Eclectic is the best way to describe this weeks selection of music. We celebrated Don McClean’s 75th birthday, were wowed by the keyboard virtuosity of Cory Henry, and listened to the Reggae/Jazz fusion of Groundation. Going local, we peeked at Alice Phoebe Lou’s remarkable career before heading to Kiwi land to catch up with Fat Freddy’s Drop and wound up the proceedings with three very different takes on a classic song.
This series of blog articles cover a week of mini-feature posts from the Loving the Music Facebook page and group. This makes it easier for our music-loving community to search through our ever-growing archive of songs, backstories and trivia.
Musicians Featured – 1st – 7th:
Don McLean – Cory Henry -Groundation – Alice Phoebe Lou – Fat Freddy’s Drop – The Main Squeeze – Luca Stricagnoli – Taj Farrant
2nd Oct – Don McLean: Don McLean turns 75-years-old today and I have decided to share a few songs and a little background behind the man best known for his hit American Pie. But there is more to Don McLean than that, as you will discover.
Always a music lover, he bought his first guitar as a teenager and taught himself to play. Don also took opera lessons which helped him develop a breath control that not only came in handy with his music, but also helped him overcome his ongoing battle with asthma.
He played the folk circuits of the sixties while studying at night school to earn his BA degree. He turned down a scholarship at the Columbia University Graduate School in favour of becoming a resident singer at Caffe Lena in NY.
His self-funded his first album, ‘Tapestry’ (1970) contained the song that people will always associate with Perry Como, ‘And I Love Her So’. His songs and style of music fitted into the introspective mood of the early ‘70s while still being rooted in the ‘60s coffee-house folk ethic, and the album received moderate success.
His rise to international stardom began in 1971 with the album ‘American Pie’ and the title single that has gone on to be voted 5th in a poll for the ‘Songs of the Century’. After decades of popularity, the song was entered into the National Recording Registry in 2017.
‘American Pie’ and his subsequent hit, ‘Vincent’, the beautiful musical story of the artist Van Gogh, helped cement Don McLean as a firm favourite of the Adult Contemporary Charts throughout the ‘70s. I’m starting my Don clean tribute with his own tribute to another great artist. Here’s Vincent.
With American Pie propelling Don McLean to international stardom he became a major concert attraction. Although he only had two albums of original songs to draw on, his years playing the circuit gave him a wide catalogue of crowd favourites to supplement them. His first Albert Hall concert was a sell-out as were subsequent concerts around the world.
With the success of American Pie, United Artists reissued his first album ‘Tapestry’, and his famous songs ‘And I Love You So’ and Castles in the Air’. The third album, simply titled ‘Don McLean’ (1973), didn’t live up to the success of American Pie, and apart from the song ‘The Pride Parade’ and one of my personal favourites, ‘Dreidel’, has been pretty much forgotten.
Of the album, Don McLean told Melody Maker “Tapestry was an album by someone previously concerned with external situations. American Pie combines externals with internals and the resultant success of that album makes the third one, Don McLean, entirely introspective”.
The feel-good fourth album, ‘Playin Favourites’, returned Don McLean to the UK Singles Chart with his brilliant cover of Buddy Holly’s classic ‘Everyday’. 1978 saw the album ‘Chain Lightning’, featuring backup singers, The Jordanaires, and some of Elvis Presley’s former musicians.
He hit the #1 spot with yet another cover version, this time with Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’. Here’s the second song in today’s mix, ‘Everyday’. A strange coincidence that he had huge hits with songs about, and by, Buddy Holly.
Don McLean may have faded from the charts in the mid-80s but this doesn’t mean he faded into obscurity. There has been a slew of compilations, collections and Tributes since, and even a Christmas album, a Country album and a kid’s album. 1995’s ‘River of Love’ was his first release of original songs in eight years, and fans had to wait yet another fourteen years for the next collection ‘Addicted to Black’. The final original set was released in 2017 as ‘Botanical Gardens’.
I am a Don McLean fan, but kind of lost interest in him when he started to rely on reworkings of his earlier hits and covers of other artists. I was dismayed when Madonna released her emotionless and extremely bland version of American Pie in 2000. I have never been a ‘Madge’ fan, considering her to be style over substance, and this travesty of a cover raised the hackles of my musical neck.
Don, however, must have been thrilled at Madonna’s success with his signature song. It prompted EMI to release (yet another) ‘Best of Don McLean’ collection which gave him his first Top 30 chart entry in 20 years.
