Monday, December 27, 2021

Happy Birthday, Andy Summers!

On New Year's Eve, Friday, December 31, 2021, Andy Summers – my favorite guitarist and musician of all time – turns 79 years old.

I first became acquainted with the music of Summers in 1983 at the age of 10 in a Catholic elementary school classroom when I heard a hypnotic and futuristic-sounding pop/rock song emanating from the radio of Candy, my substitute teacher. When I asked what the song was and who recorded it, I was promptly informed that it was “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police. I was instantly hooked, so much so that that Christmas, my parents got me a vinyl copy of Synchronicity, The Police’s fifth and final studio album and one of the biggest hits of the year. The Police have since remained my favorite rock band of all time.

Summers was the guitarist for the mega-popular group, who were active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and reunited for a 30th anniversary tour in 2007 and 2008. Being a good decade older than his bandmates Sting and Stewart Copeland, Summers began his professional recording career in the early 1960s, playing for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band (which later became the psychedelic but short-lived Dantalian’s Chariot), Eric Burdon’s New Animals, and Soft Machine. After formally studying guitar at Northridge University in California from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Summers returned to England and plied his trade as a session guitarist for Joan Armatrading, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Coyne, and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord before achieving monumental success and international stardom with The Police.

After the dissolution of The Police in the early 1980s, Summers scored some Hollywood films (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Weekend at Bernie’s) and recorded one rock vocal album before establishing himself as an acclaimed and accomplished contemporary instrumental guitarist across a variety of styles, including jazz, fusion, new age, and world music.

I was privileged to interview Summers by telephone in Fall 2000 for the January 2001 issue of DirecTV: The Guide. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Summers posted a notice of the interview in the news section of his Web site. Later, I met Summers in person during his book tour in Fall 2006, just a few months before The Police reunited for a 30th anniversary reunion tour, which I was fortunate to attend twice in August of 2007 and 2008.

For a good overview of Summers’ solo work, I highly recommend the following albums: Mysterious Barricades, A Windham Hill Retrospective, Synaesthesia, and The X Tracks. My personal favorite Summers albums are XYZ, Mysterious Barricades, The Golden Wire, Charming Snakes, World Gone Strange, Synaesthesia, Earth + Sky, Fundamental (with Fernanda Takai), Circus Hero (with his rock band Circa Zero), and Harmonics of the Night.

--Raj Manoharan

Michael Nesmith (December 30, 1942 - December 10, 2021)

Thursday, December 30, 2021, would have been Michael Nesmith's 79th birthday. The Texas-born Monkees singer and guitarist (the one with the green wool hat) passed away on December 10, 2021, in California at the age of 78 .

Of all of The Monkees, Nesmith had the most prolific and successful solo career. He pioneered the country-rock music format in the early to mid-1970s, founded the music and video label Pacific Arts, and basically created the concept of MTV. In addition to producing films and music videos, Nesmith also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Home Video for Elephant Parts, which later led to NBC’s short-lived Television Parts. In an interesting side note, Nesmith’s mother invented liquid paper and sold it to Gillette for a substantial fortune, which Nesmith inherited.

For a good overview of Nesmith’s music, I recommend The Older Stuff, The Newer Stuff, Tropical Campfire’s, Live at the Britt Festival, Rays, Movies of the Mind, Infinite Tuesday: Autobiographical Riffs -- The Music, and Live at the Troubadour.

More information about Nesmith is available on his Web site at www.videoranch.com.

--Raj Manoharan

Friday, December 10, 2021

Michael Nesmith (1942-2021)

It is with great sadness, but also, as www.videoranch.com says, "With Infinite Love," that I have to report that The Monkees' Michael Nesmith (the one with the green wool hat) has passed away at the age of 78. Nesmith would have turned 79 years old on December 30, 2021.

Of all of The Monkees, Nesmith had the most prolific and successful solo career. He pioneered the country-rock music format in the early to mid-1970s, founded the music and video label Pacific Arts, and basically created the concept of MTV. In addition to producing films and music videos, Nesmith also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Home Video for Elephant Parts, which later led to NBC’s short-lived Television Parts. In an interesting side note, Nesmith’s mother invented liquid paper and sold it to Gillette for a substantial fortune, which Nesmith inherited.

For a good overview of Nesmith’s music, I recommend The Older Stuff, The Newer Stuff, Tropical Campfire’s, Live at the Britt Festival, Rays, Movies of the Mind, Infinite Tuesday: Autobiographical Riffs -- The Music, and Live at the Troubadour.

More information about Nesmith is available on his Web site at www.videoranch.com.

--Raj Manoharan

P.S.

Below are excerpts of my review of Nesmith's concert performance at bergenPAC in Englewood, New Jersey, on November 12, 2013:

Pop culture icon Michael Nesmith delivered an amazing, energetic performance at bergenPAC in Englewood, New Jersey, on Tuesday night, November 12, 2013, midway through his Movies of the Mind tour.

