BETH HART: SURVIVING TO SING

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2015 by midliferocker

One of music’s most powerful voices defines the word survivor.

By Steve Houk

Beth Hart appears March 2nd and 3rd at The Birchmere (photo by Greg Watterman

Beth Hart appears March 2nd and 3rd at The Birchmere (photo by Greg Watterman)

POUR ME A DREAM

AND PLAY ME A TUNE

AND I’LL GET ALONG

JUST AS LONG AS I HAVE A SONG

You might say “having a song” saved Beth Hart‘s life. Sure, there were other things that brought her back, but it was always the music that steered Beth Hart home, that gave her a purpose, a second chance, maybe even a third, if you’re counting. Music has constantly beckoned her from the edge of disaster.

Hart’s new record, “Better Than Home,” due in mid-April is, well, different than past Beth Hart records. Here, she was challenged to really open up, to put aside more broad landscapes and some of her trademark blues riffs and get up close and personal, to speak honestly about the hardest things, and also some of the most joyful, in her life. And given how the album sounds, pouring her heart out just might have injected a once monstrously promising career with real promise once again.

“It’s good to tell the truth, and to search for it and to try and find it and open up I guess,” Hart says with her typical candor and honesty. “That’s what the challenge was, and I think there was some good healing in that. So hopefully, other people will feel the same.”

After years battling demons that surely would have conquered others, Beth Hart is the quintessential survivor. She has been in the depths of despair, but luckily for her family and her fans, she came out into the light on the other side. But it wasn’t easy, not by a long shot. Once a hugely promising talent looking at a future paved with almost certain success, she found herself beaten down by addiction and alcohol, but it wasn’t the same old story of a rock and roll lifestyle bringing her down. It was the destructive habits that were fostered early as a result of untreated childhood mental illness, as in no relief to help get her through, that started her on a devastating path.

“I wish I could say it was part of the [rock music] culture,” the open and affable Hart said recently as she was preparing for a tour that will bring her to The Birchmere on March 2nd and 3rd. “But the honest truth is that I have an illness, I’ve had it since I was a really young kid. And I didn’t come up in a family where anyone believed in taking medication from a doctor. So I started self-medicating at 11, I had to take something, so I found different types of drugs that I liked, and alcohol, and I also found an eating disorder that helped me numb out, and then being with men that were really really abusive. All different ways that I kinda found to numb my head.”

Given her raw, natural talent, Hart was able to plow her way through the morass of addiction and self-release her first record in 1993, the same year she won a nationwide Star Search competition. She was signed by Atlantic Records and put out two albums until the bottom fell out, for the first time. It was the pressure that comes with the territory that made her unable to face impending fame, a pattern that would follow her for years.

“I’ll never forget when Atlantic Records sat me down and they told me, hey, [1999’s “Screaming for My Supper”] is one of the best records anyone’s turned into this label,” Hart confided. “You’re gonna be a star this year, we’re gonna take this record and shove it down everybody’s throat, get ready. And I remember, thinking in that moment, like it was yesterday, that it was not a good thing, it was a horrible thing, being terrified. I mean, I knew I couldn’t be [wasted] all the time and work on music. I think what happened was I had never had that amount of pressure on me, so it made my mental illness go through the roof, full blown manic. I take medication for my illness today, but everything I’m on is completely non-addictive, it has to be because when you have chemical imbalance you cannot take [stuff] that’s addicting because it throws your chemistry out even more in your brain. But back then, I got ahold of something that made me really high, and yeah, it calmed my mania, but it was highly addictive and I just went out of my mind.”

Atlantic then chose to let Hart go, through an act of kindness, or to dodge a bullet, she’s not really sure, but would like to think it was the former. “They said, you know what, buh bye, you’re outta here, we’re letting you go, you’re gonna die and we’re not gonna stand by. And maybe the honest to God reason is ‘cuz I didn’t sell enough records and they thought, [screw] this girl we’ve had for two records. But I think there was a bit of real compassion there, I really do.”

After getting cut loose, Hart desperately tried to get help, but nothing really worked. Her ongoing odyssey and struggles included spending a night in jail, and Hart thought this was the wake-up call she needed. At least that’s what she thought.

“I did go through a handful of rehabs, a handful of psych wards,” Hart said, “and nothing was really helping. I totally denied being bipolar, I totally denied taking the medication and then I ended up in jail for one night. My brother’s ex-girlfriend came to bail me out. I’ll never forget walking out, and she looked me up and down, and she said, ‘Oh my GOD, what happened to YOU?’ And that was it. It was really amazing, it just like scared me straight. Something clicked. For a minute at least.”

Hart was able to get it together enough to wrangle her career seemingly back on track and put out another record, “Leave the Light On” in 2003, even discovering some new found fame abroad in countries like New Zealand, and also Holland where she became a cult favorite thanks to her album and subsequent concert DVD. But because of the haunting wrong medication issues, she never felt quite right, she remained on edge and was just not herself, and eventually the ever-present demons that thrive on pressure cascaded down upon her. After she made her next record “37 Days” in 2007, the bottom fell out once again.

“After five years, five months and six days of being sober, “Hart said, “I lost my mind completely and went back in the hospital. I mean outta my mind, this time was the worst. It was [because of] taking on more pressure, and my illness came back full blast. That was actually a great gift when it happened, because I was for the first time confronted with [the fact that] this isn’t about being an alcoholic or drug addict, dude, this is about being mentally ill.”

Hart survived the hospital stay, but she was still not right. “I get out, I’m on all this medicine they got me on and that’s actually really making me nuts. And I had to tour in two weeks. I couldn’t remember how to play the piano. at all. I couldn’t remember one thing and I got hundreds of songs in my head, I always remember what I got in my piano, but I couldn’t do one thing.”

Hart seemed like she was on her last legs. But life can often turn for the better with one serendipitous move, and that move happened and no doubt saved her life.

