Saturday, March 29, 2008

Launch sequence . . . engaged

Tuesday, March 11, 2008. The members of KISS are doing press appearances for a string of sold-out stadium dates in Australia, which kick off with a mega show in Melbourne later on that week. That same night, one of the men largely responsible for catapaulting the band into super-stardom - and now ex-lead guitarist, Ace Frehley, is roughly half-way through a string of concerts dotting various 'burgs and towns throughout the upper northern plains. To put it into yet another perspective - thousands upon thousands will be seeing KISS perform compared to the 750 or so (estimated) that will attend Frehley's Fargo show. Indeed, rock n' roll sometimes has a twisted way of extracting its dues, but though through the eyes of Ace Frehley - a small-venue show like this has the rosy glow of success. He's back - playing live to appreciative fans, and doing what he loves to do.

After saying a final (?) good-bye to his KISS bandmates in 2002, Frehely has largely been out of the spotlight. True, one might see this as a well-deserved rest, having toured the globe relentlessly with KISS for six consecutive years. A few select side projects popped up here and there between '02 and '06, though none would provide the notariety that the KISS reunion had. For a musician, four years is an eternity, and as one might expect - the extended hiatus had Frehley itching to get back. After spending the bulk of the last year and a half writing / recording, Frehley decided that the time was right to hit the road again - solo - for the first time in nearly two decades. For fans like myself, this was welcome news - not only from the opportunity to see Ace perform - but also that there was a forthcoming solo album in the works. So, when the date and venue (Fargo Theater) for the show were announced, there was absolutely no question that I would be in attendance.

Now the Fargo Theater is by no means a large facility. Or even a moderately-sized facility. It's small. Cozy, as a matter of fact. Wheras KISS' Aussie dates would provide most fans with a view of ant-sized blips on a stage in the distant horizon, or images on a pair of jumbo-trons - the Ace experience would be a full-throttle affair at gunpoint - the honest-to-goodness genuine article, front and center - delivering raunchy power chords that we could see, hear . . . and feel. Awwwwwwrrriiiiggghhhhttt! Onto the show . . . .

After obligatory pre-concert libations at the Empire Tavern, my posse' and I trekked down the block to the theater. The pre-concert "vibe" hung thickly in the air, and greeted us as soon as we set foot inside. As long as I've been going to shows, those first few minutes inside a venue are always some of the most exciting. You're getting amped up for the show, as are your fellow concert-goers. Everyone's in a great mood, talking about music, past shows, what's going to be the opening number, etc. Sort of like foreplay - but in a musical sense. Anyways - after grabbing a beer, we found our seats - which were off to the right of the stage (Ace's left) about ten rows back. The stage set is all business - a drum riser between two stacks of guitar / bass amps, and a simple-but-effective backdrop donned the Ace tour logo (*a sultry vixen straddling a rocket). The stage set-up strikes a chord with me - mostly because it's a far cry from the the mountains of gear being employed by Gene, Paul, and the two imposters "Down Under". As long as Ace was a part of KISS, he was their "rock n' roll conscience" - the voice of reason (or what could be constituted as "reason") in a sea of mass-marketed hype. "We're a rock n' roll band, and rock n' roll bands make music," he would say - indifferent to having his image on everything from lunch-boxes to bubble gum cards. Obviously, these days - things are a lot different in Ace Frehley's world, but I've always liked the fact that for him - it was about the music.

The up / down light cue from the light / sound crew soon had the crowd buzzing, and shortly thereafter, the opening band The Trews took the stage. I was immediately impressed by the substance of their groove - tight, crunchy, and very classic-rock. For those familiar with the now-defunct band Cry of Love, it's somewhat similiar - hooky, riffy guitar assemblages punctuated with a Bad Co. meets the Black Crowes style lyrical delivery, great vocals & harmonies, and a solid, no-nonsense backbeat. Listening to the first couple of songs, I immediately realize why the state of modern music is so fucked-up, and it's largely because radio stations won't play great new music from real rock n' roll bands like The Trews. Instead, we're either stuck with this American Idol bullshit, or the wearisome, format-based programming that rarely deviates from entirely-too-predictable "greatest hits" catalogs. Anyway - The Trews played confidently throughout their entire hour-long set, and by the end, have the audience in a rocking mood. They've done their job, and have landed a bunch of new fans to boot - including myself. Be sure and check out their MySpace page.

Sneaking out shortly before the break allowed me to beat the troops to the men's room, grab another brew, and find a prime "observation point" to people watch - another one of my favorite things to do at a show. Concerts seem to bring the best out in people, and tonight, that point is on full display. People are snapping up shirts, fans are talking & visiting, the beer is cold, and Ace is in the house. In short, the concert scene at the Fargo Theater is as it should be. I return to my seat refreshed, and ready for a solid set of rock.

