Hot off the presses: new music! Better said, new music that is worth your time.
Tom Petty – An American Treasure – 63 songs / 4 hours, 5 minutes
When we lost Mr. Petty last year, we definitely lost an American treasure. Such is the apt name of the gigantic boxset culled by the three people closest to the man: his widow, and long-time bandmates Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench.
This plays well as a supplement to the existing best-ofs, and includes copious alternate takes, remasters, outtakes, and live recordings. While this album is not meant to showcase his hits, it is a lovely quasi-chronological journey through his career. Included here is Tom’s solo work as well as his time with his Heartbreakers, and even the terrific side project Mudcrutch is represented.
For fans of the man (basically everyone on the planet who likes rock or pop music), this is a worthwhile journey and I recommend taking the time to enjoy it from front to back. If you want to sample it, I’ll give you my highlights, divided into three categories: newly released outtakes, alternate takes, and live recordings.
“Surrender” is one of the band’s earliest recordings from the sessions that resulted in the debut album way back in 1976, and shows a very young Tom and crew already harnessing that legendary Heartbreakers sound. Tom’s vocals here are a bit over the top, making you appreciate how he learned to reign it in a bit over the years. This is a perfect start to the box set.
“Keep A Little Soul” from 1982 features super-catchy “doesn’t matter” call and answer vocals and sounds to me like it could have been a hit had it been released. “Keeping Me Alive”, recorded in the same sessions, is a fun listen but feels more like the B-side material it ended up being.
“Gainesville”, a leftover from 1998’s Echo recordings, is a fun trip through the eyes of a younger Tom and band starting out and feeling like playing in Gainesville, FL was “the big time”. “Lonesome Dave” has some raucous rockabilly sound with plenty of guitar strutting and heavy doses of Benmont’s Jerry Lee-esque piano.
I really enjoyed the souped-up version of the classic “Rebels” found here. We get more guitar in the mix and slightly louder vocals, reminding me of the fantastic Drive-By Truckers cover. Is it blasphemy to say that I enjoy this alternate take even more than the original?
Much of 1987’s Let Me Up sounds super-80s, which is to say way too synthed up for my taste. Another worthwhile alternate take is the more rock-focused version of “The Damage You’ve Done”, which makes me wish I could hear that entire album re-imagined. This line is a favorite of mine: “Wish I had a dollar for every piece of my broken heart, if they gave out a quarter for every thread of my shattered life; baby you’d make me a millionaire, but it wouldn’t repair the damage you’ve done to me”
“Breakdown”, recorded live from LA in 1977, features an extended intro and outro, and when Tom’s vocals start, the crowd gets super loud. Over 2,500 miles from home, and only one album in, he was already a star. After the last chorus (which ends with “it’s all right”), he asks the crowd if everything is all right. The crowd sure as hell sounds like it.
“Kings Road”, performed in Inglewood in 1981, is another solid track. Tom sings the chorus “I don’t know which way to go, the new world war or the old King’s road” with all his might, and then the band stops and gets quiet for a couple of seconds just before the brief guitar solo, and you can hear the crowd loud and clear. Tom screams “All right, Michael” cheering Mr. Campbell on.
“I Won’t Back Down”: Live from the Fillmore in San Francisco in 87, this is a hushed and slow version of the song, with moody keys and quiet bongo percussion. This is similar to how Pearl Jam played it on their Safeco Field Night II show this summer. It gives me chills and is a must listen.
“Into the Great Wide Open”: Live from Oakland Coliseum (aka America’s Concrete Dump) during Thanksgiving week 1991. Tom introduces the song as “The story of Eddie Rebel and his adventures in the great wide open” before Mike’s signature guitar notes begin. “He met a girl out there with a tattoo, too” is still one of my favorite Petty lyrics, and sounds great here, as do the shiny acoustic guitar flourishes that lead into the chorus.
The album closes with an absolutely epic rendition of Mudcrutch’s “Hungry No More” recorded at House of Blues Boston in 2016. If you take nothing else from the retrospective of this great artist’s work, do yourself a favor and listen to the two albums they released. Mudcrutch’s 2 was Tom’s last studio LP release before his death, and it doesn’t sound like there is other new material waiting to surface. On this night, Tom ends the song by addressing the crowd, saying “thank you so much for giving us your ears tonight, I really appreciate it and I hope it was musical for ya. God bless ya, good night.” A fitting end for a classy, prolific, and legendary musician.
