Three Sides Live
Concert Records From Marillion, Cockburn and the Hooters

So the biggest news of the month is that I now have a Facebook page.

I resisted the Cult of Facebook for years, but finally succumbed about a week and a half ago. In that short time, I’ve reconnected with a few people I’d lost track of, and somehow accumulated more than 60 friends. That’s a nice stroke to the ego. 60 people want to be my friend! Thanks, everybody.

Okay, fine, that’s not the biggest news of the month. My vote would go to this. That’s right, the finest catalog in popular music is finally getting the digital upgrade treatment. It’s about damn time, too – the Beatles CDs have been mired in a hissy analog wasteland for too long. It was novel at first, listening to a CD that sounded like a tape from the ‘60s, but after hearing the Love compilation a few years ago, I’ve been salivating for this.

I can’t wait to hear the stereo panning in “I Am the Walrus” in pristine digital clarity. I’m excited to hear the orchestral swells in “A Day in the Life” as if I were in the same room with them. Hell, I’m even jazzed to hear the guitars on “A Hard Day’s Night” ringing in louder and stronger than ever before.

All 13 studio albums, plus the two-disc Past Masters collection, will be available separately, and in what I’m sure will be a beautiful all-in-one box. Additionally, 12 of those discs will be available mixed in mono, in their own box set, in vinyl-replica sleeves. Each album will come with a mini-documentary on its creation, which will be included on DVD in the box set. Needless to say, I’m saving up my pennies now. I’m definitely picking up the stereo box set, and I may spring for the mono one, too.

Hopefully I’ll be able to afford it. Thanks for all the well-wishes over the last week. It’s not emergency time for me yet, but I’ll let you know when you really need to start praying. If you know anyone who needs a good writer, though…

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Finances and timing conspired to make me miss Marillion’s first ever North American convention. It happened in Montreal last weekend, and apparently it was amazing, in a few different ways. As they usually do at these conventions, the band played three shows – one in which they revisit an album front to back, and two themed shows with surprise setlists.

The album this time was Seasons End, which turns 20 this year. The second night was entitled “Tracks of Our Years,” and found the band playing one song from nearly every year of their existence, starting with the new stuff and heading back as far as 1987. But it was the third night that caused all the buzz – it was called “The Epic Evening,” and it contained most of the group’s 10-plus-minute songs.

Evidently, what was intended to be the emotional high point, the incredible 15-minute “This Strange Engine,” was plagued with technical difficulties and missed sections, and singer Steve Hogarth, frustrated, threw himself on the mercy of the crowd, literally. He dove into their waiting arms and crowd-surfed while the band played on, then returned to the stage for the final crescendo (“This love…”). Far from being a disaster, the fans that night describe this performance of “Engine” as the truest connection they’ve ever had with this band, a room full of reciprocal, unconditional love. I can’t wait for the DVD to see if that comes across.

I missed the show, but I can soothe my pain with two new releases from the Marillion camp. The first is a two-CD live album called Happiness is Cologne, recorded in Cologne, Germany. Marillion live albums are always of sterling quality, but this one is simply superb. I hesitate to refer people to live albums to get a taste of a band, but in this case, you can’t go wrong.

For one thing, there’s a healthy concentration on last year’s Happiness is the Road, one of the finest albums they’ve made. They play more than half of the first volume, Essence, including the great “This Train is My Life,” and three songs from the slightly inferior second volume, The Hard Shoulder. They do plunk their way through the one song that still doesn’t work for me, “The Man From the Planet Marzipan,” but they make up for that with an extraordinary run through “Asylum Satellite #1,” the album’s true epic.

And it’s simply impossible to quibble with the selection for the rest of the record. Highlights include the always haunting “Out of This World,” the intense 13-minute “The Invisible Man,” and perhaps my favorite Marillon song, “Afraid of Sunlight.” For years now, the band has closed concerts with the cathartic and spiritual “Neverland,” and that’s here, but this show ends with “Happiness is the Road,” a song that builds and builds on record to a too-abrupt fadeout. On stage, it morphs into a singalong, and Happiness is Cologne goes out on the sound of thousands carrying the chorus by themselves. For a band that’s more about their fans than anything else, it’s the perfect closing.

The concentration on later material means Happiness is something of a slow, ambient experience – Marillion’s been headed in a more ethereal direction for some time, and I count only four songs on this live record I would consider “rock.” Some have suggested that guitarist Steve Rothery has been muted, and if given his way, the Marillion sound would be less calm and pretty. One listen to the other new record from the Marillion camp, the second album from Rothery’s The Wishing Tree, should dispel that idea. It’s even calmer and prettier than much of Happiness.

The Wishing Tree is Rothery and singer Hannah Stobart. Their first album, Carnival of Souls, came out in 1996, and I don’t think anyone expected a second. But now, 13 years later, here is Ostara, and not much has changed. The new album has more electric guitars than the first, and the sound is a little fuller. But overall, The Wishing Tree remains the same – slow, pretty songs that showcase Stobart’s strong, clear voice.

I hear bits of Kate Bush, and parts of Iona, and even some Loreena McKennitt, but I’m not entirely certain just who The Wishing Tree reminds me of this time. “Hollow Hills” stands out as a favorite, its ethereal folk bed augmented with subtle keyboards and mandolin. But then “Seventh Sign” brings a bit of the blues to the proceedings, and some soaring lead work by Rothery. Some of the later songs are more traditional ballads, like “Fly,” but the album closes on a strong note with the achingly pretty “Soldier,” which sounds like it’s four centuries old.

One thing I’ve always admired about Rothery is his willingness to serve his songs. Most guitarists, given a solo or side project, will use it to show off how well they can play, which usually translates into wanky solos and self-indulgent shredding. Rothery is at least as good as anyone you could name, but he has nothing to prove – he concentrates on making these songs as lovely as they can be, and rarely takes a solo. When he does, he shows once again that he’s an expert at getting the most out of only a few notes. Rothery is one of the most emotional guitarists I’ve ever heard, and he plays just enough to move you to tears, and not one note more.

These two releases will certainly tide me over until the next Marillion album, rumored to be an acoustic excursion and scheduled for later this year. You’ll find both, as well as a veritable cornucopia of amazing, life-changing music, at their website.

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It’s only April, and already I have two favorite records that are ineligible for the top 10 list. The first, as I mentioned two weeks ago, is Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s fantastic Catnip Dynamite – it came out in Japan last year, and I didn’t want to pay the import prices, so I missed out. The second is less problematic for me, but more annoying, since I like it so damn much. It’s called Slice O Life, and it’s a solo acoustic live album from Bruce Cockburn.

I saw Cockburn live once, in a little church in Portland, Maine, about 14 years ago. I was just starting to explore his extensive catalog, and what I saw that night only encouraged me more. For 40 years, Cockburn (pronounced “Coburn”) has been writing extraordinary, literate folk-rock songs about the world and how to live in it. This is his 26th release, and while it serves as a fine summary of where he’s been, it also amply shows his skills as both a guitarist and an interpreter.

Let’s start with that first one. Cockburn is an incredible guitar player, full stop. You will swear at points on this record that you hear two guitars intertwining, but it’s all Cockburn, his fingers moving at blistering speed. He’s 63 now, and you can hear that in his voice every once in a while, but his guitar playing is as dazzling as ever here. I’ve listened to him slip into the syncopated, finger-picked rhythm of “World of Wonders” three times now, and I’m still not sure how he got his hands to do that.

Cockburn has selected a wide-ranging collection of songs here, although he includes nothing from his folksier early days – the earliest song here is “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” from 1979. On the other hand, he only includes one track, “See You Tomorrow,” from his latest, Life Short Call Now. The rest is a mix of later songs and audience favorites. You get the marvelous “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and “How I Spent My Fall Vacation,” and you also get later tunes like the edge-of-your-seat “Wait No More” and “Put It In Your Heart.” All of them have been stripped down, and yet filled up by his acoustic playing.

I hate to be cliched about this, but the highlight for me is his controversial hit, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” This song is such an anguished cry of pain, written after Cockburn spent time in Guatemala and watched families ripped apart by war and oppression. It’s all rage, this song, ending with the line “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die,” and no matter how many times I hear it, that bit gets to me. On this record, Cockburn plays an amazing solo between verses three and four, his guitar carrying the unbridled anger of the lyric. It’s a striking performance of a still-stunning song.

I don’t think this is the best album to start with if you’re new to Cockburn. But for longtime fans like me, Slice O Life is simply wonderful. Cockburn has spent a long career in the shadows, writing politically and spiritually aware music that inspires passionate loyalty from the few that get to hear it. There’s every chance that this will end up as one of my 10 favorite records of 2009, and I won’t be able to include it on the list. But that doesn’t make it any less fantastic. Seek it out.

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And now, completing the live album trifecta, here’s another installment of Stuff I Missed.

I love the Hooters. Always have. They’re another one of those bands with strong associations to my childhood. I remember first hearing “All You Zombies,” and “And We Danced,” and “Johnny B” on MTV. I wore out my cassette copy of One Way Home, particularly the first side. When Zig Zag came out, I picked it up on day one, and couldn’t stop listening. (Apparently I was the only one – it was the band’s Disappointing Follow-Up, more experimental than fans were expecting.) My friend Mike and I even used “Deliver Me” in one of our school video projects, about the Erie Canal. The opening guitar lick still makes me smile.

So I’m not sure how I missed the release of Both Sides Live, the Hooters’ two-disc concert document from last year. I did hear their solid reunion record, Time Stand Still, from 2007, and gave it a good write-up in this column. That album has not lost an ounce of its luster. It’s what a reunion album should be – in love with life and music, reveling in the sounds of old while exploring new territory.

Both Sides Live is like a victory lap. Released on their own label, the two discs document two different types of Hooters show. The first, dubbed The Electric Factory, captures a November 2007 gig at the titular club in Philadelphia. It’s a big rock show, kicking off with the first two tracks from the new album, then slamming into old favorites “South Ferry Road” and “All You Zombies.” That last one must be one of the strangest chart hits in history, telling the stories of Noah and Moses over a foreboding minor key crawl. It’s superb here.

Listening to this, I’m struck by how well the new material stands up. I’m conditioned to love even the opening notes of songs like “Satellite,” but the raging “Where the Wind May Blow” is perhaps the most convincing rocker here, and “Free Again” makes for a sweet extended closer. Still, my favorite Hooters song remains “Karla With a K,” the perfect example of what they do – it’s a jig, basically, all accordions and acoustic guitars until the electrics kick in, and it becomes a perfect synthesis of traditional folk and modern rock.

The second disc is the gem, however. Called The Secret Sessions, it finds the Hooters stripping down to their acoustic basics and recording before a small audience at their studio in Philly. The track selection is almost the same as the electric record, but the sound is remarkably different. Dig “Satellite,” here a bluesy stomp shorn of its trademark synth lines. Check out “Johnny B,” a much lighter take that almost dances atop its finger-picked foundation.

Both the electric and acoustic albums include the Hooters’ take on Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” and you may feel a twinge of hesitation at that. It’s only natural. But trust me when I say the Hooters have made this song their own, particularly on the acoustic disc. They find the sadness Henley missed. Both albums also include “Karla With a K,” and I love the acoustic take on it. The Secret Sessions concludes with “And We Danced,” and stripped of its ‘80s keyboards, it stands as a Springsteen-esque rocker, practically timeless.

But don’t take my word for it. As I said, I love this band. Always have. Your mileage may vary – log onto their site and find out for yourself. As for me, I may have missed Both Sides Live in 2008, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it in 2009.

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Next week, Bat for Lashes, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Swift. At least one of these will probably be in the top 10 list. Join me in seven days to find out which one I mean.

See you in line Tuesday morning.