Sunday, March 19, 2023

New Music: U2, Günter Werno

Ambitious new releases from Irish legends U2 and German composer/keyboardist Günter Werno are definitely worth adding to your music library.

Title: Songs Of Surrender [4 CD Super Deluxe Collector's Box Set] (Interscope)
You might like if you enjoy: U2, Simple Minds, The Alarm
Tell me more: Since its formation in the late 1970s, Irish quartet U2 has created a legacy built on an incredible body of memorable songs, enthralling concerts and an otherworldly ability to remain relevant for 45 years. The band's latest release (Songs Of Surrender [4 CD Super Deluxe Collector's Box Set]) continues to challenge and reward discerning listeners via 40 new acoustic and reimagined recordings of songs from the band's expansive catalog — all produced and compiled by guitarist/keyboardist The Edge. Fans searching for Bono's soaring vocals or The Edge's shimmering atmospheric guitar lines won't find much of that on Songs Of Surrender, nor will they hear the propulsive rhythm work of drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton. Rather, they will hear largely introspective acoustic readings reflecting more mature and contemporary takes on classics reflecting, as The Edge notes in the liner notes, "a 21st century reimagining." Take "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," delivered by Bono in a rootsy countrified soundscape that feels totally at home with his signature voice. Whereas there was a palpable anger when U2 recorded "Sunday Bloody Sunday" for 1983's War, there is a more painful take on the new recording with the continued tragic violence of the modern world reflected in the moving performance.  As a long-time follower of U2 — I first caught the band live at the US Festival on May 30, 1983 and have seen them dozens of times over the years in concert  I appreciate how the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have never been satisfied to be a one-trick pony.  Among my favorite versions on the four-disc set is the sweeping "Every Breaking Wave," yearning piano-anchored "Electrical Storm," sweeping "Invisible," unsettling "Until The End of the World" and tender "Stay (Faraway, So Close)." Packaged in an eight-panel embossed digi-sleeve with 2 x 12-page booklets on stunning mat art paper, this limited and numbered boxset includes new lyrics by Bono, exclusive photos by Anton Corbijn and liner notes from The Edge. Information:

Günter Werno
Title: Anima One (Frontiers Music Srl)
You might like if you enjoy: Vanden Plas, Hans Zimmer, Jon Lord, Danny Elfman
Tell me more: Best known as the keyboardist of German progressive rock troupe Vanden PlasGünter Werno has fused Neo-classical and prog rock together across Anima One. The expansive symphonic masterwork was created after Vanden Plas performed composer-keyboardist Jon Lord's "Concerto for Group and Orchestra" at Fruchthalle Kaiserslautern in Germany on Jan. 11, 2019. As noted by Werno in the press notes for the new live recording released on March 10, 2023: "Christoph Dammann, the culture officer for the venue, came to me and asked if we could do something like this again, but instead of covering someone else's work, he asked if I would write an original composition. This was a challenge for me as I had written orchestrations to rock, pop, and musical songs before, but never for an orchestra in the classic form of three movements. But, before I had even left the building after our conversation, I already had the first tune in my head, which ultimately became the intro of the first movement. I freely played around with tunes and themes and finally found the suitable way forward for me from there." Fans of sophisticated rock as well as 20th century orchestral and film score music will likely be swept up in the impressive Anima One. The first movement titled "Animabilis" conjures up a range of emotions, with Werno's keyboards and the orchestra gently building artfully for more than three minutes before the piece becomes significantly more dramatic. The second movement ("Animosus") is generally more reflective, with various orchestral, choral and electric instrument voices positioned in front of the listener, only to be replaced or layered as other forces emerge leading up to the soaring finale of that section. The third movement ("Animato") is both dramatic and beautiful, showcasing the full power of keyboardist Werno, guitarist Stephen Lill, singers Andy Kuntz and Astrid Vossberg, and the Pfalzphilharmonie Kaiserslautern orchestra. Anima One is available as a CD + DVD release, with the DVD showcasing the May 13, 2022 concert performance captured for the title. Information:

Robert Kinsler

Friday, March 17, 2023

Review: 'Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman'

Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming
 with Dave Letterman / Photo credit: Disney

You don't have to be a fan of U2 to love the new documentary "Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman," but it certainly doesn't hurt.

The new TV special (available on Disney+) is a wonderful Morgan Neville-directed film that somehow blends history, humor, love, friendship and palpable charm along with truly glorious music into a fast-moving special that obviously promotes U2's newly-released Songs of Surrender — which features 40 mostly-reworked songs from the group — while ultimately reminding the world why the Irish quartet is one of rock's great and enduring voices.

"We wanted to strip away the artifice that inevitably emerges after you’ve been around this long," Bono says early in the documentary.

Although drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton do not appear in the documentary — Mullen was recovering from surgery while Clayton was busy making an "art film" according to Bono — the special does provide entertaining insight into the band's singular career stretching back to their roots as students at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin where they met in the late 1970s. In addition to Letterman's colorful travels about Dublin and his insightful discussions with Bono and The Edge, there are also interviews with Irish artists including Glen Hansard, producer/U2 collaborator Jimmy Iovine and others to add additional perspective on U2.

Photo credit: Disney

Some of the highlights of the film include several performances at the Ambassador Theatre in Dublin, including kicking off with a reworked musical reading of "Vertigo." Toward the end of the special, Bono and The Edge gather with musical friends — including Imelda May, Dermot Kennedy and the aforementioned Hansard — in a pub to perform a casual singalong that will connect with anyone who has ever been to Ireland or an Irish pub on this side of the Atlantic.

The film ends with a new track, "Forty Foot Man," a wonderful song inspired by Letterman's visit to a notable south Dublin swimming location where the 75-year-old talk show host donned a wetsuit and dove into the freezing waters of the Atlantic.

"Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming with Dave Letterman" doesn't begin to tell U2's full story, but watching the documentary is certainly time well spent. 

Robert Kinsler

Sunday, March 12, 2023

The Smithereens and Robin Wilson impress with power, songcraft at The Coach House

The Smithereens with guest vocalist Robin Wilson; The Matter

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, CA

When: Saturday, March 11, 2023

Next: The Smithereens will perform with Marshall Crenshaw at Ardmore Music Hall in Ardmore, PA on March 16


Review and photography by Robert Kinsler

Guitar great Jim Babjak, left, with singer Robin Wilson at
The Coach House on March 11, 2023.

Established in 1980, The Coach House has hosted countless performances by The Smithereens since the mid-1980s. The New Jersey rock troupe 
— a band launched the same year that the enduring San Juan Capistrano venue opened its doors — has miraculously continued to attract sold-out and enthusiastic crowds with rousing performances despite the death of original lead singer-rhythm guitarist Pat DiNizio at the age of 62 on Dec. 12, 2017. The band's magical run was bolstered in 2022 by the release of a glorious full-length collection (The Lost Album) originally recorded in 1993 while the band was between record label contracts.

Before their performance on March 11, The Smithereens had performed there with guest vocalist Marshall Crenshaw in February 2019 (read my review of that concert HERE) and again in August 2021 (read my review of that event HERE). However, the more recent date marked the first time that the outfit had performed at the Coach House with guest vocalist Robin Wilson (lead singer of the Gin Blossoms).

Guest vocalist Robin Wilson and The Smithereens performing early in their set
at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, CA.

Lead guitarist Jim Babjak, drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion (the latter filling in for founding bassist Mike Mesaros who was unable to perform this night) were on fire, obviously enjoying the moment and joined Wilson at various moment during the 110-minute concert recalling experiences performing at The Coach House.

Guitarist Jim Babjak

Drummer Dennis Diken

Opening with the hard-hitting "Behind the Wall of Sleep," a strong cut from their 1986 album Especially for You, Wilson's signature vocal style immediately impressed as a perfect fit with the sound of The Smithereens. Wilson encouraged the crowd to raise their hands and get everyone into upping the energy during the opening moments of the set.

Robin Wilson in action at The Coach House.

Wilson pulled out his tambourine to enhance the sound on "Top of the Pops" from 1991's Blow Up — the track's finale was an explosion of celebratory rock with Babjak unleashing an extended guitar solo; the famed producer of that album, Ed Stasium, happened to be in the audience as well making the performance even more special. 

The 110-minute performance succeeded on every level with the quartet delivering inspired performances of the Smithereens' best-known songs as well as equally marvelous deep cut album favorites along with a few select covers.

For aficionados of the Smithereens' expansive discography there were standouts across the night. The affecting mid-tempo "Sorry" (from the band's 2011), "Strangers When We Meet" (featuring some of Wilson's most nuanced singing of the night), the psychedelic '60s-minded "Groovy Tuesday" and wistful "Green Thoughts" (the latter introduced with a tribute to the late DiNizio) were early highlights.

After a wonderful performance of their 1988 classic "Only a Memory," Babjak playfully noted "I feel like it's 1986 again."

Drummer Dennis Diken behind the kit.

For casual fans, the majority of the band's hits and FM rock radio standards were performed with power via mostly faithful arrangements, albeit with extended solos showcasing the might of Babjak and Diken ("Dennis and I have been playing together since we were I'm on Medicare," Babjak mused). 

Wilson explained that before his success as frontman of the Gin Blossoms, he worked at several record stores in Mesa, Arizona. He noted that while working at Rockaway Records, "I used to play this song on repeat over and over again." That song, "Cut Flowers," was beautifully sung and it was among the night's shining moments.

The Smithereens' hard rock instincts were highlighted via a strong late-set string of favorites stretching across "Blues Before and After," "Miles From Nowhere" (with Diken playing Keith Moon-like dynamics during the song's guitar solo) and "House We used to Live In" (the latter which included a musical interlude with the band playing a selection from The Who's Tommy).

Bassist Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion.

Robin Wilson, left, with drummer Dennis Diken and bassist Severo 'The Thrilla'
Jornacion performing "Blood and Roses" at The Coach House.

With the house lights all red, 
Jornacion launched into the well known bass line that anchors "Blood and Roses." The six-minute rocker allowed the band's players to continue to showcase how powerfully the mix of musical muscle, terrific singing and masterful songcraft work in a live setting.

Drummer Dennis Diken, left, and singer Robin Wilson.

The encore included a soulful take on the Sam Cooke classic "Chain Gang," Badfinger's 1970 hit "No Matter What" and fiery version of their own 1989 favorite "A Girl Like You."

The Matter performing on March 11, 2023.

Opening the bill was Orange County, CA-based quartet The Matter. The band's melodic rock was a good fit with the headliners, and several songs stood out 
— notably "Someone Grab the Reins." A faithful cover of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" was also well performed. 

From left, Jim Babjak, Robin Wilson and Severo 'The Thrilla' Jornacion.

The Smithereens setlist on March 11, 2023

Behind the Wall of Sleep / Top of the Pops / Sorry / Strangers When We Meet / Groovy Tuesday / Green Thoughts / Only a Memory / Now and Then / Don't Look Down / Cigarette / Cut Flowers / I Don't Want to Lose You / Yesterday's Girl / If the Sun Doesn't Shine / Blues Before and After / Miles From Nowhere / House We Used to Live In / Blood and Roses 


Chain Gang (Sam Cooke cover) / No Matter What (Badfinger cover) / A Girl Like You

Friday, March 10, 2023

New Music: Ed Ryan, Chris Church, Stephen Lawrenson

Power pop is front and center thanks to a terrific trio of new releases from Ed Ryan, Chris Church and Stephen Lawrenson.

Ed Ryan
Title: A Big Life (Kool Kat Musik)
You might like if you enjoy: Matthew Sweet, Fountains of Wayne, Shoes, The Rudies
Tell me more: While it's not uncommon for modern-day artists to enlist dozens of co-writers and multiple producers to complete a single album, leave it to talented singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ed Ryan to write, sing, play and produce his outstanding album A Big Life all by himself. Fans of power pop and melodic rock will love the dozen-track album (his fifth release on the Kool Kat label). The euphoric opener "Settle Down" features a driving rhythm, stellar vocal harmonies and shining guitars. The buoyant "As I Am" also benefits from Ryan's great talents playing all the instruments, with the track bolstered by flashy multi-layered guitar lead solos that further define the original. "Lighthouse" is another nugget, somehow blending shimmering power pop and raucous garage rock during its irresistible run. While the tuneful rockers such as "Testify" and "Trial By Fire" are an obvious attraction here, Ryan also displays his knack for more acoustic stylings via the lovely "Wonder" (which features an especially marvelous electric guitar solo) and the Baroque ballad "The Dreaming Moon." A Big Life is set for release on March 17, and is available now for pre-order. Information:

Chris Church
Title: Radio Transient (Big Stir Records)
You might like if you enjoy: Chris Church, The Fixx, Wire Train, Tears For Fears
Tell me more: Radio Transient is a dazzling 10-track album, enhanced by Chris Church's superlative musical gifts, literate-minded songcraft and an '80s-minded retro spirit that is a perfect union with his towering melodic instincts. The hyper romp "GCRT" opens the album with an explosive sound that blends '80s alt rock and New Wave perfectly. The album's lead single "Going 'Til We Go" has a similarly-powered propulsion, but a more wistful melodic spark showcasing the Lenoir, North Carolina-based artist's great vocals; the song is adorned with shimmering rhythm and lead guitar textures. His songs each have a distinctive stamp to be sure. The spirited "I Don't Wanna Dance With Me," affecting "One More Chance To Get Over You" (the latter featuring some fine fret work from guest guitarist Bill Lloyd), dashing "Over and Out," Paisley Underground-flavored "Gotta Go, Gotta Ramble" and infectious "Far Too Late" are among the truly great originals on the disc. Radio Transient is set for release via audio CD and streaming services on March 24. Information:

Stephen Lawrenson
Title: Chants Of A Lifetime (Kool Kat Musik)
You might like if you enjoy: Big Star, Teenage Fanclub
Tell me more: Stephen Lawrenson's new album Chants Of A Lifetime really conjures up an era when top-tier songcraft, melody, experimentalism and distinctive vocals mattered. In fact, this great 10-song album (available now) draws natural comparisons with masterworks from Big Star, Todd Rundgren and Teenage Fanclub. Chants Of A Lifetime marks Lawrenson's first album since 2013's Obscuriosity; the new album was written and recorded between 2016 and 2022  a challenging time for the artist that included dealing with periodic bouts of writer's block, the death of his father, and the global pandemic. The inviting opener "Really Good" (featuring guest lead guitarist Rybo Lewan of Twin Strike fame) works with its creative mix of crunchy guitars, lovely vocals and rich keyboards. The yearning "In Circles" surprises with all types of glorious sonic layers and a potent lead vocal. "Blue Room" (with guest Beard of BeesRob Perez delivering stunning lead guitar work) is a dynamic and bewitching rocker; the beautiful acoustic folk rock gem "My Muse" recalls the magical approach heard on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu. The parade of wonderful songs also includes the wistful "King of Sympathy," evocative rocker "Here & Now," enchanting "Streets" and sweeping "Last Song (Save Me)." Information:

Robert Kinsler