Key Tracks: “Hungry No More”, “Keep A Little Soul”, “The Damage You’ve Done”
Seasick Steve – Can U Cook? – 13 songs / 55 minutes
The self-taught bluesman continues to release interesting and inspiring music.
While his luck has certainly turned around over the last decade or so, ol’ Seasick Steve is still wandering around in relative obscurity. This is a shame, as the man can really bring it. As if being self-taught and “discovered” while living as a nomad and playing his handmade instruments isn’t enough, the music he has released over his now seven LPs is actually really damn good. Can U Cook? is not his finest album (that would be Sonic Soul Surfer), but it is a fine place to start for those unfamiliar. On this record, nearly every song title has slang/shorthand or incorrect spelling, which was annoying for trying to look up the songs for yours truly.
The opener, “Hate da Winter”, starts out with a crunchy blues riff and vibes a la Left Lane Cruiser and tells the tale of a man who has done hard living and just hates cold weather. What follows is the lovely acoustic blues ballad “Sun on My Face”, where Steve shows off some killer harmonica playin’. The title track is back to the up-tempo electric sound and is not really about food, more about the bedroom; it’s clever and quite entertaining.
Back to acoustic guitar and harmonica on the lament of modern day life that is “Last Rodeo”. A story of a man longing for the days of yore, with more than a little trepidation for what the future holds. A recurring theme in Steve’s music is running into the police, or better said the police running into him. “Down de Road” and “Locked Up and Locked Down Blues” both revisit this ground, and both succeed mightily.
If you are a fan of blues music that doesn’t take itself so damned seriously, you might find a new favorite artist if you give ol’ SS a try.
Key Tracks: “Last Rodeo”, “Hate da Winter”, “Sun on My Face”
Dave Grohl – Play – 1 song / 22 minutes
Yet another wonderful chapter in what is the unbelievable book of Mr. Grohl’s musical odyssey.
Not content with being one of the best drummers in the world, Dave decided to form a band of his own after his pal Kurt Cobain passed away in 1994. The resulting debut album from the Foo Fighters was recorded with Dave playing all of the music as well as writing and singing all of the songs. Impressive. He then recruited a great band and the rest is history.
Occasionally Dave will pop up as a guest drummer for some of the most amazing shit you’ve ever heard, like his work with Queens of the Stone Age or Tenacious D. He even made his own heavy metal album, Probot, in 2004. And we all know about his deep love and respect for how music is made and the history therein; just see Sound City or numerous other projects he has led or appeared on for proof of that.
Now, we have this latest trick, “Play”: another one-man-band outing, this time in the form of a twenty-two and a half minute rocker. Can a song go on that long and not get boring? Yes, apparently so. This is a fun listen and rocks like a Foo Fighters track, but the bridges and quieter spaces between the attacks are as fun as the assaults themselves. Well done, sir. Safe to say that if Dave Grohl is doing something, it is worth your time to check it out.
The Pixies – Live from The Fallout Shelter – 16 songs / 40 minutes
As part of the 30-year anniversary reissue of Surfer Rosa, this live recording gives a peek behind the curtain.
This is one of their earliest recordings, taped way back in 1986 on WJUL in Lowell, MA. Sound quality is about what you would expect, and the band is so young that you have to work to hear the genius brewing, but it is there. Good ol’ Black Francis is definitely already wailing in his goofy way, and there are a few tracks here that stood the test of time: “Holiday Song”, “Caribou”, “I’m Amazed”, and one of my favorites, “Broken Face”. Uh huh, uh huh!!
Included is a brief interview with the band by some WJUL DeeJay, which is also entertaining to hear. Worthwhile for big Francis/Pixies fans, probably not so much for those not already in their camp.
Key Tracks: “Broken Face”, “Holiday Song”, “I’m Amazed”
Also released (and not strong enough to recommend):
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Distant Sky (Live In Copenhagen)
Short and sweet, this 4-song release is fine, but the only track that blew me away was Nick’s passionate take on “Mercy Seat”. This song is most famous for Johnny Cash’s excellent cover from his American/Rick Rubin era.
The Black Lillies – Stranger To Me
Cypress Hill – Elephants on Acid
John Scofield – Combo 66
Goggs – Pre Strike Sweep
Mudhoney – Digital Garbage