Or, if you don’t have that kind of cash, the KISS rocker will hand deliver his box set for just $2,000.
Thu., Sept. 21, 2017
Gene Simmons is at it again.
The co-founder and bassist of legendary rock band KISS, who has gained almost equivalent public stature as an audacious and shrewd marketing tycoon, has set aside most of 2018 to deliver his latest project: The Vault Experience, a 17-kilogram, 10-CD collection of 150 previously unreleased demos and recordings that he boasts is the “largest and most expensive boxed set of all time.”
And by “deliver,” Simmons means exactly that: For $2,000 (U.S.), the rock-and-reality-TV superstar will personally hand it to you at a location of your choice.
Actually, he’ll wheel it to you: The boxed set, which comes with an envious number of bells and whistles, resembles a small safe and is cumbersome enough that it rolls around on castors.
“Anyone that buys one — first come, first served because there are only a few thousand around the world — I will fly to you,” declared Simmons, who was in Toronto earlier this week to promote the venture.
“Whether you’re in Moncton or New Zealand, I will hand-deliver this to you in a convenient area — because if you live in the North Pole, I’m not going to the North Pole — I want to be upfront.
“But if you’re in Moncton, I’ll go there.”
For those willing to shell out the coin for Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience, the dates for Toronto delivery have already been designated: May 5-6 and Sept. 19, 2018, with the tongue-wagging rock star promising to buy his own “plane tickets, hotel rooms, security, insurance, legal stuff — at my expense.”
Why is he doing it? Simmons, whose cartoonish, on-stage “Demon” persona has helped sell 75 million KISS albums worldwide and filled arenas countless times over, says it’s his way of personally thanking his followers for 50 years of an unimaginably wonderful musical career.
“Well, the fans made my life possible,” reasons Simmons, born Chaim Witz, 68 years ago in Haifa, Israel, and who is married to St. John’s, N.L. actor Shannon Tweed. “I mean, I have a great life. My family is taken care of. I can spend money on anything I want, although I don’t need a lot of stuff. I don’t care about stuff, mostly.
“But how do you say thank you after becoming America’s No. 1 award-winning group of all-time? That also includes Canada — yeah, we have more gold records than A Foot in Coldwater.”
His reference to a classic Toronto rock band notwithstanding, the six-foot, two-inch Simmons, reclining on a couch in an RV next to The Launch studios in Scarborough, says he’s willing to do what other superstars won’t.
“I never had Elvis (Presley) knock on my door and say, ‘Hey man, here’s my new record and thanks for being a fan,’ ” Simmons notes. “But why not? If you can afford it and you’ve got the time and you want to do it . . .”
“I’m not going to make everyone happy. If one million fans buy these, I’m not going to go and spend 10 years visiting one million fans. But a few thousand? Sure. So, I’m taking a year off, starting January, and I’m going around the world. I don’t know what kind of tour you want to call it — but I’ll be going and visiting the fans.
“There will be people crying — especially if I step on their feet — and I’m going to well up as well . . . because once upon a time, I was a kid with a dream and I saw this dream come true on a scale that I never envisioned. By many estimates in the marketing world, those four KISS faces (Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss) are the most recognized faces on planet Earth.
“I don’t see (Bruce) Springsteen or (Bob) Dylan or anybody on that level who are going to go and meet and greet every single fan that buys their boxed set.”
Manufactured in partnership with Rhino Entertainment, the California-based specialty label that has previously released elaborately designed boxed sets for Ray Charles (a turntable suitcase) and Z.Z. Top (a barbecue shack), Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience includes a 50,000-word coffee table book, an action figure (which is kind of ironic, because it’s a likeness of Simmons standing with his arms crossed), a gold medallion and secret compartments, where fans will discover a unique piece of hand-picked memorabilia — “it could be a pair of leather gloves or a scarf” — from the Van Nuys, Calif.-based KISS warehouse.
A Vault “pre-pack,” including a signed golden ticket, an exclusive T-shirt, a laminate and a USB of the track “Are You Ready,” will arrive separately by email once an order is placed at GeneSimmonsVault.com or by calling 1-833-GSVault, the only way it can be ordered.
Musically, the set chronicles some of Simmons’ pre-KISS output dating back to 1966 — and there are some intriguing curiosities.
“Three of the tracks are Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons-written songs, including the Bob/Gene writing session in which he was kind enough to get into an unmarked van and come up to my house,” Simmons explains. “The Van Halen brothers — after I discovered their band and signed them to my company — were kind enough to play on three tracks. We have a power trio: Eddie and Alex and Gene Simmons. They played on ‘Christine Sixteen,’ the original version. Joe Perry from Aerosmith in 1978 plays on ‘Mongoloid Man.’ Also, it includes all the KISS guys — Ace, Paul and Peter.
“This set includes the very first song that I recorded — one of the songs that I wrote when I was about 14, called ‘My Uncle is A Raft, But He Always Keeps Me Floating.’ Oh yeah, that’s deep, Gene — but melodically, it’s not a bad song.”
Simmons is adamant that he wanted something tactile for this set and, with the exception of the single-song USB, has no intention of releasing it digitally.
“There’s no downloading, no social media — nothing,” he declares. “There’s no ‘cloud’ nonsense — get the f— out of here with that cloud s—. I wanted something real, a lifetime thing, not a ghost or a mirage.”
True to Simmons’ entrepreneurial nature, those who have a little extra cash on hand can enhance their Vault encounter. For $25,000 — and only until November — fans will get the Producer Experience, which will include a Skype call with Simmons and an invitation to the studio, where they can make notes, suggestions and get their name etched on the inside of the safe’s door as executive producers.
And if you happen to have $50,000 lying around, Simmons will deliver the set and spend the day with you and up to 25 friends.
“If you’re nuts and you want Gene Simmons for a day to come to your town — invite 20 to 25 of your friends — do karaoke, pet the dog or, if you have a rock band and you want me to join the band, boom, $50K,” he says.
“Few people are going to do that and that’s cool. But again, it’s about changing the relationship: doing something that’s lifetime stuff, away from retail, which is a failing model, as you know.”
This isn’t the first time Simmons has gotten up close with his fans. In the mid-1990s, KISS staged a day-long convention tour and visited 23 cities, including Toronto. The day, held at the Sheraton Centre, included exhibits and memorabilia, several KISS cover bands and, in the early evening, an acoustic concert and Q&A session with the original quartet.
“It wasn’t personal enough,” Simmons recalls. “You came to the convention and it was like a mini-concert. You were onstage, you answered questions. Yes, we were the first ones to do that and I will take full responsibility for that.
“In those days, it was $100 per ticket but we paid for travel and everything else. But again, fans couldn’t come up and talk, touch or spend individual time, if you see what I mean. You’re still part of 1,000 people. This (The Vault Experience) is to try and change the relationship and get closer to our bosses.
“There’s this thing about celebrity — it’s far away and don’t touch me and don’t take my photo. I’m not that guy,” he adds. “I wanna do something that’s a tug of a heart. That’s why I’m doing it.”
Simmons has an estimated fortune of $300 million, has been “comfortable for decades” and has merchandised everything from urinal cakes with pictures of his face on them to KISS condoms, caskets and customized Axe guitars. But the one-time manager of Liza Minnelli remains busy, with ventures ranging from the Rock & Brews chain of 19 restaurants he shares with KISS co-founder Paul Stanley to books, films and his own line of cola.
Does money remain his main motivation?
“Well, look, (Warren) Buffett gets up every day and goes to work,” he says. “You can’t use the ‘Look Warren, you’ve got enough money, why do you get up every day?’ excuse.”
