Tuesday, November 24, 2015



An Exclusive Interview 

Imagine yourself pushing a squealing shopping cart through the brisk aisles of your favorite grocery superstore. As you head toward the spirits section you, find yourself tuning into the faint sounds calling down to you from above, through the tinny ceiling speakers. You stop in your tracks and give a glance upward to confirm what begins to put a smile on your face. Is that? Why, yes! It’s “Superfly!” Not a likely place to hear such an infectious track, but the Soul/Funk classic suddenly has you and other fellow shoppers moving and toe-tapping all the way back to the checkout line, out to the parking lot, and off into the night. It’s that power of music witnessed by Southside Johnny (aka John Lyon) that inspired his next move.
For forty years, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes have been a mainstay in the feel-good category of music. Credited by some as the Godfather of the “New Jersey Sound,” Southside reaches far beyond the clubs along the boardwalks of Asbury Park to connect with an audience that wants nothing more and nothing less than a good time and a chance to lose themselves in music. His emergence on the commercial scene came with a triple-threat of albums released by Epic between 1976 and 1978. Featuring a polished sound, legendary guest artists including Ronnie Spector, the Drifters, and the Coasters, coupled with heavy songwriting support by Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes were suddenly a force to be heard. Songs like “You Mean So Much To Me,” “Love On The Wrong Side Of Town,” “Fever,” “Hearts Of Stone,” and “Talk To Me” became more identifiable with Southside and company over the years than would their respective superstar authors. This is due, in large part, to his long-standing work ethic of immersing his heart and soul into everything he does. Whether the material is original or borrowed, he treats it all the same and with the kind of respect any great song should deserve, because all it takes is that one connection with that one listener to make the effort worthwhile.
With SOULTIME!, Southside and the boys return with a new record that aims for those sonic moments that can reel you in with nothing more than an evocative horn riff or a gritty, harmonica-infused groove reminiscent of another time. While recently traveling to visit the Martin Guitar factory in Pennsylvania, Southside took some time to discuss the new album and its influences, as well as the history and the future of the Jersey Shore music scene that falls under his attribution.

DAVE RAYBURN: It’s been five years since your last studio album, 2010’s PILLS AND AMMO. What have you been up to during these last five years and why did you choose this time to release a new record, SOULTIME!?
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Well, we made a live album of Steve Van Zandt’s MEN WITHOUT WOMEN, a great album that came out twenty-five or so years ago. That was one. And then I did a Poor Fools album which is a side project, and is kind of acoustic. So, there have been two albums since that album. But, I just wanted to make a Jukes album when I heard a Curtis Mayfield song in a giant superstore… “Superfly”. And everybody was really having a great time. So, I thought, if I’m making a record it’s got to have some fun music, and that’s what happened. I really was inspired by Curtis Mayfield, and he kind of inspired the tone of the album too.

DAVE: The influences on this album are abundant. You cover a lot of ground from the soulful Sam & Dave-inspired opener, “Spinning,” to the gritty Bobby Womack-flavored closer, “Reality.” In fact, tracks like “Reality” and “Walking On A Thin Line” sound like they could have been formulated after a brief viewing of some late 70s inner-city crime flicks. In between, you offer tunes cut from the same cloth as some of the best Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell and Four Tops efforts, yet these songs are all their own. The sonic landscapes on this album paint very specific scenery to great effect. Was there a certain target feel you were aiming for with this collection of songs?
SOUTHSIDE: No, you pretty much picked out everything we were listening to. PILLS AND AMMO, the last studio album, was an angry album. This album was more for fun and to take people’s minds off their worries and not try to express any anger or anything like that, but just the joy of music. But, you’re right. That whole landscape of late sixties and early seventies R&B and Soul, that’s what we were listening to. I mean, even if the song is about something down like a guy breaking up with his girlfriend or something like that, it still has that rhythm and that melody and that feeling that you want to dance to.

DAVE: SOULTIME! is an illustrious-sounding record. The arrangements really stand out. Who handled that task for this album?
SOUTHSIDE: Well, Jeff Kazee and I wrote all the songs and we did most of the arranging. We let the horns arrange the horns. All three of my horn players are on it. These guys are great musicians. Glenn Alexander, my guitar player, came up with almost all of his own parts. We knew some of what we wanted to hear, but he would show us other stuff, and we took almost everything he brought. So, it really is a collaborative effort as far as arranging.