The crowd roars (or as much of a roar as 750 people can make!) its approval when the lights go down, and Ace and his band are introduced. Seconds later, the chunky chords of the opening number Rip It Out (off the '78 solo album) greet anxious ears; fists are thrust in the air. The nervous energy that preceded the show is replaced by the static electricity of a live rock show, and Frehely and Co. christen the event in warp-drive fashion. The band wastes no time digging into the KISS catalog, scorching into Hard Times, followed by the ALIVE-era guitar tour de' force Parasite. Ace's playing through the first stanza of the show is impressive - clean, on-cue, and well-rehearsed. Frehely's band, sporting snazzy one-piece flight suits, is also impressive. Derrek Hawkins (guitar), Anthony Esposito (bass), and Scot Coogan (drums) are all excellent players - and appear to savor their roles playing alongside Ace. Rock-solid and sticky-tight all night long, the band matches his energy note-for-note, feeding the Spaceman plenty of tether to do what he does best - namely burn licks up and down the neck of his triple humbucker Gibson Les Paul. Sound-wise, the mix was perhaps the weak link in the chain to an otherwise fantastic show. Part of that may have been due to the theater's balcony extension. From what I've heard, it has a tendency to "trap" sound underneath it, so when it reverberates forward, it creates a bit of "muddiness". Nothing that I couldn't live with, though.

As for the set list - chock-full of tried-and-true Ace / KISS standards, as well as several diamonds in the rough. Colossal hits like New York Groove and Shock Me (*complete with smoking guitar solo) are expected cornerstones of any Ace Frehley performance, and both were played with conviction - much to the delight of the crowd. Lesser-known gems like Snowblind (solo LP), Rock Soldiers (Frehley's Comet), and Love Her All I Can were dusted-off for the tour. All shone brightly as interesting additions to the show. Surprisingly, the Frehley Band proved to be more than up to the task on vocal duties for the KISS numbers, which again underlined their talent as musicians. As the evening wound down, Ace pulled out the big guns - blasting through ground-shaking versions of Love Gun, Deuce, and Rocket Ride. A wide smile spread across my as the ever-familiar chords of Cold Gin rang throughout the theater - an authoritative "stamp of approval" to Ace's return to the live stage. The ALIVE-era guitar outro on Black Diamond was deftly tacked on at the end of Cold Gin, thus ending the night's musical selections in memorable fashion. From the standpoint of rock n' roll shows, this one covered all of the bases, and then some - a great opening act; Ace, of course, live onstage - playing with an excellent band; a killer set list; intimate venue; great sight-lines; a receptive crowd; and hanging out with good friends. Really, I couldn't ask for anything more.

Superlatives were abound in many a post-concert discussion, and from my perspective, those in attendance were treated to great night of music. For me personally, it was a chance to see my favorite guitar player of all time live and in person - in MY hometown - kicking out some heavy licks. I probably speak for legions of players world-wide when I say that Ace Frehley was the reason why I decided to pick up the electric guitar in the first place. While he may not enjoy the reverent adoration and critical acclaim of a Hendrix, Clapton, or Townshend - his playing style & panache', to me, are still the epitome of rock n' roll coolness. And his definitive live solo work - not only the standard of the 70's era - but the benchmark by which every hard rock guitar god was to be judged - even to present day. As a member of KISS - he was the the gasoline on the fire; his playing - the musical catalyst from which their songs attained such dazzling trajectory. The classic KISS catalog stacks up against the best of the rock genre - and largely because of Ace Frehley's contributions.

With a new, soon-to-be-released solo album in the can, an ally in sobriety, and a renewed focus on playing / performing, one could easily surmise that Ace Frehley is clearing the launch site for what might be his most successful rock n' roll mission ever. Ladies & gentlemen - we are clear for lift-off. J.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

I'm baaaccckk . . . .

Greetings fellow 'Farmers. Gettin' back in the posting groove again after a short hiatus. Several items of interest to report.

First, I am happy to have recently connected with friend and long-time musical collaborator Craig Schulte, who stopped over last weekend to jam a few licks off of (2) new tracks that will be featured on his upcoming CD. As good fortune would have it, Craig has asked me to contribute solos for these two songs, as well as lend my hand to the artwork & design for the CD jacket / insert. Being that it's been over (12) years since we last collaborated (*on 1996's Drive To Perfection), it'll be especially exciting to see how things come together.

During our session last week, I also had a chance to play Craig some of my own original material, and as I might have predicted - he was already thinking up accompanying parts for some of the songs. Sensing the energy that was present, it would seem that there are great things on tap in 2008 for the Schulte / Nelson creative team. Stay tuned @ Tone Farm for all of the "insider" details.

Another "toneful" event that occured during the early part of February was dropping some *NEW* custom pick-ups in my #1 Les Paul and Cream Squier Stratocaster (thanks to Phil @ String Bean for the install.) Both sets came via friend / resident tone freak / Bent guitarist Dan Benz though two of his Seattle-based connections (again, props for the sweet hook-up!) This, of course, has had me playing like a man possessed, and in turn, tracking some pretty cool original material. One of the newest JN originals Can't See Straight will feature the crunchy goodness of my #1 Les Paul through its new Fenris humbucker set. The Lynn Collins vintage winds in my Cream Strat ("Angie") will highlight a Dire Straits-esque original called Friendly Skies - another song that's currently "in the works".

