Category Archives: Prog Rock

Unfinished Business In The ALP

Gillard Wanted To Handball The PM Chair To Combet

I like Greg Combet. He’s the only politician I know of who has admitted to being a fan of Frank Zappa. He’s done now, but while he was around, I had hopes for the man. Perhaps these hopes were misplaced, given that the sort of man who likes Frank Zappa might look at Australian Politics and choose to walk away. I have to respect that as a voter, but it’s still sad. Maybe it got too hard to work in Parliament all week and go home and put on a Frank Zappa record and there is Frank singing “Keep it greasy so it goes down easy“. I’d imagine the cognitive dissonance might become unbearable. And so it is that he left Parliament at the end of his term at the 2013 election.

The news today – more like a non-news really – is that Julia Gillard offered to hand him the Prime Minster’s chair, just to fend off Kevin Rudd. This is pretty bleak material.

An embattled Julia Gillard secretly offered to stand down as Prime Minister in June 2013 and secure the leadership for then Climate Change and Industry minister Greg Combet in order to fend off Kevin Rudd, Mr Combet has revealed.

But dogged by months of ill-health, and unsure that a switch to a third leadership contender so close to an election would improve Labor’s position, Mr Combet declined the chance to be prime minister.

‘‘I was struggling a good deal personally by the time June [2013] came around’’ Mr Combet told Fairfax Media in an interview this week. ‘‘I was in constant pain with the problems that I was having, and the thought of taking on additional responsibility and not being 100 per cent fit to do it, in that febrile environment, it didn’t look easy.’’

This ALP factional infighting is pretty awful stuff. It partly goes with the terrain of the Westminster system, and over the years we’ve been made to be inured to its odd outcomes. The ins and outs of these machinations are way beyond the purview of the electorate, and are subject to influences from such things as the Unions and lobby groups. It’s just difficult to understand how they could have cocked up so many decisions along the way.

He says he remains convinced that former Opposition Leader Kim Beazley would have won the 2007 federal election and become a highly successful Labor Prime Minister if Mr Rudd had not dislodged him.

ACTU polling as part of the Your Rights At Work Campaign in the run up to the 2007 election left him ‘‘completely convinced Beazley would have won’’, which would have resulted in a ‘‘vastly more experienced, mature person as Prime Minister presiding over, for want of a better description, a really grown up government, avoiding all the mistakes’’.

‘‘Neither Julia nor Kevin had had a lot of experience in leadership roles and I think that impacted on their capacity to do the job’’ Mr Combet told Fairfax Media.

So at least we were right all along in 2007, that the Rudd-Gillard leadership was a balls-up waiting to happen. It’s a shame I can’t point to neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard as the same kinds of leaders as Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam before them. The tumultuous six years in government exposed all the problems of the ALP that went unsolved since Keating lost in 1996. The problem is compounded by the fact that neither Kim Beazley nor Simon Crean were able to restructure the party in the way it needed to be restructured, and Mark Latham’s turn was certainly hobbled by the same influences that replaced Beazley twice, that put in Rudd, removed Rudd, removed Gillard and essentially burnt the metaphorical house down.

Oh, and Ms. Gillard, I will never forget the slight you made when you said you were not a social democrat.

Here’s Mark Latham being particularly frank about it.

Faulkner’s reform plan, to be put to State Conference this weekend, is to allow ALP branch members to select the party’s upper house tickets. Having given rank-and-file members a say in the selection of Labor’s federal and state leaders, why shouldn’t they be empowered to preselect upper house candidates? Why doesn’t Clements trust the True Believers who staff the polling booths, who keep their local branches alive, who fight so passionately for the cause of Labor?

Far from restricting rank-and-file union involvement, democratisation encourages it. It says to union members: don’t allow union secretaries doubling up as factional bosses to make all the big decisions. Join your local ALP branch and have a direct say in how the party is run: in picking federal and state leaders, in selecting Labor’s lower and upper house candidates.

This is what Faulkner is trying to achieve: Labor as a membership-based party, rather than a narrow factional-based clique.