“What the f— is he supposed to do? Wait to die? Once you reach a billion or whatever that number is, what do you do? Play golf all day? I’d hang myself.
“You can amass large fortunes, and that’s great and chicks are great and fame is great. All of it is great. But unless you’ve got some passion that makes you get up in the morning, you’re just going to lay there and wait to die. So don’t minimize money or fame or sexy stuff.
“But the most important thing is that I can’t wait to get up out of this self-induced coma, sleep — which is a f—ing worthless piece of time. Let me use my brain 24 hours a day. I’d rather a shorter life and be fully awake the whole time than a long life and be comatose for a third of it. Wouldn’t you? So that’s my spiel and I’m sticking to it.”
CHICAGO — To say that Farm Aid, the annual music festival fundraiser for family farms and farmers, “celebrated” its 30th anniversary this month at Northerly Island would be a bit of a misnomer.
Certainly, there were some festivities, as an impressive lineup of top musicians including Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews, rock band Imagine Dragons, R&B legend Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, provided nearly 12 hours of music, entertaining an estimated 27,000 in attendance at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Sept. 19. But the truth of the matter is that 30 years after Nelson organized the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois — raising more than $48 million towards the cause over the last three decades, excluding the most recent event — the plight of the U.S. farmer remains in crisis.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the current number of U.S. farms at 2.2 million; it also admits that less than 1 percent of the country’s 313 million citizens “claim farming as a profession;” that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm and that “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.” Foreclosures, deep debt, industrial agriculture muscling in and manipulating prices to the point where non- corporate agriculturalists are lowballed for less-than-market crop prices, and high-level stress that often leads to depression and suicide.
The situation is still dire, warned the non-profit charity’s co-founder Neil Young at the Farm Aid 30 press conference. “The American farm is disappearing. This is a reality,” Young stated. “We keep saying, ‘We’re fighting…we’re fighting,’ but it is disappearing.”
Young says a dearth of younger generation farmers isn’t helping the cause, especially when aging farmers hand over their livelihoods to their kin, only to watch it be sold to corporate interests. “We’ve only got a few young people involved. The farms are going to change hands. We know when the farms change hands; that’s when the corporations come in and grab another slice.”
Still, war wages on, fighting commercial behemoths like agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant, and genetic seed modifier Monsanto and Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s leading processors of poultry, pork and beef, two companies whose multi-billion-dollar deep pockets and alleged government collusion have transformed them into formidable foes, said Young, whose latest album The Monsanto Years particularly takes one company to task.
“We’re up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere,” Young stated. “It’s centered in our government, and it’s backed up by multinational corporations who have taken over the farmland of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.”
Young says the latest crisis farmers are facing is “seed control.”
“Seeds are owned by these companies, so farmers can’t trade the seeds,” he explained. “Currently, there’s a bill in the Senate that, if it passes, will make it illegal to trade seeds farther than 3 to 5 miles.
“Because of our government and the money that they’re taking from the multinational corporations, we are being forced to give up the right for our farmers to trade seeds,” he added. “We need seed justice in this land.”
This public advocacy is one of the crucial differences Farm Aid has made in the lives of farmers: standing up for the little guy.
“The fact that Farm Aid even exists has given every farmer out there a stand against companies like Monsanto where they didn’t have one before,” country artist Jamey Johnson, who was performing at his eighth Farm Aid Festival, told Samaritanmag in an exclusive interview.
“If you don’t have a voice or a vote, there’s no way you can make anybody change. Farm Aid gives every farmer out there a platform to stand on while they make their case. Farm Aid helps farmers that get pushed out by ever growing corporate business and helps them make a new start on their own, helps them stand up against the Goliath.”
Besides offering hope, Farm Aid also supports farmers through third party administration with programs like The Family Farm Disaster Fund — which helps families survive weather-related disasters by providing emergency funds to buy food and cover living expenses, an emergency hotline and provides legal and financial counseling when foreclosure is threatened — and The Farmer Resource Network, a grid of 700 organizations recommended by Farm Aid that provides “resources, tools and opportunities to help (farmers) thrive.”
Every annual Farm Aid concert funds a year of activity, as artists and crews donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to the cause save for a small amount of production expenses.
Here’s how it breaks down according to Farm Aid website: 41 percent of proceeds go toward promoting “fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns to develop and bolster family farm-centered agriculture;” 39 percent goes toward “helping farmers thrive; providing farmers with the services and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices;” 14 percent to natural disaster and emergency response and 6 percent towards “growing the Good Food movement,” a crusade that espouses finding and shopping for organic, naturally grown farm food rather than the genetically altered stuff.
“When we started Farm Aid, crisis was gripping farm country,” said Willie Nelson, who launched the idea following a remark he heard from Bob Dylan at Live Aid regarding a similar charity for farmers, at the press conference. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”
Farm Aid has also influenced other musicians to lead by example and make a difference.
Jack Johnson, and his wife Kim, for example, have implemented a healthy snack program via their Oahu-based Kõkua Hawai’i Foundation called AINA in 16 local schools, a farm-to-school initiative that promotes childhood health by pushing healthy eating habits, contributes to a healthier local food system by supporting Hawaii’s farming community and their produce, and connects children to the land and water that sustains them.
For this school year, AINA is in 16 schools across the state, where students will experience garden-based learning, compost and nutrition lessons.
“Basically, during the school hours you can come into the classroom with locally grown food,” Johnson explained. “We have parents come down in the morning, they cut it all up, it comes from the farmers, it gets put into the classrooms and kids get to taste it.
“Any kids who don’t want to finish it we get them to put it in a little bin, and we take that off to worm composting. They’re learning about how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is, and we’re happy to be part of it.”
Jack Johnson told Samaritanmag that because his foundation is self-financed, there is a lot more flexibility and direct action in what they’re able to do.
“We’re pretty lucky with our Foundation, it’s all self-funded,” he admitted. “We’ve gotten some grants, but we’ve done music festivals that kind of support it and a lot of the touring I do, I pour money into it from there. So it’s been different than a lot of non-profits that have to rely off the grants, year after year. In that sense, the finances haven’t been a huge challenge but I know it’s been a challenge for other non-profit groups.”
For the Imagine Dragons, Farm Aid is an inspiration to change their eating habits. Guitarist Wayne Sermon, whose grandfather and father were farmers, said the band is doing its part to promote better eating by setting an example and actively searching out farm-to-table restaurants whenever they’re on tour.
“When I first started this band and we actually got successful, was when I first realized that I can’t eat the way I used to eat,” Sermon told Samaritanmag exclusively. “I have to eat fresh meat and vegetables, making sure knowing where my meat comes from, the non-GMO stuff. It became apparent and actually made a difference in my life. We also definitely encourage people to go out to grocery stores that support local farms as well.”
Even Micah Nelson, son of Willie and brother of Lukas, who fronted his own Insects Vs. Robots and joined Lukas’ Promise of the Real to perform with Neil Young at Farm Aid, said he’s going to Kauai this winter to help his cousin start a food forest. “I’m going to go help him out and learn as much as I can and apply it to my own life, instead of just going out there and preaching about it,” he said.
The fact that a trio of second generation artists, Micah and Lukas Nelson, and Ian Mellencamp, all performed at an event that initially took place either before they were born or just after, suggests that the Farm Aid will take the fight for the farmer well into the future.
* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.
As the concert business continues its uneven ebb and flow, the casino circuit is continuing to establish itself as an increasingly safe anchor for the touring performer.