McLean’s views in the interview he gave regarding Madonna’s cover brought out my inner-cynic (see underlined). “Madonna is a colossus in the music industry and she is going to be considered an important historical figure as well. She is a fine singer, a fine songwriter and record producer, and she has the power to guarantee success with any song she chooses to record. It is a gift for her to have recorded ‘American Pie.’ I have heard her version and I think it is sensual and mystical. I also feel that she’s chosen autobiographical verses that reflect her career and personal history. I hope it will cause people to ask what’s happening to music in America. I have received many gifts from God but this is the first time I have ever received a gift from a goddess.” Oh, C’mon Don – the song’s not about Madonna!!!
Whatever my feelings I can’t deny that Don McLean never abandoned his aesthetic for crafting beautiful songs, including some timeless classics. He has collected a fair body of work over his five decades in the music industry, but will always be known for his unexpected chart-topper, ‘American Pie’. Happy Birthday Don!
3rd Oct – Cory Henry: We have featured a few musicians who started their careers as child prodigies recently, but Joe Bonamassa and Steve Winwood‘s childhood stories pale in comparison to today’s choice of genius, Cory Henry.
Cory Henry came into my sphere of listening when I did a feature on the Jazz outfit Snarky Puppy a few months ago. Amongst a fine line-up of musicians, he shone with his virtuoso skills on one of my favourite keyboards, the Hammond B3.
This precocious toddler was playing both the piano and organ at age two and made his debut at the famed Apollo Theatre when he was just six-years-old. By the age of 19, he was already a sought-after sideman and session musician.
He has toured with names like Bruce Springsteen, Michael McDonald, Yolanda Adams, P. Diddy and jazz giant Kenny Garrett whom he joined for three years. In 2012 Cory joined the Jazz/Funk ensemble Snarky Puppy which resulted in Grammy Awards for Best R&B Performance (2015) and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (2016). I’m starting today’s Cory Henry mix with a brilliant live clip of Cory Henry with Snarky Puppy and the composition, ‘Lingus’ – strap yourselves in!
Cory Henry doesn’t only record with Snarky Puppy, after all, that would be a waste of his talents. He released his first solo album, ‘First Steps’, in 2014 on the Wild Will Jone’s record label, which charted in the Top Jazz Album listings.
I can’t verify my suspicion, but his second release, the gospel-infused ‘Revival’ (2016), is possibly one of the few albums to have peaked in the top spot on both the Jazz and Gospel charts. As Cory Henry and The Funk Apostles, he whips up a fusion of Blues, Soul, R&B, Afrobeat, Gospel and, of course, Jazz. It’s no wonder they have such a wide appeal, blurring genres and upending expectations with every track. This ability has demonstrated Cory Henry’s inventive musical mind.
I chose the second track today with a good friend in mind. She often reminds me that she wants this song played at her funeral. Should I win the lotto I’ll hire Henry and the Apostles to do the job! This one’s for you Lynda! Here’s the Bee Gees classic disco hit, Stayin Alive, performed in Cory’s inimitable way.
Whichever outfit Cory Henry appears with, be it Snarky Puppy or The Funk Apostles, the audience can be assured of a truly memorable experience. Watching him play live is a pleasure. He is a natural bandleader, queuing in sections with a nod, a smile or musical phrase, while never forgetting his audience.
As mentioned, he has worked with many of the industry’s top names, which in turn have resulted in some interesting projects. He co-produced ‘Larger than Life’ with Jay White, released a solo Christmas album packed with jazzy interpretations of the normal seasonal fare, and wrote and produced several tracks on Kim Burrell’s Grammy-nominated album ‘Love’.
He also helps promote young talent and recently worked with students of Brown University where he ran a series of workshops sharing his experience with and history of jazz music and gave critiques on the original songs from the attendees.
Choosing a final track from an artist who has a musical catalogue of worthy of a man twice his age wasn’t easy, but after a few happy hours of weighing up options, I decided on the tribute to Prince he gave at the Rotterdam North Sea Jazz Festival in 2017. Let’s close with Cory Henry and the Metropole Orchestra performing ‘Purple Rain’. At 9:36 minutes you can be assured of some funky and unexpected twists and turns.
4th Oct – Groundation: I have heard lots of Reggae during the years, some good, some mediocre and some just plain awful, but the band I have decided to feature today falls in the realm of exceptional. I last featured a track from the British band, Groundation, about a year ago and I think its time to listen to some tracks from their 2018 ‘The Next Generation’ album.
Groundation has been around since 1998 and it was their 2002 album Hebron Gate that opened my eyes to the fact that Reggae and Jazz can be seamlessly fused; something I had never heard before. The band was formed by Harrison Stafford, a graduate of and lecturer at the Sonoma State University. who formed the label Young Tree Records to release the band’s debut album ‘Young Tree’.
