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Stan Ridgeway Still Shines on “Neon Mirage”

25 Jul

I have always loved and promoted the music of Stan Ridgeway — from his IRS years with Wall of Voodoo to his countless solo and soundtrack recordings. It’s pretty hard to believe it’s been about 30 years since “Mexican Radio” first hit the airwaves. And judging from his latest CD “Neon Mirage,” Stan still has the knack for strong storytelling framed by atmospheric sonic imagery.

“Big Green Tree” opens this effort in winning fashion. Strumming acoustic guitars and a haunting blues harp are followed by a wistful Ridgeway vocal. It’s tone is vaguely reminiscent of a big screen Western. All in all a fine opening track.

“This Town Called Fate” is more familiar ground for Stan. It offers up a chugging “Camouflage” beat accented by big Marlboro man guitars. “Desert of Dreams” sports a soft Bossa Nova sound that would make Stan Getz proud. “Turn a Blind Eye” is a bit darker — almost Tom Waits’ dark. Good though … really good. It’s one of the CD’s highlights, thanks in large part to the precise interplay between a wispy flute and a honking tenor sax.     

“Flag Up on a Pole” is another standout cut. I really dig the funky reggae beat and scratchy guitar riff that pervades this track. It is further accented by a light, Doors-like organ and Ridgeway’s bold, echo-enriched blowing. “Scavenger Blues” sounds like a pure Chicago blues. Tasty rhumba drum notes and a searing electric Otis Rush-style guitar solo dig deep with truly satisfying results.

The CD closes with an instrumental (title track “Neon Mirage”) that could easily be claimed by both surf guitar and spy soundtrack afficianados. It’s a fitting way to wrap up another fine effort from an unheralded master of his craft. Let’s just hope that Stan Ridgeway continues to “do that voodoo that he do so well.”      

Former Wall of Voodoo frontman is flanked by Dave Alvin,
Pietra Wexstun, Ralph Carney, Rick King and the late Amy Farris

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — “You never really have a choice about the tone and subject matter of the records you make,” confides veteran L.A. singer-songwriter Stan Ridgway about his new album, Neon Mirage. “At least I don’t. They’re obsessions, really. Things happen, good and bad. And for most people, the passing of a parent or a close friend has an impact. It’s really about the music, and how it heals the mind. The records I grew up with still inform me, and the best were like an inner journey — mixing up blues, jazz, pop and country to make something fresh and, in the end, positive. But you can’t ignore the darker side of things, either.”

Stan Ridgway’s Neon Mirage, due for August 24, 2010 release, is arguably the most emotionally revealing, musically far-ranging — dare we say mature? — album of the L.A. singer-songwriter’s accomplished career. Yet it’s also a project whose troubled circumstances might tempt Stan to paraphrase John Lennon’s familiar wisdom: Life is what happens when you’re busy making another album.

Indeed, in many ways Neon Mirage can’t help but feel like an elegy to the colleague and family Stan lost in the midst of writing and recording its dozen, typically eclectic songs: gifted Texas-born violinist/session player Amy Farris; a beloved uncle; and the man who helped forge the very foundations of Ridgway’s unique outlook on life and music, his own father. “Events like that can’t help but have an impact on the music you’re making at the time,” Stan admits. “You’d be lying to yourself — and your listeners — if you thought otherwise.”

Ridgway quickly sets the album’s tone with a warm, accomplished recasting of “Big Green Tree” from Black Diamond (his forceful 1996 debut as an independent) produced by Dave Alvin. The L.A. roots rock legend reinvents it here in a gentler, more hopeful ethos around Ridgway and his longtime keyboardist/collaborator Pietra Wexstun, with Brett Simmons on upright bass and Amy Farris, then a member of Alvin’s own Guilty Women ensemble, on violin. Alvin had heard Stan perform the song solo at a special show for mutual friend and fellow songwriting legend Peter Case, and early sessions also yielded Neon Mirage’s memorable, Alvin-produced cover of Bob Dylan’s elegy to his own fallen hero, “Lenny Bruce.”

