Tuesday, January 28, 2014

NAMM 2014: From Robby Krieger and Jonny Lang to a new Springsteen

A shorter version of my story was originally posted on The Orange County Register site on Monday morning, Jan. 27, 2014. More coverage of NAMM 2014 is on the way soon!

The blues-rocker Jonny Lang, the 13-year-old upstart Alana Springsteen (no relation to the Boss), the Doors’ Robby Krieger and others provided standout performances at the annual Anaheim gathering.

Jonny Lang in action on the GoPro Stage Jan. 23. Photo credit: Bob Steshetz
A couple of decades ago, on-site performances at the National Association of Music Merchants show, or NAMM, were definitely not a key part of the event held every January at the Anaheim Convention Center.
But once again this year performances were front-and-center throughout the show, held Jan 23-26, with the far-flung likes of bluesmen old (Otis Taylor) and younger (Jonny Lang), Americana trio the Kruger Brothers and classic rockers Blue Oyster Cult and Robby Krieger of the Doors among the artists who could be spied at the event.
In an interview before he took the stage to headline the GoPro Stage Saturday night, Krieger discussed the importance of NAMM in helping keep a wide variety of music-making alive, especially via each developing generation. As early as the Doors’ landmark 1967 debut, the guitar great, now 68, was already incorporating flamenco and jazz with blues and rock.
“It’s all important to me,” he says. “I fear today kids don’t check out all that stuff; they just listen to Eddie Van Halen and try to copy that. Back in the day, we went as far back as we could.”
In addition to rock’s earliest six-stringers, Krieger was influenced by the likes of masters like Wes Montgomery, Albert King and Larry Carlton, as well as jazz innovator Miles Davis. Many of those sources found their way into enduring staples such as “Light My Fire,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Love Her Madly” and “Touch Me.” “Jim wanted it to be a mystery,” he explained why the legendary band’s songs were credited to all four Doors. “I wrote most of the music and Jim wrote most of the words.”

Robby Krieger headlined on the GoPro Stage.
Krieger's subsequent performance was outstanding, with the legendary and fast-fingered guitarist displaying his equal love of jazz and rock during the set. Doors fans cheered with the performance of the gem "You're Lost Little Girl," (from the band's sophomore effort Strange Days) and then a few songs later, the radio staple "Love Me Two Times" where Krieger's vocals were as potent when I first heard him sing the song in a memorable performance at Cal State Fullerton.
While Krieger's 90-minute set was among NAMM’s brightest highlights, plenty of other worthwhile acts performed of the course of NAMM 2014. Right off the bat, Day 1 provided opportunities to see Lang and BÖC, as well as several under-the-radar talents.
Lang brought his powerful fusion of rock, soul and gospel to the official opening night concert held on the outdoor GoPro stage, positioned in front of the convention center. His 90-minute turn was another ideal setting to take in the 32-year-old’s ongoing celebration of blues-rock.
Opening with “(Blew Up) The House,” from his latest album Fight for My Soul, the guitarist and his band fired up the chilly evening with his distinctive mix of rousing vocals (notably on “Turn Around” and “Red Light”) and blazing fretwork that just keeps getting better as he matures, as evidenced by “A Quitter Never Wins.” He closed with the jam-ready “We Are the Same” before offering a fitting Muddy Waters cover, “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” as an encore.
Blue Öyster Cult isn’t known as an acoustic band, so the curiosity factor was palpable when the group took the stage inside Peavey’s booth armed only with such guitars. With the space (a large room on the convention center’s second level) maxed out at 200 capacity, many fans simply couldn’t get into the showcase if they hadn’t arrived early for the 2 p.m. set.
BÖC didn't disappoint: lead singer-guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser led the outfit through fiery stripped-down versions of some of the band’s most beloved material. Opening with the 1981 hit “Burnin’ for You,” it was clear Roeser’s talents translate just fine to the unplugged setting, while harmonies provided by Eric Bloom and Richie Castellano brought the ambitious songs, long a mix of progressive and hard rock, to sparkling life.
They had one other surprise in store for the lucky gathering: a cameo from Alex Skolnick, lead guitarist of pioneering thrash metal band Testament. With four talented axe-wielders on stage, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was given the ultimate NAMM treatment in an extended version that featured Skolnick and Roeser trading licks and the crowd singing along to the choruses.
Shawn Jones frequently performs in Orange County, but his appearance in Anaheim at the GHS Strings booth was something special. He performed instrumental versions of four original songs, showcasing chops frequently on display as lead guitarist for singer Deana Carter, including on her just-released album Southern Way of Life. At NAMM, Jones illustrated his love of the blues with a potent take on “Bottom of the Bottle” and a nuanced, graceful version of the Celtic-styled “Missing the Mourns,” bolstered by some beautiful harmonics.
Alana Springsteen. Photo credit: Robert Kinsler
There was nothing short of genuine surprise and awe, however, when 13-year-old Alana Springsteen began to perform her song “Waste of Time” in the lobby of the Anaheim Marriott. She had been invited to participate in a “Song Round” set with well-known area artists Tim Moyer and Kerry Getz.
After Springsteen (no relation to the Boss) played her first song, it was clear her shining soprano, effortless acoustic guitar playing and warm personality are an enchanting package. She was instructed to play another song – and it was equally powerful, casting an obvious spell on the large crowd seated around the stage. Then she was told by the veterans sharing the stage that she should go ahead and finish out the session with her tunes.
Those next songs suggest not only that Springsteen’s talent is for real but that her depth clearly outdistances her youth. The Norfolk, Va., native closed with an original ballad, “What I Wouldn’t Give,” featuring her textured fretwork and a strong message of thanks to the military. She earned a standing ovation, something I can’t recall ever seeing happen in these intimate afternoon sessions.
Friday brought more action, including an afternoon visit from guitar virtuoso Gary Hoey and former Runaways riff-crafter Lita Ford, who performed at the Monster Cables booth for a crowd that stretched out far in every direction. Although her vocals were mostly buried, the duo’s guitar work pleased fans as they played two tracks off Ford’s Hoey-produced album Living Like a Runaway.
Hoey noted that when he learned Ford was looking for a producer, he suggested they record the album at his studio in New Hampshire. “We had an instant working chemistry,” he recalled. “Lita Ford is a pioneer as far as women in rock go; she’s just a dynamo. She stays true to who she is. (The new album) is still building some momentum and a lot of great reviews.”
Hoey also praised NAMM’s diverse atmosphere, which draws musicians and music manufacturers from every part of the globe to Anaheim. “I love it because it’s like a secret club for musicians and bands to get together and talk about music.”
The rest of Friday played out with additional strong turns from Jeff Campbell (whose sound evokes Toad the Wet Sprocket), North Carolina’s Kruger Brothers and Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor. The latter’s NAMM sets are the stuff of legend; his performance inside the Anaheim Marriott was likely one of the most robust of the weekend. His version of the murderous “Hey Joe” and his own “Rain So Hard” had fans transfixed by a hypnotic blues-rock laced with Native American and African rhythms, Anne Harris’ ferocious fiddle and heavy grooves. There is a power in Taylor's performances that bridges the power of strong blues, Hendrix rock and even alternative that is intoxicating in ways that are magic and the eclectic crowd gathered in front of the stage reflected the power of his set.
And at least one day at NAMM, it’s smart to merely walk the floor and stumble upon musicians checking out the latest gear. On Saturday, I was blown away first by Andy Rau playing some of his original compositions on a Deering banjo, and later by Latin Grammy winner Gabby Moreno’s brief but exciting appearance on the main stage, blurring the lines between Spanish and blues-rock material.

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