Sunday, January 6, 2008

My Favorite Bands

Note: This feature was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

My brother goes through phases in terms of his music fandom. He'll be totally obsessed with something for awhile, then he'll reach some kind of breakthrough and find something new. I've known a lot of people that are like this, that seem to drift from one scene to another. In contrast, I've always had a certain respect for a person who stuck fast to the things he enjoys. My taste evolves and my moods change just like anyone else, but I like to think that I'm a little more stable than the average person.

Granted, I'm much more into blues these days than I ever have been, and I tend to focus more concentration on it than my beloved classic rock. But if you look behind the outer layer, I think you'll see that my focus really hasn't changed at all these past 6 years or so, since I've really gotten into music. My favorite band in high school was Pink Floyd, and my favorite band in college was Led Zeppelin. I don't listen to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin as much as I used to, because frankly, I've kind of worn them out (not to say that I don't still enjoy listening to them when I get the chance, though).

But in their place, I'm listening to bands a lot like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It's not really new, it's kind of just more of the same. I haven't switched genres, I've just gone deeper. Instead of Pink Floyd, I listen to Tangerine Dream, post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and various ambient/atmospheric stuff. And instead of Led Zeppelin, I listen to other blues rock bands like the original Fleetwood Mac, and Robin Trower, etc. So I feel like, where other people might like to journey laterally, I like to spend my time going deeper into the environment in which I'm already ensconced.

So my brother's favorite bands seem to change every year or two, and he comes up to me and asks me what my favorite bands are. And I sit there, and I have to think, "why are you asking me this question? You already know what my favorite bands are. I told you a year ago, and a year before that." But anyway, in case my list has changed slightly over the years, and for those who have never asked me, here are my favorite bands, and an example of an album or two from each which represents well what I like about them.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Studio: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Live: Live At The Fillmore East (1970)

I have great respect for Neil Young as a musician, and the things he stands for, but when he combines his style with the engine of Crazy Horse, that's where it all comes together in the perfect package. People are hesitant to praise Neil Young's rough and idiosyncratic approach to lead guitar, but to me, the rawness of his licks touch the base frustration of my soul like nothing else can. The lead lines in Cowgirl in the Sand - the definitive version presented on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and a powerful live version on the newly released Fillmore concert - express perfectly the frustration within me at the mental struggles I endure. Wanting so badly to be more than I am, but being held back by unreasonable fears and insecurities, and the anger that stirs within me. Neil's stinging leads are the vocalization of that, in Cowgirl, as well as the other songs where he plays in that style.

Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac
Studio: Then Play On (1969)
Live: Live At The Boston Tea Party (1970)

The beauty of the original Fleetwood Mac, as I see it, is three-fold - and each fold covers the leader, Peter Green. On the one hand, you have Green's intensely personal rendition of the blues, stimulated by his tasteful and deeply emotional guitar style. Tracks like Jumping At Shadows, A Fool No More, and Love That Burns, are legitimate proof that white boys can play the blues just as sincerely as anyone. On the other hand, you have Fleetwood Mac's amazing rockers, epitomized by Rattlesnake Shake, which itself expanded into a beautifully intense exploratory musical jam inspired by bands like The Grateful Dead, but with a much harder edge. On the third hand, you have Peter Green's depressing personal songs, like Man of the World, Oh Well, Closing My Eyes, and The Green Manalishi, which convey a sense of sadness, paranoia, and even anger at the pattern of the world, as well as his confusion about the path his life was taking him in, from being nobody to a superstar, leading him to question the value and worth of it all. These feelings of being lost in a lost world I can relate to, and sympathize with, and they are a beautiful expression of the same kind of feelings I've been trying to communicate in my own music.

Led Zeppelin
Studio: Led Zeppelin (1969)
Live: The Song Remains The Same (1973)

Led Zeppelin was one of the first bands I got into. Not only do they have a certain cool factor that crosses all kinds of social and cultural barriers, but they actually have the talent and the style to back it up. Although the untitled fourth album was as influential in my development as a rock fan as any of Zep's albums were, their debut is probably their most bluesiest album, and while I'd be hard-pressed to pick one album as my definite favorite, this one would have to be considered. Among other things, the relaxed tightness of the band, their confidence in their own abilities, and the communication between Plant's voice and Page's guitar totally enthralled me. The band's live performance in The Song Remains The Same awed me to the point that I actually went out and bought a guitar, with the intent to learn to play like Jimmy. And I'm still working on that.