Mark Latham’s been made out to be a crazy person by the media which must be galling because he commentates in the media; and once upon a decade ago, he was the guy trying to put together a way back to office, when the party machine had run through both Beazley and Crean and found them wanting. It’s hard to forget those terrible years either, together with the terrible campaign and defeat that followed. And all that time, the likes of Mark Arbib and Paul Howes were fucking shit up from behind the scenes.

It’s really hard to forgive the ALP. Especially if you don’t want to vote for the right.

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Crimson ProjeKCt @ The Hi-Fi – Sydney 27/Jun/2014

21st Century Touring Band

King Crimson have had so many member changes there have even been off-shoot bands that play King Crimson material but in a different vernacular such as the Crimson Jazz Trio. It shouldn’t be surprising to see Adrian Belew fronting a band that features Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto playing King Crimson numbers. Rumour has it that founding patriarch Robert Fripp never wants to tour Australia so this is about as close to seeing King Crimson live in Australia we’re ever going to get. The other 3 members Julie Slick, Tobias Ralph and Markus Reuter round out the formidable sextet and the rest is prog rock, loud and raw. Beware the dinosaurs.

This is the first time I know of that some incarnation of King Crimson are playing their numbers in Australia. I have waited for this for over 30years. Kind of goes to show Australia is still a cultural backwater.

What’s Good About It

King Crimson have so many different phases to match the number of personnel who have come and gone. This band does not feature any of the members from the the pre-1974 bust up that prompted Robert Fripp to leave the business for 2 years and then move to New York, and yet their renditions of the 70s classic numbers such as ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic Part I’ and ‘Red’ are played immaculately. The post 90s double-trio numbers get a good working out as well, but the real meat and potatoes of the King Crimson material lies in the tricolour albums ‘Discipline’, ‘Beat’ and ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’. Having missed all of King Crimson’s live phases and career,  this is about as good as it gets, and it’s pretty damn good fare.

What’s amazing about this incarnation of Crimson and its repertoire is that they play it with such gusto and for something like 3 hours, you certainly get your money’s worth. You come to realise that the recorded version of the music is just a shadow of this roaring red-blooded rock act. The music played live is far less mannered and much more rudely energetic and in your face. The performance bristles with energy.

The jaw dropping chops, the astounding array of sound and technology, the astonishing artistic choices, the tight control that gives way to sonic abandon, the abstraction, the integration of arrangements, is all entirely mesmerising. You sure don’t notice the three hours fly by.

What’s Bad About It

Musically, nothing.

The venue lighting guys were terrible. They didn’t light the front of the stage properly so we watched Adrian Belew in silhouette, back lit from the stage lights above and back, all night long. It was ridiculous. It was like some high school revue effort and I’m pretty sure there are some high school revues that are lit better than that.

What’s Interesting About It

The twin drumming by Pat Mastelotto and Toby Ralph was a revelation. It made me wonder what it might have been like with the B’boom era double trio setup with Bill Bruford, but in most part Mr. Bruford wasn’t missed. The polyrhythms, the syncopation, the dialogic interaction, the experimentation with sounds and extended spaces all built to a tremendous sonic punch. You don’t see bands with two drummers often but when you do, it changes the perception of rock music. It’s a testament to their musical nous and intelligence that the drum interactions come over so well.

The night had a few surprising moments. Tony Levin and the Stick Men half of the double trio played ‘Breathless’ off Robert Fripp’s solo album ‘Exposure’ (a touch stone for gonzo guitar as well as punk metal, musique concrete and Frippertronics). Amazingly, it sounded very much like the recorded version. Tony Levin was doing the Robert Fripp bits on the Stick and Markus Reuter was doing the Tony Levin bits from the album. Pat Mastelotto was doing a great interpretation of Jerry Marotta.

The encore decidedly wasn’t ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. The band opted to go with ‘Elephant Talk’, and ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’.

Adrian Belew – Guitar Rhinoceros, Twang-bar King

I had the exquisite pleasure of standing right in front of Adrian Belew all night long, so I got a close quarter look at how he goes about doing his thing. The most extraordinary thing – amongst many extraordinary things – is how well his guitar keeps tune because he rides the whammy bar hard. He rides it with his palm, he taps it with his ring finger and pinky, he gently shimmies with it and dives right down so the knob hits the neck pickup. It’s like what you imagine Hendrix to have been like with the whammy, but it’s more. More of everything, all rolled into his musical expression and style. He elicits overtones and harmonics from very different places to where other more conventional players elicit them and he bangs and whallops and bends the body and to get the whole guitar to resonate. It’s avant-garde guitar. It’s what Pete Townshend probably wanted to do but couldn’t so he opted to smash his guitars instead.

It’s not just the whammy bar thing. It’s the loops, the effects, the abstracted shards of noise, the piano sounds off the guitar synth, the brutal distortion tone that comes and goes with a tap of his foot, the seemingly infinite array of tones coming from the Parker Fly, and then there’s the actual playing technique that has to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s the jester in the Court of the Crimson King as he foot taps and finger taps and twiddle knobs in between playing complicated phrases, all with gusto and panache. He’s one of those people who just invent things and it’s perfect. It’s like how only John McEnroe plays tennis like John McEnroe. Only Adrian Belew plays guitar like this. I’ve seen Andy Summers at equally close quarters and Adrian left Andy for dead.

…and he sounds just like on the records. People use the word ‘awesome’ way too lightly to the point it has lost deeper meaning, and that’s a shame. Adrian Belew live on stage is the proper true definition of ‘awesome’.

Tony Levin – Stick Monster

I have a personal pantheon of bass heroes. A lot of them are prog rock guys from England that I natter on and on about – Squire, Entwistle, Wetton, Karn… The big exception is Tony Levin who is just about dead centre in my pantheon but I don’t talk about him much because I can’t begin to emulate what he does. I can come at the other guys because they play bass guitar as a lower register extension of guitars. Tony Levin plays the Chapman Stick – tapping away furiously – and when he plays a normal(-ish) bass, he plays the strings with percussive extensions on his index and middle fingers. I’m not sure what those extensions are made of, and how he goes about getting that tone he gets, but it’s a monster tone.

Seeing him live is a revelation. Especially because I’ve been reading his name on my fave album covers for most of my listening-collecting life starting at ‘Double Fantasy’ by John Lennon. Yes, he’s the bass player there. He’s on Peter Gabriel’s solo albums; Pink Floyd’s ‘Momentary Lapse of Reason’;  and he’s even on ‘Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe’ – if you can’t wrangle Chris Squire, you get Tony Levin! – not to mention the 1980 onwards King Crimson albums; and he sounds different every time out on all those records. There is no particular Tony Levin sound you can nail him to (unlike say Chris Squire who can be honed in on with a Rickenbacker 4001 bass) or a Tony Levin style except the aesthetic surprise you get when you hear his sound. And all the while, you can sort of play his bass lines on a normal bass guitar to a point but it’s just not like anything anybody else does. It’s completely original and unique.

So yeah, I finally got to see Tony Levin live, got totally blown away, and walked away with very few hints on how to do that stuff.

The Adrian Belew Power Trio

Which brings me to Julie Slick on bass over on stage right; She seems to know exactly what to do to emulate Tony Levin. At one point Tony got his Stick caught in his belt and so he sort of stopped playing and adjusted his belt mid-song while Julie Slick kept the bottom end engine room going. It was seamless.

Adrian Belew’s half of the double trio played a few non-Crimson numbers and were wild.  They are ecstatic players. But if you can play like that you’d be ecstatic too.

Random Thoughts

Adrian Belew is a gentleman. They say “never meet your heroes”, but every gonzo guitar player should have the joy and pleasure of meeting Adrian Belew.

Tony Levin looks like Walter White. Just much nicer and more approachable.

Julie Slick wore these really funky shoes with one foot blue and the other yellow, adorned by dogs.  They were cool.

No Robert Fripp? No Problem. Markus Reuter had those chops down. He even looked a little like Robert Fripp with the glasses.

Pat Mastelotto looked a lot more imposing in person than in photos. He has a lot of power.

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Filed under Jazz, Prog Rock, Rock

Quick Shots 01/Jan/2014

Hey, First Post Of the Year From Me

I’ve been busy watching a few silly movies on FetchTV in between the seasonal obligations. It’s pretty cool watching on FetchTV because it saves the on the trip to the video store if nothing else and it sure beats buying more media. I’ve been stuck in the bad habit of buying stuff because I still have the carry-over from the ear when DVDs were actually worth something. It was ever so brief, but they were important for a good half a decade there until Blu-Ray came along and scotched that little bubble.