Ridgeway’s biggest hit with Wall of Voodoo was “Mexican Radio”

It’s an album in which Ridgway’s familiar wise-guy wit and cinematic lyricism are further tempered by an ever-inquisitive mindset that ranges from the haunting, candid introspection of “Behind the Mask” to an effusive, wistful tribute to lost friends and the Nashville of record producer Owen Bradley, “Wandering Star.” Elsewhere, Neon Mirage centers around more impressionistic takes on the toll patriotism extracts from its warriors (“Flag Up On a Pole”), the reality of being closer to the end of life’s rich pageant than its beginning (“Halfway There”) and the human propensity for myopia in the face of looming catastrophe (“Turn a Blind a Eye”).

Yet, as the foreboding and darkly loping guitar lines of “This Town Called Fate” and the album’s infectious instrumental title track attest, Ridgway’s new songs are also graced by the inventive musicality and unique viewpoint his fans have become well acquainted with since his early days as the driving force behind L.A.’s favorite ’80s experimentalists, Wall of Voodoo. But while the album’s expressive baritone and deft harmonica flourishes are instantly familiar, Stan employs them here on an ever-restless musical odyssey. Ridgway expands an already impressive musical palette via Wexstun’s always intriguing keyboard melodies and textures, the masterful sax, flute and woodwind work of Ralph Carney, the deft acoustic and electric guitar lines of longtime band mate Rick King and the rich symphonic string orchestrations of Amy Farris.

“I’ve probably confused people with my music, my choices, the albums and the changes in direction from year to year,” Ridgway admits. “But I can’t help it. That term ‘eclectic’ fits me perfectly and there are just too many musical styles and songwriters and singers I enjoy to just involve myself in only one type of music. I try to bring all the things I love into the sound. There’s a weird old American jukebox in my head and it still plays everything that’s ever got under my skin.”

Stan is quick to note where his often-mischievous musical curiosity came from: “Your parents’ record collection can be a big influence growing up. Something you thought was corny has a way of hangin’ on if it’s good to begin with. My dad was a big fan of country & western music, comedy records, hi-fi playboy stereo lounge stuff. Hank Williams, Dean Martin, Ernest Tubb, Sinatra, Johnny Cash of course, Allan Sherman, Charlie Rich, Patsy Cline, and Marty Robbins — all of the great originals. I learned to love the singing, the stories, and even when my tastes in music grew far too weird for my dad, we could still come together on those old records we loved and listened to together. The old western myths of heroes and villains and storytelling of Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs was an important one. And I never would have thought of covering ‘Ring of Fire’ with Wall of Voodoo without my dad’s influence in the beginning.”

Ridgway also credits his father with informing much of the wry personal/musical viewpoint that’s always been central to his songwriting. “A sense of humor is important in handling the disappointments in life,” Stan notes. “My father taught me that, too. Along with a strong work ethic. A certain type of ‘black humor’ helps put a light on the darker realities of living and let’s you get above them by making a joke about it. But it wasn’t a cynic’s view, more of a frustrated romantic’s perspective over a developed sarcasm about the way things really are and not how they seem to appear.”

Stan explains: “In the last few years in his 80s, he always knew my mother and all of us right up until the end. But memory could sometimes be sketchy for Dad. Even so, he never lost who he was or his love, loyalty and dedication to family and working hard in life to achieve results. Or the hard won values of his generation and what they’d sacrificed to achieve for a greater good. All the great adventures he’d had, the global travel and work, the grand victories he’d experienced along the way were never lost to him. And he recalled them all in great detail with pride and a singular sense of humor. And us there with him.” Ridgway’s father passed in December 2009.