Like most people, I became familiar with Nesmith through The Monkees, a made-for-TV rock group that epitomized bubblegum pop music in the 1960s and gave The Beatles and The Rolling Stones a run for their money in terms of record sales. A nostalgic resurgence of Monkeemania in the 1980s led to reruns – which enabled me to get hip to The Monkees as a child – as well as a new album and tour, although without Nesmith, who was busy doing his own thing. When I heard Nesmith sing “What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?” in one episode, I was immediately hooked by his country-style Texan vocals and sought out his solo endeavors.

After the Monkees TV show ended, Nesmith – whose mother invented correction fluid – pioneered a fusion of country, folk, pop, and rock music. He also furthered the development of music video, inspired the creation of MTV, and won the first Grammy Award for a home video release for his 1982 musical variety program Elephant Parts, which later led to his short-lived summer 1985 NBC series Television Parts.

Nesmith also provides the best fan experience out of all of my favorite artists, and not just in terms of live performance. He sells all of his work on his Web site, www.videoranch.com. When I bought several CDs to replace my cassette versions, he personally autographed all of them. For a justifiably slightly higher price, you can also order CDs customized for you and/or whomever you wish with tracks and sequencing of your choosing and personally autographed by Nesmith.

Having been a fan of Nesmith for nearly a quarter of a century now, I never thought I would get the chance to see him perform live, especially given the rarity of his appearances (his last tour was in the early 1990s). That all changed on the night of Tuesday, November 12, 2013, when he stopped by bergenPAC in Englewood, New Jersey, halfway through his Movies of the Mind tour. Fresh off a late 2012 Monkees tour in the wake of band member and British heartthrob Davy Jones's death, as well as brief solo tours in the United Kingdom and America, Nesmith is on a roll.

I took my folks to the show (Center Orchestra Row N Seats 101-103), and they both enjoyed it immensely. They are both in Nesmith's age range (Nesmith is four months older than my dad). My mom is familiar with The Monkees from way back, having arrived in America the same year the TV show debuted. For some reason, my dad keeps mixing The Monkees up with The Little Rascals, who were not even a musical group. But my dad did watch the Monkees reruns along with the rest of us in the 1980s, so at least he's heard of The Monkees.

Nesmith was in top form and rocked much harder at age 70 (going on 71) than he did at age 49 on his last tour, based on the double CD I have of that tour as well as footage I've seen on the Internet. He played all of the familiar fan favorites, from “Joanne” from the early 1970s to “Rays” from his 2006 album of the same name, in between providing a nice range of country, folk, pop, and rock music. Nesmith played his signature twelve-string acoustic guitar, with long-time band mate Joe Chemay on bass, Boh Cooper on keyboards, and long-time band mate Paul Leim on drums. The band also featured Chris Scruggs, the grandson of bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs, on pedal steel guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, and mandolin. Scruggs was the musical prodigy of the night, sometimes playing two or more instruments in the same song. All the musicians were excellent and did a standout job bringing Nesmith's songs to glorious and exuberant life.

Nesmith also introduced each song or group of related/similar songs with narratives that set the scene for each musical tale, hence the tour moniker Movies of the Mind. This feature of the performance fostered intimate camaraderie between Nesmith and the audience and made it more of a personal experience, like hearing campfire tales from an old friend.

One thing that struck me about Nesmith is how, unlike the rest of The Monkees and other artists of his generation, he looks so little like his former, younger self. My mom said he looks like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In recent years, Davy Jones said he looked like a German banker. At the same time, it is refreshing and comforting that Nesmith has not gone to extra lengths to “preserve” his youth. Instead, he has chosen to age and mature like a fine wine. Every now and then, though, I saw a semblance of the old, young Nesmith surface. But whenever he opened his mouth to speak and sing, he was unmistakably and undeniably Michael Nesmith through and through.

--Raj Manoharan

Friday, November 19, 2021

The Bridge (2021), by Sting

Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner is back in top form with his best all-around solo album since 1996’s Mercury Falling. It is also one of his best albums of all time and certainly his best album of the 21st century so far.

 

More than any of his offerings in the previous quarter century, Sting’s latest release builds a bridge back to the highs of the first decade of his solo career while still sounding fresh and modern. It marks a welcome return to organic instrumentation with subtle electronic and orchestral embellishments to round out Sting’s classic sonic grandiosity.

 

Now 70 years old, Sting sounds as good as ever, with just a hint of wizened grizzle. His trademark multi-tracked vocals are utilized to great effect on the rousing, Police-like opening number, “Rushing Water.”

 

Other song highlights include “Harmony Road” (with a beautiful sax solo by longtime collaborator Branford Marsalis), “The Hills on the Border,” the title track, and “Captain Bateman’s Basement” (one of three extra tunes on the deluxe edition).

 

The absolute gem of this already stellar collection is “The Bells of St. Thomas,” which is one of Sumner’s finest musical and lyrical compositions.