My New Years resolution last year was that I shouldn’t just buy more media, but a) sometimes it is easier to just buy the box set and b) sometimes it’s better to own than rent and c) it’s impossible to stick to arbitrary rules meant that I bought my fair share of stuff. It’s a bit of a worry if you can’t remember if you’ve bought something or simply watched it on a rented bit of media, but if I think I’m going to go, “you have to watch this scene!?” or “you just have to hear this guitar solo!” then it’s better to own this stuff.

Still, it’s weird having a pile of this media that grew to be irrelevant so quickly. At least with LPs and CDs, there’s an argument to be made that mp3s are a their best worse than either LPs or CDs, and that moving on to just data on hard disks isn’t really an improvement in your listening pleasure. Besides which, you can squeeze a hello of a lot more out of LPs and CDs by having better speakers and amplifiers. Video is different.

With 4k TV looming in the not too distant future, even the marvelous Blu-Ray 1080p format is going to look pretty outdated in the next few years. I’m sure there’s 8k and 16k TVs beyond that, and without an NBN pumping at last 50mbps it’s going to be difficult to run the IPTV services on 4k and up download services, so maybe buying media won’t become totally extinct. Let me just say, 4k is gorgeous. You’re going to want this much more than the time you went from SD PAL or NTSC to HDTV. (That being said, I do seriously  wonder if there’s any joy in seeing 4k TV footage of Kanye West or Miley Cyrus twerking.)

Getting Bad Advice

The news this week that’s been most grating has been this business of Maurice Newman proclaiming that climate science on global warming is delusional.

In an opinion piece in The Australian newspaper, Maurice Newman, the Prime Minister’s pick as head of his Business Advisory Council, claimed high energy costs caused by the carbon tax and the renewable energy target, introduced by the Howard government, had eroded Australia’s competitiveness. Under Labor and the Greens, Australia had been taken ”hostage” by ”climate change madness”, Mr Newman wrote.

“Newman!!”

It’s really no big deal except for the fact that it’s wrong and willfully wrong, and that he is slated to offer up advice to the Prime Minister based on this kind of idiotic denialism. If nothing else, it shows Tony Abbott still thinks the science on this is ‘complete crap’. What’s even weirder is that because the first 100days of Tony Abbott’s time in office was ‘complete crap’, we’re not surprised in the least bit find that his business advisor is a highly motivated climate change denialist.

Can We Please Stop With The Government Debt Hysteria?

This one came in from Skarp last week but I’ve been a bit preoccupied. Paul Sheehan – he of the rather squeaky voice and reflexively right-leaning views – wrote this rather tawdry column.

At 12.30 on Tuesday, Hockey, who has also been the stand-out thespian of the new federal parliament, will unveil the real horror, dysfunction and narcissism of Kevin Rudd’s contribution to Australian political history, disably assisted by Julia Gillard. Hockey will release the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, known in the trade as MYEFO, which will show a budget deficit much worse than Labor led us to believe, probably close to $50 billion, debt obligations much higher than Labor led us to believe, and unfunded liabilities that are so irresponsibly crushing the government will have to walk away from many of them. The most monumental folly is the National Broadband Network, whose economic rationale was worked out on a piece of paper by Rudd. The scheme subsequently created by former communications minister Stephen Conroy would cost more than $70 billion and never recover its cost of capital. The Abbott government will have to start again.

The way that paragraph is written, you’d think that the sky was going to cave in. Fortunately, professor Steve Keen had this article as a retort:

I’m not going to debate (or defend) Kevin Rudd’s personality, but getting this hysterical over a $50 billion deficit in a $1.5 trillion economy? Oh come on: that is slightly less than 3 per cent of GDP (the precise GDP figure is $1.525 trillion, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Comparable figures for some of our trading partners are 5.5 per cent for the USA, 6 per cent for the UK, and 10 per cent for Japan. Australia’s deficit for 2013 is almost 50 per cent below the expected average for the OECD of 4.8 per cent of GDP.