Not only is the $25.7 billion casino gaming industry on an upswing — with over 430 commercial establishments operating in the U.S. alone — but many locations outside the seasoned hubs of Las Vegas and Atlantic City are now booking high profile acts as an incentive to increase consumer traffic.
And it seems to be working.
“There’s a marked increase on the revenue we make off our gaming floor on the nights we have concerts,” reports Leslie Herslip, Events Manager for the New Town, North Dakota-based 4 Bears Casino And Lodge.
“I don’t have a percentage figure, but it’s substantial.”
Concert headliners have also proven to be a very effective calling card for casinos located in remote, rural areas.
“You’d be amazed at the number of people willing to travel 75 or 100 miles for quality entertainment,” says Herslip, who has filled her venue’s future calendar with country legend George Jones, classic rock icons Grand Funk and veteran Motown favorites The Commodores.
“It’s a great avenue for us to bring in new people who may not come out here to gamble and expose them to the experience.”
4 Bears isn’t alone in its findings. Casinos across North America are bolstering their bottom line by booking renowned singers, groups and comedians. In turn these renowned singers, groups and comedians are discovering a substantial increase in the demand for their services from on-land, riverside and racetrack gaming houses.
“This market has actually grown pretty rapidly in the last few years, largely because of the growing number of Indian-based casinos,” observes PollstarMagazine Editor-In-Chief Gary Bongiovanni. “We’ve never done an analysis on it, but I know there are more and more places for artists to play than ever in terms of gaming situations.”
The growth has been phenomenal. Considering the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which legalized gaming operations on reservations in a number of states, wasn’t passed until 1988, the movement has catapulted from an upstart $100 million industry to an $8 billion powerhouse in less than two decades.
Now there are 300-plus Native casinos booking a stylistic gazpacho of established acts, from dancehall reggae veteran Eek-A-Mouse and former Partridge Family heartthrob David Cassidy to rock ‘n roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and electrifying blues combo Little Charlie And The Nightcats.
The venue is satisfied whether an act sells 2000 tickets or 20 tickets.
“We’re not so concerned that we make a profit off the act itself,” says 4 Bears’ Herslip. “We’re more concerned about making a profit off the gaming floor, making good money on the nights we actually have shows.”
An unexpected benefit, however, is casino circuit compensation for other music business downturns.
“Country acts used to rely heavily on the fair circuit, ” notes Al Schiltz, partner in Nashville-based management firm The Consortium and personal manager of country singers Billy Ray Cyrus and Tammy Cochran.
“But with country music sales suffering, we’ve lost about 20% in the number of venues as a hard ticket sales revenue source. Today fairs are bringing in the Christina Aguileras and older acts like the Three Dog Nights or the demolition derbies instead of country stars.”
Schiltz believes that the casino circuit has filled the void with a winning situation for performers regardless of genre.
“It’s exposure to a market the artist may not normally play to,” says Schiltz, “Usually it isn’t a hard ticket date and the casinos pay well, especially since they use free entertainment as an incentive to expose people to the casino.”
And the long-term benefits?
“The hope is that the people who wouldn’t have initially seen the artist are turned on enough to buy an album and buy a hard ticket to go see them in concert the next time they’re in the area,” Schiltz explains. “It helps build a fan base and there’s not a lot of risk involved.”
Then there’s the pampering. Although his band hasn’t had a blockbuster pop hit since 1978’s “Kiss You All Over” — and hasn’t topped the country charts since 1987’s “I Can’t Get Close Enough” — Exile co-founder J.P. Pennington recently sat in an opulent lounge at Rama, Ontario’s Casino Rama with a big smile on his face.
“The staff here are falling over themselves trying to please you,” said Pennington a few hours prior to the first of two Exile performances.
“Believe me, the accommodations for most gigs aren’t this nice. They actually gave me a suite, and I’m so ridiculously low maintenance.”
Pollstar’s Bongiovanni says the casino circuit provides the perfect forum for nostalgic memory lane bands like Exile.
“All of the acts that are out there touring – whether it’s a Paul Revere And The Raiders, acts like that that pretty well have established names, but no contemporary caché or heat about them, those are environments where they can be successful.”
“The casino circuit has opened up additional opportunities for those acts who are still viable to the consumer, still have a fan base that can draw 1000-1500 people to a venue, and may not have a record deal,” adds Al Schiltz. “It will continue to grow.”
When aging actors and actresses need a sip from the fountain of youth to sustain their Hollywood dreams, they call their plastic surgeons for a little nip n’ tuck.
But when record companies or artists need to revitalize a classic album and freshen up its sound, it’s the mastering engineer who is the expert on their speed-dial, specifically for remastering purposes.
It’s a popular practice, highlighted over the past year with the re-release of the nine-album Led Zeppelin catalogue, overseen by Jimmy Page, as well as both vintage and contemporary titles revived and rejuvenated by the 75th anniversary of Manhattan’s Blue Note Records.
In fact, anniversaries seem to be as good excuse as any to revisit some old classics: those undergoing the sonic knife over the past 15 months include Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road;Soundgarden’s Superunknown;Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto’s Getz/Gilberto;Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile; Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, There’s One In Every Crowd and E.C. Was Here; The Who’s Tommy; Prince’s Purple Rain, Bryan Adams’ Reckless and Bon Jovi’s New Jersey.
The retooling process also extends to catalogues as well, as noted by last year’s 16-disc compilation Joe Satriani, The Complete Recordings and the ongoing Blue Note series presided over by label president Don Was that commenced almost a year ago with the March 25, 2014 reissues of Art Blakey’s Free For All, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch and Larry Young’s Unity.
Some of those key titles not only arguably sound better, but are enhanced by such bonus fare as previously unreleased material, alternate takes, live performances and other extras designed to make fans salivate and hopefully reach into their wallets to buy an album they already have in one, two or three configurations.
But first and foremost, it’s about better sound for today’s technology. With advances in both the music industry and recording fields, ranging from studio equipment to the evolution of formats that began with vinyl and analog tape and have shifted to digital options that include the MP3, MP4, AAC, WAV, AIFF, FLAC and DSD/DFF, as well as bit-rates that have jumped from 16 to 24, via computer and Internet, it’s no wonder Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page felt compelled to revisit his band’s 200-million-plus selling discography.
“It (mastering) was done for vinyl, back in the ’60s and ’70s, and then 20 years ago it was redone and remastered for CD,” explained Page at the New York press conference last May to promote the revamped catalogue.
“Now we’ve got so many different formats out there that it made sense to revisit the studio albums and do those.”
Page, who personally remastered each of his band’s nine studio albums and converted them into 24-bit hi-definition files, says he wasn’t thrilled with previous remasters.
“CDs were put out of that material from copy tapes, and they weren’t very good, to be honest with you, so that’s why the original master tapes were brought back out again and remastered,” says Page, 71.
“That was 20 years ago, so [now] you’ve got all the new digital formats that there are. The process has changed as far as mastering because now you’ve got other areas and elements to fill. Even with the remastering and cutting on vinyl, there have been so many steps and progressions to improve the overall (sound), if you like.”
Even before they get started, engineers can face daunting obstacles – missing, misplaced or destroyed tapes; some types of audiotape where they’ve become worn or decayed over the years, forcing engineers to try to physically repair the original master.
Ironically, while sourcing through materials that are over 45 years old, tape degradation was the one thing Jimmy Page didn’t have to worry about.