“My psychologist that I’d been with for so many years said to me, I want to turn you on to someone that’ll get you straightened out I think,” she said. “This guy just hit it out of the ball park, like unbelievable, he put me on something and my whole life began to change. Because once the medicine helped with the mania and slowed me down and helped me, I started being able to focus on how I want things to shift out and change in my career, and was able to look at things that I could have never ever done before because it woulda caused me so much anxiety. Before, just the pressure of doing a show and making an album was intense. Now that became easy, and then I could take on things that were really important.”

Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart

Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart (courtesy Joe Bonamassa)

Since coming back from the brink, a few times actually, Beth Hart has thrived. A succession of collaborations with bluesman Joe Bonamassa reignited her passion and introduced her to his already established audience. And in 2012, she got the offer of a lifetime when old friend Jeff Beck asked her to join him for a song honoring Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center Honors. Before, this might have been too much to handle, but not now. Hart totally nailed a powerful rendition of one of her favorite songs, Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” in front of not only Guy, but members of Led Zeppelin and the President and First Lady. It was as if the unrealized promise of years past had coalesced onstage. “It was amazing, in my heart I felt like myself instead of having that dread that I’ve always had over every fricking opportunity ever. I just felt so excited and happy.”

Beth Hart back at her piano (photo by Greg Watterman)

Beth Hart back at her piano (photo by Greg Watterman)

Hart’s new record “Better Than Home” seems like the perfect album at the perfect time. A chance to confront the past head on while also knowing the worst is behind her. But it wasn’t easy to open herself up that much, and let those demons dance around her head for awhile. “I really resisted, because those types of songs, it’s just more painful,” said Hart. “You just gotta dig harder for me to get into that stuff, but I did it anyway. It’s a very narrative record about life and survival and family and marriage and love and fear and all of it. It’s just kinda what things have been like for me in these last handful of years, it’s very personal. But I just said I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go for it.”

And go for it, she did. With a new album, a new home and a new lease on life, Beth Hart has been to hell, but she’s back and appears better than ever. And given her kind soul, she wants her story to resonate with others who, like she did for so long, may feel lost and unsure of how to climb out of the darkness.

“When you’ve had an opportunity in your life to have struggled so horribly and then to have found a new way to live that really has helped you to enjoy your life so much better, and not live in absolute terror and shame all the time, you wanna talk about it. You know that you’re not the only one. But it’s so great and exciting to talk about that, because you want to get it out there to people. you know?”

Beth Hart performs Monday March 2nd and Tuesday March 3rd at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. Tickets are available for both days here and here

MIKE RUTHERFORD: THE RELIVING YEARS

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on February 23, 2015 by midliferocker

(courtesy fanart.tv)

The founding member of legendary rock band Genesis looks both back and forward. 

By Steve Houk

 

Mike Rutherford was surprised. Stunned, really.

I mean, you’d think an internationally respected rock musician and founding member of Hall of Fame rock band Genesis might not get surprised by too much these days. But as he was preparing to put together his memoir, he made a truly stunning discovery. And it would be the catalyst for changing not only the way he felt about his difficult relationship with his father, but the way his incredible life story would be told.

“I found an unpublished memoir (of my father’s) a few years ago, so this memoir is really a story of the band, and my life and my father’s life,” Rutherford told me from his home in England. “What surprised me was actually I learned alot about his early life, like how much he traveled the world. His father was also in the Navy and he’d been in similar places like Japan, America and Canada, like I had. You find out your lives weren’t that different. You both traveled the world alot away from home, trying to juggle and make work come to life, and home life work in between. And then sort of working with a team, his on a large ship and me with four guys on stage. But there’s more similarities than you think.”

Mike Rutherford, 64, has nothing left to prove. Genesis is in the permanent upper pantheon of great rock bands, and his lofty place in rock history is secure. But for him, there is more to do. So in addition to participating in a recent Genesis documentary, and resurrecting memories for his memoir (called The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir, now available here and everywhere), Rutherford is also resurrecting his “other” band Mike and the Mechanics, starting with an American tour, their first since 1989, that kicks off at the Birchmere Friday February 28th.

It was in a fleeting moment about four years ago when Rutherford was tinkering around that he realized that maybe the Mechanics still had some juice. He thought after Paul Young’s death in 2000 that it was the “end of an era,” but as he began to write some songs, he could hear the Mechanics in the tunes, and something sparked.

“I was writing some songs and I thought, they sound like Mechanics’ songs, what am I gonna do? “Rutherford said. “So I went back to the Mechanics and I said well, I’ll write some songs and record them and then see, which I did. I knew one thing this time, the Mechanics work with two singers, an R & B voice and a rock voice. We did the album and then more importantly we toured a bit (in the UK), and I was very impressed how well the songs went down and how good the live set was with the audience, because of the songs and the band. So I thought, well, we’ve toured a bit, and the last three years we’ve toured with the same band. In Europe and Africa and other places. And it’s really sort of, got a strength to it, from the first few shows to where it is now. And I just thought, well, we should come and try America, do a sort of tryout tour.”

Mike and the Mechanics 2015 (L to R: Tim Howar: vocals, Mike Rutherford, Andrew Roachford: vocals)

Mike and the Mechanics 2015 (L to R: Tim Howar: vocals, Mike Rutherford, Andrew Roachford: vocals)

Mike and the Mechanics had a nice run in the 80’s when Rutherford formed the band during a break from Genesis. They were more of an album band and rarely toured, but even without live support, songs like “All I Need is a Miracle”, “Silent Running”, “Word of Mouth” and the autobiographical “The Living Years” found the band FM airplay and gave Rutherford a new outlet for his creativity and saw him as more of a true band leader. It was also after two less than satisfying attempts at some true solo work, when Rutherford realized he does better collaborating on songwriting as he did so well with Genesis and still does with the Mechanics, than going it alone.

“I always co-write. Sometimes you know, on some days, maybe the song is three quarters done, and to finish, to get the last bit to make it really work, it needs someone else in the room. And sometimes you write from scratch too that way, and it’s great. I enjoy the process really.”

