Al Di Meola – Live at Variety Playhouse 2015

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I’d been looking forward to this show since it was first announced.  I had seen Di Meola in 2010 and 2011, but both of those were primarily acoustic guitar sets, reflecting a Latin/world music influence that he’s been working within for a couple of decades. 


This tour, though, was primarily electric guitar and featuring songs from his early solo career when he delivered some of jazz fusion’s best albums, including Elegant Gypsy, Casino and Splendido Hotel.  It was this era of Di Meola that I favor, and this is probably the tour for which many of his fans have been hoping since the mid ‘80’s.


From these three albums, he played 9-10 songs, including 5 off of Elegant Gypsy.  He also played a couple of acoustic songs and two new ones.  His band included longtime percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, keyboardist Phillipe Saisse (who recorded with him during that era), energetic bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and all but hidden drummer, Joel Taylor.  This is only the 6th stop of the tour, and the band sounded tight and appeared energetic.


This is instrumental music, but Di Meola is extremely personable with chat between the songs.  I’d wager that most of those assembled had seen him before, and his winning banter played well for the sold out venue.  Also, being from New Jersey, a couple of his quips sure sounded like Frank Sinatra.

The first set included perhaps 7 songs, which were enjoyable on the one hand but, for someone who prefers rock music, they were also frustrating in that whenever a groove was established, the songs tended to halt or shift in a different direction.  Jazz composition… I get it.  They’re good songs, but for those unfamiliar, they keep you guessing what is coming next rather than a simple climb to a grand finale.  Di Meola also played a short acoustic set, at one point playfully trading licks with percussionist Ortiz. 

After a 20 minute break, the song selections had more flow and really enthused the crowd, particularly with “Midnight Tango,” “Babylon” (a new song from his forthcoming CD that also emphasizes electric guitar), and the closer, “Egyptian Danza.”


It should be noted that prior to playing, the announcer indicated no audio recording, no video, and no cameras… Variety Playhouse essentially has no policy (I’m not encouraging a change) on recording except when the artist demands it, but I was still expecting the mention of cameras to include “no flash” photography.  This was disappointing, but my son and I were well positioned in the 4th row, and, all things considered, it is nice to sit for a show without trying to snap some pictures… despite the perfect venue lighting for it.

Prior to “Elegant Gypsy,” Di Meola said something similar to, “Okay, now we’re going to mix things up a bit like all those rock acts.  Stand up and come on down to the front.”  It didn’t take a lot of encouragement.


Through the evening, he had been no stranger for expressively playing his guitar, with twisting movements, partial windmills, and other guitar “poses” usually following a trademark flurry of notes.   With a more responsive crowd, though, he was on.  Continuing into the encore of “Race with Devil on a Spanish Highway,” the crowd ate it up, waving arms and, often with iPhones, Nikons, and such.  That’s why you, gentle reader, get pictures.  He has no shortcomings with rock posturing for a crowd… hopefully he doesn’t lose his jazz union card for it.


The above was taken on the last song, possibly “Chiquilin de Bachin,” where he’s soloing while reading music.  In the other two years, he played while reading music as well.  It just strikes me oddly not that so many notes require that he do so, but that he can keep up with it at the speed that he plays.  There’s no power chords, here.  All in all, a triumphant evening.


As a footnote, the opener, Nashville resident Sabrina was very enjoyable, with her fluid guitar work, relational lyrics and soulful Tracy Chapman/Joan Armatrading force of voice.


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I.D. and Password Overload

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So it came to pass that my computer hard drive failed.  That same hard drive had a tidy file of website login IDs and passwords stored in email archives that would have been of great assistance in restoring my computer. 

Fortunately, before this happened, I had already purchased a password manager for my iPhone.  Unfortunately, I had only input some basic financial and work information.

There are a lot of password managers out there – Dashlane, 1Password, and  LastPass are among the ones I looked at.  Some have upfront costs, others have “in app” upgrades which means they’re junk until you pay to upgrade.  A cursory look shows that many more Apps are currently offered today.   And when you’re paying for these things, you never know if you got the best, because you paid for the one, onePass in my case.  I think it was around $5 at the time.

To enter the app, you choose a password that is a combination of numbers, colors and symbols, the latter two randomly placed each time you enter the app, so a pattern won’t work unless you stick with the numbers only.   Now, to my great satisfaction, the graphic door when you opened the app, similar to the old icon above, slid open like a bank vault.  Kind of cool, really.  I’m aggravated they did away with it.

