Tag Archives: Led Zeppelin

Not Your Mama’s Rockers

Bands that explore the definition of rock and roll, breaking down genre and expectation.

Nick Urata, left, lead singer of the gypsy-rock band DeVotchKa

Think of a rock song. Any rock song. I’m going to guess that the song you chose has certain elements. It has at least one guitarist, an electric bassist, a drummer who’s locking down the beat, and a singer with a soulful voice singing about love, lost or won.

And while there’s nothing wrong with that, today we’re going to delve into some bands that incorporate novel instruments and  ideas into their music.

A Young Bob Dylan

One of the first artists to bridge the gap between rock and another genre is someone most Peak listeners know well. I’m talking about Robert Allen Zimmerman a.k.a. Bob Dylan. From the time he dropped out from the University of Minnesota in 1961 until his electric debut in 1965, Bob Dylan played solely folk music, aiming to be a disciple of his idol, folk legend Woody Gurthrie. But as Dylan matured, so did his music, and he began to incorporate more rock themes into his work. The best example of this is definitely his most famous electric song “Like A Rolling Stone”, released in 1965. There’s a very prominent drum track on the song, thanks to Bobby Gregg, especially towards the end of the song, and of course you can’t omit Al Kooper’s impromptu position as session organist. “All Along the Watchtower” (1968) and “Hurricane” off 1971’s Desire are two more songs that feature a great folk/rock sound. To sweeten the deal, here’s an electric version of Dylan’s famous “House of the Rising Sun”:

Now, there’s someone I mistakenly neglected to mention when I was talking about some of my favorite drummers two weeks ago. Who? Billy Cobham, the Panamanian maniac. But what band does he play for? He played with Mahavishnu Orcestra, a jazz-fusion band that took a lot of rhythmic influence from Indian classical music. Take a look at this video, first of all to see how incredibly skilled Cobham is, and secondly to get a glimpse into the diverse nature of their music:

I don’t know why McLaughlin is talking so oddly, because while most of the band was from around the world he came from plain old Yorkshire, England. There’s some rock in there, some funk and a lot of violin, to boot. The Indian influence came from guitarist John McLaughlin’s studies with Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. It was Chinmoy who bestowed McLaughlin with the name “Mahavishnu” which means “divine compassion, power and justice”. Here’s a track that’s a little more accessible, but equally as awe-inspiring:

Nickel Creek, from Left to Right: Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins

Switching gears now, we’re going to tone back the volume just a tad, as we get acquainted with the “progressive acoustic” (read: cool bluegrass) band Nickel Creek. Here’s their “Smoothie Song” performed live – the only one of their songs that to my knowledge has been played on the Peak:

You can already feel the rock vibe in their music. They’ve been getting steadily more progressive since their second to last release, This Side (2002). They’ve even gone so far as to include drums making them the most badass bluegrass band ever. Check out this song from their most recent album Why Should the Fire Die?

Helena

Chris Thile, who sings and was the primary mandolinist for Nickel Creek now carries on the progressive acoustic banner, releasing a fairly rock-oriented album, called deceiver, features this track:

On Ice

But despite all of the variations in rock music that we’ve seen so far, there is one rock genre that really strays from its counterparts – electronic rock. The eighties was championed by both good electronica artists like Depeche Mode and bad ones like Erasure (if you can watch this without smirking, you are a superhero). The nineties saw great bands like Moby and the Chemical Brothers. The torch was held through the aughts by some forward thinking bands like the Flaming Lips, TV on the Radio, and Ratatat.

One artist who deserves a lot of credit for his exquisitely layered songs is Martin Dosh, who by day drums for violin virtuoso Andrew Bird and by night beeps, boops and loops his way to some fantastic music. Here’s a video of him at work in his at home studio:

It’s really incredibly to watch him move from instrument to instrument, adding and removing layers as he goes.

That’s all I wanted to talk about for today, but here are some other of my favorites to whet your appetites so you’ll explore what else is out there:

Roderigo y Gabriela – Two of the most accomplished guitarists I have seen, from Mexico City – mixing insane flamenco rhythms with rock music. They’ve covered Metallica, Led Zeppelin and others. Check out some of their music in “Other Music”.

The Cat Empire – From Melbourne, Australia, these guys have managed to tame reggae and jazz and make them work together in their five piece rock band.

DeVotchKa (Russian for “Young Girl”) – from Denver is probably best known for scoring the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, but they’ve got some great music, adding Romani, Slavic and Greek facets to a solid rock sound.

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens – This artist gets enough weird points for embarking on a series of concept albums about the 50 United States (a project that’s currently on hold). But he’s known to throw some great instruments in his mix, from glockenspiels to horns and lots of strings.

Beat Circus – out of Boston comes this great folk-rock band. They cover such a range of styles that it’s hard to pin point what you’re listening to, but definitely worth a listen.

Owen Pallett – The artist formerly known as Final Fantasy, who I harbor a grudge against for saying in the Times Magazine, “[d]rummers ruin bands”. He goes on to say “If you’re in a mediocre band, just fire the drummer, and chances are you’ll have the best band in the world.” Other than that, he’s a fantastic artist who also uses a lot of strings, being a violinist himself, and writes songs with well thought out and elaborate orchestrations.

Here’s a beautifully complete song called “Tryst With Mephistopheles” off his album, Heartland, which came out this year:

…and if you listen closely to the track you can hear the sound of… are those drums?! It’s surprising how well they complement the song.

OK, that’s really it. Check back next week for what great concerts are happening in New York’s backyard in March.

Happy Listening,

~Josh

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PEAK KEYWORD:  MAHAVISHNU

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Five Drummers That ROCK

What makes a great drummer absolutely legendary?

Is it rock-solid timing? Is it stick twirls and flashy licks? Is it the ability to string together a sick solo or add that driving edge to a song? Isolating what makes these guys special is difficult, but they each stand out in their own special way.

First at bat is Keith Moon of The Who, whose volatile drumming style was only matched by his personality and the hi-jinks he got himself into. Early on in his career he scrapped most typical rock beatss, trading them in for waves of fills and double bass. “Moon the Loon”, as he was sometimes called always sprinkled in a little dose of crazy into whatever he did. At the time he died, he was banned from multiple hotel chains – mostly for exploding toilets with dynamite. True story. Check out this performance of “Baba O’Riely”:

Watching the video, you can get little glimpses into Moon’s wild energy. For instance, if you watch him in the dark before the drums come in you can see him filling madly in the background – furious 16th notes all around the kit. This whirlwind leads directly into that first cymbal hit, almost shocking that he comes in on time.

Now here’s Keith Moon a slightly different environment, and mood. In this video, The Who is covering The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” with Keith manning that ear-piercing falsetto. Wearing what looks like a 1920’s bathing suit he really lets loose for some hard rocking out with guitarist Pete Townshend. Take a look:

Next, taking out the bass drum and a few others pieces from Keith Moon’s kit, we’re left with what Violent Femmes drummer, Victor DeLorenzo, played on in the band’s ground breaking debut album Violent Femmes. Using a standing, Tito Puente style of playing, he rocked out on a snare drum harder than anyone ever had before. He was also a genius in creating great hooks, most notably those two eighth note hits throughout the Violent Femmes’ most famous song, “Blister in the Sun”:

In the innovation department, we have Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man, Victor Wooten’s older brother and fellow member of the fusion band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He’s the only drummer on this list to invent the instrument he plays – dubbed by him the “Drumitar”. Underneath a mass of drum machines and samplers, the Drumitar is Metallica singer James Hetfield’s SynthAxe. This isn’t the only instrument he’s created, however, he’s also credited for constructing the “RoyEl”, which as far as I can tell is something like a piano but it plays funkier notes.

Here’s Future Man soloing using some samples of African folk songs. And surprise! – There are some real drums in front of him, too:

Finally we get back to the heavy arsenal. First, Mr. Neil Peart of the progressive rock band Rush. First inspired by The Who, Peart is a drumming god in terms of face-meltingness, mind-blowingness, and other made up adjectives that can only hope to capture the extent of his technical ability. He would take the songs composed by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, and then sit at his desk and write the extensive drum parts to complement the crazy time signatures that the band came to be known for. Peart’s solo in this performance of “YYZ” (the canadian version of the Morse “SOS”) says it all. The bell melody Peart plays at the beginning of the solo has become widely known and quoted.