Genesis circa mid 1970's (Clockwise from bottom: Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel (courtesy pixshark.com)

Genesis circa mid 1970’s (Clockwise from bottom: Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel (courtesy pixshark.com)

Speaking of collaboration, as he looks forward to getting his Mechanics back in gear, Rutherford is also able to look back at his creative days with Genesis — a groundbreaking band that has sold over 130 million albums worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall in 2010  — with much fondness and appreciation. And doing a memoir and participating in an BBC documentary provides one with ample opportunity to dig deep into the vault of the mind and harken back. So what were some of his most special memories of his time with Genesis?

“Having looked back the last couple years, alot more than normal, there are three moments that really talked to me as pretty special,” Rutherford recalls. “One was ‘Supper’s Ready’ (from the 1972 album Foxtrot) which wrote itself. It was the first time we found something that really worked together like that, the first long instrumental piece with myself and Phil and Tony. The next moment was probably Trick of the Tail (released in 1976) actually. That first few days writing, we coulda gone over and coulda gone under, but the first day of writing with myself, Phil and Tony actually, it took off. And then the last two or three albums with Phil and Tony, we just wrote it with no ideas at all, walked in day one with a blank bit of paper, not single idea in my head, plugged the gear in, and just kicked off. And it just worked every time, and the writing just flew out of the box.”

book cover

Finding his father’s hidden treasure of recollections enabled Rutherford to tailor his own memoir into a look back at both family and band, and also how the tumultuous times back then contributed to the birth of his future-legendary rock and roll career.

“What makes it relevant is (telling) the story of (Genesis) against this huge social and cultural change in the 60’s, and the English, old traditional, country empire days with all the rules and regulations, it was kinda due for a change. And our parents, after two world wars, were stunned, and shocked, and tired, so we suddenly appear with long hair and guitars and drugs and it was a huge left turn and change of values in the UK. And the story of Genesis against that background is I think what is much more interesting.”

So with a new memoir, a Mechanics run and a treasure trove of amazing memories with Genesis, Mike Rutherford has alot to be thankful for. But right now, he’s looking at this upcoming US tour  —  18 dates that will mix Mechanics tunes with a few Genesis nuggets — with perhaps a kind of excitement and nervous anticipation he hasn’t felt in a good long while.

“It’s a bit like England three years ago,” Rutherford said. “When you first come out there, everyone’s keen to see you, but it’s a little slow to get it going until you go out and play somewhere, and you’re good, and they talk about it. It’s like building a band again. Ironic at my age I’m doing this again, but it’s worked over here, and it’s fun to do.”

Mike and the Mechanics perform Friday February 28th at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here

DEREK TRUCKS: FROM ONE ERA TO ANOTHER

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2015 by midliferocker
Derek Trucks with wife Susan Tedeschi; their Tedeschi Trucks Band plays the Warner Theater Feb 20 and 21 (courtesy Mark Robbins)

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s Tedeschi Trucks Band plays the Warner Theater Feb 20 and 21 (courtesy Mark Robbins)

Derek Trucks says goodbye to one legend and continues to hone his own.

By Steve Houk

From what I hear, it was one helluva way to go out.

The road had almost gone on forever, but to everything, there is a season. The Allman Brothers Band had been basically going full steam ahead for 45 years, with a few typically acrimonius and disruptive Allman Bros pit stops along the way. But from their debut record in 1969 all the way up to their final show at the Beacon Theater in New York this past October 28th, it had been one of the great tenures in rock and roll history. And now, it was time to walk away with a dignity and grace that befit a band like theirs, while they still could.

They had decided before the last show to have no guest players, something they had done basically every Beacon show prior. They wanted just family on stage. Maybe only one guy had the name Allman, but there were true brothers everywhere you looked onstage that night, boys who became men together, bidding a fond farewell to the only band some of them had ever known.

all

The final Allman Bros. lineup after just finishing their last show ever, Beacon Theater, NYC, 10/28/14

 

And one of them, who had been around this clan for his entire life, all the way from his early childhood to standing on that stage that night at 35, was Derek Trucks. Whereas his real Uncle Butch, his adopted Uncle Gregg or drummer Jaimoe had been there since their early twenties, Derek had been part of this thing since he was old enough to teeter, stand and walk, not crawl, around the stage. He began to dazzle Allman Brothers audiences on the slide guitar when he was barely a tween, and since officially joining the band in 1999, had became a revered mainstay in the family business, a true and loyal member of Southern rock royalty. And damn if it didn’t all wrap up exactly the way he and the rest of the family wanted it to.

“In true Allman Brothers fashion, it didn’t get there cleanly,” Trucks said with a hearty laugh from the road where his Tedeschi Trucks Band is, again, ready to begin another tour. “It was just a cluster f–k all year, like somebody saying one thing, somebody leaking another, it’s just like, what is wrong with you people? But the last handful of shows really were about as good as I could have hoped for, or better. The last two shows were special, and the last one especially was. I mean, it was everything you would plan it to be if you could. So yeah, in the end, it did what it was supposed to do and I wouldn’t change any of that. That’s a heavy legacy to uphold, and there’s no reason to let it end on another note. The last show being Duane’s, kinda the ‘anniversary,’ it felt right.”

But as the Allman Brothers slowly ride off southbound into the red orange sunset of rock immortality, Derek Trucks is galloping furiously along, full stride, his new band of brothers (and a sister, er, wife) alongside, going the other way. In fact, right now he’s at the pinnacle of his own career and is arguably the Allman Brother that is poised for the most ongoing success. The band he started with wife Susan Tedeschi only five years ago has become a force to be reckoned with in top clubs, theaters and festivals across the world, with Trucks’ now trademark slide guitar mastery continuing to dazzle accompanied by his wife’s ever-stronger blues-soaked vocals, and an absolutely killer band.