“The condition of it was absolutely magnificent, “ Page enthuses. “I didn’t have to do any sort of restoration work on that, apart from maybe a little edit might come out and you’d replace the editing tape. However, the In Through The Out Door album had been recorded on this new format tape — and you’ve probably heard about tape shredding and all of that, which means the oxide comes off and you have to bake them– so fortunately there wasn’t a lot of work that needed to be done past In Through The Out Door.”
Arguably, some titles have had their sound spruced up to the point of overkill – take Pink Floyd’s classic Dark Side Of The Moon, for example; a work which has undergone the process no less than a handful of times.
“Record companies remaster to try to get more money out of the catalogue to turn the catalogue, and thus, the artist as well,” surmises veteran mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, a seven-time GRAMMY winner who has won for his work with Daft Punk and Mumford & Sons on 2013’s and 2012’s Album of the Year, Random Access Memories and Babel, respectively. “I don’t think there’s that many titles where the fans are begging the artist to redo it.”
But Ludwig, who is based in Portland, Maine, owns Gateway Mastering, and counts such multi-million sellers as Led Zeppelin II and Houses Of The Holy; Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing and AC/DC’s Back In Black as some of the 1300-plus titles he’s mastered since 1969, allows for exceptions.
“I’ve just remastered most of the early Bruce Springsteen catalogue for iTunes, and the first two titles, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild. The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, fans had been asking for those for quite awhile.
“Those were originally done when CDs first came out – I did the original U.S. masters of those CDs in ’84, but they were made in Japan and done from the analog cassette copy masters.”
Ludwig says improved technology has made remastering more appealing.
“The quality of (analog-to-digital) converters that we use now is so much better than the early digital converters,” states Ludwig. “And there’s so much gear that’s been invented.”
In turn, better equipment, both at the source end and what you hear through the speakers, promotes a greater accuracy in the mix.
“When you create the final master, the idea is to make it sound as good as it can possibly be sounding over an excellent system,” says Ludwig. “The more accurate you make it, and the more accurate it sounds on an excellent system, the better it sounds on a wider range of things out there in the world.”
Another reason for aurally revisiting a catalogue may be artist preference, says John Cuniberti, who spent two years remastering the 16-disc set Joe Satriani: The Complete Studio Recordings.He says sometimes it’s just the benefit of hindsight that serves as a remastering catalyst.
“A lot of times the artist might wish the mastering might have been done differently,” says Cuniberti, a Grammy winner who has mastered albums for Dave Matthews, Aerosmith,Tracy Chapman and The Grateful Dead. “Sometimes when you lead a mixing project and it goes right to master because you have a deadline to meet, it’s really hard sometimes to be objective about the mastering process. You’re pretty burned out on it. You don’t even want to hear it, generally. “
“In fact, that’s one of the reasons why you turn it over to a mastering engineer is a good idea after you’ve spent weeks or months mixing so they can provide that service. It’s so they will have an objective ear. So if you’ve lived with your record for 10 years, you might go, ‘maybe we can try something different.’”
In Satriani’s case, where different mastering engineers handled his albums over the years, Cuniberti says the timing to offer one cohesive sonic overview was never better.
”When we first started having the conversation about remastering, I said, ‘We have an opportunity here that we’re not ever going to have again: to present the entire catalogue and remaster it as one whole piece rather than just giving people the already mastered discs in a box,’” Cuniberti recalls.
“We can create a consistency in level and quality right from the first record.”
Cuniberti says Satriani’s recorded career overview was also a chance to rectify an embarrassing development in the history of remastered recordings: The Loudness Wars.
“Over the past 15-20 years, the (44.1/16-bit) CD has been getting louder and louder,” Cuniberti explains. “This has been largely due to the necessity to stand out amongst the crowd. Originally, the record companies were encouraging it. The artists, maybe their egos got in the way, and they wanted their record to be at least as loud as so-and-so’s, and so-and-so needed to make their record a little louder, and it produced what we call the ‘Loudness Wars.’
“The audio quality and the sound of the mix ultimately would suffer from that process.
“Now we have the opportunity to go and back off some of the limiting and processing that was taking place to fight that war, and really look at the album more aesthetically.”
Gavin Lurssen of Hollywood-based Lurssen Mastering notes that delivering the right sense of nostalgia as a remastering engineer is something that should also be taken into account, as it takes great skill.
“When you’re living in 2014, we have mobile devices and electronic billboards and all kinds of crazy information entering our brains at light speed,” says Lurssen, who mastered 2001 Album of the Year GRAMMY winner O Brother Where Art Thou? and 2008’s similarly rewarded Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. “But there’s always, as in the case in human nature, an ability and a desire to reminisce.
“So when you present something to somebody that was once a part of their lives, in some kind of cleaned-up fashion, you have to present it to them in a way that makes it feel like it felt back at that time, and combine it also to some degree — dependent on the vintage of the project — with the standards of today in order to create that feeling.
“Generally there is a lot more dynamic range on older recordings so it is important to respect that and thus the level wars are less of an issue in this line of work, “ Lurssen adds. “I’ve even seen cases in which this approach has helped pull current artists out of the overall level push when they see what can come of it. It’s all about being exposed to it, which is among the good reasons the labels are doing it.”
Barak Moffitt, Universal Music’s Head Of Strategic Operations, and the executive who oversees Capitol Studios and Mastering, says the respect that Lurssen mentions is tantamount to the Blue Note 75th Anniversary Remastering project.
“We’re trying to get a balance between what’s directly on the tape and what happened in that room, and the emotional connection that people found in that original vinyl release, where the public sentiment and the original sentiment around the music was attached,” he explains.
“And again, now that studio technology has hi-definition capabilities, we’re taking care to maintain as much information that’s in the original material as possible, while maintaining as much of the emotional connection to the original release as possible.”
Moffitt says that also involved preserving the integrity of the original masters wherever possible; a task the label took extremely seriously.
“Our first concern was to respect our responsibility as stewards of these original masters,” Moffitt explains. “So we developed what we call sort of these white-glove protocols around our tape-handling procedures, and how we manage the actual physical assets in and out of the vaults.
“We also wanted to make sure that throughout the two-stage process –retrieving the actual analogue assets from the vault, and then transferring them into the digital world in hi-definition for historical preservation – we took great care to preserve as much information that’s in the analog domain in the digital space as possible, given current studio technologies.
“We also took great care to engineer our signal processing chain, all the way from what kind of power cables we were using to what analog-to-digital converters we were using to the tape machines, the kind of software we were using, again with sort of the aim of maintaining the highest fidelity possible given today’s studio technology capabilities in the transfer from analog into the digital domain.”
From there, Moffitt says the results were then placed in the very capable hands of Bernie Grundman and his staff of Scott Sedillo and Beno May for both digital and vinyl purposes.
Of course, before an album can be remastered, it has to be mastered, a process that three-time GRAMMY winner and Blue Note Records president Don Was describes as “frosting on the cake.”
“Musicians and engineers spend a whole lot of time getting the cake right, but most people don’t want to be served cake without the frosting on it,” he laughs. “But it’s a question of degrees of the frosting. You’ve got to have a light hand, basically.
“If you have something that’s badly recorded and mixed, a mastering engineer can come in and give it shape and dimension and depth by adding EQ and compression and other mojo to it, making sure the levels work and the spacing between songs is right — and then getting it into the medium from which it can be manufactured.”
Was maintains that like every musician and producer that works on an album, the mastering engineer leaves his unique fingerprint on the recording as well.
“Every mastering engineer has got their own gear and set-up, and that set-up has a sound to it.”