Today’s theme was sparked by a YouTube notification I got this morning that Groundation had released a new video of a song that was on the album. It features the Brazillian group Ponto de Equillibrio (point of equilibrium) and the vocals of Helio Bentes.
Here is a beautiful song about an individual’s spiritual journey through organized religions only to realize in the end that we are all members of the one human family. I think it’s a lovely message for a Sunday or any day of the week.
Groundation quickly grew to be a nine-piece and their unique sound quickly sealed their success with fans globally. When describing their sound, Reggaeday News kind of got it right with ‘a blend of Reggae and Jazz overlaid by Funk inspired horns, Latin and African poly-rhythms and soulful harmonies’. Combine this with Harrison Stafford’s unusual voice and style of delivery and you have a musical experience second to none.
As a live act they stand out for their use of live improvisation and the highly energetic communion-type atmosphere they bring to the audience. In their twenty-two years as a band, they have released 14 albums, embarked on numerous worldwide tours, and played all of the major festivals.
Interestingly, when recording in the studio they shun the digital format and synthesisers in favour of analogue equipment. They also produce every album themselves, immersing themselves into the music creation process further than just playing the song. This attention to detail is evident in every album.
The second song from Groundation’s ‘The New Generation’ album is ‘Vanity’. The lyric plays on the well-used Babylon theme and the composition is exemplary. It’s a song that will have anyone who has ever smelled a reefer in the breeze to bop around the room shaking their imaginary dreadlocks. Enjoy.
Groundation’s founder Harrison Stafford remarked that “Groundation provides a musical vessel that allows me to create and perform the music that I hear in my head”. With early influences from his Father and Grandfather who were both Jazz performers, it is no wonder he has a love of jazz, listing Duke Ellington and Miles Davis as his earliest of heroes
‘ReggaeSound’ explains Groundation’s appeal on their website’s bio piece; ‘Whether on their masterfully self-produced studio albums or in the midst of their now-legendary live-performances, Groundation’s sound is both uncategorizable and yet somehow familiar. Whether a fan of Jazz improvisation, the deep grooves of Funk and Dub or the challenging consciousness of Roots Reggae, Groundation offers whoever listens, an access point for connecting to the music.’
The band undertook 14 global tours before taking a 3-year hiatus in 2015. Groundation has seen many line-up changes over the years and in 2018 released their album ‘The Next Generation’ featuring some new members. Founder, Harrison Stafford, has brought together a fine ‘next generation’ of musicians to carry his brainchild’s music into the next decade.
Closing today’s mini-feature is a song the reflects on the relationship between father and child. The song ‘Father and Child’ 😎
5th October – Alice Phoebe Lou: When thinking of South African musicians the name Alice Phoebe Lou doesn’t immediately spring to mind, possibly because this 27-year-old Indie artist bases herself in Berlin where she has carved a remarkable career based on talent, good choices, and a bit of divine intervention.
I don’t know what it is about Cape Town that makes it the breeding-ground of so much South African talent. Alice hails from the picturesque village of Kommetjie and her film-maker parents surrounded her with the music of Janis Joplin, Morcheeba, Grace Jones and PJ Harvey as a child. From this cocktail of powerful ladies, she learned that music doesn’t have to conform to a particular style, and promptly developed her own.
After graduating from high school she headed off to Europe on a gap year and found herself busking in Berlin. Instead of returning home to start university, she bought a battery amplifier, packed her bags, and headed back to Berlin. It took only a month of busking before she was invited to play on a TV show.
A song from her first self-released EP, ‘Momentum’ (2014) was picked up for the 2015 movie ‘Ayanda’ and Alice Phoebe Lou’s name started becoming known. After a performance at TEDx in 2014, she began to get offers from record labels but chose to remain independent. Alice released a live set, ‘Live from Grüner Salon’ to help fund her debut studio album.
2016 was a special year for Alice when she opened for the historic Rodgriguez tour of South Africa. It was also the first year she played at the SXSW Festival in the USA, where she has become a crowd-favourite every year since.
The eagerly awaited debut studio album was also released in 2016. ‘Orbit’ saw her nominated as German Music Critics Best Female Artist award. Amongst the numerous TV appearances, 2016 also saw her undertake an extensive schedule of European engagements, a tour of South Africa and three sold-out shows at the Berlin Planetarium. Through all this change in circumstances, she still found time to busk around Berlin! I’m starting with a live performance of the song that helped her career blossom, ‘She’.
Alice Phoebe Lou released ‘Sola’, a 9-track EP which contained the song ‘She’ which was used in the film ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ was nominated for the Oscar’s Best Original Song. The success of the song saw Alice head out to tour for Europe, USA, South Africa, Canada and Japan.
When the executive producer, Susan Sarandon, invited her to perform the song at a private screening for New York’s Feminist Institute, she stopped for the first time in her fast-moving career to seriously consider her next move. This involved an hour-long phone call to Grammy-winning producer Noah Georgeson. The resulting album, ‘Paper Castles’ was a culmination of long hours, good times, and freedom to put ideas on the table.
Two singles were released from the album, the ethereal ‘Something Holy’ and our second song for today, ‘Skin Crawl’. Alice wrote it after an incident in New York where she was drugged by a stranger, and although physically unharmed, the fear of the event forced her to look it in the eye. She ventured out alone again to a Fela Kuti concert. Although the energy was electric, she became acutely aware of men trying to invade her personal space. The video of Skin Crawl won in June third prize at the Berlin Music Video Awards in the best concept category.
After the release of ‘Paper Castles’, Alice Phoebe Lou hit the road again with 102 shows across 4 continents. She has never been afraid of trying out new songs at her shows to try them out, a trick she learned while busking.
The first release of 2020 was ‘Witches’, again produced by Noah Georgeson, with a video filmed on a second-hand 8mm camera. The penultimate show of her tour was at Saal 1 at the famed recording studio, Funkhaus in December 2019. Her latest release, ‘Live from Funkhaus’ is a collection of songs from the show.
She has been working on tracks for a new album while in lockdown and hopes to hit the road again in 2021 to bring more Alice Phoebe Lou magic to her global fan base. Although like many of our local artists, she has chosen to base herself in Europe, I still think of her as one of our shining examples of a local talent who made good. Here’s our closing song, ‘Witches’. I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out some background to this remarkably driven young South African. Yet another reason to be proud. 😎
6th Oct Fat Freddy’s Drop: I remember following a link to the intriguingly named Fat Freddy’s Drop a while ago only to find that it was broken. I got waylaid and never found my way back to them. I spent a happy few hours listening to their music last night while reading up on this fun and extremely talented seven-piece band of New Zealanders.
The band coalesced from a number of other groups that the various members were playing in during the late ‘90s. Their journey to becoming one of the festival circuit’s finest live draws has been a carefully planned process as you will find out. This started when the newly formed band pressed a handful of vinyl singles to sell at gigs and act as demos on their newly formed label ‘The Drop’.
Their 2001 debut album was a recording of a live gig ‘Live at the Matterhorn’ wasn’t promoted but sold 9,000 copies through word of mouth. In 2000 New Zealand’s music scene was depressed and a government initiative to help boost the sagging industry saw an increase of events and concerts that helped establish Fat Freddy’s Drop as one of the country’s best live acts. With their early singles being included on radio station album compilations the band soon found themselves making waves in Australia as well as on their home turf.
International interest began when ‘Midnight Marauders’, their 3rd single, was picked up by the German Sonar label and re-released by their affiliates ‘Best Seven’ and received attention when European DJ outfit ‘Jazzanova’ used it in a number of their mixes. We start today with a live performance in 2015 that includes a remarkable sax solo from Fulla Flash. You’ll soon see why they have gained the reputation they have.
Fat Freddy’s Drop found themselves gaining popularity in Europe thanks to their German partners, but the band wanted to maintain independence from major labels. As mentioned, they had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve, and this included the best possible renditions their songs on their albums.
They achieved this by only including songs on their album playlists that they had perfected during tours. This ensured a collection of highly polished songs that fans and the media lapped up. 2004 saw International DJ Magazine list them as one of the top 20 bands to see live, and fans had plenty of opportunity with extensive tours of Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
Their first studio album, 2005’s ‘Based on a True Story’, was independently released and went on to be certified 9 x platinum in New Zealand. This is remarkable for an album without any official promotion. Word of mouth and reputation must be New Zealand’s best means of marketing! These national heroes won awards as Best Group, Best Album and Best New Zealand Roots Group at the 2005 NZ Music Awards.
Four solid years of tours passed before their next studio album was released. ‘Dr Boondigga and the Big BW’. The name is a fun dig at evil creatures (A&R men?) that continuously try and sign them to a major label. Fat Freddy’s Drop has stuck to their guns and kept distribution, and artistic integrity, in their own hands, despite numerous lucrative offers.
This second album was as enthusiastically received as was the third, twice-platinum ‘Blackbird’ (2013) from where we take today’s second song. The album’s release saw the start of another stream of tours across Australia and New Zealand, and a series of European dates, crucial in supporting and increasing their newly growing market. Here’s ‘Blackbird’.