Planning a Bismarck run next week for work, with anticipated stops at both the String Bean and Turner camps. Also looking forward to picking up my *NEW* Homebrew Germania pedal @ the 'Bean, and the vintage 60's mojo that I'll soon be conjuring up with it. More on that later.

Lastly, T-minus (9) days 'til the Ace Frehley show! J.

Two Sides of If . . .

Here's another review from my old guitar forum days. A couple of years later - yes . . . but the CD is still one of my favorite listens.

I was at my local used CD shop (Retro Disc - Moorhead, MN) the other day, browsing through their always fine selection, and what do I come across but a recent solo effort from one of my 80's metal guitar heroes Vivian Campbell. Looking very business-like in a suit on the back cover, and holding what looks to be a vintage Gibson hollow body with one of his very large hands (man, you gotta' check out the size of this dude's mitts), Two Sides of If immediately caught my interest. As I looked over the song list, and saw songs like Messin' With The Kid, I'm Ready, I Aint' Superstitious, The Hunter, and the Rory Gallagher classic Calling Card, a shiver of excitement ran down my spine. "Viv's playin' the blues!" I thought, and immediately added it to my growing handful of "must-have's".

For those of you not in the know about Vivian Campbell, it was his incendiary playing that electrified Ronnie James Dio's first three post-Sabbath solo efforts, Holy Diver, Last In Line, and Sacred Heart - all frequent listens during my first formative years of guitar playing.

Rather than go home and dial up the official website, or pore through the CD booklet, I decided to let the music do the talking. Since it was a nice sunny afternoon, I thought that a nice drive around town would be just the activity by which to enjoy it. After a quick stop at Atomic Coffee for a solid cup o' joe, I was ready to enjoy one of my all-time favorite things to do: cruise around aimlessly while jamming to a good CD.

The album starts out with the Melvin London classic Messin' With The Kid. Indeed, just about everybody and their dog has covered this song, most with varying degrees of success. Fortunately, Campbell leaves his metal pyrotechnics back in his Def Leppard locker, and instead fills the number seductively with a myriad of choice licks. It comes across very nicely, yet in a way that showcases his exemplary fretboard talents. Vivian is also in charge of vocal duties throughout the album (with the exception of Spoonful, which is sung by guest vocalist Joan Osborne.) Campbell has a inflective voice - almost Bon Jovi-ish, but still very unique. Overall, it works well with the numbers he chose for his first solo release.

I'm Ready by the legendary Willie Dixon is another fantastic blues standard that Campbell covers, and like the opening number, it's played in traditional fashion. While the first two numbers were excellent, it was the third song that sucked me in like a whirling vortex - Calling Card from the late Rory Gallagher. On this song, Campbell pays tribute to one of his heroes with a steamy version of the Gallagher classic, and even goes as far as to mimick Rory's trademark staccato picking technique in the one section of the song. I liked Campbell's rendition so much that I had to hit the back button on my CD player, and listen to it a second time. Awesome! As the CD played on, each song extracted the obligatory "oh yeah!" and a resulting smile. In fact, I soon lost track of time cruising around in my "mobile listening lab".

As the song Like It This Way came on, I noted a strange familiarity on the second guitar. While I couldn't place it at that moment, something struck a familiar nerve. The remainder of the CD soon slipped effortlessly by, at which time I noted that I was on song 12 - the last number. Shortly after the band busted into the intro section of the song, there was a volley of fills that didn't sound anything like Campbell. Then it hit me, "Man, that's gotta' be the Reverend Billy G.!" Had to be. Willin' For Satisfaction continued in a sublime groove, Campbell's vocals providing a jagged counterpoint to the Rev's tasty, blues-infused licks. Like the Gallagher number earlier in the disc, I ended up re-playing this one again, mostly to confirm my premonition.

It was about this time I pulled in front of Casa del Nelskie, and dying in suspense, pulled out the booklet. I smiled a big, wide Texas-sized smile when I saw a photo of the Rev and Viv talking, and of course, the Rev gesturing to Campbell in very animated form. I thought to myself how cool that must've been for a great player like Vivian having the legendary Billy Gibbons playing on and contributing to his album. Campbell also gives a nod of respect to the fellow gear-heads like myself by listing all of the guitars, amps, effects, and other gear that he used in recording the album, something that I thought was really cool. If you sit and think about it, it's something that only a guitar-player's guitar player might think of doing. And probably best of all - the dumb luck of finding another one of my favorite players on the CD! Really, I had absolutely no idea when I bought it that the Rev was on it. I sat in my truck for what seemed like a few minutes, but was actually like ten + some change.

When I walked into the house, my wife inquired on why I didn't come in right away. Producing a fist-full of new CD's, she flashed me a smile, and said, "Aaaaah, you went to Retro Disc, didn't you?" She smiled again when I handed her a CD from one of her favorite bands, 10,000 Maniacs (featuring the sultry Natalie Merchant on vocals.) "Neat" she said, walking towards the stereo, ready to put it on. Gotta' keep momma happy, ya' know.

Anyways, if you dig good blues songs, and good blues playing, Two Sides Of If is a treat for the senses. There's even a few secrets about it that I'm not telling, so you'll have to go find out for yourself. J.