another 1000 Years”. It's so deliciously close to “Baby, You're A Rich Man” that it's impossible to ignore. But it's just so good that you can't fault Wallinger for coming so close to plagiarism. He does the same thing on “Who Are You” which borrows heavily from Bob Dylan's “Highway 61 Revisited”. He even makes both of these tunes sound as if they were recorded back in the ‘60s with appropriate production and subtle little touches.

As much as I love these channeling exercises, I'm most impressed by the songs that put the influences together and come up with something more definitively World Party. Both “What Does It Mean Now?” and “Santa Barbara” feel so timeless and pure that the heartbreak and hope resonate in equal measures. The latter, especially, stops me cold. All I can do is wade in the sound and sentiment. It's a gorgeous rumination of love, loss and redemption so perfectly universal that only the hardest heart wouldn't be moved.

Then there's the plaintive wail of the intense album closer “Always On My Mind.” Not since Lennon's “God” has there been such a simple, plain list of concepts, ideas and insights that cut so quickly to the core of human nature and potential. It hurts to listen to precisely because it's so real. Sure, it's whiny and difficult. But there's plenty of reason to whine these days. This is a real protest song. It should be required listening for entry into the human race. It's my national anthem now.

Get this album.

Chris McKay /



Operation : Mindcrime II
Rhino Records
Rhino Records


This should be a complete and utter failure. To my surprise, it's actually a strong sequel. The original is one of the few albums from its genre and era that can stand on its own without hairspray and spandex. Since its release in 1988, Operation : Mindcrime has garnered a cult following as the heavy metal equivalent of Pink Floyd's The Wall . Of course, the chances of Queensryche successfully returning to complete the story 18 years later seems just slightly more likely than Pink Floyd reforming to do The Wall 2 : Reconstruction .

Still, here it is and while Queensryche's fangs don't tear into the flesh as consistently as the first time around, I'm shocked to see the band still capable of pushing buttons and rocking like it's 1989. Even more shocking in '06 is the fact that the lyrics aren't watered down. On “I'm American”, operatic vocalist Geoff Tate sneers, “The news can't wait to promote all the bullshit this government is selling. I've got this plan in motion. Countdown, assassinate, terminate, smack down. Do you want what they're selling you? Another television war?”

It's a bold statement in this Patriot Act-era. The first album questions the government with the inquisitiveness and rebellion of youth. This one is far more frustrated and bitter, a feeling which many of us share wholeheartedly. Perhaps those few lines mentioned above make this more daring than the original (which came out during a time when free speech could be taken for granted). On the other hand, what makes this less successful than the original is the relative lack of hooks and choruses that make you want to play the album over and over. The lyrics occasionally get so bogged down in resolving plot lines that they don't transcend the story line as they do on “I'm American” (or anything on the original album).

Queensryche has achieved something that seemed impossible – a return to form from a band that cashed out a long time ago. And even if this is just a cash back in, it ain't a bad idea. Americans can use all the contrarians we can flush out these days.

Chris McKay /



Drive-By Truckers
A Blessing And A Curse
New West Records

I guess it was inevitable. Sooner or later, the Drive-By Truckers had to slide a bit. The truth is, A Blessing And A Curse simply can't compare to the sprawling grandeur of their last 3 near masterpieces. That being said, the new offering is still a great album with about half of it is as strong as anything DBT has ever done. That's the blessing. The curse is the balance. Several of the songs start promisingly and then don't progress. While the rockers “Wednesday” and “Aftermath” could be live highlights, they don't carry the weight of their previously released counterparts. And while “Goodbye” carries a wonderful Muscle Shoals seventies soul groove and amazing lyrics, there's no hook and it fails to lift off. Even the title track suffers. While the harmony lead guitars provide a nice twist, it takes too long to reach its point for the pay off to be worth the wait.

I've often heard DBT called “Athens' answer to The Rolling Stones” and with A Blessing And A Curse , I can finally see that. Like the Stones settling in to their legend during the post Exile On Main Street years, The Truckers appear to be in transition. It's as if they're attempting to become more concise and focused, perhaps in an effort to expand their cult following into a more mainstream affair.