But while Ridgway had long girded himself for his father’s passing, he admits the suicidal death of brilliant violinist Amy Farris in the midst of Neon Mirage’s sessions felt “abrupt and brutal.” When Amy phoned him to cancel an upcoming appearance with his band because she wasn’t feeling well, Ridgway assured her it was no problem, saying, “‘health is everything.’ But that weekend she took her life,” he recalls sadly. “Possibly even the night we were on stage at McCabe’s. Dave (Alvin) called me Monday morning with the news and I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. But mental illness and depression are like any other illness, and Amy struggled from childhood with them.”

“Drive, She Said” was perhaps Stan’s biggest solo hit

Despite the troubled times it was recorded in, Ridgway insists Neon Mirage represents something even more personal than the sum of its songs to him. “It’s as much a journey as a destination,” Stan says of his music. “If I don’t try and create something of my own, I just feel that I’m hangin’ on a corner waiting for someone to tell me what to think and do. It’s a mad society. But the best therapy for me is always creativity and invention. And a dedication to the people and things you love. Most people live their lives upside down and backwards, only jumping in when the consensus says it’s safe. That’s just human nature — who doesn’t want to be safe? But is that really possible?”

“Camouflage” is another memorable cut from Ridgeway


26 Mar


CD series launches with Johnny Winter, Hot Tuna, and Poco

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Collectors’ Choice Music, the label that’s come to be known for compelling and often unexpected CD reissues, has announced the launch of Collectors’ Choice Music Live, a new label devoted to releasing great live performances, most of which have never previously been commercially available.

The series will launch April 20 with the release of four CDs: Johnny Winter And’s Live at the Fillmore East 10/3/70; Poco’s Live at Columbia Studios, Hollywood 9/30/71; and Hot Tuna’s Live at the New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA September 1969.

According to Collectors’ Choice Music GM Gordon Anderson, “After some 15 years of reissuing albums and compiling artists, we’re convinced that some of the biggest remaining veins of gold in the vaults are the live shows that a lot of labels recorded of their artists in their prime, particularly those who made their reputation with improvisational prowess and/or ever-changing set lists. These first releases on our new Collectors’ Choice Music Live label certainly fit that description.”

Johnny Winter And — Live at the Fillmore East 10/3/70: To commemorate the release of his Johnny Winter And album, Texas blues guitarist/singer Johnny Winter played some shows at New York’s Fillmore East, some of which were compiled on 1971’s Live Johnny Winter And, a classic live album of the era to which this release makes a nice bookend. He had just formed a new band consisting of former member of the McCoys (“Hang on Sloopy”) including Rick Derringer on guitar, bassist Randy Jo Hobbs, and drummer Randy Zehringer. Although the McCoys were none too familiar with Winter’s work, they proved quick studies and entered the studio to make the album Johnny Winter And within three weeks. The New York Times reviewed the Fillmore show, citing “a considerable improvement over Winter’s previous band. Winter and [Derringer] played solos back at each other, simultaneously and in alternation.” The live album contains the Winter hit “Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo” and his take on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” alongside blues classics “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “It’s My Own Fault” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”

PocoLive at Columbia Studios, Hollywood, 9/30/71: In the fall of ’71, Poco was arguably the most popular of the first generation country-rock bands. By then, their album Deliverin’ had cracked the Top 30 and Poco thanked its label, Epic Records, with a private showcase at the CBS Records’ Hollywood studio. “We just set up as we would have for a small club,” recalls frontman Richie Furay, whose bandmates included guitarist/singer Paul Cotton (from the Illinois Speed Press), bassist Tim Schmidt (later of the Eagles), pedal steel player Rusty Young and drummer/vocalist George Grantham. By this time, Poco was evolving from country-rock towards an edgier rock sound. Says Furay, “Though we were innovators of the L.A. ‘country-rock’ sound, we weren’t going top be pigeonholed into being a one-sound band.” The 14 songs they performed for label employees that day were a solid cross-section of tunes that had appeared on its first four albums including the medley “Hard Luck Child/Child’s Claim to Fame/Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” plus “I Guess You Made It,” “A Man Like Me,” “Ol’ Forgiver,” “Heart That Music,” “Hurry Up,” “You Are the One” and more — an hour of music in all.

