Diana Ross: I Love You
At 62, Ross could’ve easily taken the same route as most of her contemporaries and played it safe by recording the great American songbook. Not this time and not this unique songstress. Ross had her own ideas of recording past pop and R&B favorites from the 50’s to the present, and delivers them with the same passion she had all those years ago. The result is a magnificent album entitled I Love You which can also be purchased as a special edition CD and DVD package, so you can not only hear this diva in action, you can savor the visual as well. And seeing Ross after a seven year absence is a wonderful treat. She looks as if she hasn’t aged a day, and that voice, which has been described by Mick Jagger “as smooth as velvet,” remains crystalline.
Recently I read a review that said that Ross should’ve included more up-tempo numbers because that is what she does best. It may have been true with her 60’s classics with The Supremes and a few disco numbers from the 70’s (“Love Hangover” and “The Boss” come to mind), but I have to disagree and say that when Ross sings a ballad, she shines the brightest. Think back to her solo heyday of the 70’s and 80’s. Nobody worked love songs the way she did. Hits such as “Touch Me In The Morning,” “Do You Know Where You’re Going To,” her biggest chart topper “Endless Love,” and the song that was written specifically for her by Lionel Richie as a dedication to her fallen friend Marvin Gaye, “Missing You,” are everlasting proof.
The album kicks off with a song of yesteryear, “Remember,” setting the stage for all of the love classics that Ross covers. Ross not only has her share of lush ballads, but she also strays into R&B territory with her old buddy Marvin Gaye’s classic mid-tempo “I Want You,” complete with heavy bass and beats that make this song so sublime and sexy. Other R&B favorites include Bill Withers’ stunning 70’s symphony “Lovely Day,” the Heatwave classic “Always And Forever,” and the 60’s gem that was originally sung by The Drifters and later covered by Jay & The Americans, “This Magic Moment,” are performed superbly. Pop highlights include a dazzling rendition of Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful,” Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will,” The Platters’ 1955 classic “Only You,” and my favorite track on the album, the Bacharach/David masterpiece “The Look Of Love,” which is arranged samba style with a Spanish guitar and makes you yearn for an entire album recorded in this fashion which suits Ross’ sultry softness so well. Other songs that may not be as familiar but are equally as impressive are “What About Love,” culled from the soundtrack The Color Purple, “To Be Loved,” and the dramatic title cut (and the one original track), “I Love You (That’s All That Really Matters).” Of the 15 tracks, I’d say there are only two missteps; A cover of The Spiral Staircase’s 60’s romp “More Today Than Yesterday,” where Ross sounds as if she’s competing with the pace, and the Oscar-winning song “Take My Breath Away,” originally recorded by 80’s synth group Berlin, is not produced and arranged to properly accompany Ross’ vocals. The album closes with a reprise of “Remember,” which wraps the album up into one beautifully love-themed opus.
Ross’ unique vocal style is a fresh reminder of what has been sorely missed in the music that makes up today’s Top 40. For all of the rumors and innuendo that has been spewed throughout Ross’ storied career, when it comes to talent there’s no argument as to why Ross became a living legend before she turned thirty years old. I Love You is an appropriate title and message to the fans that have stood by this diva for the past 40-plus years. Listening to this album is like welcoming an old friend home, I truly hear a symphony.
Carly Simon : Into White
After 40-plus years in the “business” and 35 years as a household name, multiple Grammy and Oscar-winning songstress extraordinaire Carly Simon has earned the right to do whatever she wants. Then again, it seems she always has anyway and with splendid results. Her latest album, Into White, is more of a folk-oriented undertaking than any of her previous projects, and it carries the same passion Simon has poured into every one of her two dozen albums over the years. In the last two years, Simon has delivered songs of the past that have resonated with her throughout her life, and basically molded her into the superb stylist and writer that we have come to admire. For this album, Carly has also recruited the talents of her two offspring, Sally, 32, and Ben, 26. To be fair, Ben sings on seven of the fourteen tracks and plays guitar on a couple and co-writes one, while Sally is present for one. The trio is at their finest on a song written by their father, and Carly’s ex, James Taylor’s superb “You Can Close Your Eyes.” The harmonies are magnificent and Ben sounds unerringly like his Dad.
The title track, which was written by Cat Stevens in 1970 for his stunning debut album Tea For The Tillerman, kicks off the journey with that unmistakable and unique vocal Simon possesses. Other folk staples such as “Oh! Susanna” and “You Are My Sunshine” are conveyed with such conviction, I was surprised at how significant these songs (that have seemingly been taken for granted) really are. Lennon & McCartney’s 1968 jewel “Blackbird” is also present, and in true fashion, Simon delivers this song as simple and elegant as John and Paul did nearly forty years ago. Other familiar titles include Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and “Over The Rainbow,” which Carly comments, “It doesn’t get much better than this and to do anything that Judy Garland ever sang tells you just how crazy/brave I am.”