And that introduces another challenge: maintaining the integrity of the original mastering engineer’s work.
“Let’s take the Blue Note remasters for example: Rudy Van Gelder, the legendary engineer who recorded most of the classic Blue Note Records, mixed directly to stereo on quarter-inch tape,” Was explains. “There was no multi-track tape, so he mixed live. So the music went down and it came out mono or stereo and that was it – there was no going back to remix it.
“He also mastered, and the way he mastered that day has a certain quality to it and it’s definitely different from when you hear what’s on the master tape.”
When it came to the initial listens of remastered works that had been converted to hi-def and transferred to digital at the 96k/24-bit and 192 k/24-bit rates, Was noticed that the music felt different than how he remembered it.
Was says Van Gelder pre-emptively mastered the record for vinyl to ensure there would be no technical glitches when consumers played them on their home audio equipment.
“Rudy mastered for vinyl: he added some and some EQ, just so the phonograph needle wouldn’t skip and certain sonic peaks wouldn’t mess with the needle,” says Was.
“In doing that, he altered the sound and that’s the sound everybody knows and loves.”
When it came to updating Van Gelder’s work for today’s format, Was says the label was placed in “a moral and ethical quandary.”
“Who are we to editorialize on this stuff, 50 years after the fact?” said Was. “What is the standard by which you remaster to? And we decided that the original vinyl was the standard: that’s what everybody decided who was involved – (Blue Note co-founder) Alfred Lyon, the musicians we decided to put out into the world: that’s what people bought and that’s what people loved. So we tried as closely as we could to master with the goal of returning to the original sound of the first pressings.”
Double GRAMMY winner Bernie Grundman (Album of the Year for OutKast’s 2003 gem Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and 2007’s Herbie Hancock’s star-studded tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters), tasked with remastering the majority of Blue Note titles, confirms that vinyl sets up its own challenges.
“Vinyl doesn’t sound like the lacquer that goes to the factory,” he notes. “The medium itself changes it, and the processes it goes through when you’re making the vinyl actually changes the sound. It’s not the same as making a tape copy because that’s a re-recording process. With the vinyl, it’s not re-recorded, but it is transferred to metal through electroplating, and that actually affects the sound. So a vinyl disc does not sound like the tape or the lacquer. Once it comes back from the factory, you can tell the difference: It is warmer and it tends to take on a ‘bassier’ sound.”
For the Blue Note project, Grundman built his own console.
“It’s a simplified, more straightforward board, with the functions we needed to simulate a lot of the things they did on the Blue Note albums.” says Grundman, who started his Bernie Grundman Mastering business in Hollywood and has since expanded to Tokyo. “So it bypasses completely our normal chain and toes right from the tape machine through very simplified electronics right to the computer.”
Oh, and Grundman, who is making Blue Note archived copies rated at 96/24 and 192/24, also built – or, in his terms, “hot-rodded” – the computer.
“It may be the cleanest-sounding computer in the industry, “ declares Grundman, who estimates he’s worked on over 70 Blue Note 75th Anniversary titles. “I don’t know if anything could match it, because I don’t think anyone has ever gone inside a computer and done some of the things we did.”
Virtually all remastering gurus agreed that when it comes to adjusting their approach for today’s formats, most don’t.
However, Bob Ludwig contends that digital remastering for iTunes is a slightly different beast.
“It’s not an equalization or compression thing, “Ludwig explains. “It’s a process of lowering the level into the encoder for the AAC file, and by lowering the level into the encoder, Apple has showed us that it creates much less distortion and can make a much more accurate encode to the point where a well made mastered-for-iTunes file sounds closer to the 24-bit master, than the 16-bit compact disc does.“
Mastering engineers spend a lot of time sifting through source material, sometimes contending with lost masters, studying copious notes made at the time of the recording, but in the end, if the job is done right, it’s worth it.
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page says that when you get remastering right, it unlocks a door to the past and provides historical perspective.
“When you’ve got a chance to really listen to all of it, it gives a window — it’s like a portal — into that time capsule of when each album was recorded, “ he says. “And that gives you a really good taste. It works all the way right through the catalog.”
Blue Note’s Don Was says his exercise is one of passing it forward, to hopefully garner the music an introduction to some younger fans.
“At age 62, I find the music still means a lot to me.,” says Don Was. “This is what I listen to, to recharge myself, to feel good. I read this interview with Bob Dylan where he said that the job of the artist is not to tell you how they feel, but to put you in touch with your own feelings. And that line really stuck with me, because that’s what the Blue Note music does to me.
“I hope that in doing the reissues in this way, that there are some new fans of the music who will be able to enjoy the same experience and carry this music with them for another 50 years.”
Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have not only experienced the sweet smell of success, they’ve bottled it.
Country music’s first couple has a couple of new scents on the market — Faith Hill Parfums is her first and Southern Blend is his second — and they are just two of the music celebrities that have been tapped by Coty Inc., the world’s largest fragrance manufacturer with annual net sales of approximately $4 billion.
The list of artists sporting one or more of their own perfume or cologne brands run from the obvious (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani) to the enterprising (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Usher) to the unexpected (rapper Daddy Yankee, guitar shaman Carlos Santana and cosmetic rockers KISS).
The fragrance industry also seems to be impartial to genre, with American soprano Renée Fleming, pop/punk princess Avril Lavigne, hip-hop icon Queen Latifah and influential innovator Prince all offering aromatic toiletries for public consumption.
Why are stars so keen to extend their aural appeal to the nasal? Well, there’s the obvious answer: money. Fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily speculates that Beyoncé‘s upcoming Coty fragrance will be one of 2010’s most-anticipated spring debuts and could earn her $20 million over three years.
Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group, says helping to create a representative scent can be another expressive outlet.
“Sometimes celebrities say, ‘We’re not just about making another record,’ so being associated with a fragrance is a statement saying, ‘We’re an artist. We’re looking at this as an expression of our artistic talent.’
“It’s a great way to earn huge recognition across the country. And fans, who may not have the new album, can have a little piece of that celebrity as well.”
In many cases, it’s an affordable piece of celebrity. A 1.7-ounce bottle of McGraw’s Southern Blend — described as “a vibrant burst of grapefruit, star anise, and bergamot” that also incorporate touches of lavender, violet leaves, whiskey accord, vetiver, fresh amber, and tobacco to “create the ideal fragrance for the true Southern gentleman” — can be purchased in department stores or online for a suggested retail price of $30.
As Grant notes, this can be very appealing to fans. “If you’re a huge Britney follower, you’d want the scent as well as the albums,” she says.
It was Spears — along with Lopez and her fragrance Glow — who accelerated the trend of companies recruiting contemporary music stars to invent and introduce new fragrances when she entered the market in 2004 with the Elizabeth Arden brand Curious, which earned $100 million in sales within weeks of its release.
“Those two were such huge hits, really, that they helped to ignite this whole trend of associating the musician with these fragrances,” Grant explains. “So I think that’s when both the musicians as well as the manufacturers began to look and say, ‘This seems like it could be a winning lineup.'”
And it’s certainly been victorious for Spears. Women’s Wear Daily reports that more than 10 million bottles of Curious, Fantasy and In Control have been sold since 2005, and Spears has expanded her franchise this year with the additions of Circus Fantasy and Hidden Fantasy.
Since then, approximately 40 artists from Shania Twain to Hilary Duff have taken the plunge, with hit fragrances — like music — tracked weekly by Nielsen SoundScan.
So how do pop and rock stars come to release fragrances?