Hot Tuna: Live at the New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA September 1969: Hot Tuna was, of course, the blues band-within-a-band side project of Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady that outlasted the parent band and continues to this day. Interestingly, the duo’s first commercial album, which made it to #30 on the Billboard pop album chart, was recorded live at Berkeley’s New Orleans House, but a lot more material was taped than was released. Much of it is issued for the first time on this 68-minute CD, which consists entirely of previously unreleased recordings. Explaining why they recorded their debut album was recorded live, Kaukoken says, “We tend to go places . . . and you lose a bit of that when you work in the studio. And it was cheaper too!” Of the 13 songs on this CD, six — “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Winin’ Boy Blues,” “Uncle Sam Blues,” “I Know You Rider,” “Don’t You Leave Me Here” and “How Long Blues” — were included on the first Hot Tuna album, though the versions here are selected from different performances than the ones used on that LP. Other songs include Blind Boy Fuller’s “Keep On Truckin’,” Rev. Gary Davis’ “Keep Our Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and “Candy Man,” and Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More.”


Tommy James Finally Getting His Due

26 Mar

As a kid, I was always a big Tommy James fan. Even then I didn’t quite understand why James didn’t receive the same level of recognition that his musical peers were enjoying. His body of work is undeniably impressive. Hanky Panky, Crystal Blue Persuasion, Mony Mony, I Think We’re Alone Now, Mirage, Crimson and Clover — must I continue?

Thankfully, Collector’s Choice has re-issued many of Tommy’s recordings in a sweeping retrospective. The music captured here documents James versatility … running the gamut from bubblegum to country rock. My personal favorite of these original Roulette LPs is “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which includes the great title hit, “Mirage,” and “Baby, Baby I Can’t Take It No More.” Yes, there is some of the typical filler found here, but the gems still shimmer and there are surprises galore to be discovered anew.   

If you’re a fan of classic 60’s radio hits, bubblegum, and “sunshine pop,” it’s time to dig just a little bit deeper to fully appreciate the immense musical talents of the influential Tommy James.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.Goldmine magazine called Tommy James “the most productive rock ’n’ roll singles artist of his era” in its review of the critically hailed 40 Years: The Complete Singles Collection (1966-2006) 2-CD set, released in 2008 by Collectors’ Choice Music. Mojo added, “James should be ranked among the most undervalued workmen in the American rock quarry.” Add to the fact that James has just released his autobiography with a title that tells it all — Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells (which Rolling Stone gave 3 ½ out of four stars)— and it’s evident the time is ideal to reflect on a career filled with what the Austin Chronicle called “definitive U.S. pop.”

On April 20, 2010, Collectors’ Choice Music, which released the 40 Years retrospective, will begin to reissue the individual Roulette Records albums by Tommy James & the Shondells and Tommy James solo. The first batch contains I Think We’re Alone Now, Gettin’ Together and Travelin’ by the band, and James’ own My Head, My Bed and My Red Guitar from 1972, recorded in Nashville with many of the city’s notable players.

Ed Osborne once again annotated the reissues, featuring extensive interview material from the Niles, Michigan native who is very candid about working with Roulette owner and convicted mobster Morris Levy. The band had a remarkable run on the charts with singles like “Hanky Panky,” “Say I Am (What I Am),” “It’s Only Love,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage,” “I Like the Way,” “Gettin’ Together,” “Out of the Blue,” “Get Out Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Somebody Cares,” “Do Something to Me,” “Crimson & Clover,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Ball of Fire,” “She” and “Gotta Get Back to You” among others.

