Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Toon's Tunes best of 2013: concerts, albums, audience and more

It's the last day of (another) year, and as everyone else does, I suppose I'd better create a "best of" the year that was (only limited by my opinion, and my experience!) It's a tough one, as it's been a year packed full of diverse and different and new and wonderfully-faithful things. And I'm sure I've missed some... you can always look back through Toon's Tunes for more. Lots of links to click below!

BEST WEEKEND, BEST LIVE VIDEO, MOST TRAVELLED FANS and BEST FAN EXPERIENCE all have to go to Marillion for the bi-annual conventions or "Marillion Weekends". Wonderful, wonderful concerts. The Wolverhampton, UK weekend was the third of the three held this year. In 2015, I hope to attend all three. So many fans from so many countries, coming together to see and hear their favourite band of all time. The live video--or rather, videos: first, Clocks Already Ticking, the world-record-breaking recording and publishing of a live concert, from the first night of the Wolverhampton weekend. And second, the live video of Brave in its entirety. Both beautifully played, recorded, mastered and produced.
ALISON TOON: Marillion Saturday &emdash; Marillion weekend Wolverhampton 2013 Brave live

I've seen many other music videos this year, but none live up to the quality of these two. Also, the Marillion fan experience through the website, Facebook page and other interaction has created, over time, a huge-yet-personal global family. People who have come together through a love of the music, and who have grown together into a close-knit group who will support each other in times of need and in times of innovation. (Example: Steve Rothery's project is just one.) Other bands, take note and learn from some true masters.

ALISON TOON: Marillion Saturday &emdash; Marillion weekend Wolverhampton 2013 Brave live

BEST ALBUM and BEST ALBUM ARTWORK:  Lux, by Gemini Syndrome. I had the pleasure of seeing Gemini Syndrome twice this year: once in Nevada, once at Aftershock in Sacramento. Lux is at the top of my new-in-2013 album list because every single song is a gem. See the full review of both Lux and Gemini Syndrome at Aftershock and if you haven't heard it yet, what are you waiting for???

ALISON TOON: Gemini Syndrome in Sparks &emdash; Gemini Syndrome live Sparks 2013

Other very, very noteworthy albums from 2013: Orthodox by Beware of Darkness, and the stunning two-release set from Five Finger Death Punch, The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, volumes one and two.

Which leads me to my SURPRISE BAND OF THE YEAR: a band that I really hadn't listened to much before Aftershock's lineup was announced, but who I have been playing non-stop ever since: Five Finger Death Punch (5FDP, FFDP) of course. Added to the list of bands-who-I-will-travel-a-long-way-to-see.

ALISON TOON: Five Finger Death Punch &emdash; Five Finger Death Punch (FFDP, 5FDP) live at Aftershock Festival 2013

BEST FESTIVAL OR CONCERT SERIES:  Monster Energy Aftershock 2013. Just amazing. What a lineup. Stunning. Can't wait for Aftershock 2014. If you need a summary, go watch Aftershock TV on the Aftershock 2013 website.

MOST ENTERTAINING AUDIENCE: Without a doubt, the People of Aftershock. Awesome job guys, truly awesome!
ALISON TOON: People having fun &emdash; People of Aftershock 2013

BEST TRIPJamaica! Not only was it a wonderful vacation, but the month before and after was filled with reggae shows, making it so much more than a trip to the beach. Leading the reggae shows this year, the Wailers on February 9th. And I'm looking forwards to seeing them again very soon; playing all of Legend, here in Sacramento, March 20th.

BEST OLDIE-BUT-GOODY: Blue Oyster Cult who performed at the Sunrise at Night concert series in Citrus Heights. I really, really enjoyed their show.

BEST COUNTRY SHOW: OK I didn't see many, but my favourite has to be Trace Adkins. His down-in-the-cowboy-boots voice just does something special. Maybe I'll explore Country further in 2014: Trace and LeAnn Rimes really opened my ears in 2013.

ALISON TOON: Trace Adkins &emdash; Trace Adkins live 2013

BEST MUSIC BOOKS: While I have read (or tried-very-hard to read--more on that later) many musicians biographies/autobiographies this year, and looked at a lot of concert photographers' publications, two books really stand out as the best I've seen in 2013. 9:30 to Fillmore, photographic memories which was published in 2013 and which is a beautiful documentary of a US tour, and Roger Steffen's Reggae Scrapbook, which was not published in 2013 but which I only saw and read after his storytelling at the Wailers' concert. So while it doesn't really count in this list, but I have to mention it again, as it's a true work of art in both documentation and unique presentation.

Remember: all of Toon's Tunes' concert photography can be viewed at http://alisontoon.com/music There are many more photos than can be included in individual reviews. Any band looking for a promotional photoshoot, go to http://www.alisontoon.com/contact.html

2014? What will you bring? I'm looking forwards to finding out. Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 30, 2013

And now for something completely different...

... no, not Monty Python, but something else in my quest to experience American culture. We never had this in England when I was a kid, nor anywhere else I've lived... it's going to be quite a show and a brand new experience for me! What is it? It's Monster Jam.

With names like Grave Digger(R), Bad Habit and Bounty Hunter, you might think I'm going to see a few heavy metal bands, but no... it's Monster Jam, and it's coming to Sleep Train Arena on January 17-19. Tickets are on sale now starting at $20 for adults and $5 for children (as posted on the website today). And you can get pit passes too!

 I'll remind you about it closer to the time. Anyone want to come with me? I'll write a review after the event and there should be some photos, too. If you see that I've then replaced my truck's tyres and jacked it up, you'll know I'm hooked.

(In exchange for my blogging about Monster Jam, Feld Entertainment has provided me with complimentary tickets to the show. All opinions on Toon's Tunes are totally and utterly mine unless stated otherwise, and that has never happened.)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Beware of Darkness lighten-up Sacramento: unorthodox Orthodox

Yesterday, Rolling Stone magazine reviewed Beware of Darkness' just-released video, All Who Remain. But on Sunday evening, we saw them performing live here in Sacramento, at the Ace of Spades, last date of their current tour, ending a very-musical and successful year in which the indie-rock band saw their first album released ("Orthodox"), tours with Skunk Anansie and Smashing Pumpkins, nominations as best new band (Classic Rock Magazine), and performances at the UK festivals in Reading and Leeds.

ALISON TOON: Beware of Darkness 2013 &emdash; Beware of Darkness live in Sacramento

ALISON TOON: Beware of Darkness 2013 &emdash; Beware of Darkness live in Sacramento
Their show on Sunday just made me want to continue hearing and seeing more of them. From the first time seeing them at Aftershock 2012, and then hearing Orthodox, and again live this week, their talent just continues to grow. Kyle Nicolaides unmistakable voice leads the three-man band through rock ("Howl") to something as quietly beautiful and solo as "Hummingbird"--a range of tempos and melodies that most bands wouldn't dare after ten years on the road. 

Yet here we have three young men--Nicolaides with vocals, lead guitar, and keys, Daniel Curcio so tranquil on bass, and Tony Cupito like Animal on drums (and yes, that is the ultimate drummer compliment).

ALISON TOON: Beware of Darkness 2013 &emdash; Beware of Darkness live in Sacramento

If you need a last-minute Christmas gift for someone, go buy them Orthodox from your usual online store. It's not too late. For all your music-lover friends... rock, indie, R&B... heck even the Leonard Cohen fans will get a kick from the lyrics.

ALISON TOON: Beware of Darkness 2013 &emdash; Beware of Darkness live in Sacramento

Seriously... this is a band with a future. Keep listening.

Thank you guys for another wonderful show. Hope to see you again soon.

For more pictures from the show at Sacramento's Ace of Spades on December 22nd, see http://alisontoon.com/bewareofdarkness2013 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Robb Torres, new solo EP: Something About You Ain't Right

I first heard Rob Torres play guitar when Trapt came to town last year. Since then, he's moved on to something better, gone solo, and recently released an EP: Something About You Ain't Right.

Five songs: the title track, Something About You Ain't Right, Girl I Wanna, Out Here, What Do You Believe In, and Little Too Late.

Smoother, kinder and more rock'n'roll/old-school rhythm'n'blues than Trapt, this is very much Rob's own music. My personal favourites are Out Here, as it gently swells in intensity, and the more folorn Little Too Late.

The EP is available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/something-about-you-aint-right/id726690123 and here's a quick preview:

Carol of the Bells: this is how you make a carol your own...

Marillion just released Carol of the Bells as a single. You can buy it on iTunes or Amazon. (I've linked to the USA version--you'll need to go to your local site.) Please do go and buy a copy: the money is going to a very good cause.

And go to Marillion.com for a better way of life!

For other Christmas (or "holiday", if you prefer) recordings, see http://alison-toon.blogspot.com/2013/12/trace-adkins-kings-gift-christma-carols.html. And maybe check out Rob Halford's Winter Songs while you're at it too.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jack Russell's Great White, Sacramento 13th December--a review

Great White are another of those major American rock bands that I somehow missed out on during their hair-band heyday.

I didn't listen to Guns N' Roses much either back then, nor the other bands that were of the same genre: Poison, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Cinderella... I was probably too busy listening to Sisters of Mercy instead. So, hearing that Jack Russell was coming to town, with his new band, but playing legacy and familiar songs, I wanted to be there and see what I'd missed--and to see another on-stage survivor in action.

Jack Russell's Great White live in Sacramento 2013

Jack looked, and sounded, good. His signature high-register vocals and Rod-Stewart-esque microphone manipulation. His interaction with his new, strong and musical young band members. His stage presence. This was the real show that I'd been waiting for, all evening. He made the wait worthwhile.

Shame there wasn't a bigger audience.

Jack Russell's Great White live in Sacramento 2013

I was hoping to photograph a happy Jack on stage, making his good music: my perception of the man and his music, not a tabloid story. I know he's been through hell, and he's not the only one. There are far-too-many stories out there, people and writers handing out their version of the truth. I'm not going to rehash any of that here. Every day is a new day.

And indeed, Jack Russell was that happy guy last night, on stage at the Ace of Spades in Sacramento.

For more photos from last night's show at the Ace of Spades, Sacramento, go to the gallery: http://alisontoon.com/jackrussellgreatwhite

Jack Russell's Great White live in Sacramento 2013

Jack Russell's Great White in Sacramento: the supporting bands

I almost didn't stay for Jack Russell's Great White show last night. <--Click that link for the show.

If I had not promised to cover Jack Russell's show here, on Toon's Tunes, with photos, I would have left--run, even--during the first support act. I'd have left during the second support act... and even if I'd made it that far, I would have left during the third support act. I could have been at home in the warm, watching Brave Live or some BBC crime series on TV and drinking a mug of hot chocolate.

It was seriously the worst set of supporting bands I've seen in a very long time, and I was really happy I'd remembered my earplugs and the way to the restroom to hide.

Sigh. I don't like writing that; I prefer to be English and to say "sorry" and to be indirect with criticism that might be misconstrued as positive feedback. This is emphatically not positive, but I'll try to make it direct.

Let's try again.

First band: the young woman guitar player had the right idea; some Yngwie-like riffs on a seven-string, and a calm but confident stage presence. The bass player, however, made me want to quickly scribble and hold up big signs saying, "Find out how to play the darn instrument, before you play-out the Rock Star", or, "Rip your shirt off AFTER you've been to the gym, not before. Please.", or "Friends don't let their bass player leave them stranded on stage". Please...  go back to the garage. Stay there. Please.

Second band were more mature, more fun, and obviously had long-time fans in the small crowd. OK maybe I wouldn't have left during their act. My opinion had just been tainted by what had come before. They played decent old-school rock. A bit like you used to find in Working Mens' Clubs in the UK on a Saturday night.

Third band: strong vocals and a bass player who knew how to play the stage and the audience. But overall, they just didn't do much for me, at all. I couldn't find the melody. I'm not sure that the band did, either, at least not all the way through the set.

Sigh... I wasn't even interested enough to work out which-band-of-the-three-was-which. And as none of them except the second band clearly introduced themselves, and not one labeled their drum kits like most bands do, I guess it really wasn't that important to them, either.

Sorry. (British sorry.) My fault. I'll do better next time. Sorry...

(I will put photos of these bands up on http://alisontoon.com/music once I work out who is what and which is which. Might not be today or this week.)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ed Kowalczyk: from doughnuts (donuts) in Denver to acoustic in Sacramento

I first heard Ed Kowalczyk's voice in May 1995.