Steve Mormoris, senior vice president of global marketing at Coty Beauty (whose musical clients besides Hill and McGraw include Celine Dion, Lopez, Kylie Minogue, Stefani, and Twain), says his company approaches artists based on a number of criteria, including role model potential, someone who “holds high values” and how much they embody the essence of femininity or masculinity.
In all cases, he says Coty is looking for a long-term relationship and an artist “who wants to become involved with the fragrance” from development through execution.
With estimated launch costs of “not less than $2 million,” on the line, Mormoris says extensive market research is conducted before a brand is launched. “We don’t put out a fragrance until we’re absolutely certain it’s going to be a success,” he explains, adding that celebrities are usually paid on a royalty basis as opposed to a flat fee as an incentive, “ensuring that artists are involved for the life of the product.”
Mormoris says hits are determined by sales-generated value and market share percentage, rather than number of units sold, and that the average celebrity scent has a shelf life of five to 10 years.
“The exceptions are Stetson and Elizabeth Taylor‘s White Diamonds, which has been the no. 1 fragrance for the past 20 years,” notes Mormoris. “They’re exceptions to the rule.”
While celebrity popularity can drive fragrance sales, packaging also plays a crucial role.
“As new celebrity fragrances come out and they encompass novelty in design and fun, they still do well,” says Grant. “For example, Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers collection was among the best sellers in 2008.
“We do see that younger consumers do tend to resonate with packaging more as well. Since these celebrity fragrances do tend to be more popular with the younger consumer, it’s usually a pretty winning formula.”
Still, there are signs that the celebrity fragrance market may be waning. NPD Group recently reported a 10 percent drop in prestige fragrance retail sales for the first half of 2009.
If sales are flagging, Mormoris hasn’t noticed.
“I keep hearing about it,” laughs Mormoris, who names the Dion and Minogue fragrance lines as two of Coty’s best performers. “But I haven’t seen it.”
(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board’s music industry documentary Dream Machine.)
Canadian rock star Bryan Adams says fans who like his music are going to love his new album, Get Up, “especially if you liked the stuff from the past.”
Music, Published on Fri Oct 16 2015
Short, sweet and succinct.
Get Up, the newly released 13th studio effort in the 100-million-record-selling Bryan Adams canon, contains 13 rock ’n’ roll songs that run a total of just over 36 minutes.
But four of those songs are acoustic retreads of the electric originals, so if you just count the nine primary numbers, the whole thing clocks in at 25 minutes.
That’s pretty short.
“There’s no frills,” Adams, 55, the rock star and celebrity photographer recently acknowledged in a Shangri-La Hotel suite during a recent visit.
“I think that’s what’s kind of nice about this: it’s very direct, very concise and it’s a very quick record.”
Adams also said, in this age of short attention spans, it’s an album that his record company felt it could handle.
“When I was getting to the point where I had enough songs, I called my record company and said, ‘Look, I think I’ve got an album here,’” he expounds. “One of my questions was, ‘How many songs do I need?’ And they came back and said, ‘Don’t give us a lot of music, because we can’t do anything with that. We wouldn’t be able to do a lot with a lot of songs. But if you give us a really succinct record, we’ll be able to do something.’
“And I said, ‘That’s quite good . . . because that’s what I’ve got!’” he laughs.
Helping Adams realize that artistic vision was Jeff Lynne, who is reviving his own Electric Light Orchestra with a Nov. 13 album called Alone in the Universe.
Lynne, who has produced hit albums for George Harrison, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, the Traveling Wilburys (of which he was a member) and others, helped Adams craft a catchy, fun, hook-filled album that is full of radio-friendly rock. Most of the songs hover around the two-and-a-half-minute mark.
“He has great understanding about rock music,” said Adams, a Kingston, Ont. native, smartly but casually dressed in a custom-tailored crimson dress shirt and blue jeans.
“When you make a great record, it’s kind of a three-tier process. The first is the writing of the song, the second is the demo and the third is making a record. And you hope with each level of that process that it gets better.
“Whenever I made a demo with (Bob) Clearmountain (producer of Adams’ breakthrough albums Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless and Into the Fire), the level was, ‘That’s where we are now and if it isn’t better than the demo, we’ve got to go back to the demo and figure out what it was.’
“So we’d chase that a bit. And we always made it better, which was good.
“In the case with Jeff, it was exactly that: I would send a demo; Jeff would send it back as a record. I mean, he totally got it on every single level. On my vocal. The placement of my mixes, everything.”
In fact, Adams goes on to say that Get Up is an album he wished he made 25 years ago.
“When I think about the trilogy of You Want It, You Got It, Cuts Like a Knife and Reckless, those records have a real unity to them. These songs could have been on the same record. I feel I could have slotted this album in right after Reckless.”
Contributing to that particular sonic unity is the re-emergence on Get Up of Vancouver-based Jim Vallance as Adams’ chief songwriting partner.
The duo was responsible for such time-honoured Adams classics as “Summer of ’69,” “Run To You,” “Heaven” and “Cuts Like a Knife” before taking a break following 1987’s Into the Fire.
“We’ve been working quite hard over the last five or six years on songs,” Adams notes. “It’s taken us a couple of years to get back up to speed and it feels really natural.”
Adams wasn’t even considering making an album until the duo submitted a track to Lynne.
“When Jeff came along and asked me if I wanted to cut a track, we got it back and I said to Jim, ‘Do you think we’ve got something here?’ He replied, ‘I think we really do.’ We sent another song and, suddenly, everything started to come together. There was a focus: this is where we’re going.”
The 19-time Juno Award winner and Canadian Hall of Fame member says he wanted to hire Lynne as a producer as far back as the 1999 song “The Best of Me.” Currently there no plans to work with him again, but Adams says he’d like to.
For the moment, Adams is enjoying the tail end of a busy two-year period that saw him release his cover songs album Tracks of My Years, the 30th anniversary edition of Reckless — the very first album by a Canadian artist to sell one million records in this country — and an anniversary world tour, as well as a book of portrait photography called Wounded: The Legacy of War (with journalist Caroline Froggatt) that benefited war veterans.
Now he’s planning to follow it up with a world tour to promote Get Up, and figures it should hit North America and Toronto sometime next spring or summer.
“It’s a very cohesive record and I know it’s going to be a lot of fun to play,” he says. “It’s definitely a band album. Fans who like my music are going to love this album a lot . . . especially if you liked the stuff from the past.
“If you like those old songs, you’re going to love this record. It feels modern to me. When you listen to a song like ‘That’s Rock N’ Roll,’ it sounds fresh to me.”
Paul McCartney delivers marathon concert at the Air Canada Centre
At 73 years old, the Beatles co-founder delivered a set that would leave younger musicians reaching for their water bottles.
Music, Published on Sun Oct 18 2015
Paul McCartney, 73, churned out an impressive 41 songs during a three-hour marathon at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, with nary a water bottle in sight.
To put this in perspective, most artists play between 18 and 25 songs over an evening concert. Sometimes, for extra-lengthy shows, the number may reach 32 to 34. And these artists often take sips from nearby water bottles, understandably, while performing under hot spotlights.
The co-founder of the Beatles, the most influential group in pop history, needed no refreshments, even after a fireball-laden rendition of the James Bond theme “Live And Let Die,” where there was so much pyrotechnic mayhem during the instrumental chaos that even the audience could easily feel the heat.
Actually, if anything, McCartney — backed by a stellar band that included guitarist Rusty Anderson, guitarist/bass player Brian Ray, keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens and the spectacular Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums — seemed more invigorated as the show progressed.
In a much chattier mood than the last time he was in Toronto, a jovial McCartney told a few interesting and amusing tales between numbers, joking around with the estimated 18,000 in attendance.
Playing his signature Hohner bass and launching with the Beatles classic “Eight Days A Week,” McCartney offered a fine selection of hits from both the Fab Four and the Wings as well as some obscurities and songs from his latest album, the aptly-named New.
Along with the expected favourites like “The Long And Winding Road,” “Lady Madonna” and “Let It Be” — each adhering to the original arrangements loved and cherished by so many — came a few surprises: “Let Me Roll It,” (which included an instrumental coda of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”) and “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” from the Wings’ watershed Band On The Run, “One After 909,” “Another Girl” and “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles, and he dusted off “Mull of Kintyre” for all the Scots in the house complete with pipes and drums from the Paris-Port Dover pipe band.
If that wasn’t enough, McCartney, who still sings gloriously and is as adept on guitar and piano as he is on bass, performed the first half of George Harrison’s “Something” on a ukulele in tribute to his fallen comrade. He also paid tribute to John Lennon during “Here Today” (after a poignant version of “Blackbird”), calling the number written after Lennon’s assassination “the conversation I wished we had.”
And to show he’s still fresh and vital creatively, McCartney performed his recent Rihanna-Kanye West collaboration “FourFiveSeconds.”
“Here’s a song I wrote with Kanye West,” he announced, adding the slightly sarcastic quip, “That was fun.”
The highlights were many: the tender “My Valentine” he dedicated to his wife Nancy; “Maybe I’m Amazed,” dedicated to his late first wife Linda; the rocking party atmospheres of “Ob La Di, Ob La Da” and “Back In the U.S.S.R,” and even a false start on the newer “Temporary Secretary” were rendered with McCartney charm and precision.
By the time one of the most influential architects of pop music performed the sing-a-long “Hey Jude,” the concert had become an unabashed love-in between performer and audience.
In a week where Toronto is being spoiled by appearances by the two surviving Beatles — Ringo Starr is at Massey Hall on Tuesday — it is McCartney, concluding his show with the words “see you next time,” who will be the one to produce a concert five years from now as potent and as powerful as the spectacle just witnessed.
Charismatic singer, 57, puts on physically intense, highly theatrical two-hour show at Air Canada Centre Monday night that shows age is just a number
Music, Published on Tue Oct 06 2015
Madonna AIr Canada Centre. Monday, Oct. 5, 2015.
At 57, Madonna is still wears her Rebel Heart on her sleeve.
The provocative Miss Ciccone, who has made a career out of pushing buttons and boundaries, continued to do so during a physically intense, highly theatrical two-hour-and-15-minute show at the Air Canada Centre Monday night.
For the first of two sell-out concerts in front of an adoring crowd of 14,000, the just-christened nominee for the Songwriters Hall of Fame did what she does best — entertain and titillate, with some stunning visuals and a coterie of 20 dancers who often performed breathtaking moves.
After descending from a cage in a costume that resembled an ancient Samurai master for “Iconic,” one of several new tracks showcased from Rebel Heart, her purest pop album in ages, Madonna ultimately transformed into the sassy chameleon that has charmed music fans and concertgoers for over three decades.
With a stage layout that included a portion of the stage that tilted at a 45-degree angle, and a sword-shaped catwalk that extended three-quarters into the venue, with its “hilt” stretching into the wings, Madonna literally transformed herself from warrior, surrounding herself with armour-clad dancers, to rock star — strumming a guitar during a molten re-working of her very first album’s “Burning Up” — to stripping down to a corset and blurring the lines of sex and religion with “Holy Water.”
As female dancers, dressed in nun’s habits, gyrated around sword-shaped poles — including one that balanced the singer on her back in an incredible feat of strength — and later, transformed the famous Last Supper picture into something of an orgy, you could almost feel Pope Francis looking on with disapproval.
But Madonna has never apologized for being naughty and she wasn’t about to do so in Toronto.
After being groped by a dancer throughout “Body Shop” — on a set that resembled an auto body shop, Madonna brought out her ukulele and strummed out an acoustic version of her chaste pop classic “True Blue.”
At one point, she asked the crowd if they were on anti-depressants.
“I have some anti-depressants for you,” she chimed. “Sing and dance. Dance and sing. There are your anti-depressants.”
Madonna also doesn’t settle for simply serving up the hits in an expected manner. Wearing a matador’s costume for “Living For Love,” she kept the flamenco theme going for “La Isla Bonita” and “Dress You Up” (which incorporated brief forays into “Dress You Up” and “Into The Groove”), turning the party into a fiesta where mini-shots of Jose Cuervo were launched into the crowd.
Her fans, some older, some costumed members of the LGBT community, lapped it all up.
No matter what she did, the charismatic singer, songwriter and dancer constantly proved that she has lost none of her edge — even performing a rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.”
The show wasn’t perfect: the dance she performed during “Like a Virgin” was a bit goofy and unintentionally comical, and there were moments throughout the show where she sang a little flat.
But considering she bookended the Toronto appearances by another pop queen — Taylor Swift — and staged a performance that physically ran circles around her younger competitors, age ain’t nothing but a number as far as Madonna’s concerned.
This is probably the blonde’s most ambitious tour yet, and maybe even her most rewarding.
Toronto duo largely responsible for lifting the veil off “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”
Music, Published on Wed Nov 05 2014
Sitting at Johnny Rockets, a ’50s-style burger joint in Yonge-Dundas Square, my dining companion pulls out a cardboard envelope and hands it over.
“Open it up and have a look. Have a little whiff,” he insists.
Inside is a box containing a reel of recording tape, inscribed in marker with the following song titles in order: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Any Day Now — I Shall Be Released,” “If Your Memory Serves You Well,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (Take 2 is written beside it in pencil), “I Shall Be Released” and two separate takes of “Too Much of Nothing.”
It takes a moment to sink in and realize what I’m actually holding: an original Basement Tape, one of the more than 20 reels recorded by Bob Dylan and the majority of Toronto legends The Band when Dylan was convalescing in Woodstock, N.Y., following a 1966 motorcycle accident.
How do I know it’s an original?
Because my dining companion is Toronto’s Jan Haust, Canadian music archivist, current curator of the Dylan-driven collection, and primarily responsible for the release earlier this week of The Basement Tapes Complete, a lavish six-CD set issued by Sony’s Legacy that finally lifts the veil off what Haust calls “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”
He’s not kidding. Music fans have been waiting nearly half a century to hear these recordings: 138 takes of 115 songs, all of them recorded informally throughout 1967 by The Band’s Garth Hudson, mostly in the cramped Woodstock-area basement of the abode known as Big Pink.
Every note of such future Dylan-penned classics as “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “The Mighty Quinn;” covers of well known and obscure songs like Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar” has been lovingly restored and digitally remastered in Toronto by Haust and renowned Cowboy Junkies engineer and producer Peter J. Moore.
Prior to this week’s releases (there’s also a two-disc Sony edition of highlights called The Basement Tapes Raw), fans had received a limited taste of the Big Pink sessions, including the official 24-song The Basement Tapes and a few tracks that have surfaced since, mostly notably “I’m Not There” from the 2007 Todd Haynes film of the same name.
The Basement Tapes sessions were significant for a number of reasons.
First, the relaxed atmosphere of everyone crammed into an intimate space allowed Dylan (who performs at the Sony Centre on Nov. 17 and 18) to explore another songwriting direction, which was a little more laidback and humorous.
