Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Last Hurrah: the 2012 D.C. Blues Festival September, 2012

The annual D.C. Blues Festival  is one of my last hurrahs of the year when it comes to blues. After that, it starts getting too cold for festivals. You can catch individual acts at clubs, but it’s just not the same as the musical smorgasbord available at a festival.  I’m sure you can relate.

Anyway, this year’s festival at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in northwest D.C. provided enough good music to hold me for a while.  The headliner was Sugar Ray & the Bluestones, a New England-based band that has backed Roosevelt Sykes, Big Walter Horton and J.B. Hutto. Also playing was Sista Monica Parker, who has shared the stage with luminaries such as the Neville Brothers, Ray Charles, Little Milton, Etta James and Koko Taylor and Lionel Young, who fronts his award-winning band with an uncommon lead instrument, the violin. Two D.C. area favorites, Clarence “the Bluesman” Turner and the D.C. Blues Society Band with singer Ayaba Bey, were also on the bill.

The Bluetones pretty much highlighted the blues festival with a performance of “Evening,” the title song of their 2011 album, a project that secured four nominations in the 2012 Blues Music Awards, including Album of the Year:

A former Marine, Sista Monica is known as “The Lioness of Blues” in Europe. She cut her teeth singing in the choir of the church she attended in her native Gary, Indiana.  I can definitely hear that influence here:

Lionel Young is a classically-trained violinist who has played with the Pittsburgh Opera-Ballet Orchestra, as well as other orchestras. He is the first and only person to win both the solo/duo and the band competition at the International Blues Challenge, winning the former in 2008 and the latter in 2011.  He also played the 2012 D.C. Blues Festival’s after-party, where this performance with singer Nadine Rae was shot:

We didn’t shoot video of Clarence “the Bluesman” Turner or the D.C. Blues Society Band at this year’s festival. But we have plenty of them from past years.

Here’s Clarence at the College Park Blues Festival last November:

And here’s the D.C. Blues Society Band featuring Ayaba Bey at the same event:


Hey, I don't have to tell you it was a fun festival with good performers. Let us know what's going on in your area. Contact us at beldonsbluespoint@yahoo.com


Friday, September 14, 2012

Off to See the Wizard: Steve Vai On Tour

At age 18, while a student at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, Steve Vai started transcribing guitar compositions by Frank Zappa. At 20, he sent the Zappa a copy of “The Black Page,” an instrumental the music legend had written for drums. He also sent Zappa a recording of himself playing the guitar.

Vai caught Zappa’s attention.  And when the two finally met, they started a relationship that would eventually lead to Vai playing in Zappa’s band.

Since then, Vai has built a reputation as one of the world’s most highly-regarded and influential guitarists.  Now 52 years old, he has worked with some of the leading names in music: singer David Lee Roth, bassist Billy Sheehan, steel pedal guitarist Robert Randolph, Ozzy Osbourne and the group Whitesnake, among others.

And he has released a number of highly acclaimed solo projects, the latest of which is The Story of Light, his eighth studio album and the second in a planned trilogy that started in 2005 with Real Illusions: Reflections.  Vai is promoting the album on a tour that is taking him to several cities in North America and Europe, including D.C.’s Howard Theatre, where the videos you see in this post were recorded.

A rocker at his core, Vai crosses the line into the jazz-rock territory explored by Zappa, Jeff Beck as well as Joe Satriani, who gave him guitar lessons while both attended the same Long Island high school.  Some might describe Vai as flashy, both in his playing and in his stage presentation (at one point during his performance at the Howard, he came out in what looked like a space suit!)

But with someone of Vai’s abilities, flash is only on the surface. To me, it appeared that he was experimenting to see what sounds he could coax from his guitar; the audience just happened to be in the room with him.

Thinking about it again, I wasn’t sure which one was in control, Vai or his guitar. They seemed to have the same kind of relationship that a good ventriloquist has with his mannequin: after a while you’re not sure which one is actually doing the talking.

Vai started learning guitar at 13. A year later, he was taking lessons from Satriani, four years his senior.

His professional career took off in 1979 after Zappa hired him to transcribe his guitar solos. The transcriptions were eventually published in 1982 in a volume called The Frank Zappa Guitar Book.  Vai then went on to overdub many of the guitar parts for Zappa’s album, You Are What Is, and in 1980 started touring with Zappa.

During the tour, Vai would sometimes ask audience members to bring musical scores which he would sight-read during the shows.

After leaving Zappa in 1982, Vai recorded Flex-Able, his first album. In 1985, he became the lead guitarist in the group Alcatrazz, replacing Yngwie Malmsteen.

Later in 1985, following the advice of his friend, bassist Billy Sheehan, Vai joined a new group formed by  David Lee Roth, former singer for Van Halen.

 As a debut album, the group, which also included Sheehan, released Eat ‘em and Smile. The album, which sold over two million copies, eventually reached #4 on Billboard’s 200 album chart. Vai personally drew kudos from Rolling Stone magazine, which compared him favorably to Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

In 1988, the group released its sophomore album, Skyscraper, which Vai and Roth produced.

Vai joined the group Whitesnake in 1989.  He played all the guitar parts on the group’s album Slip of the Tongue after guitarist Adrian Vandenberg injured his wrist.  He also played on Alice Cooper’s Hey Stoopid, joining forces with his old guitar teacher Joe Satriani on the song “Feed My Frankenstein.”