Tommy James & the ShondellsI Think We’re Alone Now: This 1967 album marked the group’s move from a singles band to a more album-oriented outfit, with new producers (Ritchie Cordell and Bo Gentry), a new arranger (Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, who’s worked with artists ranging from Barbra Streisand to Iggy Pop) and a new studio (New York’s Allegro Sound). Unlike its predecessors — Hanky Panky and It’s Only Love, which consisted of the smash hits plus songs culled from Morris Levy’s publishing catalogs — this album benefitted from better song selection and the better technology of Allegro Sound. The centerpiece was the single “I Think We’re Alone Now,” brought to James as a ballad by Cordell and Gentry, but converted to a mid-tempo rocker by James and Wisner utilizing an “eighth note pegging” technique. Recorded on Christmas Eve 1966, it was on the radio by January. The hit was followed up by “Mirage,” with cellos intermingling with guitars, and “I Like the Way,” punctuated with a horn riff. Also included on this release are covers of the Rivieras’ “California Sun” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”

Tommy James & the ShondellsGettin’ Together: This album, released in later 1967, cemented the creative process that began on I Think We’re Alone Now. The title track had been earmarked for Gene Pitney to record, but James heard it, knew it was a hit, and “pitched a fit” to Morris Levy, who eventually granted permission for James to record it. Cordell and Gentry sped up the vocal track and the song raced up the charts. Although utilizing the same producers and studio, the album was a progression over its predecessor. “I Want to Be Around You,” “So Deep with You,” “Real Girl” and “World Down on Your Knees” are examples of late ’60s “sunshine pop,” comparable to the Mamas & Papas, the 5th Dimension or the Association. Cordell and Gentry remain the key song sources, but by now the band would write as a band. Today, James counts Gettin’ Together as one of his favorite albums: “What really made me happy with the guys in the studio is that they were like actors in a play . . . Everybody had a great sense of proportion . . . [and] everybody would contribute something. I still enjoy listening to it today.”

The new James book (seen above) is getting good reviews

Tommy James & the ShondellsTravelin’: Travelin’ followed the Shondells’ 1969 releases Crimson & Clover and Cellophane Symphony. It was created entirely by the band, from songwriting to playing to producing and arranging. The final album under the Tommy James & the Shondells name, this 1970 release is also considered by many fans to be their best. It’s their edgiest effort, recorded with very few technical effects (“gritty and grainy, just like dust in your mouth and sand in your boots,” says James). The grit theme was even carried over into the artwork in which renowned American West painter Ron lesser, a protégé of Norman Rockwell, painted a portrait of the guys in a stagecoach being chased by Morris Levy. Apart from the Shondells, James’ main writing partner was Michigan confrere Bob King. From this association came highlights “Gotta Get back,” “Moses & Me,” “Red Rover” and “Talkin’ & Signifyin’.” James says, “If we had stayed together as a group, it would have been very, very interesting [to hear] the music we would have come up with.”

Tommy James — My Head, My Bed & My Red Guitar: James’ second solo album was a total departure from his earlier work. Recorded in Nashville, it featured the Music City’s “A team.” By this time, the Byrds and Bob Dylan had embraced country music. But for someone with a pop track record, recording the Nashville way was an uncommonly bold move. Produced by James with Bob King and Pete Drake, musicians included Scotty Moore (also the engineer) and D.J. Fontana from Elvis Presley’s band, Drake on pedal steel, King on bass, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on keyboards, Buddy Spicher on fiddle and Charlie McCoy on harmonica. “I was real keen on the idea of putting myself in different situations [where] I’ve got to sink or swim,” says James. “These players were unbelievable . . . I was impressed by their musical ability and lack of ego.” Interestingly, Rolling Stone finally acknowledged James’ work with this album. “[They] gave us the best write-up I ever had on any project,” he says. During the session, Scotty Moore received a phone call from Presley, who said he’d drive to Nashville to take James and Moore out for steak. The visit never materialized. But James did end up with a credible country debut.


Hoodoo Gurus Unveil Rockin’ 9th Recording

21 Mar

Wake up all you aging rockers! We are totally psyched out of our minds to see this one finally come to fruition. I have already tracked the CD three times and I’m happy to report that there is not a weak track on the entire disc. Standouts include  the blistering “Crackin’ Up,” a horn-laden “Only in America,” the jangly “Evening Shade,” and closer “The Stars Look Down.” Gurus vocalist Dave Faulkner even channels his own inner Billy Idol swagger with the shouter, “Why So Sad?” To cite the one and only Huey Lewis … “The Heart of Rock n’ Roll is Still Beating!”  