“What was going on for the most part, pretty basic,” recalls Hudson, who set up the basement with microphones, a recorder and a mixer, in a separate phone interview.
“He (Bob) would write the song upstairs, couch and coffee table, then take it down and we would play it, and usually, not even run through it once. We’d do the introduction and then a bit of the song and then I would put the machine on record.”
Some argue it may have been the birth of alt-country, but a bigger significance is that it completed a musical coming of age.
“It’s where it all ended up coming together,” notes Haust. “And that’s the fascinating component here. The basement is the incubator of what became The Band.”
For Haust, the release of The Basement Tapes Complete marks the end of a 12-year journey for him and Moore, the engineer. The duo first heard the tapes, through an arrangement via Haust’s friendship with Hudson, when Robbie Robertson was assembling 2005’s The Band box set A Musical History.
“Some of the tapes were in rough shape, through no fault of Garth Hudson’s and through no fault of anyone’s,” Haust recalls.
Several reels were mouldy and Moore had to delicately unwind and re-spool some 1,800 feet of “very, very thin” reel-to-reel tape by hand on a few others to “flatten them out.”
There was also a bigger challenge: all the songs were recorded on a rare quarter-track machine with such poor quality tape that Moore didn’t have the equipment for proper playback, let alone restoration.
“These tapes were never meant to be heard by the public,” said Moore in a separate interview. “These were sketches — the jotting down of ideas. So the tape’s speed was 7½ inches per second, where most of your quality pro recordings are at 30 or 15 inches per second. I told Jan, there’s no such thing as a professional quarter-track machine.”
So Moore had to get a playback tape head custom made for his own equipment and found a New Jersey manufacturer who had the expertise to make it. The request was so rare that the manufacturer, Jim French, had only built one prior to Moore’s request.
The buyer? Neil Young, known for being quite persnickety when it comes to technical recording tools.
“Once I heard that, I knew I was following the right logic,” Moore says.
When Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen and Sony Music finally commissioned Haust and Moore to assemble The Basement Tapes Complete, the duo huddled in Moore’s studio from March through September, deciding to follow Garth Hudson’s original lead and sonically restore what was going on in the basement.
“We kept the integrity of what Garth envisioned,” says Moore. “I didn’t add reverb or anything to these tapes. I’m phase correcting — not changing the picture, just realigning the lens.
“But when you realign the lens, all of a sudden you have that much more depth of field. I phase corrected a lot of the tapes and suddenly the bass appears. You’re actually hearing the bass for the first time — Rick (Danko) and his lovely melodic glissandos and everything he’s doing on that bass.
“Whereas on the bootlegs, there’s no top end, no bottom end, just more of a whiny mid-range. I’m bringing it into focus.”
The sound is immaculate, even impressing the man who commandeered the original tape recorder, Garth Hudson.
“I remember the sounds very well, the background sounds and the instruments,” Hudson says. “What we have now is clarity. It was a lot of work on Jan’s part and Peter Moore with his incredible talent. The voice is more alive. It’s clearer. And Peter has also assembled and revived tape that has been crinkled, stretched. So it’s been a big process.”
Now that The Basement Tapes Complete has finally seen the light of day, Haust and Moore have one more ambitious project in mind: an eight-CD, DVD and book box set chronicling Levon and The Hawks, dating back to their individual pre-Ronnie Hawkins musical pursuits in the late ’50s.
In the meantime, Haust will savour the arrival of The Basement Tapes Complete.
“I’m pleased as punch that we were able to put it together,” says Haust.
“This is the first time ever that a Bob Dylan project was produced in Toronto. That’s very significant. It’s four Canadian rock ’n’ rollers and an American folksinger. Now we’ve set the record straight. . . .
“We have cleaned up these recordings. We have repaired the damaged tape. We have treated these 47-year-old recordings like the archaeological gems that they are.
“This isn’t the Mona Lisa. These are the sketches.”
The musically adventurous Plant shows he is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.
Music, Published on Wed Oct 01 2014
Robert Plant At Massey Hall, Sept. 30
If mother is the necessity of invention, Robert Plant is its charming uncle you never really tire of visiting.
The former Led Zeppelin frontman has never been one to rest on his laurels for nostalgia’s sake — as those who have been waiting patiently and infinitely for a reunion of his most notable band’s survivors will frustratingly attest.
He has been musically adventurous since going solo back in 1982, as documented by his side trips ranging from the Honeydrippers to Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning album of Americana duets with bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss.
But as he’s proven with No Quarter, his 1994 reunion with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and their subsequent tour with an Egyptian music ensemble, Plant is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.
That general rule remained in effect for Tuesday night’s appearance at a sold-out Massey Hall, although Led Zeppelin diehards were aptly rewarded with a set list divvied up between reworked classics, a generous sampling of Plant’s fine new album Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar and a few blues gems plucked from the catalogues of Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White.
After Plant, still unnaturally gifted with a full head of golden grey-sprinkled curly locks at age 66, slowly sauntered up to the microphone for an understated delivery of “No Quarter,” his six-piece backup the Sensational Space Shifters — who were “sensational” in every musical sense of the word — broke out the exotic instruments for “Poor Howard.”
Gambian musician Juldeh Camara bowed the ritti, a single-string violin that sounded more Celtic than African; guitarist Justin Adams strummed the tehardent, an African guitar, and Liam Tyson began plucking the “dreaded” banjo, as Plant described it, for a bluesy shuffle that sported an exotic polyrhythmic twist, while the singer stood there, tambourine in hand and a smile on his face, as the grooves continued to percolate.
Then it was back to the acoustic-driven “Thank You,” which brought the fans, a mix of young and old, to their feet, fuelled by the stellar guitar work of lead beard Tyson and enhanced by Plant’s reworked phrasing.
One thing is for certain: Plant is aging gracefully as a singer. Whether by design or due to dwindling capability, he rarely stretches into the higher register: the bridge of “Going To California” was delivered a full octave below the original arrangement and for “Whole Lotta Love,” cleverly wrapped into a medley that included “Who Do You Love,” he picked his spots, sometimes using staccato bursts of singing rather than sustaining the note to its natural conclusion.
It’s the mark of a proud man who knows his limitations but executes them tastefully without sinking into self-parody, and a strong indicator of why there will probably never be a Led Zeppelin reunion, due to Plant’s own lofty standards.
Those standards were met time and again throughout the 95-minute set, occasionally delving into full-fledged rock, as he did with parts of “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and a standout version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” or emphasizing the funkiness of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” with a Bo Diddley blues beat, or having his band pull out the bendirs — large, tambourine-shaped African drums — for a rhythmically charged “Rainbow” off the new album, a song Plant ensured “was racing up the charts past Gary Puckett & The Union Gap” and past “Burton Cummings and other ballads of the past five years.”
If there was a disappointing aspect to Plant’s performance, it was the weird set-up of dual lighting rigs at the front of the stage that seriously blocked the vantage points of those nestled in the front corners of the Massey Hall floor seats: it’s obstructive enough and seemed to add so little to the proceedings that the singer should reconsider its positioning when he plays similar venues moving forward.
Aurally, however, the show was stunning: offering energy, vitality, bursts of power and a pretty amazing band (rounding out the Sensational Space Shifters were keyboardist John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith) that brought the crowd repeatedly to their feet.
By the time he wrapped with a buoyant “Little Maggie,” Plant’s performance had veered between the hypnotic and the mesmeric, satisfying the sentimentally nostalgic without pandering to the past.
Robert Plant likes to keep us guessing and the hope is that he will continue do so well into the future.