And at long last we have come to my personal favorite, John Bonham, who with bassist John Paul Jones formed the backbone for Led Zeppelin. From his quick-footed bass drum work (he never used a double bass) like on “Good Times, Bad Times”, to his powerful, demanding beats (“When the Levee Breaks”); from his psycho-noise breakdowns (“Whole Lotta Love” and “Dazed and Confused”) to his original ideas and rhythms (“Fool in the Rain”) he played with an extremely varied style. But like YYZ, nothing speaks to his talents better than his solos – and there is none more famous than his 20 minute “Moby Dick”. Here’s a clip of him performing (less than half of) it live:

For the die-hard fans, here’s the original recorded solo in its entirety:

You can’t rock harder than that. All of these videos really make me wish I had a drum set in my dorm room, but with floors 1 and 2 below me, and 4 and 5 above, I’d probably irritate the whole building. WWKMD?

What would Keith Moon do? Somehow I think I’m going to stick with tapping the hell out of my desk for the time being, and let the kids who walk past my door think what they will. Oh is that my neighbor knocking on the wall, imploring me to stop? TOO BAD.

Rock on.

~Josh

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PEAK KEYWORD: FACEMELTINGEST

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The Spirit of Music

So we’ve done a lot of forward thinking recently, and now it’s time to wind the clock hands back, to a simpler time. To a time when, I’ll admit, I was not alive, but it makes me nostalgic nonetheless.

Spirit, the band, from left to right: Cassidy, Ferguson, Andes, Locke and California, off the cover of 1973's "The Best of Spirit"

I’m talking about the 60’s, in particular the late 60’s. In 1967, a legend was born. In the foothills that are Los Angeles, five men came together to create one of the first jazz-fusion bands ever. Their names were Randy California, Jay Ferguson, Ed Cassidy (“Mr. Skin”), John Locke and Mark Andes.

Together, they formed Spirit, a name that hardly anyone from my generation recognizes. And even for people who were alive in that era, they remain in obscurity. But they exploded onto the scene in 1968 with the release of the self-titled first album. The single off that album, “Mechanical World”, stayed at #31 in the charts for eight weeks. Check it out:

Mechanical World (1968)

In 1968, a little-known band named Led Zeppelin was touring with Spirit as their opening band, and continued to hold enormous respect for them as they themselves became more famous. Listen to “Taurus”, which was released off the 1968 album to hear what Jimmy Page’s influence was for “Stairway to Heaven” two years later.

Taurus

And Spirit was busy – they released another album, The Family That Plays Together, later that same year – which was very successful overall, featuring the song “I Got a Line On You”.

But by the mid 70s Spirit was beginning to have problems. Ferguson and Andes left the group in 1971, and subsequently Randy California split off to do some solo work. California moved to Hawaii, where he had a religious awakening of sorts – and by the time the band got back together to release the album Spirit of ’76 in, well, 1976, their sound had changed dramatically.

Cover for "Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus"

But in that in-between period, Spirit released Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, an album that is still hailed as a landmark album in the annals of rock and roll. Nearly half of the cuts off their “Best of” album come from this record. This album covers such a wide expanse of musical styles and thematic ideas, and distills them to their purest forms. Here are some tracks off of that album:

Morning Will Come

Street Worm

One thing that sets Spirit apart from other bands from the late 60’s was their early use of green themes, as seen in their songs “Fresh Garbage” and “Nature’s Way”.

Nature’s Way

The band also released the album Clear that year, which was a decent album, but had one that song rose far and above the rest (and is one of my favorites):

Dark Eyed Woman (1970)

But after their initial split, Spirit was never quite the same  – even though they had reunited. The members played together on and off until 1990 when California passed away. But it’s never too late to honor these unsung legends by listening to their music – a prime example of world class rock.

[Feel free to drop me a comment if you dig Spirit as much as I do! Thanks, ~Josh]

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PEAK KEYWORD: SPIRIT

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