Of course, finding that out doesn’t require a trip overseas: all you have to do is search the web. But what a trip overseas might alert Sheehan to is the economic performance of the rest of the planet – and especially of those parts of it that, as he does, make the size of the government deficit the only stick by which economic performance is measured.

The rest of the article is Keen dismantling Sheehan’s stated position that all this debt is somehow crippling and wrong.Austerity i a terrible thing; not to mention the fact that it doesn’t work.

You sort of wonder how people like Paul Sheehan keep jobs as columnists. It’s like he gets paid not for his thinking and critical faculties – which on the whole seem faulty anyway – but for how hard his blowhard entries blow. And they really blow. Sheehan’s symptomatic of what’s making the media market worse in this era. You just can’t trust what any of these sloppy commentators write.  but somehow they’re up there with a public soapbox on the SMH masthead spreading his kind of nonsense. I mean really! Why do they have to give ‘equal time’ to stupidity and misinformation?

But back to Keen’s take home message about Government debt:

I would far rather see governments acknowledging the problem of private debt, and doing something concrete to reduce it – since the financial sector should never have been allowed to create much of that debt in the first place. But as a second best policy, government spending should buffer the impact of the decline in private sector deleveraging. To do otherwise is to turn a serious recession into a genuine Depression – as Europe has done.

Behind the veneer of apparent fiscal prudence, that is what hysterical articles like Sheehan’s are encouraging – in utter denial both of the actual cause of the crisis and, more importantly for a journalist, in ignorance of what even casual empiricism shows has been the actual impact of austerity.

That, just about sums it all up.

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Filed under Cinema, Film, General, Movies, Pop, Prog Rock, Rock, Science

The Zero Year Of Your Coordinates

Your Mother Should Know

I recently did a bunch of covers of side 3 of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’. What prompted it was a combination of coming off a 12 song set of fairly difficult and challenging tracks which exhausted me and the desire to just play a bunch of stuff I liked as a teen. After I posted them up, it occurred to me that the ‘White Album’ was recorded in 1968, placing it 45 years ago.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that is actually an interminably long time in the timescale of pop music. Paul McCartney is about to come out with a new album (called ‘New’) so he’s still going strong after the morbidly death-obsessed ‘Memory Almost Full’ album, but I sat and tried to figure out how music that old – 45years! – must look like to say, an 18year old today.

If I subtract 45 from the year I was 18, it goes firmly into the late 1930s. Now, I had no shot of owning any music from the late 1930s, let alone being more than passingly familiar with it. Quite frankly I – or my other music listening, record-buying friends- would have been extremely unlikely to be familiar with anything that old.

And yet, Walk-Off HBP went to see Ringo Starr earlier this year because his daughter wanted to see Ringo, so clearly the charms of music that’s 45-50 years old is not entirely lost on kids of today. Obviously it’s going to vary from person to person, household to household, family to family. Even so, you wonder about the distance of this time that separates one from the moment of recording.

Bono was saying in some interview someplace that each time U2 go into a studio there’s a challenge of doing better than before but also an equally large battle to be relevant. So it can’t be easy for anybody to be doing any recording 10years, 20years and 30years in. You sure don’t see Led Zeppelin heading for the studio with Jason Bonham, you don’t see a new album from the Rolling Stone every 2years, it just doesn’t happen.

That being said recorded music has one advantage over literature and movies and it is the ability music has to be consumed over and over again. Even your most favourite movie can only be sat through a handful f times unless you want to make a total study of it. Your favourite albums will be by our side in decades to come, surviving multiple listens upon listens. I think the reason why music drags me back is that in the end I can control my output in a ay that is closed off to me in the cinema. I’m doing more and more recordings because I am able to complete thoughts, ideas, concepts; then execute and finish; and in finishing, I am able to move on to the next thing.

This is in stark contrast to the horrors of being a screenwriter and waiting for people to get back to you about your script; and in most instances, nothing gets made even if people tell you how much they like your writing. Frank Zappa certainly wasn’t wrong when he said “music is best”.  There’s certainly a lot of wisdom in that observation.

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Kraftwerk – Live at the Sydney Opera House 25/May/2013

Trans-Europa Express

I got lucky this week as inherited a ticket to see Kraftwerk at Vivid Live this year. There’s a lot of eletronica about today but once upon a time the leading purveyors of ‘techno’ were the unparalleled, idiosyncratic, machine-minded Kraftwerk. They’re doing a series of concerts in Sydney for Vivid Live where they play their 8 albums and then let loose with the hits.

What’s Good About It

Kraftwerk on stage is unlike any other rock act, and that alone is refreshing. There’s no small talk, no chitchat about what the songs mean, no introduction of members. They just get on with it. The barrage of songs is overwhelming. The sound mix is astounding, what with the surround sound play on the filter sweeps and looped audio. The 3-D video is at once referential to their film clips as well as adventurous and surprising. The little LED light strips on their consoles are also amazing.

The whole  integrated experience is mind-bending and unlike anything else you will see.

What’s Bad About it

Nothing. Next!

What’s Interesting About It

Kraftwerk have streamlined their stage presentation to 4 people at consoles and the 3D video playing in the background. The Bauhaus Modernist aesthetic is pursued to extreme refinement. The guiding vision  for the entire experience is this controlled, sustained, designed look as well as sound. The experience is at once, forward looking as well as retrospective, but filled with an irony of having predicted a different kind of future to what took place.

The grid motif on the high collared coats and trousers is also fascinating because together with the wire-frame graphics, it harks back to the style of ‘Tron’ where horizons spread out infinitely. Indeed, the horizon seems to inform the concept of Kraftwerk greatly, as we are made aware f it over and over in the clips for ‘Autobahn’ as well as the video for ‘Spacelab’. It seems they want to peer out to the horizon of technology and yet at the same time they have been standing on that edge for the 40-odd years of existence.

Aniother aspect of the astounding nature of the performance is that Kraftwerk’s music is like a decontruction of music itself. Melody is cut away from Harmony; timbre is abstracted through use of synthesisers; beats are pulled apart and reassembled to be more evocative of machines, not less; the resulting reconstructed gestalt is a kind of critique of the assembly of music.

The dispassionate playing is also interesting because by the end of the night, their resistance to their own output breaks down, and they’re all foot tapping on stage as they play the music. All in all, it’s the most mind-bending show I’ve seen in a long time.

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Jon Anderson – Live At The Factory Theatre Sydney 06/Apr/2013

“Seasons Will Pass You By, I Get up, I Get Down”

It’s all kind of weird when you cast your mind to it. Consider this turn of events. Jon Anderson is dropped from Yes as their vocalist; They replace him twice, not asking him back; Jon Anderson hits the road doing one-man shows; Jon Anderson plays in Sydney at a converted factory warehouse to a crowd of about 300. This is Jon Anderson, front-man for Yes for something like 39years.

So there we were – that’s KRK and Walk-off HBP and I – at the Factory Theatre. 1 week shy of 1 year since Yes came and played at the State Theatre. No spouses – they disdain our teenage attachments and frankly don’t get it. Oh well. Same as last year.

The support act was… I don’t want to be rude but much like a busker, who started bashing his originals out on an steel string guitar and made us walk out in the second song. It just wasn’t in us to sit through 45minutes of his set. Other people were more polite and stayed, but I can assure you the blunt, artlessness of the support guy was so awful, it set the bar very low for the rest of the night. Maybe this was a kind of blessing in disguise. We even considered maybe that was the point.

What’s Good About It

Jon Anderson’s stage persona is lighthearted and good natured. I won’t venture to hazard a guess at what he is like in private because, well we all know about the casualties of his iron fist in ruling Yes. Stories about how Peter Banks and Tony Kaye were got rid of, how Bill Bruford couldn’t take the process any more, and how Rick Wakeman was in and then out and in again and then out swapping Patrick Moraz in, then out (and Patrick still wants to play for Yes), all revolve around the difficulty of working with the man. Yet, here is the man, ousted from his domain, exiled with just an acoustic guitar or electric piano to accompany himself, singing his song catalogue, and all of it is a revelation. All of it!

Jon Anderson scats his way through the famous lines of songs such as ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’, and it’s all quite fascinating because it reveals how he hears his own music. And it’s weirder than you think. He does what he calls a reggae rendition of ‘Sweet Dreams’ and a harmonically extended ‘Long Distance Runaround’ that doesn’t resemble the original recording at all – and it’s fresh and good.