DAVE: “Looking For A Good Time” seems to encapsulate all that is great about the Southside Johnny vibe. What stands out most, however, is that this also represents what is great about your audience. It seems to be written for them, and not just yourself. There’s a certain solace to be found just outside the blue collar struggle, with like-minded people at your side and music as your lead. At the end of the day, is this it’s all about for you?
SOUTHSIDE: Yeah. I mean, I say in that song, when I get down I put on music. It just makes me feel better. Or I get in my car and drive and listen to R&B and Soul and Blues, Rock & Roll, Bluegrass… whatever I feel like. It makes me feel as though life is worth living. There are times where you realize that one of the greatest gifts you can give to somebody is a chance to take their mind off their troubles and remind them that there’s great beauty in life too and great joy. Music does that for me. It always has.

DAVE: The lyrics to “Looking For A Good Time” specifically mention the healing factor of vinyl records and what music brings to the table. Do you recall the first records that made their mark on you, and are there any that, to this day, can still transform you with an instant needle drop?
SOUTHSIDE: Yeah, it’s more than what I heard on the radio when I was eight, nine and ten years old. One of the very first records I ever bought was a Jimmy Reed album for seventy-nine cents. And, to this day, when Jimmy Reed comes on, it’s so good. That moping rhythm and that real relaxed vocal and great harmonica… and, there’s no denying that good, happy-feeling sense that Jimmy Reed’s guitar had.

DAVE: I’m going to ask you to hop into a time machine for this next one.
SOUTHSIDE: Can it go back and take me to the right exit? (Laughs)
DAVE: We’re going to take you back even further than that. (Laughs) Envision the dawn of the 70s, and for this brief period you find yourself working within a couple particular bands. They were short-lived, but had impressive lineups including members who, along with yourself, would go on to make a splash within the Jersey Shore music scene and beyond. People like Bruce Springsteen (just after Steel Mill dissolved), David Sancious (Peter Gabriel, Sting), as well as E Street Band alumni Steve Van Zandt, Garry Tallent and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez to name just a few. What can you tell me about the days of the fabled Sundance Blues Band and Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom?
SOUTHSIDE: Well, Dr. Zoom was an amalgamation of all the musicians on the Jersey shore that Bruce knew, and I was one of them. So, Sundance and Blackberry Booze Band and all those other bands… everybody passed through them. But they were blues bands. And everybody wanted to play that. It’s the kind of music that you didn’t really have to study a lot to know how to play, but you had to put your heart into it. And there were lots of bands like that. We had Funky Dusty & the Soul Broom. Bruce was a guitar player in that. So, what would happen, you would go talk to a club owner and he would have a Top 40 band. We didn’t do Top 40, but you go in and say, “Hey, can my band audition one night?” We’d learn two Rolling Stones songs. I think it was “Jumping Jack Flash”… and I can’t remember the other one, but we’d go on and audition and blast these songs out. The guy would hire you and then you’d put together your band—whoever was around—and then go in and do R&B and Blues like Sam & Dave and Elmore James. So, we all played in a lot of bands together. It was really just musicians playing off of each other, learning each other’s styles and hearing each other’s records and just being very open to other influences, you know. We all learned from each other. And that was a great period.

DAVE: You and the Asbury Jukes have been a thing now for four decades. It’s an incredible feat to keep anything going that long, but despite the numerous lineup changes over the years (rumored to include members in the triple digits), you successfully pull it off. Is this something you always knew you would be doing from the very beginning?
SOUTHSIDE: No, I never thought I’d have a career in music. But, I met Garry Tallent when we were 15 years old in high school, and he said, “I’m going to be a musician.” And then I met Steve Van Zandt, Bruce and a couple of other people that all said the same thing, that they were going to be musicians. I thought, well, if they’re going to do it, I’m going to try to do it too. My heroes, or people I really looked up to back then, were Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, B.B. King… people who played until almost the day they died. I thought that’s what you did. Once you became a musician, that’s what you were. And, I’m just grateful that I’ve had this career this long.

DAVE: Are there any plans to take the Jukes out on the road in support of the new album through the rest of 2015 and into 2016?
SOUTHSIDE: Yeah, we’re going to be playing a lot of shows. We’re going to do a Florida run and then up through the whole East Coast. Hopefully we’re going to get to California. And then we always go to Europe, except this year we’re not because of recording and all that, but we’ll get there this next year, probably two times. We’re just going to try to work it as much as we can.