The 2015 album, ‘Bays’, was a more electronic feel to their music that worked perfectly with their range of musical styles. 2018 saw the release of the single ‘Trickle Down’, the first teaser from their eagerly awaited 5th album, ‘Special Edition Pt 1’, which finally landed in November 2019.
I like it when the press tries to describe a band’s sound, but National Public Radio host, Guy Raz, had a novel explanation, “Take the swagger of Jamaican dub, throw in a little Memphis soul and send it halfway down the globe, and what comes back? The band Fat Freddy’s Drop”. The band could be categorised under many genres, including Delta Blues, Jazz, Soul, Reggae, Dub, Techno and R&B. Did I leave anything out?
Something that struck me while listening to tracks spanning their career is how Fat Freddy’s Drop’s sound has remained constant. Even with the inevitable line-up changes that happen over a 20+ year career, nothing has affected the sound’s quality. I listened to their albums back-to-back and each one flows seamlessly from the last.
This is possibly a part of the great masterplan that this clever crew of talented New Zealanders intended from the start. In the band’s own words “It’s about the long game, a path that has come about by careful stylistic evolution, ever-increasing production values and a live reputation that precedes our recorded material.”
The final track for today is taken from the last album, ‘Special Edition Pt 1’. Here’s the title track complete with a bit of an unexpected video. Thanks for joining me today. If you already knew of Fat Freddy’s Drop, I hope you’re happy for me that I’ve joined your ranks. If you didn’t know of them, you’re welcome! 😎
7th October -While My Guitar Gently Weeps: It’s not often I do a mini-feature about one particular song but when two separate versions of the classic George Harrison composition ended up on my timeline within three days I took it as a sign. Today I have decided to look at three very different recordings of the song.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (WMGGW) featured on The Beatles ‘White Album’ and is considered the start of George Harrison’s recognition as a songwriter. Rifts had already started forming among the Fab Four when the album was released. The song was George’s commentary on the band’s ongoing issues and the world’s unrealised potential for universal love. It’s a poignant tribute for the beginning of the end of the band and the flower-power era in general.
I have featured the famous George Harrison tribute performance from Prince, Geoff Lynn, Steve Winwood etc. a few times, so won’t be revisiting that particular moment of brilliance today. Instead, I have decided to start with one of my favourite ‘cover-bands’ (I use the term loosely), The Main Squeeze.
This Indiana-based outfit has released four studio albums and four live albums since forming in 2010 and built up a solid following for both their original material and reworkings of classic rock songs that are they are famous for. Corey Frye’s vocals are anchored by the keyboard wizardry of ‘Smiley’, Rob Walker on bass, Reuben Gingrich on drums and the blistering lead guitar of ‘Maximillion’. One thing is always assured in any Main Squeeze cover – originality. Does that make sense? Hear for yourself!
We are looking at three very different versions of George Harrison’s classic song today and the second choice of artists and style couldn’t be more different than the opening reworking, but first for a snippet of trivia about WMGGW.
After returning from India where the Beatles studied Transcendental Meditation George felt that the band held an apathy toward his new song. In a move never seen before, he invited his good friend Eric Clapton to play the guitar on the track. Clapton refused at first stating that NO outsider played the guitar on Beatles tracks. George got his way and although Clapton was never credited on the album, his distinctive style is obvious when you listen.
For the second version of WMGGW we turn to Luca Stricagnoli, the Italian classical guitarist and inventor who has released two albums that reflect his clever take on some of popular music’s greatest anthems. His story is far too interesting to cover in one segment, so I will do a complete feature on this remarkable talent soon.
In the meantime, here’s Luca showcasing one of his inventions, the Reverse Slide Neck. It’s ingenious, as is what he does with the song.
To finish today’s tribute to the song While My Guitar Gently Weeps I’m turning to one of the youngest regulars to this page, Taj Farrant. Now at the grand old age of 11-years-old, he has been wowing the world when he appeared on Australia’s Got Talent at the tender age of nine.
Since then he has built up a huge YouTube following on his channel that features regular updates and new songs. A highlight in his young career was appearing with Carlos Santana who took Taj under his wing on a three-day trip, where Carlos and wife Cindy gave him “heaps of advice about music and lots of other things”
The last bit of WMGGW trivia before we close: George wrote the song as an exercise in randomness inspired by the Chinese I Ching. “The song conveys his dismay at the world’s unrealised potential for universal love, which he refers to as ‘the love there that’s sleeping’”, explained George in more than one interview.
The song has been assured of its place in our musical history, not only by the number of times it has been covered, but also by Rolling Stone who ranked ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ 136th on its list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ and seventh on the ‘100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time’. 😎
This article was previously published on The Design Train website for Loving the Music