The anecdotes about Chris Squire, Vangelis and jokes about Rick Wakemen are quite funny too. He also has a couple of cute stories about how he ran into Joe Cocker and Robert Plant way before any of them got to be famous.

He’s quite the seasoned show man unlike the awful support guy who just went on about his wife. This is a man who knows how to sell his songs to an audience.  If you’re familiar with the Yes catalogue, it’s a night of great entertainment.

What’s Bad About It

This show was marred by a faulty DI Box. The sound guy kept winding in the wrong amount of reverb into Jon Anderson’s in-ear monitors so the show was the opposite of seamless. It was all unraveling seam, like an old baseball.

Also, Jon Anderson is not a master musician like his Yes colleagues. Still, he sure hit a lot of bum notes on the guitar. his technique was a strummy drone mixed with a dose of high school barre chord parade. It was good enough to accompany the songs, but only barely. The whole night had a precarious stop-start feel to it as a result.

As shows go, the anecdotes and jokes seem spontaneous but also  underdone and haphazard. I’d sack the audio dude.

What’s Interesting About It

For a start, Jon Anderson’s notion of how Yes songs go are quite different to how they are on record when Yes play these songs. He plays them with a kind of folk-y strum and without the massively built up arrangements, the song expose themselves as rather innocuous, pretty, disarming melodies. If watching Yes play is like master class in how to play, then watching Jon Anderson work is like seeing an X-ray into the skeleton of Yes music. And as Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot through watching.

When he sits at the Piano and sings the opening cantata from ‘Revealing Science of God’, you get the feeling that the harmonic relationship his voice has to the chords is only arbitrary and could be sung over any environment – which I’m sure is not true, musically speaking – and so he goes on to play the most bizarre inversions on piano while singing the bits he sang on the record, pretty much like the record.

The chords on half the song are not the chords played by the band so even when he sings the melody, just like on the album, the harmonic structure drifts into uncharted-weirdo terrain. If you didn’t have his voice and recognise the melody, you’d think it was a mad person babbling Yes phrases.

Which brings me to the strangeness of hearing the vocalist singing the melody without the band. Not to boast, but I’ve been listening to yes since I was a teen and I am an old fart now, I can tell you that their music is burned into my brain. So he would strum the guitar and sing over it, and I could hear the rest of the band in my head. It’s such a weird experience. In some ways, it’s very sad that it has come to this. He can still do it; but the band’s moved on without him, so he’s wandering the world like a minstrel, spreading peace, love and mung beans.

Musical Shaman

I’m pretty sure many of the early Yes songs originated from Jon Anderson strumming his acoustic guitar. These renditions sound very lived-in quite apart from the established versions we know so well. You can just imagine Jon Anderson marching in with these songs and the band being taken aback by the sheer primal rawness. Jon Anderson might think all that happened between his writing and Yes recording was  dash of arranging, but in fact the distance between the versions is mind-warpingly immense.

The chords are so simple while Anderson sings these intricate melodies and you come to realise that he’s somehow plugged into the musical world in a primal way. That’s why the music just comes to him in this raw state. The apparent absence of finesse is off-set by the stripped back beauty of the songs. These humungous Yes songs actually have at heart these strummy little songs – if you want it to.

All night long, I kept thinking that the man was like somebody channelling music, more than building a performance.  In that sense he is like a shaman of music; that is what he has made himself into.

Scales Of Economy

Maybe, I thought, this is one way for musicians to be in the future. Jon Anderson could have put together a ‘Jon Anderson band’ to replace Yes and tour with it, but he hasn’t. Of course, the financial risks are greater in doing so and perhaps not as rewarding. Traveling with a couple of guitars and a ukulele, while hiring the backline electric piano as he goes is probably lower risk and higher reward. It’s not that he’s regressed to an acoustic set up so much as progressed into a new method of traveling further with his music.

And as it was last year, the Yes audience is grey, old, fat and saggy. Newer fans are scant and far between. He can go further around the world to meet more and more fans who haven’t been able to see him live in the heyday. It makes some kind of sense.

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Firebird VII

Firebird Sweet

My Big Guitar Project for 2012 turned out to be this red Gibson Firebird VII with gold trim like the picture above. It’s a bit of confluence of things that led to this project but when I list to factors, you might grok in fullness the weird road to the Gibson Firebird VII.