Simon also rerecorded the fabulous song “Love Of My Life,” which was the theme to the scarcely seen 1992 Nora Ephron film This Is My Life, which starred Julie Kavner. Interestingly enough, in the original lyrics Simon sang, “I love Woody Allen,” and in this newly recorded version she opts to exclude Mr. Allen in the lyrics and replace him with his ex, Mia Farrow. Carly also revisits a song she wrote in 1978, “Devoted To You,” and includes it in a medley with the stunning Everly Brothers staple “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” with Ben providing background vocals.
Of all the songs that are on this album, the final track is something to behold as one of the great treasures of Carly Simon’s catalogue. She records this one original song written by her son Ben and his co-author David Saw, titled “I’ll Just Remember You.” Simon comments upon hearing this song for the first time, “I came down the spiral stairs from my bedroom one morning and Ben and David were playing this song. I sat rapt and listened. I thought it was a Rodgers & Hart song, as they had been working on versions of “My Funny Valentine” and other classics. I said ‘That is the most beautiful and simple song I have ever heard. Whose is it?’ (expecting to feel a fool for not knowing it was one of Gershwin’s greatest.) When they modestly told me they had been working on writing it for about fifteen minutes, I just made some French toast and understood it was all over. Life will never be the same. It’s such a perfect combination of talents. Ben and David…like Lennon and McCartney, like George and Ira, like Fred and Ginger. Life is good.” Carly Simon has served us with another enchanting album that has been recorded for the ages. Into White is the most simple, elegant and lovely of Carly Simon’s long and storied career. This album is most definitely a gift of love.
Dave Koz: At The Movies
As soon as you press “Play” on this CD, you’ll hear a sampling of Judy Garland’s amazing vocal “Someday I’ll Wish Upon A Star and Wake Up Where the Clouds Are Far Behind Me/Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops Way Above The Chimney Tops/That’s Where You’ll Find Me” from The Wizard of Oz, followed by the stunning instrumental of Dave Koz’ saxophone. You are about to be taken on one gorgeous journey “Over The Rainbow.” When listening to the opening of this album of classic film music, I was overwhelmed by the sheer genius of its introduction. On this voyage over the rainbow we’re taken through a dozen magnificent film songs over a period of 50-plus years. At The Movies is one dozen tracks that Koz meticulously selected. He is accompanied on six of the songs by six extraordinary vocalists that further enhance the wonderful world of movie song magic. The Henry Mancini-penned “Moon River” is such a stunner, you may be surprised that Barry Manilow was the vocalist selected to accompany Koz on this classic from Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Then again, maybe you won’t be surprised, as Manilow has proven himself quite the crooner on his last two albums devoted to the decades of the fifties and sixties. Another instrumental track that offers a similar teaser as that which Garland provided with her two lines from “Over The Rainbow” is “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman (“Ilsa”) and Dooley Wilson (“Sam”) in dialogue on the into: Bergman: “Play it, Sam, for old time sake.” Wilson: I don’t know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.” Bergman: “Play it, Sam. Play…As Time Goes By.” The sound of the ragtime piano begins to play as Koz’ sax takes over and the two instruments compliment each other stunningly.
We’re also treated to the lush vocals of Anita Baker as she accompanies Dave on the optimistically passionate anthem “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which melds right into the succulent sound of Johnny Mathis’ voice on “The Shadow Of Your Smile,” lifted from The Sandpiper. The “The Pink Panther” theme arrangement is absolutely suave and sexy, and the result is transcendent. When I read in the liner notes that “The Way We Were” was on the set list, I was happy to see that Dave was tackling the sentimental favorite from the film of the same name. When I read that it was accompanied by Vanessa Williams, I have to admit I was skeptical at best. It’s a monumental task when taking on a tune that’s been a signature for Barbra Streisand, but Williams not only sings the song, she lives the lyrics with such confidence that my reservations were put to rest.
The achingly beautiful instrumental theme from Summer of ’42 is one of those songs that is absolutely timeless. The beauty of Koz’ arrangement and delicate approach had me reliving this classic film in my head, while filling my heart with intense emotion. India.Arie is one of the finest interpreters to have come along in the last decade and her vocal accompaniment on “It Might Be You” from Tootsie is the most pleasing version I have ever heard of this song. Sorry, Stephen Bishop you had a nice vocal with this 1982 hit, but Arie could blow that wig right off of Dustin Hoffman’s noggin. If you’re a fan of classic films, you must certainly be a fan of Cinema Paradiso. The “Cinema Paradiso Suite” is elegant and awe-inspiring. It’s truly a highlight among highlights. And let it be known that Donna Summer is alive and very well as is evident on the track “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Summer can still belt with the best of them, and this offering only makes you yearn for her long-awaited studio album rumored to be released later this year.
