Let’s do the Oscar wrap-up first.
I predicted most of the top awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and both Best Screenplay awards. I was, of course, most surprised and elated that Cameron Crowe came away with the Best Original Screenplay award. It’s about time one of the best writer-directors working today gets recognized, at least for half of his talents.
I was also surprised that Soderbergh won Best Director for Traffic, and that led me to a few moments’ faint hope that Gladiator wouldn’t claim Best Picture. Both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic were far superior films, I thought, and Traffic should have walked away with the top prize.
Steve Martin’s best line: “If Tom Hanks wins tonight, that means between the two of us, we’ll have a combined three Oscars!”
Of course, these awards don’t mean anything, but as it’s the last major awards show of the year, and I get off on awards shows for some reason, I had to touch on it. I’m done now. Really.
There have been a few really cool CD releases over the past few weeks, like Sepultura’s Nation and Shawn Colvin’s Whole New You. I’m not going to discuss them yet. I also finally got my hands on Amy Ray’s solo album, Stag, and it’s terrific, in its small and surprising way. I’m not going to talk about that, either. Instead, I’m going to use this platform I have to hopefully shine the light of exposure on a disc (two, actually) that hasn’t been more than two feet away from my CD player since I got it two weeks ago. It’s not exactly new, but it may as well be, and it’s probably unavailable in your local record store. Hence, I hope, with the following words, to inspire you all to hunt it down and check it out.
It’s called It’s For You, and it’s a live album by Michael Roe.
In order for me to tell you about Michael Roe, I’m going to have to tell you about his band, the Seventy Sevens. These guys rock. They have nine albums, counting the new collection, Late, and their tenth, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, should be released sometime in May. The Seventy Sevens have languished on small labels for their entire terrific career, a career that spans almost 20 years. They were once thought of as the Next Big Thing, and signed to Island in 1987. Their self-titled third album, known to fans as the Island album, came out mere weeks before U2’s The Joshua Tree, and since U2 was also on Island, you can guess what happened.
The Island album was just the beginning of the band’s artistic ascent, though. In 1992 they put out a mostly acoustic stunner called Pray Naked (a title the label forced them to remove), and they really haven’t looked back since. The follow-ups, Drowning With Land in Sight and Tom Tom Blues, were equally magnificent. Drowning was heavy and dark, and Blues had the feel of one of the greatest bands on Earth just jamming for a weekend.
Not that the Seventy Sevens are one of the greatest bands on Earth. They’re just one of the most consistent, and the driving force behind their sometimes progressive, sometimes acoustic, sometimes bluesy rock is lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Michael Roe. First off, the man can sing. He’s got a great range, and he invests everything with a genuine feeling that can’t be faked. (Bruce Springsteen, for example, tries to fake it.) Second, the man can play guitar. Acoustic, electric, whatever, the man can play, and in a variety of styles. On Pray Naked, for example, he slips from the Led Zeppelin-esque power of “Woody” to the acoustic pop of “Phony Eyes,” and it sounds like you’ve just changed channels on your radio dial. Third, the man can write a song. If you’re a Seventy Sevens fan, you’ve probably tried to stop humming “Happy Roy” or “The Jig is Up” or any number of other great pop songs Roe’s penned. Roe has also had two great solo albums, Safe as Milk and the cheekily titled The Boat Ashore. (Say his name, then the album title.)
In 1998, while on one of his many solo breaks from the Seventy Sevens (and his other band, the great Lost Dogs, but that’s a whole other column), Roe, broke and desperate, came up with a novel idea. He’d contact his small yet loyal network of fans and do an acoustic tour. He’d play wherever people wanted him to, as long as they could pay his miniscule fee and put him and the band up for the night. Plus, he’d let the fans pick the songs on the night of the show. He booked enough of these things to call it a tour, called Seventy Sevens guitarist David Leonhardt, bassist Mark Harmon and drummer Brian Meyers, and hit the road.
The result is captured on It’s For You, named after a song on Safe as Milk. If you’ve never tried Michael Roe’s music before, this 140-minute set is a near-perfect introduction. The songs really shine in these acoustic renditions, and there’s a lot of them (29 in all), from every phase of the man’s career. Plus, the laid-back atmosphere of the disc makes this one of the most enjoyable of Roe’s projects. He finishes the second song, “MT,” and then announces, “That’s the prepared portion of our program,” and he’s not kidding. Just about every song on disc one is preceded by an audible request from the audience.
The first disc is the more spontaneous of the two, filled with covers and off-the-cuff renditions of favorites. Roe’s version of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” shies away from the Led Zeppelin rewrite and instead recalls the original Blind Willie Johnson blues version. A fan asks for “King of the Road,” for some reason, and a game Roe spins the first verse, commenting, “No request will go unconsidered.” He does a heartrending take on “The Jig is Up,” one of his best love songs, and two songs later he’s mocking himself mercilessly, fumbling through an acoustic re-arrangement of the Ozzy-esque “Snake.” (Trust me, even if you’ve never heard the original, this new take is a gas.)
Disc two is the superior one, though, centering more on performance and musicianship. The thing with acoustic shows is that there’s nowhere to hide if you suck. That’s why the best performers shine acoustically. Roe definitely doesn’t need to hide, and this second disc proves it indisputably with a stretch of seven pure acoustic readings of some of his best works.
First, though, you’re treated to a trio of awe-inspiring electric blues pieces – “Perfect Blues,” “Nuts for You” and “John Lee’s Blues.” Roe’s extended solo on “Nuts” is breathtaking, and it helps that it’s a great song as well. It has nothing, however, on the sweet seven tunes that close out It’s For You. Most notably, Roe’s voice takes on new dimension in “I Need God,” a soaring gospel number. “Do It For Love” is soulful and invigorating, and the closer, “Ache Beautiful,” is simply lovely.
As I said earlier, this hasn’t left the vicinity of my CD player in two weeks. To get similarly afflicted, you should log onto www.77s.com. There’s info there on each Seventy Sevens release, including the new one, and links to purchase each album directly from the band. It’s For You is highly recommended, of course, as is Pray Naked, Tom Tom Blues, Safe as Milk… hell, anything Roe’s done. I sing this song a lot, but it’s a shame he isn’t more well-known.
One last thing I want to mention. Roland Orzabal, he of Tears for Fears fame, has a solo album called Tomcats Screaming Outside. You can’t get it in American record stores, and you most likely will never be able to. There is hope, though. If you log onto www.rolandorzabal.co.uk, you can order it. Shipping overseas takes a while, but probably less time than waiting for Orzabal’s U.S. record deal to materialize.
Next time… well, if you still have last week’s column, you can cut and paste the last paragraph to the end of this week’s missive and it’ll still be true.
See you in line Tuesday morning.