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Archive for September 8th, 2011

Review: “Godspell: 40th Anniversary Celebration”

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When Hair ushered in the Age of Aquarius on April 29, 1968, it heralded the arrival of the rock revolution on Broadway.  The New York Times’ influential critic Clive Barnes didn’t mince his words, declaring that the musical was a “long-term joust against Broadway’s world of Sigmund Romberg [the composer of such operettas as The Student Prince]” and more importantly, “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.”  And while the songs of the stage once populated the Billboard charts, the tide had turned with the advent of Bob Dylan and The Beatles. 

But if Hair was considered by many to be an assault on classic musical theatre sensibilities, it actually took Broadway and the pop charts full circle.  The 5th Dimension’s medley of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” in 1969 topped the charts for six weeks, winning a Grammy for Record of the Year. The Cowsills’ take on the title song “Hair” climbed to No. 2. Producer Bob Crewe’s single-named protégé Oliver wasn’t far behind with his rendition of “Good Morning Starshine” which reached No. 3. “Easy to Be Hard” went to No. 4 for Three Dog Night, and across the pond, Nina Simone’s 1968 medley of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” reached the Top 5.  Just a few months later, on December 1, Promises, Promises opened, swinging the pop/rock pendulum to pop, but still undisputedly “current.”  This was the heady atmosphere in which Godspell was born.

Now, as the musical marks its 40th year and New York anticipates a revival to start performances in October, Masterworks Broadway has just released Godspell: 40th Anniversary Celebration.  This 2-CD set joins together Bell Records’ Original Cast Recording (1971) and Original Soundtrack to the film adaptation (1973) in one attractive and reasonably-priced package.  It’s a great pleasure to hear these recordings back to back, vividly remastered by Maria Triana, as the albums are “so close, yet so far” to each other.

Godspell came along at precisely the right time.  Like many of his generation, author/director John-Michael Tebelak, an Episcopalian, was soul-searching.  He hit upon the idea of presenting the teachings of Jesus Christ in a completely new way, energized by the image of Jesus as a clown, a bringer of joy.  Tebelak was inspired by the work of The Living Theatre, Jerzy Grotowski (a Polish director who sought to remove the barrier between actor and audience) and Peter Brook (director of Marat/Sade, in which the cast portrays mental patients performing a play, with minimal setting), but he wound up conceiving a play that was as universal as it was avant-garde.  Godspell utilized a cast of actors, answering to their own names, performing Biblical parables, with only the actors portraying Jesus and Judas set apart (though Judas doubled as John the Baptist).  It was set during the last week of Jesus’ life, and Act Two offers the most straightforward sequences in the musical, depicting events such as the Last Supper and the crucifixion. 

During a March 1971 presentation at the Café La Mama in New York City, Stephen Schwartz, a young Jewish composer with both A&R and production credits at RCA Records, was brought on board to create a more fully developed musical score for the show’s next incarnation.  Prior to Schwartz’s arrival, Biblical lyrics were performed to melodies devised by the cast and band.  Schwartz had known Tebelak from their days at Carnegie-Mellon University, and took the challenge of crafting a full score in advance of the show’s May 17, 1971 opening off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  He retained many of the Biblical lyrics, writing two songs’ words from scratch, “All for the Best” and “Learn Your Lessons Well.”  (Note the “Music and New Lyrics by” credit on Disc 1, simplified for the film and Disc 2 as the standard “Music and lyrics by.”)  The Godspell we know today was then born.  Hit the jump for more! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

September 8, 2011 at 15:19

He’s Got Rhythm: Bill Wyman’s Post-Rolling Stones Career Gets Boxed

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When Bill Wyman took the stage on August 25, 1990 at London’s Wembley Stadium alongside his fellow Rolling Stones, few in the audience could have predicted that the evening would turn out to be Wyman’s final stand with the group he joined in 1962.  That final night found Wyman truly going out on top; the Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour marked a return to touring for the group after a seven-year hiatus, and was among the most commercially successful concert tours ever.    Word on Wyman’s decision to leave the band wasn’t confirmed by frontman Mick Jagger for over two years.  When Jagger let the word out in December 1992, it was only after he and Charlie Watts had met with Wyman privately to determine whether he’d reconsider.  But Wyman’s departure from the biggest rock and roll band on Earth didn’t mean that the bassist, songwriter and vocalist intended to abandon music.  In addition to a sporadic solo career, Wyman founded Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings with musical partner Terry Taylor, and the blues/rock band released its first album, Struttin’ Our Stuff, in October 1997.  Now, that album and its first three studio follow-ups are getting the box set treatment from Proper American Records, the domestic offshoot of the U.K.’s Proper Records, on October 25.

The five-disc Collectors’ Edition Box Set brings together the four studio albums from Struttin’ Our Stuff through 2001’s Double Bill, one of which is a double-disc set.  (One more studio effort, Just for a Thrill, arrived in 2004, and falls out of the purview of the new collection.)  When Wyman departed the Stones, he made it clear that he would be playing music on his own terms and with company of his own choosing.  So the Rhythm Kings recordings play host to a great number of rock’s finest musicians.  Among the guests are Eric Clapton, Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, Paul Carrack, Chris Rea, Ray Cooper, and Nicky Hopkins.  Another former Stone, Mick Taylor, also got in on the act, and there’s even a special appearance from George Harrison on (what else?) slide guitar.

These special guests joined the core members of the Rhythm Kings: Wyman, frequent Roger Waters collaborator/drummer Graham Broad, singer/guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low (who had joined Wyman in a previous “side project,” Willie and the Poor Boys), guitarist Albert Lee, vocalist Beverley Skeete, horn players Frank Mead and Nick Payn, pianist Geraint Watkins and guitarist Terry Taylor, who collaborated on much of the albums’ original material with Wyman.  The final member of the Rhythm Kings is a bona fide British legend, Georgie Fame.  Organist Fame rose to prominence with the Blue Flames, inspired in equal parts by blues, jazz and ska.  He may be best remembered for his pop singles “Yeh Yeh” (1965) and 1967’s “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” but his recordings encompass a wide variety of styles and genres.  This musical flexibility made him a perfect match for the Rhythm Kings; in recent years, he also has played often with Van Morrison.

The press release for The Collectors’ Edition Box Set details Wyman’s decision to retire from The Rolling Stones and form The Rhythm Kings.  Hit the jump to continue with that story, as well as the track listing and discographical information! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

September 8, 2011 at 14:02

So Mystifyingly Glad: The Critters’ Project 3 Recordings Are Coming From Now Sounds

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As I type these words, I’m just a couple of miles away from the heart of Westfield, New Jersey, a bucolic suburb with a bustling and vibrant Main Street.  Over the years, Westfield has boasted a number of illustrious residents, among them Charles Addams, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson.  But it should be no surprise to find that Westfield is also the birthplace of a beloved pop group.  After all, New Jersey’s musical roots run deep, from Sinatra to Springsteen, the Four Seasons to Bon Jovi.  There’s no doubt that some residents today still harbor fond memories of The Critters. 

The band had its genesis when Don Ciccone auditioned for a successful local band called The Vibratones, then seeking a rhythm guitarist, in the nearby town of Plainfield.  Don’s friend Bob Podstawski (who later played saxophone for The Critters) introduced Ciccone to the Vibratones’ leader, Jim Ryan. The newly christened Critters quintet – Ciccone on rhythm guitar and vocals, Chris Darway on piano, organ and vocals, Jack Decker on drums, Kenny Gorka on bass and vocals, and Jimmy Ryan on lead guitar and vocals – caused a local stir with the release of the 1964 single “Georgianna.”  But if that Musicor single didn’t set the charts on fire, national acclaim arrived in due time, thanks to two 1966 Kama-Sutra/Kapp singles, “Younger Girl” and “Mr. Dieingly Sad.” 

After recording an initial album for Kapp and enduring some personnel changes, The Critters signed to Enoch Light’s Project 3 Records, also home to The Free Design.  Their two albums recorded for Project 3, Touch ’n Go with The Critters (1968) and the eponymous Critters (1969), form the heart of Awake in a Dream: The Project 3 Recordings, the latest excavation from the musical archaeologists at Now Sounds!

The road to these soft-psych classics wasn’t an easy one.  Let’s go back to the beginning, after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

September 8, 2011 at 10:24