 

Sting, it’s great to have you back!

 

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, November 6, 2021

MIradas (2021), by Jose Luis Serrano Esteban

For his fourth album, master guitarist Jose Luis Serrano Esteban uses nylon strings to create a well-rounded and immersive sonic environment that is a delight for the ears, the mind, and the soul.

The record is not only a marvel of composition and performance, but also of arrangement, instrumentation, and orchestration, all of which are done masterfully. In addition to Esteban’s guitars, the music comprises synthesizers (Esteban), piano and keyboards (Roger Subirana), violin (Sandra Lopez), flutes (Paula Campos, Carlos Calvo), and clarinet (Santiago Puente), with Nacho Serrano on bass guitar, Cristobal Caballero on double bass, and Mario Sanjuan on drums.

 

The melodies are beautiful and elegant, and Esteban’s pitch-perfect guitar playing is straightforward and accessible in service of the album’s overall light and pleasant pop sound. His note picking and chord strumming are palpable and poignant, thanks especially to the visceral sound mix.

 

This is one of the best guitar albums ever produced and recorded. It is soothing and refreshing and also a great showcase for the virtuosity of all of the musicians involved, especially under the steady hand of Esteban.

 

--Raj Manoharan

Friday, October 15, 2021

Harmonics of the Night (2021), by Andy Summers

Delayed for nearly two years because of the pandemic, Andy Summers’ Harmonics of the Night finally sees the light of day, and it is a welcome musical postcard from the venerable veteran guitarist, especially in these unusual times.

 

The title is very appropriate as the overall feel of the album is very nocturnal. Unlike the previous two installments of Summers’ almost entirely self-performed trilogy (Metal Dog and Triboluminescence), drums, percussion, and synthesizers are minimal or nearly nonexistent, allowing Summers to use mostly his guitars to create quiet serenity out of the shadows.

 

“City of Crocodiles” and “Chronosthesia” percolate with darkly lyrical rhythms over which gradually ascending leads and solos twist and turn and reach and yearn. “Mirror in the Dirt” channels “Chocolate of the Desperate” from Synaesthesia and “If Anything” from Triboluminescence with its edgy guitar phrasing over synthesizers. “Prairie” and “Aphelion” revel in Summers’ classic otherworldly tones. The beautiful and tranquil “Inamorata,” one of two transcendental acoustic guitar pieces on the record, features traces of guitar synthesizer. (A whole solo album of tracks like “Prairie” and “Aphelion” would be awesome, as would a whole solo album of tracks like “Inamorata.”)

 

This is the closest any of Summers’ albums have come to resembling the sound and feel of his 1988 minimalist masterpiece, Mysterious Barricades. As a result, this is Summers’ most pensive, thoughtful, and sensitive effort since that stellar recording.

 

There are also sonic elements that recall Summers’ 1980s albums with Robert Fripp – I Advance Masked and Bewitched as well as flashes here and there of Summers’ signature sound as found in both his work with The Police and his solo career. But then again, all of Summers’ albums, including this one, are his signature sound, aren’t they?

 

Harmonics of the Night is a cinematic musical journey well worth taking, courtesy of the always reliable and ever dependably unpredictable Andy Summers.

 

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Triboluminescence (2017), by Andy Summers

Summers got his groove back.

For the longest time, I had held out hope that Andy Summers would create another album similar in vein to his first two solo instrumental efforts, Mysterious Barricades (1988) and The Golden Wire (1989), which feature his compositions and guitar playing at their most transcendental and sublime. Triboluminescence rekindles the spirit of those original records, but on a whole other level, and the result is absolutely delightful.

Expounding upon his explorations of self-sufficient sonic possibilities begun with the 2015 industrial tech whack offering Metal Dog, Summers exceeds that accomplishment, using his guitars and other instruments (and cheating slightly with the collusion of cellist Artyom Manukyan on one track) to create alien and otherworldly sounds that transport you into a wondrous dimension of exhilarating sensory perception.

Standout tunes include the haunting “If Anything,” “Elephant Bird” (classic Andy Summers), "Gigantopithecus" (psychedelic reggae rock), “Ricochet” (bluesy funk), the eerie and enigmatic "Sam and Janet" (with a special cameo by "Metal Dog" from the album of the same name), and “Help from Jupiter” (spacey shades of Barricades and Bewitched). (The latter three tracks are digital/vinyl exclusives.)

Summers described his personal musical direction in the late 1980s and early 1990s as “new fusion.” He calls his unique stylings on Triboluminescence “new exotic.” I myself like to think of it as “new mysterious.”

Without a doubt, Triboluminescence certainly ranks as one of Andy Summers’ best albums, right up there with his Private Music catalog, as well as Synaesthesia and Earth + Sky. It is also solid and demonstrable proof that at age 74, Andy Summers is still very much in his prime – and still very much in the top tier of guitar masters.

--Raj Manoharan