Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Blow Your Top . . .

Tone Farmer Joe Austin recently had the good fortune of catching that 'Little 'Ol Band From Texas live at a standing room only Grand Forks tilt. And not in some boomy, over-sized machine shed, mind you - - but at the acoustically delicious Chester Fritz Auditorium!! My oh my, those tones must've been sweeter n' a heapin' helpin' of smoky, down-home BBQ!! Joe was kind enough to pen a review for us, and it goes sumthin' like this . . .

On Saturday, October 18th, the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the UND Campus had the distinct privilege of having the legendary rock band ZZ TOP entertain the good folks of Grand Forks! When I heard that the Fritz would be the select venue (ZZ TOP is playing smaller, more intimate venue to give the fans an "in your face" feel!) for this concert, I began telling people that they were in for a treat. I also enthusiastically reminded them that a band the caliber of ZZ TOP could easily chose to play the Ralph Englestad Arena, The Alerus, or even the Fargodome. Yet, they graciously chose the 2,000 seat Chester Fritz Auditorium. And for that, we, and especially the town of GF should be extremely grateful!

The show started at 8:00 with an Atlanta Ga band, Blackberry Smoke opening. Out of all the opening acts I have recently seen, this one is one the better ones. A simple four piece band, Blackberry Smoke played a well-received 45 minute set that showcased their unique sound blending several classic rock and country rock bands such as the Black Crowes and Lynyrd Skynyrd, yet forging a style all their own. My favorite part of the set was watching guitarist Paul Jackson play some sweet looking and sounding Les Pauls. In fact, as I watched him closely, I swear he looked more and more like a young Gary Rossington.

After a brief intermission, ZZ TOP took the stage to thundering and deafening applause. The tres Hombres got in their positions and proceeded to rip into "Got Me Under Pressure", followed by "Waiting For the Bus" and "Jesus Just Left Chicago". After this three song opening, Guitarist Billy Gibbons address the crowd telling them how glad they were to be in North Dakota and this tour was designed to be more in your face for them. He also mentioned that they would be playing more bluesier, obscured tunes than the ones that got lots of MTV airplay. They didn't disappoint. Several great album tracks were performed such as "Goin' Down to Mexico" from 1971's First Album, "Just Got Paid" from 1972's Rio Grand Mud, and a great version of "Hey Joe" by the one and only Jimi Hendrix. This part of the show, by far, was my favorite. I've always preferred the material where it's just the power trio w/o the synthesizers and Billy Gibbons can just get down and dirty with his guitar work. Which also explains why I prefer the 1977 release of "The Best of ZZ Top" versus 1992's "Greatest Hits.

Of course, ZZ Top did it's best to please everybody and played their most popular hits towards the middle and end of the set including "Cheap Sunglasses" and the Eliminator trilogy "Gimme All Your Lovin", "Sharp Dressed Man", and "Legs". By this time the crowd was really on it's feet and wanted more. ZZ Top obliged and delivered ass-kicking versions of La Grange and Tush for their encore.

Bottom line, ZZ Top delivered the goods. And I would highly recommend all fans of good quality blues drenched, classic rock, and in your face music to go see ZZ TOP when they come to a small venue near your town. It's not every day, that bands like these decide to go the smaller route. So when they do, be sure to get off your butt and go see them. You'll be glad you did! - - by Joe Austin

Also - be sure to visit the following websites for more band-related information:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Hard To Handle

As one might imagine, I was excited to see Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and newly minted foil Luther Dickinson on the cover of July's Guitar Player Magazine. Having had a full (3) months to absorb their latest release Warpaint, and digging it quite a bit, I was very interested in what Rich and Luther had to say about the guitars / gear they used.

That is, until I read this: "A good tone will make your whole body tingle with energy," says Rich Robinson, "and I think the way many guitarists are using digital technology has destroyed that."

Wow. Not even a paragraph into the feature, and here comes a well-aimed diss at guitarists using digital technology. Being a player who has readily embraced the idea of 1's and O's in relation to his own pursuits, Rich's somewhat cynical view didn't sit too well with me.

For starters, let us examine Mr. Robinson's current state of affairs in regards to "real" gear: a home studio crammed full of top-shelf vintage equipment; an ever-expanding network of legendary luthiers and analog amp gurus eager to custom build any guitar / amp he so desires; and a nearly unlimited supply of funds to support his tingly, mind-expanding quest for tonal perfection. And lest we forget - access to the finest recording facilities in the world. Yes indeed, as far as tone is concerned, Mr. Robinson hasn't ventured too far out of the "land of milk and honey" - - if at all. Sort of like the Kennedys bitching about the quality of food at McDonald's.

In comparison to the opinionated Mr. Robinson, the common player knows little of such frivolties - - being bound to more responsible pursuits than the "tingling of one's engergy." I can, however, personally attest to experiencing "tingling" sensations when playing through digital equipment - - although I have not compared these sensations to those achieved when using my '68 Super Reverb, Classic 30, or any of my other tube-based amplifiers. Perhaps it might be a good idea for a future Tone Farm feature? No matter how you choose to look at it, I find it a bit jaded for anyone, much less a prominent rock guitarist, to dismiss digital technology as "tone-less" destroyers of musical energy. It's simply not so.

Delving further in, one might also ponder the following questions: "Is the music-making and / or recording process somehow undermined if it's not analog." Or, "is one's playing less inspired because the sound is being created / processed digitally?" I would suppose that certain types of players could be more / less inspired - depending on the type of gear they play. However, this supposition should also reflect the contingent of players who are inspired by, or actually prefer digitally-rendered tone to analog / tube-based tone. To me, what it boils down to is this: if the song is good, and the playing kicks ass, how it came to be is irrelevant.

Here's another small, but tasty morsel of information: ALL of the Black Crowes' new album was recorded using M-Audio's Pro-Tools - a DIGITAL computer recording program!! Imagine that. In a world teeming with vintage Neve and Studer analog consoles - any of which would be at the Black Crowe's instant disposal - - they recorded the album using *ahem* . . . Pro Tools.

Today's gear manufacturers have done a fantastic job of leveling the playing field between preening analog wind-bags and the average joe player - and most especially with digital technology. As I see it, having access to something that tone-wise sounds reasonably close to, or has some of the playing nuances of a decent Fender or Marshall amp - I absolutely can't see anything wrong with that.

So, to all of the tone "purists"- please feel welcome to obsess about crap like amp sag, tube degradation, point-to-point, and cone wear all you want - digital / modeling technology is here to stay. Myself and a gazillion other players will make damn sure of it.

Now that I've ranted to my heart's content, I think I'll saunter into the jam room, crank up my PODxt, dial in a nice over-driven Fender Tweed - and play some Black Crowes. Damn you, digital technology. Damn you! - - J.