DAVE: Having been a part of the New Jersey music scene for so long, you’ve seen it evolve quite a lot. How do you feel about the current climate of the scene and what it holds for you and the next generation?
SOUTHSIDE: I think it’s a very healthy scene. There are a lot of places to play. Really cool places. Some bands, like Gaslight Anthem, have made some noise. But, there are places to play and there are lots of bands. And, it’s the same process. You learn how to play. You write some songs and put together a band. You put that band in front of people, and if it works, then you are committed to at least giving it as long a shot as you can. I mean, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a career. All of us have worked hard to get that. Some of these guys will too. But, you’ve got to be good. You’ve got to have something to say. And, you’ve got to put your heart and soul into it. If you do that, you’ve got a shot.

Thanks to Southside Johnny
Special thanks to James Sliman, Larry Germack and Nick Kominitsky


Available NOW!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A-HA: The Second Coming of the Norwegian trio!

The Second Coming of the Norwegian Trio

Stephen SPAZ Schnee reviews a handful of recent releases by Morten, Pal and Magne!

     For many casual music listeners, “Take On Me” is all they really know by a-ha, the Pop trio from Norway. To be honest, I feel uncomfortable even calling them Pop since the band – celebrating the 30th Anniversary of that hit single – is much more sophisticated than “Take On Me” would lead you to believe. Their spin on Electronic music has traveled into darker territories than that hit and while their profile in the U.S. has diminished over the years, they are still highly respected and beloved in many other parts of the world.  In Morten Harket, the band have a vocalist with the looks of a pin-up idol and a voice that can go from a rough whisper to a soaring falsetto in a matter of seconds – it is an instrument of pure beauty. Guitarist/songwriter Pal Waaktaar-Savoy and keyboardist Magne Furuholmen create aural soundscapes that allow Morten’s voice to flow freely within the catchy and often-times heart-breaking melodies. Anyone looking for another “Take On Me” might be a little disappointed by the lack of bubbly Synthpop tracks in the band’s oeuvre - however, their second hit “The Sun Always Shines On TV” is more indicative of their later material. The trio’s output slowed down in the ‘90s and they officially split five years ago but they’ve reunited for an excellent new album Cast In Steel and a load of reissues that are more than worth your while.

     First off, their 1985 debut album, Hunting High And Low, has been reissued in a Super Deluxe package that includes both CDs featured in the 2010 Deluxe Edition – the album plus remixes, demos (including a lot of previously unreleased songs) and more – plus two bonus discs of additional remixes and rarities.  Not only that, you get a DVD with music videos.  All of that is housed in a hardcover book packaging with loads of info, pictures and the like.  A beautiful package for an album that features the previously mentioned hits plus other gems like “I Dream Myself Alive,” “Train Of Thought,” and the gorgeous title track.  Whether or not you already have the 2CD Deluxe Edition, you really do need to get this. There doesn’t seem to be a stone unturned here. And to my knowledge, the 7” mix of “The Sun Always Shines On TV” is pretty rare and accounted for here.  A lot of love went into this package and it shows.  A deserving 30th Anniversary tribute to a fine album that has dated well.  Besides, Tony Mansfield of New Musik produced most of it and his name is a benchmark of quality!

     Also recently released are Deluxe 2CD Editions of their albums Stay On These Roads (1988), East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon (1990) and Memorial Beach (1993). Each double disc set features remixes, demos, alternate mixes and live tracks.

     Stay On These Roads was a slick follow-up to their second album, Scoundrel Days, and featured the band grappling with the light and dark sides of their music, sometimes within the same song. The album’s title track is certainly one of their best, a sweeping ballad that brings out passion and emotion in Morten’s voice.  It also includes the re-recording of their theme to “The Living Daylights,” which is not quite as good as the original single version but the mood of this one fits the album better. It is quite obvious the band were moving forward, musically, while managing to maintain a hold of their more accessible 'Pop' sound.

     East Of The Sun… is another fine album, although it found the band trying to hold back the dark layers of their previous two albums in favor of a more straightforward Pop sound.  In some ways, it seemed to be the calm before the storm – the sly smile and wink before the punch in the gut.  It’s a total mystery why “Waiting For Her” was not released as a single.  Certainly the high-point of a fine album that is often overlooked even by fans. And their cover of The Everly Brothers' "Crying In The Rain" is quite haunting. Perhaps their most 'immediate' album since their debut... Oh, and this Deluxe set also includes a bonus DVD that features a live show from the period.  Rather than just an average, run-of-the-mill live set up, the film is creatively shot and edited.  More of an art piece than a late night MTV concert presentation focusing on Morten, Morten, Morten...