I mean just this month, Bob Dylan personally requested Derek and Susan to play one of his songs at Dylan’s MusicCares tribute, even though, as Trucks said,  they were poised to take some much needed time off. “We talked about really blocking out time and not wavering from it, and that was one of the calls we got, and they’re like, ‘They’re doing this Dylan tribute’ and I said, ‘Well that’d be great but…’ and they’re like, ‘Well, Dylan requested you and Susan to do this specific tune,’ and I was like, well how do we…there’s no way to not do that! Some things…you just got to do.  Beyond that, it’s an honor to even be in the conversation, and the fact that it came from him makes it doubly so.” Trucks clearly arrived a long time ago, but you know you’ve really made it when that happens.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band prepares to hit the road for yet another tour. (courtesy Mark Seliger)

The Tedeschi Trucks Band prepares to hit the road for yet another tour. (courtesy Mark Seliger)

Yes, The TTB is conquering the world, but all good comes to those who wait. Trucks knows better than anyone that seasoning yourself on the road is what makes good bands great, and the recent time on the road together has caused his band to really gel.

“I think the band in the last year and a half, two years has really found itself,” Trucks said. “It’s found its sound, it’s just gotten better musically from show to show. It just takes time, ya know, it takes gettin’ out in front of people a handful of times, you just gotta keep doing it a high level. We’re not gonna be the type of band that’s an overnight sensation, there’s not gonna be a hit that propels the band. It takes energy and it takes hittin’ the road, it takes every night gettin’ up and delivering it, and that’s what the band likes to do. The more we hit the road and the more we dig in to new material and write tunes together and play other people’s tunes, the better it gets. It’s kinda the course it has to take to grow. We just have to get out there and beat the pavement.”

And beat it they have, spending many months globetrotting their eleven piece tribe around the world spreading the magic of the TTB sound. After a late winter to late summer US swing this year that will include a coveted main stage slot at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, they’ll go back over the pond to play Paris, London, Copenhagen and Berlin, among other European stops.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band at The Beacon Theater, NYC -  Sept 21, 2013

Writing new music is what keeps bands fresh, and the TTB is no exception. Trucks and Co. have an album’s worth of new material they’re just busting to play live, but again, patience is a virtue and those songs will see the light of day when the time is right. Timing is everything to Derek Trucks.

“I’m thinkin’ end of the year, early next year it’ll be done and out there,” Trucks said. “We’re pretty far into one right now, it kind of just happened by accident. The beauty of having a studio (at home) is when you’re down there to write tunes or rehearse the band, it can easily turn into a recording session. So that’s what we started doing and everything felt so good and was sounding good that we kinda rolled with it. There’s about ten new tunes that we’ve recorded and we’re trying to decide how many of them we want to play out. Because if it’s eight months, ten months from now before a record comes out, you don’t want to wear (people) out before the record comes out. When the album drops, you wanna be able to play these tunes as if they were just written. It’s kind of a tough thing because when you record a tune that feels really good, you wanna just play it immediately. So  we’re having to exercise a little band self-discipline by not airing out every tune on the record.”

Now that the Allman Brothers experience has ended for Trucks — “I booked a one-way ticket out,” he says, either accidentally or on purpose paraphrasing an old Brothers classic —  he wants to devote all his time to the TTB. That’s with the phone ringing alot asking him or Susan to contribute to a record. And they often pick up the phone, collaborating with the likes of Herbie Hancock, JJ Grey, Roseanne Cash and others. But Trucks just wants to focus on one thing, finally, and hopes he can make that happen all as his legend grows.

“Really for me, this being the first year without the Allman Brothers on my plate, “said Trucks, “unless it’s something (special), I mean, there are some opportunities with musicians I respect or friends or things you just can’t turn down. Outside of that I really wanna keep it to just this. I look forward to having a year where you wear one hat, and then you take it off and go home, and then you put it back on.”

And when I tell Derek Trucks to keep that ever burning rock and roll flame alive and that I’ll see him in DC in a couple weeks, he says, undoubtedly with that wide Derek Trucks smile, “Beautiful man, we will do our best. We’ll try to keep this train rollin’ down the road.”

The Tedeschi Trucks Band performs Friday and Saturday February 20th and 21st at the Warner Theater, 513 13th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, click here

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.

EDDIE VAN HALEN’S ROAD TO IMMORTALITY

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 14, 2015 by midliferocker
EVH-Denise-Q-940x447

Eddie Van Halen dazzled an adoring crowd of fans, friends and family at the Smithsonian on February 12 (photo courtesy Abram Eric Landes)

One of rock’s music’s most influential innovators tells his story as he enters immortality. 

By Steve Houk

So just what goes into making a revolutionary, game-changing rock and roll guitar icon?

Well, if you’re a new part of the Smithsonian like Eddie Van Halen, it’s a mix of really good genes, a brother-in-arms, experimentation out of necessity, and raw, unadulterated talent that even 40 years later has very few if any true peers.

In front of a packed SRO crowd in the Warner Bros. theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History — as part of a collaborative series between the museum and LA idea exchange Zocalo Public Square titled What It Takes To Be An American — an engaging, healthy-looking and seemingly content Eddie Van Halen talked about his road to superstardom humbly and candidly as he was honored by the museum for his accomplishments, as well as handing over some serious hardware.

Looking rested and happy, certainly a relief to those in attendance after years of well-documented abuse and near death experiences, he told the adoring crowd of suits and t-shirts (and moderator/music journalist Denise Quan) that music was all about a few important things: learning the basics from his musician father, having along for the ride his brother, longtime Van Halen drummer Alex (who was front row in the audience along with Eddie’s son Wolfgang), and dabbling, tinkering and experimenting with only what he had available to him. He would eventually find his own sound, and thus his immense and influential talent. But if bare necessity was ever the mother of invention, Eddie Van Halen is a living, breathing example of that.