Maybe they've just become bored and tired with what they do so well with no effort. “Don't be so easy on yourself”, Jason Isbell sings on the current single, “This one might be all that you have left.” And it's on this song that their apparent goal coalesces with their strengths. In a 3 and a half minute pop / rocker complete with cowbell, harmony guitar solo and a repetitive chorus, DBT state their new mission: simplify, no matter how difficult it may be. And on “Easy On Yourself”, they succeed beautifully. Isbell's other contribution, “Daylight”, harnesses the Stones' swagger with impeccable phrasing and intricately twisting lyrics all while staying in the power pop vein. The soaring chorus is unlike any other from the band, showing just how far Isbell has come not only as a songwriter but as a vocalist.

A Blessing And A Curse also contains one of the best Drive-By Truckers songs ever. Mike Cooley's “Gravity's Gone” takes what The Eagles did in the early ‘70s, adds in some piss and vinegar and comes out with one of the most powerful songs I've heard in years. Cooley's words come out like one punch after another and oddly, seem even more hard-hitting on repeated listening. His other cut, “Space City” is also a gem, albeit more low key and standard for him.

That leaves us with Patterson Hood to fill out the album. As always, he's deft at being the air between Isbell's sky and Cooley's ground. A Blessing And A Curse is book-ended by Hood's trademarks. “Feb. 14” kicks off the record with domestic discord, humor and pathos all held together by a 4/4 rock backbone. On the other end is the masterful narrative “A World Of Hurt” wherein Patterson dispenses a whole lot of insight that he's gained over the last few years. It's mature. It's heartbreaking and funny. It's comfortable and ragged. It's self-indulgent and universal. And it's pure Patterson Hood. “The secret to happiness is knowing when to roll the credits”, he says in a way that makes me wonder if the band may be considering calling it a day (especially with “Goodbye” included here). I can only hope that DBT is never that “smart” and that they continue growing and pushing, even if every experiment isn't 100% successful.

A Blessing And A Curse is not DBT's equivalent to Gimme Shelter , Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main Street. But their last 3 releases may be…and this one's still better than Goats Head Soup.

Chris McKay /



David Gilmour
On An Island
Columbia Records

On the cover of this album comes a sticker that says, “David Gilmour, the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd.” That's a smart move because if the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd is enough to satisfy you, then On An Island is an absolutely gorgeous, hypnotic work. “Castellorizon”, the opening instrumental, proves that instantly with its “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”-style soaring leads and spacey keyboard layering. The title track calls to mind even earlier Floyd. The mood and slippery melody of “On An Island” takes me back to listening to Obscured By Clouds in a dorm with incense burning. And that's an immediately comfortable, warm and inviting feeling that makes me want to put my headphones on and go away for a while. The keyboard work of fellow Floydian Richard Wright and the harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash only add to the luxury of it all. Whenever I'm listening to On An Island, I'm deep in an alpha state by the time the dreamy, atmospheric solo of “The Blue” reaches its zenith. It's the most trance inducing song since Julee Cruise's “Falling.” I consider it the audio equivalent of lying on your back in the warm grass of a summer afternoon as you watch clouds transform into faces. It's haunting, beautiful and sticks around in the same way as a fond memory. This opening segment alone makes On An Island a must have for even a casual Pink Floyd fan. Unfortunately, as you dig deeper, you find that there's not much to latch on to beyond the surface. A lot of this comes from the softness and comfort of the lyrics. The beauty and magic of Pink Floyd's classic albums came from the juxtaposition of the hardness of Roger Water's lyrical “vision” being tempered by the softness of Gilmour, Wright and drummer Nick Mason's musicianship. And that depth is just not On An Island . Perhaps it's due to the fact that the lyrics are written by Gilmour's wife, Polly Samson. With the comfort zone of a husband singing his wife's lyrics, there's simply no tension to hold up the words to scrutiny. As you go further and further in, this becomes more and more obvious. Saccharine accumulates. And while Samson's perfectly competent at vague, pretty couplets, maturing beauty and viewing the passage of time, she's no match for Waters' lamest, most self-indulgent rants much less his life-altering top tier stuff. Bottom line: if you long for the classic Pink Floyd sound and are able to look away from the obvious deficiencies, On An Island is a joy. And from now on, it's probably as close as you'll ever get to the real thing unless Gilmour's “island” is someday once again surrounded by more troubled Waters.