Pink Floyd
Studio: ?
Live: Live At Pompeii (1972)

As you can see, it's just about impossible for me to pick out one of Pink Floyd's albums as my favorite. I could easily choose Dark Side of the Moon, and it would be deserving of the position, but doing so would leave out so much other greatness the band accomplished, including the lesser known stuff that gets overlooked by pop culture - which is represented in the mind-blowing live show at Pompeii. Pompeii to me represents the height of what Pink Floyd was about, even more so than Dark Side of the Moon. Rather than a perfectly polished meditation on life's mysteries, Pink Floyd was originally about experimentation, and journeying unprepared into the unknown, which they would later spend so much time relating to the world, after they had returned from the intellectual voyage.

Robin Trower
Studio: Twice Removed From Yesterday (1973)
Live: Live (1976)

I got into Trower from a tip on a classic rock forum, but it was love at first listen. Trower's guitar style is gorgeously emotive. And his aesthetic carries a kind of spacey mystery. It's like Pink Floyd mixed with Led Zeppelin, in a way. Additionally, Dewar's vocals are the perfect match for Trower's licks, and that combination makes a powerful impression. Most people who know of Trower would cite Bridge of Sighs, but I'm more impressed by the original Robin Trower Band's debut album, Twice Removed From Yesterday. Besides featuring a lot of Trower's awesome guitar work (such as in the sublime Daydream and the torching Rock Me Baby), some of my favorite, and most heartbreaking, songs are on that album - specifically, I Can't Wait Much Longer and Hannah. For the live side of things, the Live album from 1976 is amazing in that it's not quite as self-conscious as a lot of live rock albums are. The band is truly in top form, and while the setlist regrettably does not include the hit title track from Bridge of Sighs, Trower's outstanding - and unmatched - playing on Daydream more than makes up for it. Nowhere else does that track sound quite as good.

Ten Years After
Studio: Cricklewood Green (1970) or Rock & Roll Music To The World (1972)
Live: Recorded Live (1973) or Live At The Fillmore East (1970)

Like most, my first conscious exposure to Ten Years After was the stage-stealing performance of I'm Going Home featured in the Woodstock film. However, after the Stones, my dad's favorite band is Ten Years After, so it partly runs in my blood. Alvin Lee never fails to impress with the fluidity of his lightning-fast licks. I'm the kind of guy who takes substance over speed, but Alvin Lee's got both. As if that weren't enough, his vocals, while maybe not musically on par with the legendary rock vocalists, capture his songs perfectly, and add a unique touch that really make the songs his own. The band as a whole is very tight, and has a strong foundation in the blues, which naturally appeals to me. At their heart, Ten Years After were a monster live band, and you can check out either of the live albums I've picked to witness not only their impressive improvisational expansion of the track I Can't Keep From Crying, Sometimes, but also the heavy emotional power, and the never-ending guitar drama, of the blues Help Me - my personal favorite from the band.

Derek And The Dominos
Studio: Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)

Despite only releasing one album, I still consider Derek and the Dominos to be one of my favorite bands. Part of that is because it's that good an album. And part of it is because it represents to me the pinnacle of Eric Clapton's career. Better than his solo career; even better than Cream. Part of the magic is the addition to the album of Duane Allman's prowess on the slide guitar, but the bulk of it comes from Clapton's inspiration - his unrequited love for the wife of his best friend. The result is the most beautiful, sincere, and moving collection of love songs ever recorded. My personal favorite track is the unconventional Hendrix cover of Little Wing. Clapton's version is decidedly unique, but it plods on with a power that speaks to me more than the delicate phrasing of Hendrix's original, and even Stevie Ray Vaughan's fantastic version. But to single out that track alone would be a disservice to the rest of this amazing album. Eric Clapton's never performed better.

And of course, there are other names not listed here, that I greatly respect. For example, guitarists like Michael Bloomfield and Roy Buchanan, whom I consider primarily as musicians and less as members of a great band. Then there are bands like The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and others whom I've always loved, that I would place only slightly lower on the list than the ones I've detailed above. And there are others, but these are primarily the best, in my mind.

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