“Crackin Up” came to frontman Dave Faulkner as a dream

SYDNEY, Australia – The Hoodoo Gurus, known for high energy, hook-laden rock ‘n’ roll, have completed their ninth album, Purity of Essence, which will be released May 11, 2010 on their own label in the United States via Virtual Label/ADA. Formed in 1981, the band is described by as “(channeling) their inspiration from the vast entirety of the American pop cultural landscape, drawing on such disparate sources as B-movies, bad sitcoms, and junk food in tandem with the usual suspects like garage rock, power pop, and surf to create a distinctly kitschy and catchy sound. . . .and if you don’t like the Hoodoo Gurus, I suspect you don’t like rock & roll very much.”

A jam session at a Sydney rehearsal studio earlier this year produced eight songs and set the template for their ninth studio record. All four band members were pole-axed by the lightning bolt moments that brought singer and songwriter Dave Faulkner’s songs to life from his demos.

Even the songwriter himself says there must have been some rock ‘n’ roll magic at work when “Crackin’ Up,” the album’s first single, arrived almost fully formed in a dream.

“It’s only ever happened before once in my life where I have actually dreamed a song. I woke up and had the melody, all the chords and the title, walked out of my room and told the friends who were staying with me not to talk to me while I found my little cassette recorder and put the song down,” Faulkner says.

The serendipity continued when the frontman brought the song to the band.

“During that day, there were so many songs and sounds coming out that we’d never done before,” he observes. “They had the classic Gurus feel but it was different even though we weren’t pushing ourselves to do something different. But on this particular magic day, it all happened. It was the most memorable day in the rehearsal room that the band has ever had.”

The resulting inspiration resulted in more good songs than they could reasonably fit onto one CD. But, as Faulkner says, “Dammit, let’s just put ’em all on. The good news is that there is such a diversity of styles – from punk ˆ la the Ramones to dare-I-say pretty songs and some guilty pleasures – that it doesn’t get repetitive.”

Speaking of the Ramones, the Gurus reunited with old friend Ed Stasium (and former Ramones producer) to mix Purity of Essence. The album was co-produced by the band with Charles Fisher, producer of two classic Hoodoo Gurus albums, Mars Needs Guitars and Blue Cave. The album was mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound with the exception of “Crackin’ Up”, which was mastered by Don Bartley. The album cover is a large-scale painting by Doug Bartlett.

Immediately upon completing the album, the Hoodoo Gurus set upon shooting a number of videos and “webisodes”, including a “mockumentary” about the making of the album. These videos may be seen on YouTube, and the “Crackin’ Up” video may be seen here.

For two and a half decades the Hoodoo Gurus have consistently been one of the most inventive, lyrically smart and exciting rock ‘n’ roll bands Australia has ever produced. And they’ve done it with style, panache and a wicked sense of humor. Already a seasoned live outfit from endless Australian touring, the Gurus found themselves in 1983 signed to A&M Records in the U.S.; their first release, Stoneage Romeos, hit #1 on the American college radio charts. On the strength of this they embarked on the first of countless tours of the U.S. and many other countries.

In fact the Gurus have toured internationally dozens of times, including repeated sell-outs at 10,000 capacity venues in Brazil. The band was consistently cited as one of the highlights at the 2007 SXSW Music Festival in Austin. The SXSW performances were part of an extended run of North America and Canadian dates that were greatly anticipated by a new generation of fans who thought they’d never have the opportunity to see the much-mythologized Australian band perform live.

The Hoodoo Gurus remain as relevant and impassioned about their distinctive brand of rock ‘n’ roll as at any time in their twenty-five year career.

Let the essence flow!

Buck Owens & Don Rich in Their Technicolor Prime

8 Jan