Anyway, on we go.

This is the current entry screen.  You can alternately use your fingerprint, but you still have to input a 4 digit code initially as you’ll be asked to repeat it whenever the phone restarts.  


Consider all the things you might want to have for reference in a secure environment. 

  • Social security numbers
  • Drivers license numbers
  • License tags
  • Credit card numbers
  • Hotel/rental car/airline accounts
  • Email account passwords
  • Retailer web sites
  • Product keys for downloaded software
  • Banking and financial sites/acct numbers
  • Serial numbers for guns
  • Online magazines, membership organizations…

It’s a bunch. 

Here are some sample screens:





Various web sites:


The icons for each entry are not automatically recognized, but they’re easy to input via the Edit function, which searches Google images.  The entries with arrows will launch the web browser automatically.  Otherwise, all screens open p to input as much information as you want, including notes.  You can also protect pictures and other documents stored on your phone, and, if one is paranoid, double protect with an additional passcode.  Whatever.


All my entries total 155 for business and personal information.  That said, I regularly remember something I haven’t yet added.  Overall, as passwords are required to be changed at many sites and their length/capitals/numbers become increasingly complex , it’s proven quite handy.  And, if you’re wondering if all the eggs are just in a different basket, the data can be uploaded to the cloud, encrypted. 

Whether it’s this program or another, don’t wait to realize that you should have prepared better.  Risk management.  Yeah.

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James McMurtry – Complicated Game

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It’s weird “liking” some artists.  I’ve seen McMurtry three times in concert.  I love his lyrics, his edge, his Lennon-esqe working class hero persona, and some really fine guitar work.  But that said, he comes across as a guy who is short on friends, or at least wearing.

Why?  Maybe it’s the way his eyes bore holes through his audience.  Maybe it’s his almost suffocating cynicism, shared between his lyrics and his vocal delivery.  Maybe because when he rises from negativity he peaks at observational. 

“Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun”

So begins Complicated Game, his first new CD since 2008.  Welcome back, sir.  It’s been too long. 

There are a couple of changes 61PAj6xYEqL._SY355_overall.  First and foremost, he’s less likely to distract the listener because his social themes are no longer in your face; they’re residing between the lines instead.  His narratives avoid straw men that he can deride or point fingers at others that he may have previously judged as culpable. 

Instead, the stories allow the characters or his reflections to have room to breathe – a soldier who returns home to a meager job prospect, a traveller whose girlfriend cheats on him while he’s away, fishermen tempted to cheat a little to get by, the unremembered people who inhabit a small town all their lives, learning the depth of a person in a relationship over time, and similar.  Good, mature work.  After six years of singing the same songs the same way, it was due.

That “way” has also changed.  This is not a fully acoustic album, but it’s toned down from where he’s been before.  And his producer did some work in bringing I some aces to lend a hand to the recording, such as Benmont Tench and Derek Trucks.   It’s one thing to say that the accompaniment is good.  But when a barbershop quartet actually suits a song well upon repeated listening (which in other places would be at risk of being a one-off joke), there’s been some thoughtful input to the process.  Hmm.  I need to revisit Peter Gabriel’s “Excuse Me.”  Also, kudos to McMurtry for stretching his singing style.  It wasn’t bad before, but it’s certainly a part of what sets this disc above his others.

As easily as the CD enters McMurtry mode, the exiting line is also works for reviewers who might be tempted to judge McMurtry for being judgmental.

“I don’t know what to say to you. I shouldn’t judge, but I often do”

4 of 5 STARS_thumb


(plus a half, even)

Recommended Tracks: “Copper Canteen,” “Carlisle’s Haul”

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Buildings are Courageous

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wide innocent eyes hint tears

as his fascination races higher and higher

taller than the tallest tree, he thinks

pointing, begging his powerless mom

                      ‘my ballooonn…’

above the carnival it climbs

rising above the quiet country town


‘hold all calls for the day, Carol’

he swivels from his formidable desk

to his picturesque view of the investment-dividend world,

dense spires of towering infinity, reaching out to -

a balloon floats by his window

and somewhere, far below, among the blurry dots

is one upset kid who just lost the best thing ever

and a mom, who is no longer a god.

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Robin Trower – Something’s About to Change

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Something’s about to change… but it hasn’t changed yet?  It’s an interesting title, as if things are going to be markedly different.  Not here, though.  Just excellent songs by a guitar legend who plies his wares masterfully.

I really do like Bridge of Sighs, Trower’s influential 1974 album that helped define the power trio of guitar, bass and drums for many rock and roll acts to follow.  It’s full of great songs that continue to dominate his live shows as well as any discussion about this guitarist.

But I came late to the party, starting with 2009’s What Lies Beneath, my soundtrack for a trek into California’s Death Valley.   Purity of tone, precision of expression with his vibrato technique, and an audible search for something different, if not greater, than where he’d been before.  And that was, all things considered, only a “good” album. 

But something changed around then, too.  Maybe it was microphone placement, maybe it was better recording equipment, maybe it was improved guitar gear like his signature “RTO Overdrive” (which he describes as “a little more drive without losing the clarity of the note.  There’s no mush”), but translating his sound to his recorded output became ear candy – his guitar has a voice so directly heard that it speaks its emotion without distraction.

And from there, we get 2010’s The Playful Heart, which is my favorite, and Roots and Branches, a fine album of cover songs.  The guy is 70, and he’s making great music.  Given his wife’s passing, this quote speaks of devotion to his craft and to the future of it, “I still enjoy making music.  I practically live for playing the guitar.”  That passion is heard here. 

What hasn’t changed is a great collection of songs, nicely tracked to alternate between moderate and slow, both of which allow for ample guitar, either in nuance or lead.  Lyrically, he’s also sound, with nothing overreaching but also with no filler content.  It’s obvious that this CD was a labor of love.

What has changed is 1) he plays the bass, aptly, of course, and 2) he sings every song on the album.  The latter is, in my mind, great.  Could he hire someone to sing it better?  Maybe.  But this is a giant step forward for him in terms of confidence, and he meets the challenge.  His voice suits the work at hand, as does the entire production.  “I can’t remember ever being so happy with a finished album before,” speaks volumes about where he is as an artist.

Regrettably, there’s no “killer” song on this CD to draw in the curious.  The quality varies depending if one likes faster more than slower or if a tune fills the space where the listener lives, but even weaker arrangements give an opportunity for his guitar expressions which make all of it more than listenable.

Favorite tracks, then: Title track, “Dreams that Shone Like Diamonds,” and “Strange Love” and “Gold to Grey”

4 of 5 STARS_thumb





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Lloyd Cole – Live @ Eddie’s Attic

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I hadn’t heard of Lloyd Cole until my concert buddy had a friend who couldn’t make it to the show.  Great venue, great price, and a Friday night. 

Lloyd Cole had some notoriety back in the 80’s with his band The Commotions, probably foremost with his initial album, Rattlesnakes, released in 1984.  He’s continued releasing music through the years, his last in 2013.

I listened briefly to some of his early songs before the show, and, to my ears, they sounded dated, which detracted from his singing and lyrics.

For me, Cole’s songs are better suited to solo acoustic, which makes sense in context but a format which makes for a difficult sale for recorded sales. But, if you take a sample lyric from a noted singer/songwriter (or even a “highly literate” writer, which means he drops names a lot), the pointedness and humor is more expressly understood without the adornment of, ahem,  unimaginative accompaniment.


For example, from “Rattlesnakes”:

She looks like Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront
As she reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance
Her heart.. her heart is like crazy paving
Upside down and back to front
She says"Ooh it's so hard to love
when love was your great disappointment."

or, “Diminished Ex”

And did I have it coming?
Maybe I did
I sure did disappoint you, didn't I?
Time and again, and again and again and again
I wont disavow my sinful weakness

No need to tell me
I already know
It can never be the same, baby
You've got to lay some blame, baby
If you've got to pin that scarlet letter to my breast
Well, do what you've got to do

So in light of these diminished expectations
I propose a temporary truce
If we are to negotiate these waters
Without further casualties


So, if you trim the fat of the instrumentation, it leaves Cole to play a generous set of perhaps 30 songs of succinct and punctuated lyrical enjoyment.   Even better are the frequent re-tunings of his guitar, which is the perfect opportunity for an artist to relate to their audience, whether it’s personal stories, cutting wit, or… someone who lacks stage presence and suffers to speak in entertaining fashion without a script.

In Cole’s case, he made the most of the opportunities, such as describing at length something close to:  “It might be nice to be like other artists, to have someone travel with me, like a valet, to tune my guitar for me.  It would be very professional.  And that would be wonderful, except that person would travel with me, and I’d have take him to dinner with me.  And I don’t want to have dinner with him.  So, there you are and here we are.”   

Eddie’s is said to have a capacity of 185 (120 seems more likely), but in any case it’s an intimate venue for fans to enjoy a concert.  The audience knew his songs, many attempting to sing along accompanied by the hushes from the wait staff, who are bound to gently admonish patrons due to a venue which venerates a respectful, listening atmosphere rather than a participatory experience. 

In any case, this allows artists like Cole to shine, to present themselves as they choose and to be heard that way.   

Awkward moment:  We left before the encore, and the venue is small enough that the artist’s “off stage” spot is at the entry to the bar.  A concerned, confused voice, speaking to the host, “They’re not clapping for an encore.”  We scoot by him, increasing his doubt.  We were tired sir, and had a long drive and early morning ahead.  No worries.  You were great.

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Land of Opportunity

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Laundry loaded
Detergent added
Placing the quarters in the slots
In the back
     ”Got a quarter?”
     ”Go ask your mom, kid”
Breezeless, humid air
Roaring washers, humming dryers

Then the sister
Big beads of sweat pouring down her fat body
Flipping a quarter
Playing god to the brother
     ”Bam, bambambambambam”
Striking the pinball flippers as quickly as possible
A friend watches the ball closely
(Knowing she could do better)
     ”ping! ping!”
The ball goes down the chute.

The brother
(With the “why doesn’t anybody love me?” look)
Hugging the pinball machine
     ”I want more moneeeyy!!”
Expression of childish desire
Thoughts of greed
Oh, no, it’s mother
     “J.R., quit your whining and come here!”
Doomed on the road to success.

Written when I was in college.  Doing laundry…

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Renaissance – DeLane Lea Studios 1973

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The appearance of this vintage Renaissance performance amidst a good number of anticipated 2015 CD releases was quite a pleasant surprise, a nice way to start the year.  Having listened to other live performances of the band, I didn’t want to be too hopeful, but the opportunity to hear Renaissance in their prime, performing live in a studio without all the crowd noise intrusion, or the other imperfections of recording live music was pretty exciting.renlive73

The CD liner notes include a helpful narrative of the story – gas shortages, a general reluctance to tour, broadcasting a performance instead of touring to support their just released album, Ashes are Burning… it makes sense.  And, there’s also an illuminating quote from lead singer Annie Haslam, “The thing is, if we can’t get a grand piano, then it’s just not worth doing the gig.”  Ensconcing themselves in the studio where they had been recording for a nationwide broadcast seemed a perfect solution. 

Why?  Because the sound quality matters.

If you want to hear Renaissance at their best, you listen to their studio recordings.  You go to hear them in concert to satisfy your hopes that Haslam really can sing that well, that John Tout really is a superb pianist, that Jon Camp is the secret sauce whose bass propels their music.  But not for sound quality.  And their recordings, from the Carnegie Hall official release to many others of more dubious quality, settle the point.

So it is no surprise that this CD fails to live up to my hopes.  Sadly, it doesn’t even meet my expectations given the possibilities of what was possible.

The good:  Annie’s vocals are sterling, sounding very much “in the studio.”  Tout’s all important grand piano?  Likewise.  Andy Powell’s soaring guitar on the one guested track… superb.  And from there, it falters.  Camp’s bass is often lost in the mix.  Tout’s keyboards (not the piano)… muddled.  Dunford’s acoustic guitar… occasionally audible and very tinny.  And the most disruptive element to aural enjoyment is Sullivan’s drums, not the percussion, but the cymbals.  How the band and/or their producer and/or hired hands did such a crappy job of mic placement is a mystery.   Never mind the hiss or the uneven sound levels.   And don’t even get me started on the complete drop out of the music at 5:20 into “Ashes are Burning” which is somehow replaced with the equivalent, almost, of fingernails on a chalkboard.

And that, folks, is why this recording has been left unreleased for 42 years.  Officially.  As it turns out, there are bootlegs of this performance.  I have since verified that there is no sonic improvement made for this disc.  So, if you like your bootleg recording in a nice plastic sleeve, with an official (looking) Renaissance logo, and nice CD sleeve artwork… and you are otherwise a Renaissance completionist, this CD is for you.

You know what you’re going to get:  a band in lockstep with their recorded versions, and Jon Camp as the lone instrumentalist given room to improvise, which he does at every appropriate moment.  There’s nothing new here.  But Annie sure sounds great.

Also, in the spirit of “anyone can now take a bootleg recording and make money by releasing it officially,” the same label will be releasing their 1974 performance at the Academy of Music soon. 

2 of 5 STARS_thumb

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