Thursday, November 28, 2013

CD Review – Ax Inferno, by Paul Speer

Ax Inferno is right, because this guy's on fire!
Speer's fourth independent and fourteenth overall commercial release is my first encounter with the Emmy Award-winning, Grammy Award-nominated guitarist, who has immediately skyrocketed into the upper echelon of my favorite six-string slingers, including Andy Summers, Eric Johnson, Hiram Bullock, and Mike Moreno.
In addition to unleashing fiery, scorching guitars, Speer plays bass and keyboards, and Ron Krasinski plays pulse-pounding drums on four tracks.
What elevates Speer into the stratosphere of awesome guitarists is that he is more than simply an exceptional, virtuosic soloist. Sure, he can shred with the best of them (I would put him on the level of Eddie Van Halen), but he also sculpts beautiful, mesmerizing, atmospheric sonic textures. But when he lets loose, boy does he let loose.
Speer is also an excellent bass and keyboard player, belting out dynamic, thumping low frequencies and synthesizing dreamy, edgy washes of sound, as well as some techno beats.
What holds everything together is the structural integrity of the compositions. More than simply a platform for Speer's electric flights of fancy, the songs live and breathe with a beginning, middle, and end anchored by melodic and rhythmic grooves.
This is an essential recording for electric guitar enthusiasts.
--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, November 23, 2013

CD Review – Open Sky, by David Nevue

Each of the CDs by pianist David Nevue that I have reviewed has been solid, but this, his fourteenth release, is his best by far.

In his press release, Nevue says that his goal with this album was to create music that transcends the standard piano music genre. Nevue has accomplished this goal in spades.

Overall, the music on the disc doesn't sound like typical solo piano music. Without knowing Nevue's exact process, it sounds to me like he composed the music simply as music and used the piano to realize his compositions. The result is music that is haunting and evocative, a perfect soundtrack for nocturnal sojourns. I can see Nevue composing orchestral music or otherwise that doesn't have keyboards or synthesizers as the focus, if at all.

All of the seventeen tracks are exceptional, but three truly stand out – interpretations of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Scarborough Fair” and the English hymn “Morning Has Broken” made popular by Cat Stevens, and the striking original “Summer Rain.”

This is not simply piano music. It's music pure and simple, and good music at that.

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Concert (Fan) Review – Michael Nesmith Live at bergenPAC, November 12, 2013

For the longest time, I had considered George Harrison to be my favorite singer-songwriter-guitarist. I have since revised that estimation. To be sure, he remains my favorite singer-songwriter-musician out of all of The Beatles. He is definitely in my top three list of favorite singer-songwriter-guitarists, which I narrowed down especially in the last year to include Electric Light Orchestra frontman and Harrison cohort Jeff Lynne and Monkee member Michael Nesmith. I had recently been leaning heavily toward Nesmith as my all-time favorite, and he sealed the deal with 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, 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.

If you like Michael Nesmith or just want to see a living legend in the prime of his twilight, make it a priority to see him live. If you can't make it to a show, definitely get the live CD of this tour, which is available for reserve order at

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, November 10, 2013

CD Review – Dancer and the Moon, by Blackmore's Night

Rock guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore and his fair maiden (and wife) Candice Night return with their patented brand of Renaissance-inspired pop-rock.

These are power ballads with a unique twist: They combine elements of baroque, classical, and minstrel music with contemporary fusion and are for the most part played with antique instruments that harken back to medieval times. Blackmore plays guitars and hurdy-gurdy, and Night provides lyrics and vocals and plays woodwinds. The rest of the band includes Bard David of Larchmont on keyboards, Lady Kelly DeWinter on French horn and harmony vocals, Troubador of Aberdeen on percussion, Scarlet Fiddler on violin, and Earl Grey of Chimay on bass, mandolin, and guitar.

Of course, the band's chosen musical motif doesn't preclude Blackmore from breaking out his electric guitar and unleashing all manner of six-string virtuosity throughout the album. The medieval/Renaissance theme is authentic and done very well, but it is Blackmore's excellent axe-work and Night's modern songwriting sensibilities that tie it all together and make it accessible.

Blackmore and Night make beautiful music together, both in real life and in the recording studio.

(By the way, Night has a solo career in addition to Blackmore's Night. It would be nice to have a solo release or a few from Blackmore as well, focusing on his instrumental prowess.)

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, November 3, 2013

CD Review – 600 Years in a Moment, by Fiona Joy Hawkins

Fiona Joy Hawkins' latest release is a world music album in the truest sense. Not only does it feature musical influences from around the planet, it was also recorded the world over, including Newcastle in Hawkins' native Australia; Los Angeles; New York City; Bremen and Portland, Maine; Halifax, Canada; and co-producer Will Ackerman's Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont.

Featuring Hawkins playing an Australian Stuart and Sons handmade piano, the CD contains a world-class lineup of session all-stars, including Rebecca Daniel, Eugene Friesen, Tony Levin, Jeff Haynes, Heather Rankin, Marc Shulman, Todd Boston, Paul Jarman, Michael Jackson, Phil Aaberg, and Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, among many others.

As always, Hawkins maintains her high standards of performance and creativity, with elegant compositions and accomplished playing that brings out their intricate beauty. The other musicians also provide excellent backup and support, without ever overshadowing Hawkins' piano. At the same time, Hawkins gives her cohorts ample space to embellish her vision with their unique, artistic voices. The result is a nice balance between soloing and accompaniment.

Those who appreciate fine, tasteful music, as well as aficionados of piano, can't go wrong with this disc.

--Raj Manoharan