This makes perfect sense because there’s very little light in that decrepit, old, falling down house. The album is an anvil. And this live set celebrating the album’s completion ain’t exactly feathery, but it’s leavened a bit by some bizarre between song banter and the general merriment of the players. The listener will recognize that they have been transported to an alternate reality. This is not 2018. Right away, Neil offers part of the stage set (go-go boots, to be exact) to “the first topless woman onstage.” Someone (I suspect Billy Talbot) follows that up with “the faster you drink, the better we play!” It might seem inane today, but I suspect it was de rigueur on Sunset Blvd. in 1973. Anyway, we’re here to explore Roxy: Tonight is the Night Live. And I feel like a detective that cracked a decade’s long cold case. I’d been waiting for this forever and didn’t even know it.
Sonically, you realize what’s coming when hearing the first notes from Talbot’s bass. Everything is right out front. The vocals, guitars, bass, and somehow the drums are right in your face throughout. Seriously, it’s as if the listener and the band are standing forehead to forehead. It’s a challenge. A reckoning, if you will. If you don’t like Neil Young’s voice, this is the last Neil Young record you’ll want to hear. If you love his electric tone, it’s the first. It’s easy to get clear separation between the instruments and players when everything is this hot and this close. Neil’s acoustic sounds as plucky and snappy as ever during its initial appearance on “New Mama.” It crawls right out of the ditch and takes a stroll. Like some sort of petulant wild animal that should skitter off when approached, but refuses to follow the rules.
This is, as one might expect, a “Warts et al.” production. Neil mistakenly starts singing over an instrumental passage, noticeably and plainly. This would have been simple to remove, but it was left alone. On purpose. The band pretends they’re in Miami Beach for the performance’s entirety, and Neil acknowledges David Geffen’s presence in the audience more than once. Everything is a little indecipherable without any accompanying visuals for clarification of what was undoubtedly a freakish stage show. People describe the original studio album and the era’s shows as “sloppy,” and they’re right. “Tired Eyes” sounds like a drunken, late-night cat fight. With real cats. It’s one of my favorite portions of one of my most cherished albums. This is pure Rock and Roll. It’s fentanyl compared to Harvest’s morphine. Neil’s friends were dropping like flies, and the whole thing (musicians and music) seems to wobble on the edge of collapse. It’s breathtakingly austere. I was challenged at first to complete an entire listen without scampering away to strum my acoustic. Inspiration in the dark. Alchemy. Above all, a pristine document of a dirty, dirty time. It’s brilliant.
The three-sided set is well pressed (Pallas), if not perfect. It’s analog all the way, and that’s made obvious by the warmth and sheer presence of the instruments. This was a Record Store Day “first release” and is now widely available. Your time is now. Tonight could very well be the night. Don’t sleep on this one.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit released a six-song EP recorded at Denver’s Twist and Shout Records as an exclusive Record Store Day 2018 release. 3,000 copies were pressed, and Isbell actually advocated against buying any of them – which could explain why copies are still plentiful. Seems like he has a live one in the works from a recent run of Ryman shows that he’s more excited about. And it’s easy to see why. This set was recorded back in 2007, and the performance is not comparable to the modern day Isbell Experience. The band has come a long way.
And so has Isbell’s songwriting. I’d be shocked to hear him play “Grown” today. It’s not one of his craftier songs, but it’s simple and groovy, and it’s still one of my faves. As is “Goddamn Lonely Love,” which is very crafty and one of the finest popular musical compositions of the last two decades. “Outfit” is a classic, and I’d debate that with anyone. And win. All of these are included on Live at Twist and Shout 11.16.07, and all are more than serviceable versions, no matter what Isbell thinks about them. There’s a nifty cover of “Into the Mystic” with some cool acoustic work at the end too. The set is absolutely worth having for Isbell fans.
That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The recording itself is kind of flat and a bit muted. Conditions were likely less than ideal. The intimacy of the event comes through in the recording. There are some holes in the sound, mostly because the band was less muscular than it is now, but potentially because the venue couldn’t accommodate a full sonic assault. The listener can pick apart the individual members’ performances (plus), but no amount of mastering could fill in the sonic gaps (neutral). I’ve always been of the opinion that one can predict a band’s future success by the “size” of their sound. I’ve forecast great success for bands that I didn’t like simply because they made an undeniably big (albeit crappy) racket. You gotta have cojones to have a big sound. Maybe the folks who do also have the strength to push themselves past the inevitable setbacks and disappointments that trail any band that truly made it. I remember Isbell shows from this era. Some were great, some were forgettable. Isbell is legendarily sober at this point. In 2007, he was often sobriety’s opposite. But I digress. If he was drunk while recording this EP, it is not obvious. I remember thinking that the original (digital) release felt kind of like an afterthought. Never heard much about it, and the packaging seemed cheap and minimal. As if, someone had better things to do. It all seems more legit on a vinyl format (and it looks like I used to work with the guy responsible for the “LP package layout,” which is fun).
The Live at Twist and Shout pressing is mysterious, but good. I don’t know who did it, but it doesn’t have the dreaded encircled “U” in the dead wax, which I liken these days to Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A.” New West used to use United all the time, but that seems to have changed. Download card included. Good enough for rockers. Audiophiles beware.
Steve Earle and the Dukes released Live at the Continental Club in Austin, TX as an exclusive Record Store Day 2018 release. I’d had it in my stack, but put it back due to financial anxiety. It was still there a week later so I took that as a sign. (The more logical explanation is that there were more copies of the RSD titles pressed than in previous years.) I’m happy to have this one. I’m glad I circled back.
The set list spans the bulk of Earle’s sprawling career, but El Corazon material is lamentably absent. There are more Dukes in the band than there were when I caught them a while back. There’s a fiddling Duchess, and a new Duke on pedal steel. Earle hilariously recounted stories about the last steel guy he hired when I saw him play an in-store last year. Apparently, the guy was such an ass that he ruined the instrument in Earle’s estimation. I’m glad he recovered because I love the pedal steel. The performances on Continental are mostly great, but “The Devil’s Right Hand,” my favorite song in the set, is a sorry exception. It’s too speedy, like Earle wanted to please the crowd and get it over with. The quieter material works best here, as the sound is a little jumbled during the busier stuff. “The Galway Girl,” for instance, sounds like a blast, but the sonics get a little murky. Feels kinda like a Tough Mudder run with beer kegs at the end or something. Earle encores with “Johnny Come Lately” (I’m with Lebowski on the Eagles) and “Wild Thing,” which adds to the good time vibes. There’s a version of “Hey Joe” too, and this makes perfect sense for those familiar with the folk versions of the tune that predated Hendrix’s. There’s a party going on right here, a celebration that probably won’t last throughout the year, but could stand in until the real party arrives. I’ll probably supplement this live set with Earle’s Live From Austin installment from the esteemed (by me) New West series. That’ll give me a professional production from earlier in his career, and this more recent bootleg-ish (there is some feedback in the mix at times) release. That’ll about do it, I think.
You can still find this record online with a minimum of effort. It’s not pricey. If you’re a Steve Earle fan, you want it. If you’re a dyed-in-the wool audiophile, I’d probably leave it. Looks like this was mastered at Welcome to 1979 in Nashville, maybe, but I can’t tell where it was (well) pressed. Someone should pass a law to make that info more transparent. Anyway, it’s a cool document of where Earle is now, but he’ll likely be somewhere soon if he’s not already. If you liked his latest Outlaw Country studio album, and if you’re not too turned off by the roughness of this recording, this is a pretty cool document. I’m happy to have it in my collection.
I was most excited about the reissue of Tom Waits’s Orphans box set for this year’s Record Store Day, but this is the ninth review that I’ve written about this year’s event. If that gives you any indication of what’s coming… This should have been a big deal. The original set has been out of print and really expensive for years. RSD broke the set up into three separate releases: Bastards, Bawlers, and Brawlers. Orphans is Waits’s bestselling album ever. And one of his best albums. It’s composed of outtakes and rarities, some tribute tunes, soundtrack work, etc. I was able to get rid of my Sea of Love Soundtrack because the title track is included on Brawlers. Ditto for my copy of Disney’s Stay Awake compilation from 1988 because “Heigh Ho” is included on Bastards. There are readings and interpretations of works by Bukowski and Kerouac. Ramones and Daniel Johnston covers amongst others. The content is unquestionably great. It’s twelve sides of latter day Waits magic. Organized and sequenced into a coherent whole. It gives fans a panoramic view of one America’s most compelling popular artists of the 20 th and 21 st centuries. No kidding. All of that is true about Bastards, Brawlers, and Bawlers.
The problem is, as has so often been the case with RSD releases past, with the God forsaken pressings. Some sides are fine, some look like an orange peel. Or, in this case, gray/blue/red peel. The albums are colored. Isn’t that great! Colored vinyl, y’all! Which sounds like sandpaper under your stylus. That’s a rough $100 deal (including tax). But it gets worse…
These sets were marketed as exclusive RSD releases. They’re part of a wider reissue campaign, but they were not advertised on Waits’s website as imminent for a wide release next to the other available titles. Until after RSD. When it became apparent that they would be released in June (this month!) on standard black vinyl. For less than $80. That is squirrelly stuff, man. Sloppy at best, and deceptive whether intentional or not. No good. Waits is legendarily protective of his work. Why would he go through the painful process of remastering an entire catalog of material, then have it pressed on vinyl that sounds and looks like shag carpet?
I’m going to wait to see what the forums say about the pressing quality of the wider, standard release, and I’ll plot my next move (or not) from there. I’d rather have a set that sounds good than one that looks cool. Here’s my take on the state of vinyl pressings, in general: get it right, already. Do what’s right for your fans. If you don’t know how to press a damn record, ask someone who does. RTI doesn’t have this problem. Ever. Does not. United advertises being the longest running pressing plant in the USA. Been at it since 1949. That’s almost 70 years. But do they have 70 years of experience? Or have they had one experience for seven decades? Vinyl is expensive, as it should be. It’s a much more human format than anything you’ll find in the digital realm. But the consumer should be able to tell what they’re getting into. We should at least know where the records were pressed so that we can make an informed decision.
I began digitizing my ticket stub collection a while back. It’s been a huge, borderline obsessive project involving dates, venue info, setlists, and personal notes about whom I was with and what we were up to. When I can remember. It’s going to take me years. An embarrassingly large proportion of the stubs and ephemera are from my days as a Spread Head. Seriously, I have, like, 72 Widespread Panic entries in this album, and I didn’t retain most of my stubs from those days. Panic released their first live CD set about 20 years ago, and they celebrated the release with the largest record release party in history. 100k of us got nutty in downtown Athens, GA. It’s the only time I ever went to a show and didn’t actually see the band. But I saw plenty. Panic just issued Light Fuse, Get Away as a vinyl box set for the first time ever. I’d have been excited, except that their reissue campaign from a few years back was more embarrassing than my collection of stubs. Some of the crappiest vinyl I own. I was prepared for a letdown.
And I was blown away by the quality of this release. Holy smokes, this is a nice set. I always enjoyed the sound of Panic bootlegs from outdoor shows, and that’s the vibe I get from this collection. (Although I believe this is a compilation from various shows and differing venues in 1997.) The deep end sounds especially punchy on this remastered set. While the highs could be a little airier, it actually serves to mimic the muggy humidity from the outdoor release party. Which led into that night, which bled into the next day, and then the crash. There’s no crash in this set. Starts strong and ends that way. “Diner” is split between the first two sides, which is less than ideal, but it’s far from my favorite song in the set, so whatever. The highlights are plentiful. “Disco,” “Love Tractor,” “Papa Legba,” and “Gimme” are my personal faves. Perhaps inevitably, the pendulum of my musical taste had swung so far into the Panic World that it had to come crashing back to the other side, but this set is a reminder of how great this band once was. They were. Absolutely. It was not just because we were all so crazed. I mean, we were. But the music was the thing. And this set goes a long way towards proving it. I always loved it, and this set is a jewel in my collection. So great.
I’d read online that there was going to be a special edition of this set that actually came with fireworks. That article disappeared, and the band’s office had no knowledge of it. Maybe it was an April fool’s announcement. Regardless, the packaging is exquisite with artwork on each of the individual sleeves. Seems like such a colossal event that I’d have liked to have seen at least one retrospective essay included, but I’m splitting hairs. And I’ve saved a surprise for last. This set was pressed at United in Nashville! Apparently, the band’s bassist is an advisor to those folks. Perhaps he advised them to start making good records. Here’s to hope for the future from this nod to the past. Get you some.