As far as humble beginnings, you may know the story, but none were moreso than Eddie Van Halen’s. With a spark in his eye, he recalled how his family came over on the boat to America from his father’s native Holland in the late 1950’s and en route, Van Halen’s classically trained father performed with the band onboard during the trek. After their Dad suggested that his boys play during a break, Eddie and Alex learned performance came with rewards, as the next night, they were eating dinner at the captain’s table. You could smell a family affair brewing.

“We packed up the family and moved to Bev-er-ly, although it wasn’t Beverly Hills then,” he said. When they arrived in California, they didn’t speak the language and faced immediate prejudice. “The white kids would tear up our homework and make us eat playground sand. The black kids were nicer to us than the white kids,” Van Halen told a young boy who had asked him what his first day of school in America was like. He remembered how those early times were very lean to say the least, with the Van Halen clan living in a small house amidst other families, their family often sharing the same bed. His father tried to get gigs in the new country but it was hard, so he got a job as a janitor while his mother, an Indonesian who met the elder Van Halen after World War II, worked as a maid.

Despite never learning how to read music, Eddie and Alex did eventually take some piano lessons and won local contests, but as they soon learned, “We always liked things loud.” Shocker. So Eddie picked up a drum set which Alex longed for. “I never wanted to play guitar,” Eddie said. But his brother was good at the drums, so Eddie gave in: “I said, ‘Go ahead, take my drums. I’ll play your damn guitar.’ ”

Once Eddie had the guitar in his hands, it was “a lot of years of experimentation,” with alot of that famous burgeoning Van Halen innovation driven by sheer necessity. “I’d be taking apart guitars, opening up amplifiers,” and yes, often getting shocked in the process. Van Halen knew the sound he wanted to eventually achieve, but he couldn’t find a guitar that could make it. So he got different parts from different guitars, including Gibsons and Fenders, screwed and soldered and melted them together, and built the instrument he wanted. Even the instrument’s ultimately iconic paint job was unplanned. Van Halen painted the guitar black, but “it looked kind of boring,” he said. There was some tape lying around, so he taped up his guitar, spray-painted it white, then removed the tape, and lo, a generational design style was born. Van Halen is donating two of these taped Fenders, the red and and a similar black and white one, to the Smithsonian as part of his participation in this series, and well, also because they belong in there for eternity anyway.

(photo courtesy Rolling Stone)

The Smithsonian welcomes Eddie Van Halen and his best friends (photo courtesy Rolling Stone)

But the main reason he squeezed so many techniques out of the guitar was also, once again, borne “out of necessity,” said Van Halen. He couldn’t afford a wah-wah pedal, a fuzzbox, or other gear that created the sounds he was searching for. He had to rely on his fingers alone. Clearly, Van Halen’s innovation wasn’t limited to his equipment. Quan noted that he pioneered the art of playing with both his right and left hands on the guitar’s frets. So on this night, at a place where treasures are kept safe and displayed, after taking off his jacket, anticipation oozed from the crowd as this American treasure of rock and roll grabbed a guitar and stood, axe in hand, talking about finding inspiration at a Led Zeppelin concert at the LA Forum, seeing Jimmy Page playing a lick with one hand on the guitar, and the other a clenched fist raised up in the air, which he then demonstrated to us exactly like he remembered. Back when he was experimenting on this part of his skill set, Van Halen decided to try placing his second hand on the frets as well, and the now-famous tapping was born. It was there in the program that Van Halen erupted into two of his trademark two handed licks: part of “Eruption” from the debut record, and a notable riff from “Mean Streets.” It was a moment people in the crowd, many of whom sported some kind of VH swag, had been waiting for that garnered deliriously enthusiastic cheers from the throngs on hand.

Van Halen also waxed sentimental about his deep affection for the late Les Paul, groundbreaking inventor of the solid body electric guitar and a fellow innovator and pioneer that Eddie clearly respected and admired. The two had a close friendship up until Paul’s death in 2009, so close that very early one morning, as Eddie told it, “about 3am, my phone rang and a voice said, ‘Eddie, it’s Les.’ I said, ‘Sure it is, Les who (laughs)’ and the voice said, ‘No Eddie it’s ME, Les, so…how DO you do that tapping?’ Later, Eddie would see Les at a concert and tried to get him to try the fret technique, and Les shook his head and blushily declined.

Van Halen said he continued to experiment and play with the possibilities. He customized his amp with makeshift knobs and dimmer-type switches, purchasing a Marshall amp (the brand that “Eric Clapton and gods” used) not aware that it came from England, and was 220 volts. He plugged it in and there was silence, but after warming the amp up to half power, Van Halen managed to get what he called an “incredible” sound from it. The only problem, it was so quiet that only he and his dog could hear what emanated from it. Van Halen’s solution was to buy what was essentially a light dimmer at a local store that allowed him to control the volume, and yet another Van Halenish component arose.“I’m always pushing things past where [they’re] supposed to be,” he said. “When Spinal Tap was going to 11, I was going to 15.”

Fast forward to the mid 70’s. Even with their unique sound and clear talent, the band couldn’t get work. “It was all punk and disco, rock and roll wasn’t anywhere on the charts. It took us seven years of stuffing fliers in school lockers, playing keg parties in backyards, anything we could to get seen live,” he later recalled to an audience member in the Q & A. portion. But in 1978, his band’s self-titled debut album was released, and rock music was forever transformed. I remember my floormate freshman year of college bursting in our room with a copy of the album, acting shell shocked. “Oh…my…God. Put this on NOW,” Don Michael said as he placed it on the turntable himself. We listened aghast, like millions of rock fans everywhere, we had never heard anything like it.

One very evident emotion in the room from Eddie Van Halen throughout the night was a deep love and respect for his family. His son Wolfgang, who has his own band and is also a de facto member of the current Van Halen lineup, smiled and nodded repeatedly when his father acknowledged him, as he did brother Alex, whom Eddie has had strife with before but on this night, mentioned often and fondly. What advice, asked Quan, did your father give you that you wanted to pass on to your son who is also a musician?