It was my first-ever trip to the USA. I'd left behind a vivid and vibrant green spring in Grenoble, France, and arrived to find a bleak, grey, bare-tree and wintery Denver. I'd left the warm conference hotel to explore the city and to buy breakfast, and I'd just experienced the stupid-customer treatment from the woman in the doughnut store. ("I'd like a coffee and a doughnut, please," I said, quite innocently, British accent and all. Where I came from there were two types of doughnuts: those with a hole, and those without. "Yeah, right. A donut. You want a donut." She looked at me like something that had just hatched and wasn't cute. I was obviously a foreign idiot who not only talked weird, but didn't know how to buy breakfast. I looked down in embarrassment, and only then noticed that there were a million different donuts and cakes (I know now they are "muffins") on display: frosted and sugared and chocolate-covered and sprinkled and cinnamon and apple and goodness-knows-what else...

ALISON TOON: Ed Kowalczyk &emdash; Ed Kowalczyk at the Assembly, Sacramento, 2013
Intimidated, I chose the most familiar-looking ball of fried dough. Then we had to repeat the whole process all over again, this time for a simple coffee. In France and England at that time, a coffee was just a coffee. It wasn't a grande-latte-decaff-nofat anything. It was just coffee. Black or white? Sugar? Simple binary choices with direct and simple answers.

(I hadn't yet experienced asking for salad. The salad-dressing-list-of-confusion was being saved up to ambush me later in the week.)

Bear with me: I'll get to the point of this review in a moment.

Suitably chastened, and clutching my hard-earned coffee (house, black, no sugar, tall) and donut (plain, sugared, in a bag), I retreated somewhere much safer--the music store on the other side of the downtown pedestrian street. It was warm, it was familiar... and it was filled with a really great voice and a song that was immediately familiar, even though I'd never heard Live or Ed Kowalczyk before.

The guy in the music store was much more helpful than Ms. Donut. I left the store with copies of both Throwing Copper and Mental Jewelry. (Either Live hadn't been heard in Europe then, or I'd somehow missed them... and they became firm favourites for many years. I still play them to this day.)

ALISON TOON: Ed Kowalczyk &emdash; Ed Kowalczyk at the Assembly, Sacramento, 2013

Last night, Ed Kowalczyk performed alone, with no band, no accompanist, no-one on stage with him, bringing a new meaning to "I Alone". Just Ed, two microphones, and a set of guitars. He entranced the enthusiastic audience at Sacramento's Assembly, performing songs from back-in-the-day Live right through to those from his latest solo album, The Flood and The Mercy. He warned of "era whiplash" as he jumped from new to old to new again: Mental Jewelry, Seven, Pain Lies on the Riverside, Angels on a Razor.. his version of Springsteen's "I'm On Fire"... Holy Water Tears from the new album, Heaven, I Alone. Overcome. Selling the Drama. Dance With You. And to finish an excellent show, Lightning Crashes. Bare bones: one man and his guitar. And it was just right.

ALISON TOON: Ed Kowalczyk &emdash; Ed Kowalczyk at the Assembly, Sacramento, 2013

Then entire show, Kowalczyk was bathed in pale, turquoise light like the water which flows so strong through many of his lyrics. He kept the audience engaged, responsive: some of whom will no doubt be making the trip down to San Francisco today, to see the next show of the tour.

ALISON TOON: Ed Kowalczyk &emdash; Ed Kowalczyk at the Assembly, Sacramento, 2013
The Assembly was the perfect setting for this show. It's small enough to be intimate, but big enough not to be cramped, with a large open floor area, wide bar, and comfy booths. The seating in the booths above-and-behind the bar gives a wonderful, close-to-the-stage view in comfort. The sound is really good: every word was clear (mostly due to Kowalczyk's annunciation, but credit must also be given to a very well set-up sound system, much appreciated by my ears!). There was a warmth in the interaction between performer and crowd. Serious fans from when Kowalczyk fronted Live, and new fans too.

A few more tour dates in California and Canada, and then some with a full band in Australia and New Zealand coming soon. See the Tour page on Ed Kowalczyk's website for more details.

See more photos from last night's show at the Assembly in Sacramento: http://www.alisontoon.com/edkowalczyk

 (If you are not aware: Kowalczyk split with Live a while back, it wasn't a fun 'divorce', but it seems sorted now. I'm only writing about the music here.)