The theme from Schindler’s List is one you’re probably not familiar with, but it’s easy to see why Koz chose it as his last track on the album. It’s hauntingly beautiful and is accompanied by the full orchestra that encompasses this entire album. There are two bonus instrumental tracks; “It Might Be You” featuring Peter White, and another reading of “The Shadow Of Your Smile” featuring Chris Botti. After hearing this CD, it’s obvious why Dave Koz has been nominated for a Grammy four times. I have no doubt that he’ll finally be recognized by the Academy next year for this superb project, which is the finest and most accessible of his eight albums. I’ve heard several artists’ albums of movie music before, but none have thrilled me the way this CD has. Dave Koz and legendary producer Phil Ramone make “the sound of movies” entirely unique. There’s only one downside, the popcorn’s not included.
A Date With John Waters: Various Artists
If you didn’t give or receive the new CD of John Waters’ favorite “Love Songs” for Valentine’s Day, it’s never too late to enjoy his style of passion. Waters’ idea of love songs might be as unusual as his films, but that’s a good thing. Would you really expect any less from a man who has given us films such as Pink Flamingos, starring the incomparable Divine, to Hairspray, the 1988 film that went on to be one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all time? For those living under a rock, the latest incarnation of Hairspray will be back on the big screen later this year with an all-star cast that includes John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah.
Back to the music Waters pulled out some rare gems that I found myself smiling to as I listened to this fun and obscure set of songs, filled with sexual vulnerability. The disc kicks off with the fabulous 1956 Top Five smash “Tonight You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence, that Waters claims was “the first record I shoplifted” at age ten. Waters’ describes that experience as “so stolen, so pure, so good.” From there, we’re treated to some other rarities that range from the punk sound of Elvis Motello’s “Jet Boy Jet Girl” to Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s first smash hit, “Ain’t Got No Home.” For the remarkably obscure, there’s Edith Massey’s classic version of the Four Seasons’ hit “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which Waters comments has been described as “one of the world’s worst records, but I think it’s pretty catchy.” One of the best recordings is by one of Waters’ and my favorite actresses, Mink Stole, who delivers a sultry version of “I Wish I Had A Gun.”
The ballads range from the lush rendition of “Imitation Of Life,” lifted from the Douglas Sirk film and performed by Earl Grant (who sounds eerily like Johnny Mathis) to Shirley & Lee’s “Bewildered.” Other familiar names but diverse performances include Ike & Tina Turner’s “All I Can Do Is Cry” as Tina wails like she’s in labor with triplets, to Dean Martin’s sublime and sexy vocals on “Hit The Road To Dreamland.” Ray Charles is also present with one of his best performances from his early years, “(Night Time Is) The Right Time.”
Waters offers up a bit of go-go music with the sensational sound of Josie Cotton and her underground hit “Johnny Are You Queer.” But if you’re feeling submissive, the well preserved and richly deserved Mildred Bailey track “I’d Love To Take Orders From You” and Eileen Barton’s “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked A Cake” are the perfect servings for you, complete with the icing on top.
Even if it’s the novelty more than it is the sentiment for you, this CD is a must-have. It won’t just bring a smile to your face, but it’s the perfect disc to play at your next shindig. I guarantee if you have this music playing, your guests will be asking where you found this great CD. If they don’t, they’re tone deaf or just plain dull. And trust me, there’s nothing dull about having A Date With John Waters.
…And All That Jazz: Billy Strayhorn was an African-American gay man that was born in 1915 and died at age 51 in 1967. He lived a lush life of brilliance, but a life that was filled with intense loneliness and sadness. Before I give you my take on the newly released collection of his songs, I’d like to enlighten some people that may not be familiar with the genius that made up this man.
There have been rumors that Strayhorn lived his life as an openly gay man, but that fact has never been established. Most of the people of his era are gone now, with the exception of Lena Horne. Perhaps she holds some of the answers but has never confirmed or denied any of them. To listen to Strayhorn’s compositions, most of them are dark and lonely. I find it unimaginable what it must have been like for someone to live as an African-American gay man in that era, but vocalist Dianne Reeves (who’s a longtime admirer of Strayhorn’s as well as contributor to this project) recently gave her impressions from singing and examining his songs, and explores what Strayhorn’s life might have been like. She comments, “The majority of Strayhorn’s songs have a kind of sadness. They’re not about being able to find the love you desire. Like in the song “Azure,” which I don’t do on this album, he’s saying, ‘I’m not worthy.’ His songs are so exposed and so revealing.” She also believes the sadness came from the fact that he was a genius. “I have heard that he was openly gay and that he wasn’t. However he lived, I don’t think he got where he wanted. All of his lyrics state that over and over again.” She continues, “The jazz community was very different back then than as it is now. They were like an extended family. A lot of people were very accepting in that world. It was very protective. It was really about your abilities and the fact that you were able to speak this particular musical language. Billy was not judged in that world.” For those who would like to see the superb new 90 minute documentary, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, check your local PBS listings. The film examines Strayhorn’s 29 year partnership with Duke Ellington, including the fact that he was a gay man in a world that is still very much intolerant of homosexuality.
Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life
The artist and the title alone made me know that this was a collection that I had to have. It’s also the companion soundtrack to the documentary film of the same name. When I read that the guest vocalists were Dianne Reeves (who sings on six tracks) and Elvis Costello, who wrote lyrics to one of Strayhorn’s last compositions “Blood Count” (to which Costello added the title “My Flame Burns Blue”), I knew I was going to be taken on a lavish journey. I’m sure you’ve heard Billy Strayhorn’s most famous offerings such as “Lush Life,” which he miraculously wrote when he was a teenager. Dianne Reeves and a guitar are all that this masterpiece needed to make you hear the sheer genius of this song. Other tracks that Reeves delivers gloriously include “Something To Live For,” “Day Dream,” “My Little Brown Book,” “The Flowers Die Of Love” and “So This Is Love.” The latter two were recently discovered. There are another two recently discovered gems, “Valse” and “Fantastic Rhythm.” “Satin Doll” is accompanied beautifully by Hank Jones on piano, while “Rain Check” has the luster of Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone. Rounding out this spectacular 15-track jazz collection is a surplus of musicians and songs that are absolutely timeless. There are many jazz collections that bear Billy Strayhorn’s name, but with the inclusions of Reeves, Costello and several top-notch musicians, this is quite possibly the most exquisite tribute to one of the greatest artists of all time.
Interpretations: Celebrating The Music Of Earth, Wind & Fire - Various Artists
When the idea of this album began a couple of years ago, Founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, Maurice White, couldn’t have been more thrilled that The Concord Music Group agreed he would retain control over matching the songs with the appropriate artists. After all, who were they to argue with this master multi-record selling and award-winning musician and producer? White was not only the man that founded and molded the sound of Earth, Wind & Fire, he also wrote and produced their music along with vocalist Philip Bailey and his vocalist brother Verdine White. The result of this tribute album is nothing less than astonishing.
The disc kicks off with the unrivaled vocals of Chaka Khan interpreting Earth, Wind & Fire’s first #1 smash, “Shining Star.” Her vocals are vibrant and reminiscent of her heyday with Rufus. And it’s no coincidence that four of the ten tracks off this album were lifted from the 1975 multi-platinum opus That’s The Way Of The World, which I still feel (after 32 years) is their best and most accomplished studio album. This is the album that introduced the fusion of Soul, R&B, Funk and Pop to the mainstream, and it still holds a place in my heart as one of the finest recordings of the 70’s and the last half of the 20th century. Yes, it’s that great!
The incomparable songstress Angie Stone weaves her golden vocals around the slow and sultry “Be Ever Wonderful” which is lifted from the group’s 1977 tour de force All ‘N All, and makes it shimmer so beautifully that it makes me scratch my head and wonder why Stone hasn’t been recognized by mainstream audiences. She’s certainly highly regarded in the industry as one of the most amazing vocalists, but hasn’t broken through that star barrier to household name status. This latest rendition is further proof that Stone ranks with the very best of them.
Kirk Franklin is the first Gospel vocalist in history to crossover to R&B territory and achieve platinum status with his own debut album, so it’s no wonder that White chose him to interpret the E,W&F favorite “September.” This man sings this song like it’s nobody’s business. This rendition begins with the original track as the intro, while Franklin makes it all his own with the same up-tempo spirit that White and company did when they recorded this jewel back in 1978.
“Devotion” is culled from Earth, Wind & Fire’s fifth album, Open Our Eyes, exactly one year before the group took off into the stratosphere. The track is superbly performed by vocalist Ledisi, who’s best known for performing with influential musicians such as Moby and Chaka Khan, just to name two. It’s clear from listening to this song why it was a sign of the great things to come for E,W&F. This rendition may be lesser known than its interpreter, but it’s a standout among standouts and slips seamlessly into this collection.
At the midway point of this album we are treated to one of the best recordings of the bunch, a soulful and inspiring performance of “Can’t Hide Love” from The Randy Watson Experience featuring Bilal. This vocalist, who has the voice of an angel, made it clear to White that this was one of his all time favorite songs, and it’s quite apparent after hearing his passionate and exquisite delivery.
“Love’s Holiday is a gorgeous track performed by Lalah Hathaway (daughter of the late, great Donny Hathaway) and she follows in her father’s footsteps with a magnificent interpretation of the 1977 chestnut lifted from the aforementioned All ‘N All album.
“That’s The Way Of The World” was a worldwide smash in 1975, and this song is treated with the respect it deserves by male vocalist Dwele, who updates the song with a swifter beat while it retains its soulful sway that had my head bopping and my foot tapping. It’s a great sign when you realize the music unconsciously takes over your body movements as this track did mine.
“After The Love Is Gone” is perhaps the song with the most crossover appeal. This single was a smash on the Pop, R&B and AC charts back in the summer of ’79, when other rivals such as The Commodores and Kool & The Gang were keeping their own pace. The group Mint Condition is a quintet of five men that raises these gorgeous harmonies to the highest of heights, and builds to a crescendo when the wonderful sax solo takes over to a fierce climax. It’s clear why this track was an instant classic and this interpretation just solidifies its standing in pop music history.
One of the most treasured and requested songs from Earth, Wind & Fire’s vast catalogue is “Reasons.” Never released as a single (but it should have been), Soul sensation Musiq Soulchild, who has one of the greatest voices in the business today, renders this track while it soars and takes flight and never comes down to touch the ground. This is truly a masterful performance that ranks as one of the finest “remakes” I’ve ever heard.
As the saying goes, “Save the best for last,” and that’s exactly what this album has done, offering nine-time Grammy nominee MeShell Ndegeocello and her rendition of the 1978 classic track “Fantasy.” This unique singer enters our ears and fills our hearts with a knockout performance, complete with a spoken introduction, and vocally assumes the song that rendered chills all over my body.
My only complaint is that I wanted to hear more, much more. This group has been around for four decades, and to receive an album with just ten tracks is a tease. My advice is to get this disc and treasure it as I have. After hearing it, falling in love with it won’t even be a choice. All we can hope for is a second volume. Until that happens, enjoy this CD, and if you have the hankering to hear more classic Earth, Wind & Fire songs, the solution is simple just pop in one of their original CD’s and live out your own fantasy.
Masterbeat: Winter Party 2007 DJ Brett Henrichsen
DJ extraordinaire and spin master Brett Henrichsen offers up one of his best “circuit” collections with his latest opus of non-stop HI-NRG dance music. The selections are heavy on the vocal anthems that always make Brett a favorite wherever he spins, and if you’re not on the dancefloor when hearing these songs, the CD alone will transport you there in spirit and in mind.
With exclusive mixes from that other DJ divine, Tony Moran, there’s nothing quite like this ten-track 80-minute journey. Mr. Moran kicks off the set with his self-penned and produced diva anthem “Fiesta Fatal,” performed by Deep Influence, which sets the mood and the pace for the entire set. The inimitable vocal styling of Inaya Day seamlessly melds track two with the ferocious Mike Cruz Club Mix of “U Spin Me,” which sets the stage for the first of three male vocal anthems, “Elektro,” performed by Outwork featuring Mr. Gee. Moran makes his second of four appearances with the dynamic vocal anthem “It’s My Life,” and stirs it straight up for a potent circuit mix of his other self-penned and produced track “Something About You.” Another Moran exclusive is the mix collaboration with Jody Denbroeder on “I Feel Alive,” which is a male vocal anthem performed brilliantly by Noel.
Just when the set is at the halfway mark, rising star DJ and Israeli native Offer Nissim offers us two consecutive tracks. The first is a sensational club mix of “Free My Love,” with dance diva favorite Suzanne Palmer in charge of her dynamic vocals, and then takes us to another dance diva favorite, Maya, on Nissim’s club mix of his fierce track “For Your Love.” Once again, Tony Moran and Jody Denbroeder offer us the never before remix of “Alright,” performed by Red Carpet, that’ll knock you on your ass with this triumphant production. Closing the set is Harrington’s Tribal Anthem “Let’s Get Together” performed by Soul Logic. The only thing that’ll make you sorry about this track is when it ends.
When listening to this collection, one can’t help but feel the positive energy that inspired Henrichsen and company when selecting these tracks and mixing them so superbly. If you are a person who loves to dance and/or loves this genre of music, you will be elated with this latest collection. Did I mention that 100% of the proceeds go to benefit The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force? If you’re a fan of this music, I just gave you one more reason why this collection is a must!
Judy Garland: The Letter
Garland’s out-of-print Capitol Records 1959 masterpiece The Letter, which is one of the most unique albums of her career, has been digitally remixed and remastered directly from the multi-track stereo session tapes.
This lost treasure of Garland’s tells the story of a relationship throughout its first meeting, a breakup, and then reconciliation. The Letter contains narration of a letter written to Garland by her beau, played by acclaimed Academy Award nominee John Ireland. As Judy reads his letter, her thoughts mend with his, and she answers him musically, through ten songs, beginning with her exquisite interpretation of “Beautiful Trouble” and carries us through other magnificent renditions of “Love In The Village,” “Charley’s Blues,” “The Worst Kind Of Man,” the spectacular “That’s All There Is, There Isn’t Any More,” “Love In Central Park,” “The Red Balloon,” “The Fight,” “At The Stroke Of Midnight” and the closer, “Come Back.”
The Letter is crafted by Gordon Jenkins, a musical conductor and arranger most famously associated with Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra. Back in those days, a concept album was a rarity and only recorded by a handful of greats, and Garland certainly ranked as the finest female vocalist of her era.
For those familiar with this 1959 recording, it simply becomes a whole new listening experience. For those of you who are fans but have never had the opportunity to hear this album, trust me, you will be floored. Along with the sparkling sound, this CD features four bonus tracks, rare single versions of songs meant for radio play in 1959, and a lavish booklet that includes rare artwork and detailed liner notes by Scott Schechter, the preeminent Garland authority and author of the book Judy Garland: The Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Legend.
When it comes to a Garland recording, especially one this fine, no words could fully sum up her genius.
Elton John - Rocket Man: Number Ones (CD/DVD Limited Edition)
When you become as accomplished as Elton John, there are never enough reincarnations of his masterpieces from years gone by. It happens to all of the legends, and after all, Elton is certainly a legend that ranks with the best of them, from the Beatles to Elvis to Sinatra. Elton is as much of the musical landscape as his predecessors.
In celebration of his 60th Birthday, Rocket Records and Elton John have stylishly created an audio and video anthology to stand up with the best of his greatest hits packages. In 1974, we were treated to the first collection, Elton John’s Greatest Hits, and just three years later, Elton had racked up so many smash recordings in such a short timeframe that Greatest Hits, Volume II was rushed to retailers. A decade past and Volume III was available and by the time his last retrospective arrived five years ago, Greatest Hits 1970-2002, Elton had racked up his seventh hits compilation, and that’s not even including his four “Live” contributions.
So why pick up his latest potpourri? If not for the seventeen #1 hits on Disc One, that include “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” and the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”( just to name four), the extra special treat is on Disc Two, which is a DVD collection of five never before released performances lifted from his “Red Piano Show” in Las Vegas. They are “Bennie And The Jets,” “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time),” “Candle In The Wind 1997,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and his signature, “Your Song.”
Not to be shoddy (and when have you ever known Elton to be?) he’s added five bonus videos to Disc Two that include the classic “Your Song” (a decade before videos were in vogue), 1983’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” “I’m Still Standing” (the 1983 video which clearly featured Elton’s affinity for hunky young men, in a spectacular production shot on the beach in the French Riviera), 2001’s “I Want Love,” featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and closing the set is Elton’s brand new video and single “Tinderbox” from the 2006 critically acclaimed opus The Captain and The Kid.
If you’ve never seen Elton John perform live, I insist you pick up this double-disc collection and see and hear for yourself why this man has been at the top of his game for four decades. If you have seen him live, I’m sure this is a set you’d want to add to your CD/DVD collection. If that’s not enough, get yourself over to one of his performances at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.
Elton John was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and is a Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Golden Globe-winning living legend, and a man we in the gay community can proudly call our own. For this extraordinary entertainer and philanthropist, who was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998, I say Happy Birthday, To Sir With Love.
MUST SEE DVD’s
Madonna: The Confessions Tour
I’ve seen Madonna’s concerts over the past 20-plus years, and this woman can still dazzle the audience with her elaborate production numbers while making it look better than she did when she was in her 20’s. Unlike most singers of today, Madonna has a greater challenge because her music isn't timeless. When listening to a lot of her 80’s albums, some of the music sounds dated. And it would still sound dated if she hadn't put a new spin on them. The fabulous "older" songs such as "La Isla Bonita," "Erotic" and even 2000’s "Music" sounded incredibly fresh because the original backing tracks were replaced with a techno backdrop of music that was alive for 2006. The two most outstanding and profoundly touching performances were "Live To Tell" and "Forbidden Love." Madonna presented the images of twelve million children in Africa that have been orphaned due to AIDS. The way she incorporated religion as well as same sex partners during "Forbidden Love" really touched my heart. Madonna had me in the palm of her hand as I found myself transfixed to the visuals, as well as her own divine way of taking over a stage and a venue of thousands of fans. The use of the '76 Trammps staple "Disco Inferno" was brilliantly executed to introduce the last act of "disco/dance" songs that she performed. As usual, Madonna is always one step ahead. What’s even more amazing about her performance is the fact that she was in terrible pain throughout the entire tour because her collarbone had not completely healed from her horse riding accident last year. She refused to cut her dance numbers and went out there like a trouper.
For those of you who watched this concert when it aired on network television, you were denied Madonna’s “controversial” segment when she hung on the mirrored Cross while singing “Like A Prayer,” as well as several other songs that round out this two hour concert. If this country can tolerate an unnecessary war in Iraq but needs to shield their eyes to a woman performing her art onstage, then we’re a lot worse off than we even imagined. Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new or earth shattering. It’s just a sad statement on the climate of this country. But controversy (as mild as this was) is Madonna’s friend and has always been consistent in her career. Happily, other songs that were edited down and abbreviated for television have been restored to their full glory on this DVD.
After watching Madonna's latest live concert special, one word came to my mind brilliant!
I feel confident that this latest concert event, which aired on NBC last November, will be nominated for an Emmy. Whether she wins or not depends on the competition. Well done, Madonna.
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing
Watching this documentary on the Dixie Chicks’ struggle to come back from redneck hell is almost as eye-opening as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Unfortunately, the group of folks who coined the phrase “Shut Up & Sing” are the very same people who have supported George W. Bush’s administration and have put down everybody that hasn’t supported the war in Iraq as unpatriotic. It seems like eons since this war began, and the country that had become so divided is finally showing some signs of intelligence. Well, intelligence may be too strong a word, but at least the country is finally coming around and seeing this administration for what it is. Unfortunately for our troops, it’s not fast enough.
The documentary begins with the comment that started the firestorm between Dixie Chicks and Middle America. The Chicks were on a London stage in the midst of their 2003 “Top of the World Tour” when (in between songs) lead singer Natalie Maines uttered the line, “I’m ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” That was it. No major reaction except a cheering crowd of Brits, and what they believed to be a passing thought became headlines around the world. Almost as quickly as she spoke that line, the Associated Press wire picked up the statement which sent shockwaves to right wing zealots around the world, but mostly in this country’s Bible belt. Within days, Middle America was up in arms about their beloved trio of talented women, sisters Emily and Martie Maguire and Maines.
What to do? Almost reminiscent of when John Lennon made a passing comment in 1968 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, which led to an outpouring of “fans” smashing and burning Beatles records all over the country like a public slaughtering denouncing the Fab Four, all due to a statement that was made in jest. A decade later, Rock fans were incensed that Disco had become a mainstream musical empire that was associated with many things they could not tolerate, which included the gay community and their embrace of the musical genre. What did they do? In 1979, the infamous ‘Disco Demolition’ at Cominsky Park Baseball Stadium in Chicago, Rock fans indulged in a ritual record burning frenzy. When you look back in history, it’s always the people who preach the Bible, but break every rule with the violence that is set forth to make their point. The word “hypocrite” almost seems too appropriate.
After the ban at Country radio (which was a decision made immediately after the comment), the Chicks’ endured everything from public humiliation to being shunned by their own peers. Musician Toby Keith went onstage night after night publicly humiliating Ms. Maines for her statements, which in turn fired up the ignorant slobs that made up his audience. Then it turned even more personal with a death threat made on Natalie’s life, right down to the date of her execution. What happened next was an apology from Maines to the President, but she never felt quite comfortable going against her instincts just to save her music career. Finally, she made another statement taking back her apology, which made them eager to write music that would make a statement for them.
The result was the brilliant 2006 album, Taking The Long Way, which was the first time that the Chicks wrote an entire album of their own. The songs were personal, the songs were harmonious, the lyrics and the melodies were married and the production was handled by mastermind Rick Rubin. The results were spectacular. The only problem was who would hear this album? Their fans and the radio stations that once embraced them had now branded them as traitors, and there was really no place for them to turn, except television. The Dixie Chicks began doing every television interview they could squeeze in, including getting their first single, “Not Ready To Make Nice,” played on the more liberal-minded VH1 music channel. The video was as stunning as the song and stayed at #1 on the popular channel for a record 20 weeks. Their song and their album may have been shunned by their old fans, but in turn they gained new fans that not only agreed with their political views but also started digging the music that made up this fabulous album.
Taking The Long Way debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, and I’d like to say the documentary ended on the highest possible note. However, after witnessing last week’s Grammy Awards, with Dixie Chicks winning all five of the categories they were nominated in, (including the highest honors of Song, Record and Album of the Year), the real ending (which, of course, was too late for this film) was their honored recognition, vindication for how these three women stood up against all odds. America has embraced this band not just because of their political observations, but because the music truly stands on its own merits.
I wanted to say that this film ended beautifully, but considering it arrives on DVD just nine days after their stunning Grammy sweep makes it that much sweeter. Enjoy!
Spring Forward: Other highly anticipated CD’s to watch for this spring read like a who’s who of the recording industry. There are plenty of favorites for the gay community to choose from, beginning with the March 27th release of Jennifer Lopez’ first ever Spanish album, Como Ama Una Mujer. Lopez is in fine vocal form and kicks off strong with the opening track “Que Hisciste,” and other highlights that include her power ballad title track, as well as the closer “Adios.” Fans of Spanish-language albums will be feasting on this new collection, while fans of Lopez’ will be stunned at her spectacular interpretations. It’s no doubt she’s been taking a few cues from her husband, Marc Anthony. One thing I can say about this marriage, it’s a match made in musical heaven.
A comeback of sorts, if that’s what you’d like to call it, is in store for Macy Gray. The female artist that took the world by storm at the turn of the century is back with the help of some of the biggest names in the music business, including Fergie, Natalie Cole, Nas, Justin Timberlake and producer and Black Eyed Peas sensation, will.i.am. The entire set is fabulous with such highlights as “Finally Made Me Happy,” “Treat Me Like Your Money” and “Strange Behavior.”
April 3rd is a special day for Beyoncé because it’s her B’Day…again! If you think she’s already had a great year with her smash album B’Day and her starring role in the film Dreamgirls, it’s about to get even dreamier. Since its release last September, B’Day has done so well that she’s releasing a special deluxe edition of the album, which includes three brand new unreleased songs plus six Spanish songs! The first single to be released from this edition is “Beautiful,” a duet featuring the sensationally popular and talented Shakira. This next single is sure to follow the hits “Déjà Vu,” Ring The Alarm” and the infectious #1 smash “Irreplaceable.”
May looks as if it’s getting prepared for Gay Pride the following month, with new releases from THE diva of the past five decades, two dance divas of the past and present, and two mainstream gay artists who all are offering highly anticipated albums.
The diva I'm referring to is Barbra Streisand, and she unleashes her Live In Concert 2006 opus, lifted from her record-breaking tour from last fall on May 8. The two-disc two-dozen track-set is sure to please even the most finicky fans of the superstar. The discs are heavy on her material from the 60’s, but also carry over to her 70’s hits, as well as never before performed and recorded songs such as “Unusual Way,” a medley of “Time Of Your Life/The Cockeyed Optimist,” and a brilliant version of “My Shining Hour.”
The first of the two dance artist CD’s that I referred to is a compilation from American Idol judge Paula Abdul, entitled Greatest Hits-Straight Up! The set includes eighteen tracks, six of which went to #1 and eight Top Ten singles. In addition to the audio, the set will include six music videos that stem from the half dozen #1 hits that Abdul acquired in her heyday, that include “Straight Up,” “Forever Your Girl,” “Cold Hearted,” Opposites Attract,” “Rush, Rush” and “The Promise Of A New Day.” Over a seven year period from 1988-1995, Abdul sold an astounding 30 million albums. I wonder if anyone ever told her she sounded “too pitchy!” The other dance artist that’s scheduled for a new release is Deborah Cox, with a CD entitled Destination Moon. Check this column for a full review at the time of its release.
The first of the two mainstream gay artists scheduled for new releases is Rufus Wainwright, who returns May 15 with Release The Stars. This will be Wainwright’s first self-produced album. Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys serves as the executive producer. The other artist to return to dance form is Erasure when they release Light At The End Of The World, which arrives domestically May 22. The album’s first single, “I Could Fall In Love With You,” will be released as an import on April 2.
Speaking of Erasure, they will join artists Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, The Dresden Dolls, The Gossip and The Misshapes, with host Margaret Cho, when they take the stage in celebration of the First Annual True Colors Tour to support The Human Rights Campaign. Their tour kicks off June 8th in Las Vegas at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Tickets went on sale March 16. This 15-city nationwide tour, presented by Logo, kicks off Gay & Lesbian Pride Month and will feature five hours of nonstop music with other exciting special guests appearing on select dates throughout the tour, including Rufus Wainwright, Rosie O’Donnell and Indigo Girls, with additional guests to be announced.
Dates and Cities are as follows:
June 8 Las Vegas, NV MGM Grand Garden Arena
June 9 Salt Lake City, UT USANA Amphitheatre
June 10 Denver, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre
June 12 Chicago, IL Auditorium Theatre
June 15 Atlantic City, NJ Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
June 16 Boston, MA Bank of America Pavilion
June 17 Washington, DC Merriweather Post Pavilion
June 18 New York, NY Radio City Music Hall
June 19 Toronto, ON Molson Amphitheatre
June 21 Atlanta, GA Chastain Park Amphitheatre
June 23 Dallas, TX Smirnoff Music Center
June 24 Houston, TX Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
June 27 San Diego, CA SDSU Open Air Theatre
June 29 San Francisco, CA Greek Theatre
June 30 Los Angeles, CA Greek Theatre
These reviews first appeared in The BottomLine Magazine in Palm Springs, CA
These CD Reviews first appeared in the BottomLine Magazine in Palm Springs, CA.
© 2007 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.