“You can learn from everybody,” said Van Halen, “what to do and what not to do, especially the latter. If you make a mistake, do it twice, and smile,” he said with conviction.” That way, people will think you mean it.” He realted a Dutch prase his father used, which meant, “Just keep pedaling.”

Quan asked him, do you feel as though you’re living the American dream? “We came here with approximately $50 and a piano, and we didn’t speak the language,” he said. “Now look where we are. If that’s not the American dream, what is?” On the subject of whether or not young rock bands can make it in today’s different environment, Van Halen paused, then said, “We just humped it and humped it until people came, I don’t see how that wouldn’t work today. Whatever music is out there, there’s always room for more.”

As the evening drew to a close, a last questioner asked if there were a musician who has passed that you wished you could play with. Van Halen paused, then said with a sincerity that was evident from the moment he walked out on stage, “My father…my father.”

SHARING MY FAVORITE MUSIC OF 2014

Posted in Uncategorized on December 30, 2014 by midliferocker

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Yep, 2014 was another ball busting, challenging, often exhausting and frustrating year for me in many ways. But thank God, it’s been another incredibly fulfilling, exciting and miraculous year for me and the other love of my life: music. From the ongoing life-altering experience of singing lead in an assortment of bands — most notably Second Wind as we enter our ninth year together this February — to intimately interviewing and often meeting and spending time with some of my musical heroes, to sitting in awe at the live shows that come with it all, I have to keep pinching myself to believe some of these moments were real. But yeah, they were.

That aside, for the first time ever, I thought I’d share with you my favorite ten albums — yes there are still albums — of 2014, along with my favorite song from each album. The songs are YouTube videos so skip the ads if they come up (or watch them, I don’t care) and just enjoy some really special music. This isn’t really in any order, they are all fabulous to me. Yes, I know there are many other great records that came out in 2014, this is just what I personally discovered and found to be incredible music, either through my interviews or just my own range of musical interests. And most of the interview pieces I mention are here on my blog so if the spirit moves you, scroll down from this piece and check them out. As for the list, do what you want with it, but hopefully, you will discover some great music you may not have known about. That’s really the intention. What better way to say goodbye to this year than with some great music, right?

1) U2 – Songs Of Innocence: Yep I’m a U2 homer, but no bullshit, this is a miraculous and unforgettable collection of amazing U2 songs that got lost in a silly marketing fracas, but all in all, the legendary band released it’s most personal and powerful album in many moons, and yes, it is all amazing. If you’re a fan, you already love it. If you’re not, give it a try, you won’t be sorry at least with a few tunes. My favorite song among many is this gorgeous ode to new beginnings, “Song For Someone,” beautifully sung by Bono.

2) Phish – Fuego: Their most accessible album yet, the jam band kings take their wonderful sometimes meandering sonics and fine tune them into a stunningly sublime yet coherent record, exquisitely produced by Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin. The key question for them always is will the songs convey their unparalleled live vibe, and judging by how these songs sounded live this fall, they nailed it. I love alot of the tunes here, but “Devotion To A Dream” is not only the most fun danceable Phish/Dead-like tune on the album, but also has some personal intimations for me. So let’s give you that one but rest assured they hit a home run on the whole record.

3) Puss In Boots – No Fools No Fun: I was lucky enough to interview Sasha Dobson — 1/3 of this fabulously cool trio that’s been playing together for a while and finally released their first album this year — while she was walking her dog in Prospect Park. She and her two pals, superduperstar Norah Jones and the lesser known but also very talented Catherine Popper, are all great songwriters, and have crafted a bunch of very eclectically cool and different songs, along with a couple killer covers, one of which is possibly my favorite on this collection, a beautiful rendering of the Band classic, “Twilight.”

4) Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes: I know, Bruce could do an album of nursery rhymes and I’d love every second of it, but with his 18th record, he continues to take his one in a trillion sound and unmatchable trademark and put out great music that is fresh yet familiar. There are a buncha great tunes here but my favorite could be the haunting “Down In The Hole” co-written by Bruce’s new muse, guitar mindbender Tom Morello.

5) Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone: One of America’s most astounding songwriters does it again at the age of 61, and this time we get two albums worth of her incredibly honest, often stark and dark, yet exhilarating music. And after spending 20 minutes one on one backstage at the Lincoln Theater in DC just talking with her about music and everyday life, I get her more than ever. Hard to pick a fave out of all these wonders, but here’s mine, the powerful “Foolishness”…at least it’s my favorite this week. The video is great, her and her stupendous studio band at work for a minute or so first, but if you want to get right to the song, it’s 1:10 in.

6) Trigger Hippy – Trigger Hippy: After my interview with the very cool and candid Steve Gorman, former drummer for the Black Crowes, I really hoped this debut record with the superstar band he created post-Crowes would kill it. Well, it does more than that. Every song works, whether it’s Jackie Greene or Joan Osborne or Nick Gorvik on vocals in a rollicking swamp rocker or an agonizing ballad, it’s a freshman home run from a bunch of rock and roll seniors honors grads. Again, it’s hard to pick one, and there are some really good hard rockers on here, but “Heartache On The Line,” a beautiful duet from Greene and Osborne about the hardships of an aging love, just gets to me, it’s my life to a tee. And the video here? Recorded on a mike from vinyl. You can even hear the occasional crackle. Music to my ears.

7) Imelda May – Tribal: If you don’t know her by now, it’s time. This red-hot Irish rockabilly-tinged siren with the blonde swirl in her hair (who I’ve joyously interviewed a couple times) is on a major roll (new record, Irish TV show, world tour) and for good reason: her wild and rollicking sound, along with a voice that can blow you away or make you cry and a personality to boot, is really unique and always fantastic. The title cut of her excellent new record will do for now, so go ahead, get “Tribal.”

8) Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways: I’ve been very slowly, but somewhat surely, getting into the Foos’ thrashy yet hook-filled sound since they started up, heck, even us midlifers do a Foos song in our gigs sometimes. But it wasn’t until seeing Dave Grohl’s miraculous rockumentary/Foo Fest/HBO series that I’ve become a true Foo believer. Not only does Grohl do a fabulous job of telling great musical stories, but he finishes each episode with a song he wrote during the week he was doing the episode. Pretty amazing. And you know what? All the songs are really good. If I gotta pick one, it’s the epic closer from the New York City segment, “I Am A River,” one of my favorite songs from recent years and sure to be a fantastic song live. Here’s a bonus, Dave’ll tell you how he wrote this song if you click here.

9) Neil Young – A Letter Home: Most of what Neil does moves my soul, so even an album recorded in Jack White’s antique and carnival-esque record booth with all it’s flaws and noise grabs you by the heart and stays there. Amidst the crackles and low fidelity, his 34th record is another miracle from the miraculous Neil, it’s just his voice and guitar doing covers, but it gets you there once again. I’ll pick this Dylan gem (that also to me evokes Zevon), “Girl From The North Country,”with the bonus on the video of seeing him record it. You’re welcome.

10) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hypnotic Eye: One of rock’s true greats shows he can still bring it, and bring it really hard. With his Heartbreakers in full splendor, Petty crafted a nearly perfect record that both harkens back to Damn The Torpedoes but also shows he can sound relevant almost 40 years after that classic came out, by just being TP. Many killer tunes here, but my fave since I first heard the record will do just fine here, “Red River,” with one of the best choruses I’ve heard in a long time. And any song that begins with these lyrics is gold to me: “She’s got a 3-D Jesus in a picture frame, Got a child that she never named, She shakes a snake above her hair, Talks in tongues when there’s no one there.” Ahhhhhh…..

DEBI SMITH: A SONGBIRD KEEPS FLYING

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 15, 2014 by midliferocker

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A local singer/songwriter keeps flying high amidst a blend of truly eclectic experiences.

By Steve Houk

It’s not surprising that a talented, seasoned songbird like Debi Smith titled the majority of her records after birds.

Bluebird, Mockingbird, Road Runner, A Canary’s Song, Red Bird, and even a family memoir titled Look Up At The Hawks, it’s like she’s connected with birds because her voice is, well, as true and pure as birdsong. Or it could be that there’s a family connection to birds. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

“When we were growing up, my Dad always had bird feeders in the backyard,” Smith told me from the Falls Church home where she grew up and now lives with her husband and son. “So I love to watch birds, just like my grandma did, too. These days, my Dad has a blue jay that he’s named Freddy that lands on his arm and he feeds it by hand. I just find birds to be…inspiring somehow.”

Whatever is inspiring the versatile Debi Smith seems to be working, and has for a long while. Smith has had a successful career as a folk-pop singer/songwriter for going on 30 years now, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. She began her musical life as a successful duo with her sister, and today remains an accomplished solo artist who has performed at venues like the Kennedy Center and Epcot Center, toured in Canada, Europe and Russia, and has appeared on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, Mountain Stage, and World Café, to name just a few. She is also a current member of the critically acclaimed Four Bitchin’ Babes, a well known folk ensemble that has gained a reputation for blending satirical, humorous and traditional music together in an engaging and memorable way, for almost 25 years. And as a holiday treat, Smith will be bringing her “If I Were An Angel” holiday show to the Birchmere on December 21st, accompanied by the esteemed National Men’s Chorus.

So yes, versatile is an understatement for Debi Smith.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Smith’s family wasn’t necessarily musically inclined. But as with many families, music was a part of her home, school and church life, which helped her discover a talent for singing. And soon after she found her own voice, she was surprised that her sister also had the knack, and lo, a recording duo was born.

“My parents put on some Broadway stuff, and some of the folk music,” Smith said, “so I was influenced by that, but it wasn’t that they were musical. And my sister Megan, I didn’t even discover she could sing until after I had gone off to college and had been singing for a while. All of a sudden I heard her singing my songs downstairs, and I’m like, ‘What’s up with that?!’ Everything kinda just unfolded, as opposed to me having a design.”

Once they realized they had sister act potential, Debi and Megan started playing bars in DC and then hit the college circuit, and eventually Columbia Artists booked them as The Smith Sisters and they began to tour nationally. And meeting some folk legends along the way seemed to give Smith the bump she needed to take it to the next level.

“We met Doc Watson and his son Merle Watson, they sang on our first CD,” Smith said. “Merle produced our first records, he was a good guy, he really tried to help other artists, and Doc was the same way.  I’ve met some wonderful people along the way, Tom Paxton is another one who helped us early on, he’s always helping young musicians.”

Like many other successful singers, heartbreak was a catalyst for Smith’s earliest songwriting efforts; as is often the case, love and loss was a great springboard for a creative outlet she had yet to tap.

“Originally I didn’t play guitar,” Smith said. “What did it was I broke up with a boyfriend and I was eating my heart out, and I picked up the guitar and a book of Joni Mitchell songs, and also Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and that’s how I kind of cut my teeth. And then eventually I just started writing. I’d always written poetry and stuff but I’d never written songs until I had a guitar in my hands.”

Adding to her resume of five records with her sister and her seven solo CDs, Smith also has the popular Four Bitchin’ Babes as part of her repertoire. She joined the Babes in 1993 and regularly records and tours with them.

“I used to go see the Babes perform,” Smith said, “and I’d always say, ‘Man, I would kill to be in that group.’ Then, they asked me to join them, and it’s a riot. I mean, the offstage stuff is just as much fun as the onstage stuff. It’s alot of comedy, but we’re always singing about whatever part of life we’re in, so it’s meaningful too. The group has grown right along with us. It’s geared towards women but we also have alot of Man Babes come out to our shows, too. It’s alot of fun.”

As if her multi-faceted musical career wasn’t enough, Smith also took time out to write Look Up At The Hawks, a memoir about her family that spans three generations. Smith speaks of that poignant experience fondly and with a healthy dose of family pride.

“Before grandma passed away,” Smith says thoughtfully, “she had a packet of papers that she handed to Mom and said, ‘Take this, please do something with it, I can’t do it anymore.’ She and my Dad grew up on a Nebraska farm during the Dust Bowl years, and so it’s all of her writings, her recollections, of that period of life during the Depression. The Dust Bowl, swarms of grasshoppers, floods, you name it. It’s alot of really amazing memories. And it wasn’t originally a book, Mom and I performed it at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and toured around the United States with it, and then finally about two years ago, I thought, ‘This has to be a book.’ It’s just so beautiful, and I’m very proud of it.”

Smith’s latest project, the holiday CD If I Were An Angel, was a labor of love for her, blending a nostalgic love of the season with some of her favorite types of music.

“I was in the chorus back when and the madrigals. That’s what we used to sing in church, the chorale kind of stuff, and I love Christmas, so I was excited to do this latest record. I kinda tried to write some stuff that sounds sorta like what’s out there, but aren’t the same songs. I really loved writing it.”

So between all of the many genres and combos Debi Smith has been a part of  — with her sister, the solo stuff, the Babes and the holiday fare — is there a type of music right now that fills up Smith’s songbird heart more than another?

“Now, at this stage in my life, the kind of singing I did on this new holiday CD, I love.” Smith said. “There’s something about when I can sing in my soprano voice, you know, when you’re trying to make it in pop music and you’re using a soprano voice, you have to rein in it a little bit here and there. But I didn’t on this CD,  I just use it wherever I feel like it. I love singing in that voice. It just feels good.”

Debi Smith performs with the National Men’s Chorus on Sunday December 21, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here

LUCINDA AND JOHN: BRILLIANCE IN THE TWILIGHT

Posted in Uncategorized on November 20, 2014 by midliferocker

lu and john

For any singer/songwriter, success as an artist can often be fleeting at best, and unattainable at worst.

You might last five years if you’re real lucky. A few more if you’re very lucky. If you get to ten, you’ve hit the jackpot. Beyond that, you just might land in legend status, that is, if your work, your craft, your ideals, the thing that makes you so special, stays on course at the very high level that you’ve established over your long career. It’s a rarity, a bigtime one, but it happens. And when it does, it’s pure magic.

In the span of five days, I had the incredible privilege of witnessing that magic first hand with two very special artists at virtually the same stage in their life and career, Lucinda Williams, 61, and John Hiatt, 62. In many ways, these two masterful songwriters have not only a very similar vibe and feel to their writing — one of honesty, grittiness, irony and self effacement — but despite their personal struggles, tragedies and surviving the mortal enemy of any musician, getting old, they have both reached that often unattainable pinnacle with their integrity and soul intact.

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As for the inimitable Ms. Williams, she just released what could be considered her finest record yet, a double length collection of songs right in her wheelhouse, songs of hope, struggle, perseverance, falling short and rising up, called  Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. Williams stays true to form on her 12th album with exquisitely written songs that exude suffering and redemption, all delivered with her trademark smoky Louisiana drawl, and even throws in a tune from recent headlines, West Memphis, about the West Memphis Three. But overall, she is still able to transport us into her dark yet somehow still hopeful world, a world where you can just feel the ache, the pain and the glory all at once. Her live performance at the Lincoln here in DC held true to her stunning past live shows with a slew of deep meaningful songs, as she along with a stellar band ran the gamut from her fabulous catalog. The show was delivered with a humility and sincerity rarely seen from musicians, ever. Unexpectedly, via serendipity and the generosity of some newfound friends at the show, I was able to spend a good 20 minutes hanging out with Lucinda backstage at the show, just talking one on one, and it was a rare and exceptional experience. I could sense just by that very personal time with her why she is able to be so candid and honest in her songwriting. It’s because she is a humble and caring human being.

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Five nights later,  almost as if the songwriting gods were shining brightly down on me, I got to sit front row for John Hiatt at the Birchmere in Alexandria, and in some ways, I felt like I was seeing Lucinda’s male counterpart, her songwriting doppelganger. I’ve never heard the two compared before, but there is a definite similarity as far as not only their age, longevity and sheer rare talent, but in the depth and breadth of the emotion and stark realism and honesty in their lyrics. Monday night, Hiatt walked out onstage by himself, armed with only an acoustic guitar and several harmonicas sitting nearby, and let us into a cross sectional world of his indelible music. I felt like I was being allowed into another world of struggle and redemption similar to Williams’. We got to hear some of Hiatt’s breathtaking poetry about the Seven Little Indians, Ethylene, the Tiki Bar and others, including songs from his latest record issued this past summer, My Terms of Surrender. And all through his performance, he smiled his wry smile, like he was proud that we were so thankful to be a part of his world.

After having lost his brother to suicide and father to illness before he was 12, and then his wife years later who also took her own life, Hiatt has always let us in on the deepest of his feelings, as has Williams, who has had her share of hard times and has addressed suicide and other dark subjects on most of her albums. The righteousness and truthfulness of their stunning bodies of work is almost unparalleled in its starkness and candor. You always feel when you hear a Hiatt or Williams song that you are being told a story that is somehow related to their lives, and sometimes, your life as well, and you always feel honored to have been given that opportunity. That’s the mark of a rare and gifted songwriter. There are others who have also opened that rarified door to their listeners, but few have laid it all out as deeply and candidly, and for as long, as these two.

Have they both lost a tad of the vocal range of their youth? Maybe a little bit, but who doesn’t? If you haven’t, then you’re hoarding a fountain of youth somewhere, and I want a taste. But witnessing both of them within days of each other this past week, it’s not a measurable loss, and it is very easily overcome by the continued sincerity and realness of their most recent recorded work as well as their live performances that sets them apart from many of their peers, young and old.

If we’re lucky, we’ll have them both around for a while yet.

 

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