The most familiar Firebird player in my collection of CDs is Clarence Gatemouth Brown. He had a swanky Firebird V, and there is no duplicating his clean tone without some Firebird under your fingers. It’s just the way it is, because not only is the cut of the body an oddball shape, Firebirds sport minihumbuckers and walnut bodies, with through-body necks.

Other oddities in the Firebird design would be the through-neck design and the Cadillac-fin styling of the body (it was designed by a car designer Gibson Co. hired). It has had many variants over the years, but perhaps the most appealing to me is the Firebird VII with the 3 pickup with Maestro Vibrola arm. Yes, it’s Gibson’s copy of the Fender Stratocaster – even though they’d never admit the bleeding obvious – and being a dyed-in-the-wool Strat player, the one that resonates the most is the FB VII.

Of course, Gibson wares in Australia are always priced for lawyers, advertising execs and drug-dealers, so it was going to be hard to say, “Oh I’ll check out the Gibson”. Sure. On my way home from buying my Aston Martin Bond car.

Anyway, I thought if I could pick up an Epiphone version of the FB VII, I wouldn’t mind loading it up with Seymour Duncans and giving it a red hot go. Of course, Epiphone stopped making their version some years back, so the opportunity seemed to be less than initially imagined. Then along came a full custom shop “body and neck only” in good nick, so that made me empty my piggy bank.

The thing about electric guitars is that you can go through life not knowing the subtleties of what goes into the sound and still be a great player. But if you want to be a unique player, you have to be willing to go much further afield than Strats, Telecasters, Les Pauls and Flying Vs. Similarly, with the choice of wood, you have to leave behind Swamp Ash or Alder or Mahogany. Walnut is the thing! (technically, there is mahogany sandwiched in the FB VII, but the ‘wings’ are Walnut).

Walnut warrants a bit of explication. Alembic use Walnut to build thru-body neck designs for their high end product. The grain is open but tight and so there is a fair chunk of density. It has a higher tone than Mahogany, Swamp Ash or Alder, but is not as bright as Maple. Walnut shows great resonance when you rap it with your knuckles. One of my pet dream projects is to build a guitar around a big Walnut body – like a L5S body – and a Walnut neck, to get the maximum wood tone of Walnut and call it ‘Wally’.

The surprsing thing about the Firebird design is just how much wood there is in it. When I sit it next to a Stratocaster, it’s clear it has so much more wood in the headstock and body. This is important because what gives an electric guitar distinctive tone is the wood; and the more wood there is, the more complex and rich the decay of the envelope. Add in the fact that there is no neck joint and you have the recipe for a very rich sounding guitar.

I installed Seymour Duncan SM-1n in the neck and S-M3n and SM-3b for the middle and bridge positions. They’re all wound around Alnico V magnets instead of ceramic magnets, which gives them a warmer, ’rounded’ tone. I guess one could dream about getting Alnico II versions from somewhere, but Alnico Vs should be good enough for now.

Wiring up was a little strange. The Firebird chamber is very small, and it sports 3 Volume knobs and 1 Tone, but only a 3 way switch. I tried using a 6 way switch but that didn’t work out too well. The 3 Volume pots makes things  interesting, especially because there’s effectively no Master Volume control, but there is a master Tone control. You do have more control over tonal combinations between the pickups but the wiring is convoluted as a result of the choice.

The tuning pegs were also an interesting problem. Because of the oddball design in the headstock and tuners, I had to get Steinberger Gearless Tuners. These are interesting things because they work like a clamp and a shifter rather than the traditional winding on to posts. They too were a learning exercise but now that they’re on, they seem to be very stable tuners.

The weird thing about the Gibson Firebird is that there is nothing apart from the body and neck that can’t be improved by third party parts. The Seymour Duncans are better than the Gibson minihumbuckers; the third party Vibrola copy is more stable than the original; there is a roller saddle bridge with locking posts out there that is an improvement on the Tune-o-matic bridge favoured by Gibson. All the same, when you string it up and set up the action, you’re confronted by the great craftsmanship on the body and neck. It sure makes you wonder about the Gibson company.

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