Chris McKay /



NPG / Universal Records

It's been a long time since I could whole-heartedly recommend a Prince album. And it's a good feeling. Unlike his nearly desperate and wholly overrated “comeback album” Musicology , 3121 is truly a return to form. No, it's not in the league of Purple Rain or Sign O' The Times but it's a strong record none the less. If I had to make a direct comparison, I'd say this one has the feel of Diamonds & Pearls , which incidentally was his last bona fide hit album back in the early ‘90s. To that end, 3121 is clearly meant to be a commercial return and it succeeds on all fronts. “Lolita” combines the beat of his first ever regional hit “Soft & Wet” and adds in an updated version of the call and response from The Time's “C-O-O-L” (which Prince wrote). The melody and groove combine to form an easy going, breezy tune that could be one of the hits of the summer and Prince's return to the upper echelon of the top 40. Current single “Black Sweat”, while not as obvious as “Lolita”, brings back the Prince of “Kiss”. Sure, his sexual overtones are more muted than the old days but his falsetto is just as clear and sensual as ever. This is the Prince with an attitude, the one with a hint of danger, the one we've been missing for the last decade or so. And while his Jehovah's Witness status prevents him from using the language and intensity of yore, he makes up for it with subtext, deep beats and propulsive guitar work. His religion does creep up on you during the double shot of “The Word” and “Beautiful, Loved & Blessed” but that's just it. It creeps up on you. And that's a good thing. He's not banging the listener over the head, trying to force beliefs down throats like it's come across for the last while ( Rainbow Children , anyone?). This is simply a man sharing his passion and love, not trying to prove how everyone else is wrong. And that makes for a much more inspiring sermon, if truth be told. The sleeper of the CD is a cut called “The Dance.” It's a slow-burn Latin-tinged ballad that unravels with emotion. When you hear him shrieking out at the end, it's hard not to get carried away to the same place that “The Beautiful Ones” took us. And with a handful of hits-in-waiting here (boy, it's good to say that), Prince may be about to carry pop radio to a place where real musicianship and songwriting can have a place…just like he did the first time ‘round.

Chris McKay /


Running On Empty (Deluxe Re-Issue)
Rhino / Asylum

It's time for Jackson Browne's Running On Empty to get its just appreciation and reward. This brutally honest, occasionally funny and constantly poignant concept album about the rock and roll lifestyle circa 1977 has always been overshadowed by the other like-minded releases of that year, namely The Eagles' Hotel California and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours . Yes, those are archetypal recordings that deserve accolades. And yes, while the highs found on each of those may be higher than the ones on Browne's album, the truth is, Running On Empty is more consistent and ultimately satisfying than either of those other classics.

What makes Running On Empty so good? Perhaps it's the fact that instead of being put together in the cozy confines of a California recording studio, Browne recorded literally on the road. The liner notes are brimming with lines like “Recorded in room 301 at the Cross Keys Inn and on stage at the Garden State Arts center.” And when the song in question, titled fittingly, “The Road” switches from the claustrophobic confines of a tiny room to the openness of the stage, it comes across in the sound and the feel. All the loneliness and preoccupation is there and balanced out with moments of live abandon. During the dark comedy routine of “Cocaine”, you cross the line with the singer, giving a weight to the lyrics that a bombastic studio version would certainly have drained. “Nothing But Time” boasts the credit, “recorded on a bus (Continental Silver Eagle) somewhere in New Jersey” and its litany of life in transit couldn't have been captured any better. In fact, you can actually hear the bus changing gears on the recording. The emotional apex is “The Load Out / Stay” which has become a rock radio staple. The longing, the homesickness and the loneliness as well as the communion that makes it all worthwhile are evident in the interaction between the artist and his audience.

Most of Jackson Browne's catalog has the edges sanded down and comes across as too soft. Running On Empty is melodic and pretty but still feels raw and immediate. This is, without a doubt, his greatest single achievement. And it's great to know that the folks at Rhino have taken it upon themselves to put out this “definitive” edition. Extras on the DVD include a 5.1 surround mix, hundreds of photos and even animated videos of several tracks created from the pictures. Yes, there are also two “bonus” tracks but neither “Cocaine Again” nor “Edwardsville Room 124” merit anything beyond a cursory glance. While the bonuses are nice, the original 10-song album itself is the heart and reason for owning it.

Jam this in the player when you hit the highway. It sounds better with the road “rushing under” your wheels. And sing along… loudly !

Chris McKay /