ALISON TOON: Ed Kowalczyk &emdash; Ed Kowalczyk at the Assembly, Sacramento, 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Consumable Online--taking me back: early internet and music reviews

Once-upon-a-time, in the dim-dark-days of the early internet, when most things were still in batch mode with ListServ and stuff like that, I was a writer for the first online music publication--or "zine" as we called them--Consumable Online. Consumable was run by a hard-working editor, out of Hoboken, New Jersey, and had correspondents in the US and overseas--including yours truly, in France at that time.

Consumable stopped publication in August, 2001. Take a look: remember this was mostly an emailed publication, plain text, sometimes photos, but no flashy websites and certainly not loads of advertisements. 

Here's an example of what a subscriber received:

(My bit's at the end, about Sisters of Mercy.)

Amazingly, a lot of the publication is still available online: http://www.westnet.com/consumable/ 

Here are a few of mine:

So yeah, I've been doing this for longer than you knew. Under various names. Who'da thunkit?

Trace Adkins, The King's Gift, Christmas, carols and comfort

After falling in love with Trace Adkin's voice earlier this year, and really enjoying his show here in Citrus Heights, I was really looking forwards to his Christmas release, "The King's Gift". After all, it's not country, it's a set of some of my favourite Christmas carols, with a Celtic twist, and it's Trace's wonderful, deep, hearty voice, like black treacle in song.

("O come o come Emmanuel" is one of the most beautiful songs, religion aside, ever. It has a special place in my heart, entwined with memories of home and family and visits to Israel and to a family history that includes several generations of Emmanuel Bonnets, blacksmiths... and simply because I love the song, its melody, its tonal changes. It has to be something really, really special.)

I have to admit, on first listening, I was disappointed. I wanted, and expected, this non-country recording to absolutely blow me away on first hearing. It didn't. It was very nice. Really.... nice. But I don't do "nice". I do raw and soulful and heartfelt and bleak and beautiful and painful and cursed and reborn. I want emotion and passion. I want wild landscapes and wolves and a fire to keep them away.

ALISON TOON: Trace Adkins &emdash; Trace Adkins live 2013
Trace Adkins, Citrus Heights, Sunrise At Night concert series 2013
But this was nice. Melodic, gentle, comfortable, warm and snug like an inglenook fireplace on a snowy day. 

So I listened to The King's Gift once the day it was released, and then went back to Marillion and Gemini Syndrome and Five Finger Death Punch and well, it's not Christmas yet anyway, is it???

And then I see lots of reviews celebrating The King's Gift. Was I missing something? Time for another listen.

It's still nice. In fact, it's quite beautiful. Trace's voice melds with the Celtic sound. The Chieftans help out. It's very, very different to his usual country sound--and for his country-only fans, this is a huge step outside of the country-cowboy-comfort zone. It's classic holiday-season music, with a twist, and will no doubt be playing and playing in bookstores around the USA between now and January 1st (at least, it should be). The more I listened, the more I came to appreciate the gentle and unique subtleties of Trace's versions of these precious songs. And I'm convinced it will continue to grow on me, and that it will become one of my annual Christmas classics.

If you are lucky, you can see Trace on tour with his Christmas show: http://traceadkins.com/tour 

(But now that you've taken this step away from country,Trace, will you jump even further, and go heavy metal? Something that will really push from comfortable to absolutely amazing? I'd really like to hear that... you've played with Muppets after all... and of course,  I'm still waiting to see you play Reacher!)

For those of you interested in a version of O' Come O' Come Emmanuel that really did blow me away on first hearing, this is it: 

For more pictures from the summer Trace Adkins' show in Citrus Heights, CA, see http://alisontoon.com/traceadkins 

Dedicated to those of you waiting in line at the DMV... best wishes, Fitz and the Tantrums

(I had a great-uncle named Walker. I love that name.)

In case you missed their show earlier this year in Sacramento, the pics are here: http://www.alisontoon.com/fitzandthetantrums   And the review: http://alison-toon.blogspot.com/2013/07/fitz-and-tantrums-performing-at-ace-of.html

ALISON TOON: Fitz and the Tantrums &emdash; Fitz and the Tantrums live 2013
Fitz and the Tantrums at Sacramento's Ace of Spades