The year 1990 saw Vai release a solo album, Passion and Warfare. A  reader’s poll in Guitar World magazine picked a single from the album, “For the Love of God,” as number 29 on a list of the 100 greatest guitar solos of all time.

Vai began recording and writing with Osbourne in 1994.  Although a cut from these sessions, “My Lilttle Man,” was included in Osbourne’s Ozzmosis album, Vai did not play on it.  Instead, guitarist Zakk Wylde played his parts.

In the late 90’s, Vai joined Satriani for the so-called G3 tour. A live album was released from the tour.

Vai, Sheehan, pianist Tony MacAlpine, guitarist Dave Weiner and drummer Virgil Donati held a concert at London’s Astoria, releasing a DVD of the event in December, 2001.

The guitarist traveled to Tokyo in July, 2002 to join the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra for the world premier of composer Ichiro Nodaira’s Fire Strings, a concerto written for a 100-piece orchestra and electric guitar.

Vai premiered The Blossom Suite, his piece for electric and classical guitar, in 2005 at Paris’ Châtelet Theatre. The following year, he joined the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour led by Frank Zappa’s son, Dweezil.

In 2010, Vai joined the North Netherlands Orchestra to play several compositions mixing rock and orchestral music.  That same year, he appeared on The Tonight Show and American Idol to perform with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Orianthi, Travis Barker, Ron Fair and Randy Jackson.

Outside of his work as a performer and recording artist, Vai is a supporter of Little Kids Rock, a non-profit organization providing free musical instruments and instruction to public school children. He also is the founder of the Make A Noise Foundation, an organization which provides money for music education to people of limited means.

He also has developed a line of guitars with the Ibanez company. Among them is a  seven-string guitar that, because of its capability for low tunings, eventually attracted the attention of the metal groups Korn and Limp Bizkit.

After the concert at the Howard ended, we were able to ask Vai a couple of questions.  First, we asked him about Frank Zappa:

We then asked him who his favorite guitar players were overall:






Tuesday, September 4, 2012

We are Family- Prince's The Family Returns as fDeluxe

Any of you eighties aficionados remember “The Family?”  It was an off-shoot group formed post-Purple Rain by Prince with members of two bands in his revue: Morris Day and the Time and the Revolution.

Last year, four of The Family's five original members decided to reform the group. Now calling itself fDeluxe, the group last September released  Gaslight, its first CD in over 25 years.

And last week the group reached another plateau, performing its latest single, “You Got What You Wanted,” before an audience at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theatre  only a day after the song's official release. The performance took place while fDeluxe was opening for yet  another star in the Prince universe: Sheila E.

The core members of fDeluxe (the old name was off-limits for reasons we’ll discuss later) are drummer/guitarist Jellybean Johnson, a one-time member of the Time who in recent years has  traded licks with blues musicians Ronnie Baker Brooks and Bernard Allison; singer Susannah Melvoin, twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin and one-time fiancĂ© of Prince; saxophonist Eric Leeds, previously a member of Madhouse, a Prince project that focused on jazz/rock fusion and singer/bassist St. Paul Peterson, who started playing with the Time while still in high school and who comes from a family of jazz musicians.

Prince formed the original group, which  then also included Jerome Benton of the Time, in 1985 with Peterson as the lead singer.

“When we were filming Purple Rain, our dressing rooms were right next to Prince’s and Morris and I used to have these little sing-offs,” Peterson told SoulTrain.com last year.

“I’m guessing this is where Prince heard me sing. When the Time disbanded (with the departure in 1985 of Day, guitarist Jesse Johnson, keyboardist Mark Cardenas and bassist Jerry Hubbard), Prince gathered everyone who was left and we talked and he said, ‘I want to do a new band and I want you to be the lead singer.’ And he pointed at me. So that was how that baby began—the dissolution of the Time and him having a creative outlet for some other songs.”

Internal pressures soon led to The Family’s dissolution, but not before it had released The Family, an album that includes the 1985 hit “Screams of Passions.” Another song, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was covered by Sinead O’Conner.

The members moved on with their lives, with Peterson releasing songs as a solo artist; Melvoin first joining the Revolution, then taking up songwriting and Johnson and Benton rejoining a re-formed Time. Leeds, meanwhile, played with Sheila E’s E Train group and also garnered accolades from critics with a series of solo albums, but reportedly left music for a while to become a railroad engineer.

But in 2003, Sheila E invited the group to do a charity benefit in San Francisco.  According to the  Minneapolis Star Tribune, it took only one hour of rehearsal for the old juices to start flowing again. When the session was over, Melvoin and Peterson agreed to “finish what we started” and  the family--most of it anyway--was reborn.

Still, things did not really get underway until 2007, when the Roots invited the group to play at its annual pre-Grammy party.  There, they were told by Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson that The Family was one of his ten favorite records.

The name change to fDeluxe came after Prince reportedly turned down requests from Melvoin and Peterson to use the old name.

Group members spent personal funds to finance Gaslight, which derives its name from a 1940’s film starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.

They describe their sound as “adult pop music.” “We don’t have any illusions about this music appealing to younger kids,” Leeds told SoulTrain.com.  “The goal and the challenge are to get this music in front of people who will enjoy it.”

At the Howard, the audience was eager to hear "You Got What You Wanted":

The group also played “Sanctified:”

And my personal favorite of the evening was this one:

Of course, we can’t let you go without sharing a little bit of what the extraordinary Sheila E gave the Howard that night: