The Fray at Jones Beach, June 25th
The few fans who were gathered in the Jones Beach parking lot prior to the doors opening for the triple bill of The Fray, Jack’s Mannequin and the Richard Swift band, had no idea that another music-related story was unfolding on the other side of the country that would probably become the biggest news story of the year. News reports were circulating out of Los Angeles that Michael Jackson had suffered cardiac arrest while preparing for rehearsals for his upcoming 50-show tour scheduled to take place in London in July. A short time before the Richard Swift band took the stage, it was confirmed that Jackson had died, only a couple of months prior to his 51st birthday. Oddly, the news didn’t seem to have much effect on the mostly high-school and college-age crowd, who were too young to have even been born when Jackson’s Thriller was released in 1982. Midway through Richard Swift’s set, he acknowledged Jackson’s death to the sparse crowd, appearing neither sad nor even surprised, yet respectful, with the crowd hardly reacting. Swift and his band played a relaxed, piano-based set that revolved around his accomplished compositions and the band’s quirky sensibility. Jack’s Mannequin provided a more upbeat approach and drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd. The group also primarily makes pop music that revolves around keyboards. Furiously moving through its compact set, the band displayed keen pop instincts and a likable vitality that’s truly refreshing. Demonstrating the breadth of its influences, the group played a dead-on cover of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” as its encore.
As good as the first two bands were, The Fray was truly exceptional. Catching the Denver-based band at this point in its career, with only two albums out and performing at a beautiful, acoustically perfect amphitheater, was a real treat. It’s so obvious that this is a band on the cusp of superstardom. I can’t think of another American band who has been around for such a relatively short period of time that has already made so much great music and obviously is no flash in the pan. The band’s lineup is very unique, with the four principal musicians being a drummer, two guitarists and a keyboard player. The band uses two utility support musicians, one primarily playing bass. Lead singer Issac Slade, who also plays keyboards, is a charismatic, intense lead vocalist with a distinctive vocal style that is even more impassioned live. The members are all excellent musicians and have that special chemistry that simply can’t be forced. What really makes the Fray so incredible, though, is its songs. While some albums may have one, two, or maybe even three really great songs, The Fray’s two albums, How To Save A Life from 2006 and its latest, a self-titled release which came out earlier this year, are filled with gripping, emotional music that truly comes from the heart. Like the two opening acts, the group’s songs are keyboard-based, but, like Coldplay’s music, the seering guitars add a rock muscle to the music that propels the group to unimagined musical heights. There’s no question that this band had tremendous pressure on it to follow up its brilliant debut. Wisely, the band members took their time and made a truly sensational follow-up. It’s that kind of mentality that will assure the group a bright future.
The band played a mix of songs from its two albums. It’s amazing how new songs such as “You Found Me” and “Never Say Never” have just as much impact as the group’s earlier smash hits such as “How To Save A Life” and “Over My Head (Cable Car).” The group’s songs are extremely personal, but like all truly great songs, they resonate with millions of people. Slade seems comfortable playing the commanding frontman while singing at his piano. Guitarist Joe King also got the opportunity to sing two songs, and his harmonizing with Slade is yet another element that makes this band so special. During its 90-minute set, the band never became demonstrative to the point of marring the epic nature of its performance. It’s also very encouraging to see a band of such high quality with such a young following. It proves that young people are hungry for good music and, when given the choice, are rapturously drawn to a group as committed as the Fray. I’m sure the next time the Fray comes through the area, it will be headlining Madison Square Garden and finding a ticket will be nearly impossible.
Paperback Writer: Summer Reading
You might be tempted to read yet another overwrought pulp mystery novel, boring political screed or celebrity tell-all, but instead here are some books on music to please fans of all stripes. A must-read, perfect summer book is Rock Star Babylon: Outrageous Rumors, Legends & Raucous True Tales of Rock & Roll Icons (Plume) by Jon Holmes. Yeah, I know some of this stuff is a notch above celebrity gossip, but taken in the context of the music that was made by these freaks of rock, it’s pretty funny. Equally fun is Battle of the Band Names: The Best and Worst Band Names Ever And The Brilliant, Colorful, Stupid Ones in Between (Abrams Image) by Bart Bull. At the other end of the spectrum, but no less readable is Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall (Serpents Tail), edited by Peter Wild. Books of music-based literary fiction can be quite interesting and show how close prose and music can sometimes be. This book, inspired by one band, is something a bit new, though, and the cult group The Fall is a wise choice. The books reflects just how passionate some people are about the group. A fictional approach is also the case in Amplified (Melville), edited by Julie Schaper and Steve Horwitz, to which musical artists including Rhett Miller, Jim White, Maria McKee, Mary Gauthier, Laura Viers, Chris Smither, David Onley and Patti Larkin have all contributed short stories. In Please Step Back (Melville House), Ben Greenman has created an entire novel that may be a thinly veiled fictionalized biography of Sly Stone.
Surveys of musical trends or genres, or sub-genres, can also be great reads and several recent authors are taking a very personal approach. I Hate New Music: The Classic Rock Manifesto (Fireside), by Dave Thompson, is a hilarious diatribe against what passes for alternative, grunge and contemporary pop and rock. Although I don’t agree with all of the choices of music that Thompson trashes, nor with all of those he praises, he obviously knows his stuff and has written every word here with his sharp British tongue planted firmly in his cheeky cheek. Taking a more studious, yet also personal approach is It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for The Next American Music (Faber & Faber), by Amanda Petrusich. Exploring the thriving American roots scene, Petrusich has written a book that says as much about culture and America as it does about music. A great companion title is Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music (Faber & Faber), by Dana Jennings. Two other titles that survey musical trends are DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture (Marion Boyars), by Amy Spencer and Notable Moments of Women In Music (Hal Leonard), by Jay Werner.
Nothing beats getting lost in a good rock biography. One biography that is actually the biography of three musical artists is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation (Atria), by Sheila Weller. Simply one of the best books written on pop music, Weller’s colossal achievement delves beyond music and examines how this trio of singer-songwriters defined the changing role of women, not just in music, but in society. This beautifully written, masterfully researched book is an absolute must-read. Mitchell is also covered in Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period (Free Press), by Michele Mercer. Mercer is a perceptive and brilliant writer and benefits greatly by having interviewed Mitchell for the book, covering her albums from Blue to Hejira. The only minor complaint is that Mercer spends way too much time on Blue and does not give the other albums equal consideration. A book on Joni’s jazz albums would really be cool. Two thick, well-researched biographies not to be missed are Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd (Thunder’s Mouth Press), by Mark Blake, and Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers (Omnibus Press) by John Masouri. Two other Omnibus Press titles worth checking out are Reelin’ In The Years, a biography of Steely Dan, by Brian Sweet, and Amy, Amy, Amy: The Amy Winehouse Story, by Nick Johnstone. From Backbeat don’t miss I Want To Take You Higher: The Life And Times Of Sly & The Family Stone, by Jeff Kaliss. Finally, DaCapo has a put out a new edition of the definitive Crosby, Stills & Nash The Biography, written by Dave Zimmer and with photographs by Henry Diltz. Three excellent music memoirs are A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Broadway), by Suze Rotolo, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business (Gotham), by Danny Goldberg, and Heaven and Hell: My Life In The Eagles (1974-2001) (Wiley), by Don Felder.
If you want to dig deep into some of the greatest albums ever recorded, check out two entries in the Legendary Sessions series from Billboard: Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited by Colin Irwin and The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet by Alan Clayson. Another great series is Music Icons from Taschen, filled with information and including beautiful photography and a gorgeous layout (a Taschen trademark), the series includes two new titles: Dylan and Bob Marley, with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix due this fall.
Another great series is the 33 1/3 series from Continuum, which comprises bite-sized books, each on an individual album, that have been coming out over the past several years. Some interesting recent titles in the series are Radio City by Bruce Eaton on Big Star; XO by Matthew LeMay on Elliot Smith; The Gilded Palace of Sin by Bob Proehl on The Flying Burrito Brothers; Rum, Sodomy & The Lash by Jeffrey T. Roesgen on The Pouges; and Shoot Out The Lights by Hayden Childs on Richard and Linda Thompson. Continuum has also just published an updated and revised edition of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia by Michael Gray.
Now, if you’re going to Jack and Petronia’s beach house, I can suggest six beautiful books as a gift. Lights, Camera, Soundtracks: The Ultimate Guide to Popular Music in the Movies (Canongate) by Martin C. Strong with Brendon Griffin, an exhaustive, 900-plus page encyclopedia of film music; Extraordinary Records (Taschen), the ultimate album cover art book on colored vinyl albums that is easily one of the most stylish album cover art books ever published; The Man With Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Art of Alan Aldridge (Abrams), a stunning book on the art Aldridge has created for books, magazines, comics, the Beatles as well as iconic album covers for the Who, Cream and Elton John; Revolutions In Sound: Warner Bros. Records The First Fifty Years (Chronicle), by Warren Zanes, a coffee-table history of one of the great American record companies of all time; For The Love of Vinyl: The Album Art Of Hipgnosis (Picturebox), by Storm Thorgerson & Aubrey Powell, a look at the iconic album covers conceived by the Hipgnosis team, most notably all the covers of the albums of Pink Floyd and Pink Floyd Reflections; and Echoes (Angry Penguin) by Bob Carruthers and Tommy Vance, a book and four-DVD review of the music of Pink Floyd.