     Memorial Beach was a complete change of pace. Moody and brooding, the album does contain some classic gems, but the overall vibe of the album is one of complete despair. The feel-good vibes of their previous album had been trampled by muddy boots and the album sounds like a band desperate to move on from the blip-blips of Synthpop into a more serious direction. It was as if they turned their back on the Pop Music factory (MTV, Top 40, etc.) and said, “Enough is enough!” The album is a grower, one that reveals new layers with each listen.  Even 23 years on, I’m still unravelling this one. Completely fascinating.  The fact that the band took seven years before they came back with another album may add credence to my theory on Memorial Beach… Maybe I should do some research on it? Nah, I’m too busy listening!

     Finally, 2015's Cast In Steel is their first full length album in 6 years and it feels like the next logical step from Foot Of The Mountain (2009). Again, if you want “Take On Me”, buy “Take On Me.” Cast In Steel is filled with some fantastic material that takes a few spins before it sinks in. “Under The Makeup” is the first single although “Forest Fire” (their most ‘Pop’ track in years and the closest thing they've ever done to "Take On Me") and the title track are great ‘introductions’ to the album as well.  A solid batch of songs that equals albums like Lifelines and Mother Earth Major Sky and Stay On These Roads.  If it doesn’t hit you immediately, give it time. Let it sink in. And that really has been the case with a-Ha since Scoundrel Days – invest attention and time and it will pay off. Their debut was a great album, but everything since then seems more satisfying and more enduring. a-Ha continue to write and record great material three decades on and you should really spend some quality time with these lads before they decide to slip away again.

Peace, love and pancakes!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

ELVIS PRESLEY with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: SPAZ reviews If I Can Dream!



Available NOW!

Stephen SPAZ Schnee takes the new Elvis release for a spin...

Just a few weeks before the world rejoiced over the release of Beatles 1+ (with remastered videos and remixed audio tracks), Elvis Presley’s If I Can Dream was issued to a lot less fanfare. It is no coincidence that both were released just before the holidays and while both will generate money for the artists and their estates, this particular Elvis release has received some very harsh and unwarranted criticism.  On one hand, yes, it does seem like a money-grab by those who are supposed to be preserving Elvis’ legacy instead of cheapening it.  On the other hand, any release that could possibly introduce Elvis to a new generation of fans is a good thing. A release like this stirs up interest and if a new listener likes what they hear, then that opens the door to a magical back catalog filled with some great records.  Not a bad thing if you ask me!

     On If I I Can Dream, 14 of Elvis’ recordings have been given a facelift with some of the original instrumentation removed/re-tracked with the addition of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This isn’t the first time they’ve messed with Elvis’ original recordings (they’ve been doing it since his death in ’77) but this might be the RCA’s most ‘epic’ Elvis musical undertaking yet. Elvis’ original vocalists are, for the most part, intact and lifted from the hit versions rather than using previously unreleased alternate takes. I believe this decision works because the songs feel familiar while still sounding fresh and new.  The gamble doesn’t always pay off on upbeat songs like “Steamroller Blues”, although album opener “Burning Love” is quite nifty. But on the ballads?  Those are the songs that will wrap themselves around you like a warm blanket on a cold night – “Love Me Tender,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “An American Trilogy,” “There’s Always Me” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” will certainly give you the feels.  “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” – the Neil Diamond-penned obscurity – is particularly effective here.  I’ve never been a fan of the officially released version (there are some good outtakes out there, though) but this is definitive version in my book.  And then there is the title track… it was a stunner before and remains that way here. And a very solid end to a batch of songs that will irk some but thrill those who believe in the magic of Elvis.  Like me.

     Oh, and notice how I didn’t mention the ‘duet’ with Michael Buble on “Fever?  Yeah, I’ll leave it at that.

(P.S. The art design by Paul Bevoir for the U.S. cover (see above) really reflects the spirit of the project.  Unlike the UK pressing which looks like someone just discovered Elvis AND photoshop on the morning the CD went to press and threw something together quickly (see below)...

 Peace, love and Pancakes,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee