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Complete list of all museums in the central valley
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Listing of most galleries in Central California.
Brian's Love of Music
Brian McCoy, December 6, 2012
The formula for making a long-distance relationship work is
the same whether you're a young couple in love or a couple of guys in a band:
Keep open the lines of communication and make the most of your time together.
That's just the predicament the musicians in Trapt faced a few years
back. Rooted in the childhood friendship of guitarist-vocalist Chris Brown and
bassist Peter Charell, the group survived high school in Los Gatos only to find
itself threatened in the fall of 1999 when its members scattered to three
different coastal college campuses.
Charell enrolled at University of California, Santa Cruz, while Brown and
guitarist Simon Ormandy took classes at UC Santa Barbara. The band's original
drummer was caught in the middle at Californa Polytechnic State University, San
"It was hard to keep everything going strongly," bassist Charell told me in an
interview a few years back. "I would drive down to where the drummer lived and
throw his drums in the car, and then we'd go down to Santa Barbara.
"And every time we'd get together, we would really focus on what we were working
The miles and effort paid off, not in marriage and a family but in a major-label
record deal. Trapt has released four albums over the past decade with a fifth,
“Reborn,” due in this month. The band – which performs November 28 at the Fat
Cat in Modesto – also features Robb Torres (lead guitar) and Dylan Thomas Howard
In the process, Trapt has created a distinct hard-rock sound rooted in Charell
and Brown's early diet of Korn, Soundgarden, Pink Floyd, 311 and Metallica. The
two formed an ad hoc group for their first gig, a high school performance, but
the enthusiastic response encouraged them to get serious about music. Ormandy
joined in 1996 when the group spent the summer jamming – and partying – at a
guest house behind his home. He left the band in 2008.
Back in school, Trapt began honing their musical and songwriting skills. In late
1997, the group recorded its first album of original songs and took to playing
local venues like the Cactus Club. Within a few months, Trapt was opening for
Papa Roach and Spike 1000.
Ironically, it took the separation that came with college to truly unite the
musicians. Those long drives up and down the coast just to steal a few hours of
rehearsal demonstrated to everyone how much they prized playing in the band.
Its student status gave Trapt an in on California campuses, and they became
favorites on the Isla Vista party scene. There was also the occasional trip to
Los Angeles, and it was a 2000 date at the famed Troubadour that piqued Immortal
Records' interest in the group.
That deal fell through, but Trapt couldn't help but be encouraged. The players
quit school, convened in Southern California, and began playing the Los Angeles
"It was the kind of pay-to-play thing, you know, but we never had that problem,"
Charell said. "It was a pretty good scene down there."
For all that, Trapt bottomed out in the summer of 2001, seeing its first
major-label deal fizzle in eight weeks over creative differences. In addition,
the band's original drummer quit.
The group, however, persevered and there's been no looking back. Trapt has
gladly traded the miles it used to drive between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara
for the thousands more that will take it to venues across the country.
"We're up to it,” Charrell said. “It's fun."
Brian's Love of Music
Brian McCoy, December 1, 2012
By any definition, Jim Brickman is a pop star.
He has sold millions of albums, garners radio airplay with his hook-happy
singles, and when he tours plays before packed houses coast to coast.
So why don't more people know Jim Brickman?
It's a matter of format. Brickman is a staple of adult-contemporary pop, so when
his catchy yet soothing piano melodies pour out of the radio, they're wedged
between Taylor Swift’s latest and some Phil Collins nugget. The
adult-contemporary format is the red-headed stepchild of the recording industry,
overlooked by the media (don't expect Brickman to turn up in Rolling Stone) and
scorned by critics (the ever hipper-than-thou deride it as ear candy). It also
happens to be one of the sturdies radio formats in America, one that bestows on
its standout artists a much more stable and satisfying brand of fame.
"It's a longer road, but it tends to last longer, too," Brickman told me in an
interview a few years back. "It takes longer to get the attention of people, but
then they are much more loyal. It's more of a grass-roots kind of thing."
Brickman attracts people's attention through recordings but he earns their
loyalty with his warm, no-frills live show. The pianist performs November 17 at
the Gallo Center for the Arts and November 18 at the Tower Theater in Fresno.
Brickman brings more than his accessible instrumental pop to the affair; he uses
music and humor to create an evening that uplifts as it entertains.
"It's not my feeling that people want to come to a recital," Brickman said.
"They want to be entertained. And I've always thought the best way to do that
was to be myself. So my sense of humor comes through in the presentation of the
As does his canny knack for writing melodies. Brickman considers himself a pop
songwriter above everything else, and his albums feature a mix of hummable
instrumentals and gentle ballads usually sung by guest artists. It's the latter
that have earned Brickman his radio airplay, most notably for "Valentine" (with
Martina McBride), "The Gift" (Collin Raye and Susan Ashton) and "Simple Things"
(Rebecca Lynn Howard). Working with vocalists, he said, is "somewhat
"I was so used to doing it for jingles and that. I was very used to going into
the studio with singers and them singing my stuff."
Brickman’s overall approach to music is reflected in many of the titles he’s
chosen over the course of a near-20-year recording career – “By Heart” (1995),
“Visions of Love” (1998), “Peace” (2003), “Grace” (2005), “Hope” (2007), “All Is
Calm” (2011). His latest releases are “Romanza” (2011) and the children’s disc
“Piano Lullabies” (2012).
They all tend to contain the kind of unabashedly emotional music critics love to
hate. Brickman, however, rarely turns up on their radar.
"You'd think I'd get slammed a lot more than I do, being in a category with
Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow," he said. "But this (adult-contemporary)
audience is ignored by the music-journalist community.
"I think that at some point along the way the music journalists decided it was
their job to talk about the trends and the stuff that's cutting-edge. Basically,
that's what their role is.
"It would be nice for someone to write about you," Brickman added. "But then
you're handing over the power of telling people who you are. I don't really feel
that I'm missing out on any of that. I love the fact that people are getting
from my performances ... really what I mean to be sending out there."
Raised in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Brickman
began playing piano at age 4. After high school, he took liberal arts and
business courses at Case Western Reserve University while also furthering his
instrumental studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
In his early 20s, Brickman had gotten into jingle writing, collaborating with
lyricist Ellen Wohl. The team wrote for a number of Ohio-based firms before
moving to Los Angeles, where Brickman's clients came to include Disney and
The pianist was 32 before he moved from commercial spots to concert stages.
Brickman recorded a six-song demo that caught the attention of Windham Hill
Records, the pioneering new age label then in the process of expanding its
offerings. Windham Hill released Brickman's debut, "No Words" (1994).
As his audience has grown over the ensuing years, so has the scope of Brickman's
career. He's taped pledge-drive specials for PBS; written a book, "Simple
Things," on the importance of savoring life's pleasures; and now hosts a
syndicated radio program, "Your Weekend with Jim Brickman.”
As for larger celebrity, “it does not look appealing in the least,” he said. “My
relative success is perfectly fine with me. (The music) touches people, people
connect to it, and use it in their lifestyle. I would much rather be known
because people enjoy my songs."
Comedian George Lopez
An Interview. Brian McCoy,
Sept 24, 2012
The Central Valley knew George Lopez when.
There were years – back in the ‘80s and ‘90s – when
Lopez was a regular on comedy stages from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Young
and edgy, he earned laughs and more than a few knowing grins with his
tales of growing up Latino in the San Fernando Valley. All that, of
course, is in the past. Today, Lopez is among the most recognizable faces
in America, a popular comedian who has starred in his own television
series and plays to packed houses wherever he goes. Lopez performs
September 28 at the Bob Hope Theatre in Stockton. All of which begs
the question: Has success changed George Lopez? As someone who
interviewed him three times over the stretch of a decade, I would suggest
"I still work hard," Lopez told me a few years back.
"I haven't taken anything for granted.”
He certainly hasn’t gone Hollywood; indeed, when I was interviewing him
before the fame hit, Lopez came across as openly angry and not a little
bit self-righteous as he considered the obstacles Hollywood presents
"I'm trying to maintain my integrity in an industry
that doesn't really allow you to do that," Lopez had said then, noting how
he would continue to turn down the drug dealer-gang banger roles Hollywood
was offering. ''If people want to think that this is arrogance, then it
is. "I think it's nice to have somebody who's not willing to sell
himself out,'' he added. ''I don't feel I'm the last honest Latino, but
I'm one." When I reminded him of that statement a decade later – when his
sitcom was an ABC hit – Lopez sounded gruffly pleased. "My break
didn't come through the Hollywood system," Lopez said. "So if you remain
pure, when your opportunity comes ... it makes you appreciate it that much
more. You earned it."
Lopez's parents divorced when he was very young, and
the comic was raised by his stern but loving grandparents in Mission
Hills. Humor was always a big part of his life, with Richard Pryor, George
Carlin, Redd Foxx and Cheech and Chong among his earliest influences.
There was a television role model as well in the form of "Chico and the
Man" star Freddie Prinze.
Lopez decided by age 12 that he wanted to do stand-up, although he was
well into his 20s before he got serious about it. There followed those
years on the road, the trials of which Lopez has come to appreciate when
he finally made it big. "A lot of my friends are still out there
doing it," Lopez said. "It's one of the hardest jobs I've ever had, and I
used to work in a factory.
"I'll always be a comedian," he added. "It's in my blood."
Styx with James "JY"
An Interview. Brian McCoy,
August 28, 2012
When James "JY" Young discusses the role his band, Styx, plays in the
lives of its fans, he focuses on nostalgia. For many, catching Styx in
concert today offers the chance to "relive the soundtrack to their
gloriously misspent youth," he said.
Toward the end of an interview a few years back from his suburban Chicago
home, the guitarist took that notion a step further, noting that a Styx
show provides that same once-young audience a brief respite from the
travails of adult life.
"People need relief from the first quarter-hour of the news," Young said.
"They need to be able to go somewhere and just celebrate, to go to a
Central Valley fans have the opportunity to do just that as the band
performs September 7 at the Madera District Fair.
Young espousing the golden glow of nostalgia seems oddly uncharacteristic
for Styx, a band that sold millions by mixing pop smarts and rock rhythms
with songs that often, albeit self-consciously, had "something to say."
"Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)" is hardly "Fun, Fun, Fun."
And, in truth, Young seems to have made only an uneasy truce with the
concept of Styx as an oldies act. He speaks optimistically of the group
scoring one more hit.
"We really do want to take another crack at
climbing to the top of that mountain," Young said. "People need to see
this wonderful new lineup that Styx has."
In addition to Young, the lineup features Tommy
Shaw (guitar), Larry Gowan (keyboards), Ricky Phillips (bass) and Todd
While Styx plays Madera alone, it’s not unusual in recent years to see the
group on bills with the likes of R.E.O. Speedwagon, Journey and Kansas.
The classic-rock constituency that turns out for such tours wants more
than just the hits, Young said. The musicians
must also "cut a youthful figure."
"It makes everyone in the audience feel younger and it makes them feel
good as well," he said. "The most important thing is that the band comes
back out not as another pale imitation of what they used to be."
That certainly could be an issue with Styx, seeing as how the group
includes just two members (Young and Shaw) from the lineup that set an
industry mark by recording four consecutive triple-platinum
albums ("The Grand Illusion," "Pieces of Eight," "Cornerstone" and
"Paradise Theater") between 1977 and '81. Most conspicuously absent is
Dennis DeYoung, Styx's founding singer-keyboardist whose penchant for pop
balladry gave the original group its biggest hits even as it sowed the
seeds of its demise.
DeYoung departed in 1984, returning to the fold for brief reunions in the
early and mid-'90s. Looking back on the initial split, Young sees it as
almost a natural development given the musicians'
temperament and the group's overwhelming commercial success.
"To me, rock 'n' roll is a team sport," Young said. "The more a team can
cooperate and work together and be able to appreciate their differences,
"But when people are young and full of hormones and vinegar and whatever
else, everybody's out to make a name for themselves. I think our
differences became too great. The team spirit began
to fade under all those pressures that people are subjected to."
Excessive success was hardly an issue when
Young joined the band at the dawn of the '70s. Back then, the group –
DeYoung, brothers Chuck and John Panozzo (bass and drums, respectively)
and John Curulewski (guitarist) – were just young Chicago musicians hungry
for a record deal.
In 1972, Styx signed with RCA subsidiary Wooden Nickel and over
the next two years recorded four albums that owed more to the art rock of
Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer than anything else.
Sales were dismal, however, and it looked like
Styx might be sentenced to a lifetime of playing Midwestern roadhouses
when "Lady," a cut from the band's second album, became a local hit in
The single broke through nationally, rising to No. 6, and helped Styx
secure a deal with A&M. With the release of its label debut,
"Equinox" (1975), Styx quickly evolved into one of the era's most popular
bands. Blending DeYoung's pop sensibilities with the twin guitar attack of
Young and Shaw (who replaced Curulewski), the group established itself as
album-rock heroes. Such songs as "Light Up," "Lorelei," "Come Sail Away,"
"Crystal Ball," "Renegade," and "Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man")
offered a winning
mix of high vocal harmonies and aggressive pop-rock, Midwestern
working-class values and doses of pop psychology.
The band's charms, however, were lost on the
New York- and Los Angeles-based music critics, who dismissed Styx as
"corporate rock." Young said that the group's very success doomed it to
"Critics like to champion things," he said. "But we were just another
heartland band that was faceless, without any real personality ... that
could be easily dismissed and easily criticized. So we just developed very
Styx's turning point came in 1979 when "Babe" –
a ballad DeYoung had written for his wife – topped the charts for two
weeks. Its success exacerbated a growing schism within the band, DeYoung
wanting to pursue more melodic and theatrical ideas while Shaw envisioned
the band hewing to its rock roots.
DeYoung won the debate, for the time being.
Under his direction, Styx cut its biggest hit to date, "Paradise Theater"
(1981), a concept album that used a decaying inner-city movie palace as a
metaphor for the crumbling American dream. Encouraged by its success,
DeYoung hatched "Kilroy Was Here" (1983), a science-fiction project about
a future in which rock 'n' roll was forbidden. The videos and tour found
the band donning costumes; the hit singles, the mildly techno "Mr. Roboto"
and the ballad "Don't Let It End," alienated many in the group's core
They had the same effect on Shaw, who left in 1984; DeYoung soon followed.
For his part, Young realizes there were more than just artistic
differences at work.
"We were all five of us carried up in this whirlwind of incredible success
and incredible pressure," he said. "The machine kind of takes over. It
just kind of got to that point after 1983, when Tommy had to jump off the
The members of Styx spent the rest of the decade issuing solo albums
before rebanding in 1990 minus Shaw, then working with Jack Blades and Ted
Nugent in Damn Yankees. Styx scored a hit when a disk jockey spliced
Persian Gulf War sound bites onto the DeYoung ballad "Show Me the Way."
A 1995 greatest hits package precipitated
another reunion and tour, but the good feelings weren't meant to last.
Health issues entered into the equation, most notably John Panozzo's
died in 1996) and the strange viral infection that made DeYoung
hypersensitive to bright lights. When he proved reluctant to tour, Young
and Shaw decided to press on without him.
The ensuing years have seen the guitarists
develop a closer relationship than during Styx's heyday.
"Tommy and I have an unspoken sort of
connection," Young said. "I think when we did get back together in late
'95 and early '96, we both recognized that the other guy had something
that we might
not possess. We are both collaborative artists who work better as part of
"Going to a Styx concert is just a cheerful place," he added. "I've found
that something that was self-serving and purposeless in a way has
Willie Royal of Willie &
An Interview. Brian McCoy,
August 9, 2012
Willie Royal’s music defies easy
There certainly are elements of jazz in the violinist’s approach, as well
as traces of
world beat picked up, in great part, from his global travels.
There also are noticeable Latin beats and nuances, just the thing you’d
expect from a performer who first found fame playing seaside Mexican
cantinas 20-plus years ago as one half of Willie and Lobo.
In other words, expect all manner of influences and flourishes August 19
when at Tuolumne River Lodge when Royal’s side project, Willie and the
Locos, takes the stage. The band – which also performs August 16 in Mill
Valley – features Bill Macpherson (guitar), Nee Sackey
(bass, vocals), Danny Campbell (drums), Kevin Flournoy
(keyboards) and Cole Berry (percussion).
Royal was born in El Paso, Texas, the son of an Air Force lieutenant
colonel, and was raised near bases in Turkey, Germany and France before
settling in Florida. He took up violin at 8 and studied classical music,
but inspired by the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli, began
working in other genres. Under the influence of the Rolling Stones'
"Country Honk," he turned his energies to rock, occasionally jamming with
the likes of Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts.
Royal spent much of the '70s on the road, absorbing reggae, jazz and salsa
while touring across Europe, Canada, South America and New Zealand. By the
early ‘80s, he was living in Mexico. It was there he met Wolfgang
“Lobo” Fink, a native of Bavaria who first picked up the guitar as an
18-year-old in the German navy. Inspired by Gypsy guitarist Manitas de
Plata, Fink spent a year studying in southern France before returning to
Germany to form Lailo, a flamenco group. By 1983, he was working in Mexico
as a solo act.
Royal and Fink were playing the same restaurant in San Miguel de Allende
when the manager suggested they collaborate. It would be 1990, however,
before they officially became a duo.
The pair went on to record 10 albums – including “Gypsy Boogaloo” (1993),
“Caliente” (1997), “Wild Heart” (1999), “Manana” (2003) – that blend the
improvisation of jazz with world beat and Latin rhythms. Willie and Lobo
garnered some smooth jazz airplay but Royal told me in an interview a few
years back that they prided themselves on creating the uncategorizable.
"Creatively, it's a great feeling not to be pigeonholed," Royal told me a
few years back in an interview. "I like to put out our albums once in a
while and play and say, 'My God, where does that come from?' "
The two have not recorded together since “Zambra” (2006) but are set to
announce a 2013. In the meantime, head down to the river and go a bit
It’s accepted wisdom among music critics that mainstream
rock went through a pronounced trough in the 1980s. Maybe that was to be
expected after the remarkable creative growth the genre experienced over
the two previous decades. Many rock writers point the finger at MTV and
the rise of the video for making pop music once and forever about style
over substance. Certainly, almost all come right out and thank God that
grunge came in to blow apart the ‘80s rock’s worst crime: hair bands.
More than 20 years later, however, there is a creeping respect for
everything ‘80s. No one’s quite ready to equate Duran Duran with the
Beatles but the music has acquired the respectful sheen of nostalgia as
those ‘80s babies have kids of their own.
Brad Gillis confirmed that for me in an interview a few years back
regarding the continued success of his band, Night Ranger.
"This thing kind of comes around in cycles," the guitarist said. "The
whole grunge thing was hitting hard (by 1990) and no one wanted to hear
'80s music. But we've noticed a lot of people reverting back to the '80s
stuff. It was all about having a good time and partying with your friends.
All positive stuff."
The core of Night Ranger – Gillis, Jack Blade (vocals, bass) and Kelly
Keagy (drums) – remains intact 30 years after the
groups’hit-making prime. Joined by Joel Hoekstra (guitar)
and Eric Levy (keyboards), they are prepared to headline the Sierra View
Music Festival. Set for August 24-25 at Oakdale’s JH Ranch, the event also
features Winger, Great White, Gloriana and Edens Edge, among others.
Sharing a bill with the likes of Winger and Great White cannot help but
give the event an ‘80s vibe. The bands still rock but times definitely
"It was different in the '80s," Gillis said. "We were working a lot and
partying a lot, and it was a way different
ballgame back then. Now, it's more of a business. We're taking care of our
are more together now. No big pressure. It's justbeen
Of course, if not for the years of struggle and subsequent success, the
musicians would not be enjoying their current status. As Gillis related to
me the band's commercial rise and fall, Night Ranger followed much the
same course as contemporaries Styx, Journey and R.E.O. Speedwagon, selling
its rock 'n' roll soul for a handful of hit ballads.
It seems an unlikely fate for a Gillis-founded band. A
lifelong guitar player, he broke into the Bay Area music
scene at 19 when he joined the funk-rock outfit Rubicon.
Rubicon cut two albums for the now-defunct 20th Century Fox
Records before disbanding. Gillis and two bandmates, Blades and Keagy,
went on to form the short-lived hard rock act Stereo. The group then
changed its name to Night Ranger.
quickly established itself in Northern California, thanks in no small part
to promoter Bill Graham, who
arranged for the group to open for Judas Priest, Santana and the Doobie
virtually the same time, Gillis was contacted by Ozzy Osbourne about
stepping in to the lead guitar slot after the tragic death of Randy
Rhoads. Gillis finished out the tour with Osbourne, which included
recording the live album "Speak of the Devil" (1982). He might have stayed
with Osbourne permanently if not for the growing success of Night Ranger.
"I joined Ozzy Osbourne and did that for about a year,"
Gillis said. "I was 24 years old and that pretty much
sunk right into me –playing before thousands of people every night, the
Signed to Boardwalk/MCA, Night Ranger's debut album, "Dawn
Patrol," garnered attention in early 1983 with the rock radio hit "Don't
Tell Me You Love Me." The pattern repeated itself on the follow-up,
"Midnight Madness," which began selling on the strength of the
composition "(You Can Still) Rock in America."
just wanted to write an American song that would bean
anthem," Gillis said of the track's genesis. "I just sat
down with him and helped with the music. He pretty much wrote all the
lyrics to that."
It was Keagy who composed the song that made Night Ranger.
A power ballad in the "Keep On Lovin' You" mode, "Sister Christian" was
released as a single in the spring of 1984. It reached No. 5 on the
Billboard chart, pushed "Midnight Madness" past platinum and transformed
the band's career virtually overnight.
"We saw us jump from 3,000-seaters to 15,000-seaters inside
of two months," Gillis recalled. "In Wisconsin, we
pulled into one town with our tour bus, and (the marquee) said, 'Night
Ranger. Sold Out.' Eight thousand people, man."
The similarly melodic "When You Close Your Eyes" kept Night
Ranger on pop radio through the fall of '84, at
which time the band left the road to record its third album. As the
sessions proceeded, MCA left no doubt as to what it wanted to hear.
"The record company ... wanted more 'Sister Christian' ballads," Gillis
said. "And that kind of screwed the band
up. That's how we lost our audience.
"We lost our rock foundation. Nothing was up and powerful
... it took its toll in the late '80s."
The first single off "Seven Wishes," "Sentimental Street,"
was another dose of power balladry and returned Night
Ranger to the pop top 10. But neither of its '85 follow-ups generated much
airplay. Night Ranger soon called it a night.
"We pretty much saw ourselves going down," Gillis said. "We went from
playing big venues down to 3,000-seaters in '88 or early '89. We felt like
we needed to take a break anyway."
Night Ranger reformed in 1995 for a very simple reason –money.
"We got a call from Japan that they wanted to get the
original band reunited for a tour," Gillis said. "That got
us back together. It was so much fun."
To what does Gillis credit Night Ranger's renaissance?
Nostalgia is certainly part of it.
"(Audiences) want to relive old memories," Gillis said. "They go see us
for the nostalgia and the memories and
just to relive that time. We give them a service."
Brian Simpson Interview
Brian McCoy, July 15, 2012
has toured and recorded with an impressive array of jazz artists over the
years: George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Kirk Whalum,
Jonathan Butler. He has served as
musical director for 15 years and
filled the same position with the Smooth Jazz Cruise featuring Marcus
Miller and David Sanborn for eight.
Over the past two decades, the keyboardist-composer also has pursued a
solo career. Simpson’s fourth album, “South
Beach” (2010), raised his profile in the
smooth jazz genre considerably, thanks in large part to the extensive
airplay the title track received.
Simpson’s summer schedule is dominated by Koz dates but we have the
opportunity to catch him fronting his own band
July 27 at the Tuolumne River Lodge presented by Samba Arts Group.
Here’s what Simpson has to say regarding “South Beach,” how he writes and
the current state of smooth jazz.
Question: Looking back on “South Beach” from the
perspective of two years, what is your take on the album? Did it achieve
what you hoped, in both creative and commercial terms?
Simpson: As with my previous CDs, I put considerable
effort into making each song a unique statement that can stand on its own
yet be an integral part of a cohesive collection of songs. I am always
somewhat limited as to what songs I can do live due to the fact that I
(and most contemporary jazz artists) cannot afford to travel with my own
band and have to pick up musicians in different localities.
There has been an upside to this, however, in that I've discovered some
amazing musicians around the globe that I otherwise would have never met.
Whether it is evident or not, underlying much of my music is simply a
funky blues and I've found a lot of musicians out there that can do that
music justice. (In Modesto), I'll be with some musicians that bring a lot
of heart and soul to my music, Victor Little on bass, and Deszon Claiborne
I don't expect musicians to play things exactly like my records; I learned
that from George Duke, when we play live we're there to have fun, to
entertain, and that is most likely to happen when musicians can interpret
the music in their own way, of course trying to maintain the integrity of
Concerning commercial success, I don't know of any jazz artist who's
achieved that lately. Sales at our live shows are still pretty good and
since the demise of retail that is the most we can hope for, good sales at
Creatively, I was completely happy. I've had complete control of the
production of all my CDs, with no record company input, so If I wasn't
happy, I kept working on it until I was.
What is your composing process
like? How much of your writing is sheer inspiration and how much "I've got
a sketch of a melody here and I will take the afternoon to flesh it out"? Simpson: I typically start with a rhythmic groove, the
chord changes, then the melody last. The melody can take weeks, even
months in a few cases. I think too much music is released in this genre
with melodies that simply are not very strong and I don't care how good
the production or the groove are, only the melody can make a great song.
Question: You have extensive credits a
sideman. How do you balance that with the desire to be a solo artist, to
be the one in the spotlight?
Simpson: Currently, I'm not only Dave Koz's music director but the
music director of the Smooth Jazz Cruise with hosts Marcus Miller and
David Sanborn. Luckily, I have an understanding booking gent who works
around my other commitments. I like playing other peoples music; there's
always something to be learned by working with different artists.
Question: Smooth jazz has undergone some drastic changes over the
past few years: the radio format has all but disappeared, some festivals
have come and gone. What is your take on smooth jazz 2012 and where do you
believe the music is headed?
Simpson: Firstly, the name "smooth jazz" is one I know most artists
wish would go away, but I don't think it will. That moniker has actually
harmed the genre; in Europe, the term "smooth" with "jazz" is rather
distasteful. You will start hearing "contemporary jazz" more though I
I'm unfortunately not inspired by the new crop of artists I've seen trying
to break into this music. I have however collaborated with some very young
producers for my new CD, which is a departure for me. I have been the sole
producer of my music in the past.
I'm hopeful that some new radio stations will begin to emerge but if they
keep playing Sade and a bunch of songs from 20 years ago, there is
definitely no future in that. That kind of milquetoast programming is what
killed jazz radio in the first place. I feel the way consultants "tested"
music was flawed, which kept any "new" ideas off the radio. Soon the
artists were making music to appeal to the "consultant" in order to get
played on the radio, which is the "tail wagging the dog", and that's a
recipe for failure, which is exactly what we got with smooth jazz radio –
Ron Thompson has been a staple on the Northern
California blues scene for decades, impressing generations of fans with a
cutting guitar style that has drawn praise not only from critics but
fellow artists such as John Lee Hooker, Mick Fleetwood, Angela Strehli and
Speak to Thompson, as I did a few years back, and it
quickly becomes evident that he is a blues true believer and prizes his
time on stage with the like-minded.
"I started out playing blues and you end up playing
with people who play blues,” he said. “It just ends up that way. If you
learn a trade, you end up playing with people who are in the business.
Just being able to meet those people, let alone share the stage ... it’s
very much an honor.”
You can catch Thompson live June 21 at the third annual Blues and Bones
festival. Set for the Calaveras County Fairgrounds in Angels Camp, the
blues bash also features New Orleans native Kenny Neal, Maxx Cabello Jr.
and the Breakdown, Cole Fonseca and Phoenix Jubilee, and Jeramy Norris
and Dangerous Mood.
This year marks Thompson’s 40th anniversary as a
recording artist and he’s appeared on dozens of albums since, both
fronting his own group, the Resistors, and as a sideman for the likes of
Lowell Fulson, Big Mama Thornton, Roy Brown, Chris Isaak, Mark Hummel and
Harmonica Slim. His credits also include the John Lee Hooker’s live album
Thompson spent five years in the late ‘70s playing in
Hooker’s Coast to Coast Blues Band. What lesson did he take from that
”You do what you do and you do the best you and you can’t worry about, Is
this popular?” Thompson told me
"Red" Stage 3 Theatre, Sonora CA. Brian McCoy, July 1, 2012
There is a telling moment in “No Direction Home,”
Martin Scorsese’s 2005 chronicle of Bob Dylan’s creative evolution. The
camera catches Bobby Neuwirth – painter, musician, arch-hipster, equally
at home in Boston and Berkeley – explaining the question by which an
artist’s cultural currency was measured in post-war America: “Does he have
anything to say?”
That concept has all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Whereas
the generations that came of age in the 25 years after World War II
applied their expanding affluence to access and encourage some semblance
of higher culture – think the socially themed mid-list novel or New
Hollywood at its pioneering best – those of the past three decades haveevinced little interest in moving beyond the aesthetic limitations
imposed by the entertainment-industrial complex. Indeed, for the mass of
Americans – in good economic times and bad – the desire to expand your
creative intake, to openly pursue art that challenges as it entertains, is
to be seen as “intellectual” and, thus, suspect. The only thing rarer than
finding an artist with “anything to say” these days is an audience willing
Given that reality, “Red,” John Logan’s engaging two-hander playing
through July 29 at Stage 3 in Sonora, is as much a welcome return to a
bygone era as a serious but accessible meditation on art and artists. Set
in Mark Rothko’s Bowery basement studio at the end of the ‘50s, Logan’s
play serves to remind that, yes, there was a time when American artists
and audiences alike debated such now-quaint notions as integrity vs. money
in the arts, sincerely and without the slightest trace of an ironic smirk.
Logan’s way into that debate – and the larger story of Rothko’s personal
history and creative vision – is utterly conventional. The veteran artist
(Harvey Jordan) has hired young Ken (Christopher Hayhurst) to be his
assistant. An aspiring painter himself, Ken’s duties, as Rothko explains
them, are willfully mundane: mixing paints, stretching canvas, scoring
coffee. Ken’s duties in the drama are, likewise, just what you’d expect:
provide a sounding board for Rothko’s insights, lessons and rants while
leavening the proceedings with an intriguing back story of your own (in
this case, it involves his parents’ violent deaths) and keeping the
proceedings emotionally honest. As our window on the wider art world, Ken
also enables Logan to examine Rothko’s takes on the nascent pop art
movement (disdain) and the life and death of contemporary Jackson Pollack
(suicide by convertible).
First produced in London in 2009, “Red” earned Logan a boatload of honors
(including a Tony) for the skillful way it mixes art and the era, the
personal and professional. The Stage 3 production fuses these themes
That effort begins with Ron Cotnam’s set, which effectively evokes the
dark environs of an artist with no use for natural light – you can almost
touch the mildew clinging to the damp walls, the stale smell blending with
the sweet-acrid of paint and the sweet-sour of Chinese take-out. The
furniture looks properly third-hand, the on-stage clutter of paints and
brushes, cups and books, spot on.
It’s upon this canvas that director Don Bilotti places his cast. An
unabashed fan of Jordan’s work and overall artistic sensibility, I can say
that audiences will find him at his best in “Red.” Here is a performance
with depth, one that explores the character’s many dimensions with no
emotional shortcuts or pandering. Jordan’s Rothko is, by turns, highly
passionate and deeply analytical about art, fiery and frustrated, needy
and aloof. Jordan can thunder away at filthy lucre one moment, take the
money the next and never sound a false note.
If Jordan’s performance steers well clear of cliché and artifice, that is
even more than case with Hayhurst. Given “Red’s”
young-artist-working-with-the-master set up, it’s easy to see how Hayhurst
could have fallen back on well-established tropes. Fortunately, Logan’s
script moves the young man quickly beyond that initial scenario into a
relationship with Rothko that, while remaining more professional than
personal, touches on the affectionate and adversarial alike. In all
respects, Hayhurst gives as good as he gets here; “Red” may be Rothko’s
story but both actors are essential to its telling.
With “Red’s” exploration of Rothko, the arts and their role in society,
Logan demonstrates that he clearly has plenty to say. Much the same can be
said of Stage 3, where Bilotti serves as artistic director and which
follows “Red” with the ever-motor-mouth David Mamet’s politically themed
Brian McCoy, July 1, 2012
July 14 at Black Oak Casino in Sonora and July 15 at
the Sacramento Horsemen’s Club.
Blues isn't something
Rod Piazzais prepared to analyze.
The music's all-encompassing role in his life places it beyond such
considerations. Like the air around him – who stops to scrutinize every
breath? – blues is essential and elemental.
So it's not surprising the harmonica player-vocalist didn’t mess around
when I interviewed him a few years back and asked him to explain the sound
he goes for, particularly in the studio.
''You're always trying to create something new and have people hear it,''
Piazza said. ''I (try) to get to the real core of each tune ... without
trying to smooth things out.”
is the ''core''? ''If the song grips you when you first hear it,''
Piazza said, ''then it's the core.''
Piazza has spent nearly a half century producing gripping blues and his
track record is paying off. Not only are his Mighty Flyers among the
genre’s busiest acts but they won W.C. Handy Awards in 1999 and 2000 as
best blues band in America.
No strangers to Northern California audiences, Piazza and Co. perform July
14 at Black Oak Casino in Sonora and July 15 at the Sacramento Horsemen’s
Club. Expect to hear tunes from the group’s latest album, “Almighty
Piazza has played blues – and nothing but blues – since childhood. There's
a difference, the Riverside native told me, between being a blues player
capable of re-creating the music and a bluesman (or woman) who has no
choice but to live the lifestyle.
''I don't think I had any other way to go but the way I went with my
career,'' Piazza told me. ''So when you pretty much just play in that
idiom ... I think that kind of helps keep you in it.''
Piazza began shaking hands with blues in the late 1950s, when he combed
through his older brother's record collection. Piazza was a budding
guitarist when, at 11, he went to see Jimmy Rogers play at a Riverside
club. The bluesman gave Piazza his first harmonica and Rogers' laconic
style was an early influence on the youngster's playing.
Decades later, Piazza said he understands why blues touched him as a
“'I guess it was seeing the people who played it and how really honest and
emotionally real the music was,'' he said. ''More so than, say, I don't
know, something that was just directed to sell on the radio. It seemed
like music that was created out of emotion. Nothing can be more true than
human emotion expressed in song. There was a dignity in that.''
As a teenager, Piazza would drive the two hours from Riverside to Watts to
play blues. There he found a mentor in George ''Harmonica'' Smith, a
veteran of Muddy Waters' band. They performed together on and off for 15
years in the group Bacon Fat.
Smith eased Piazza's entry into the Southern California blues scene. He
soon was touring with Big Mama Thornton and recording with T-Bone Walker.
At 19, Piazza's own group, the Dirty Blues Band, signed a deal with ABC/Bluesway
Records. The group recorded a series of albums – including ''Stone Dirt''
(1969) and ''Grease One for Me'' (1970) – before Piazza embarked on a solo
career. He already had begun playing with his future wife, Honey, by the
time he formed the Mighty Flyers in 1980. The band gained converts through
the '80s with its blistering live shows and a series of well-received
albums on Black Top Records. Industry recognition came in the early '90s.
''Blues has always been unto itself and outside the mainstream,'' Piazza
said. ''The band is what I started out wanting to do and we're doing it. I
don't think I've changed the direction of my dream''.
California Guitar Trio
Sutter Creek Theater
Brian McCoy, July 3, 2012
There's nothing particularly novel in hearing a
musician speak of the chemistry that exists among members of his current
group. From the classiest chamber ensemble to the angriest punk band, such
emotional and musical connections are essential.
That said, it's hard not to be impressed when Bert
Lams speaks of the California Guitar Trio's chemistry. Geography provides
part of the reason, seeing as how the musicians hail from three distinct
continents and cultures.
"That makes for an interesting chemistry and
different influences that naturally tie into the music," the Belgian-born
Lams told me in an interview a few years back. "Yet one of the elements
that brought us together at the same time was our common love of classical
music and classical arrangements."
From that background, the trio – Tokyo guitarist
Hideyo Moriya and Salt Lake City's Paul Richards round out the lineup –
has found an international audience for an acoustic sound that touches on
everything from jazz and classical to contemporary pop.
The California Guitar Trio comes to Northern California next week for a
series of dates including sets July 12-13 at California Worldfest in Grass
Valley and July 14 at the Sutter Creek Theatre.
The group’s latest album, the all-classical “Masterworks,” features the
trio’s arrangements of works by Bach, Barber, Schubert and Vivaldi, among
others. The project also marks the latest chapter in their long
association with bass giant Tony Levin.
Lams, Moriya and Richards first met Levin – and each other – during the
four years they spent in Seattle in the 1980s as part of King Crimson
guitarist Robert Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists. When Fripp disbanded
the collective, he encouraged his student-musicians to form their own
groups. Lams, Moriya and Richards took him up on the idea.
"We pretty much stayed for a long period of time (in
Seattle) and that was really our strong foundation," Lams told me. "We had
no reputation but from one thing came another."
The trio released its debut album, "Yamanashi Blues," in 1993 and the
near-20 years since have seen them issue both studio efforts
("Invitation," "Pathways," a holiday disc) and live shows (including a
two-CD set from San Francisco's Great American Music Hall).
From Northern California, the group will travel to Italy for a series of
dates. Those will be followed by a string of Stateside concerts running
through the fall. Lams noted that when it comes to performances, on-stage
chemistry is only half the equation.
"A lot of it depends on the energy of the audience," he said. "We never
know what to expect."
Ironies abound in
the Beatles’ story. Few, however, match the profound disconnect between the
development of the band’s 1968 animated feature, “Yellow Submarine,” and the
film’s status today as one of the group’s most beloved projects.
While the Beatles never go out of season, there is a specific focus on the
band this summer. As with the Beach Boys, 2012 marks the golden anniversary
of the Beatles as recording artists. In addition, Paul McCartney turned 70
in June, the same month a re-mastered “Yellow Submarine” was released on Blu-Ray. The Modesto Film Society’s Cinema Club
Movies played a crucial
role in furthering the Beatlemania that swept the globe in 1964-65. Even
before the band made its live American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,”
manager Brian Epstein had signed a three-picture deal with United Artists.
Shooting on the first film, “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964), commenced soon
after the quartet returned from the States.
The movie proved a major success, pleasing not only the band’s
predominantly teen audience but the older and decidedly more jaded critics
on both sides of the Atlantic. Directed by Richard Lester, a London-based
American, and offering audiences a faux behind-the-scenes look at the band
on tour and off stage, “A Hard Day’s Night” was lauded for the breadth of
its soundtrack, its shot-on-the-fly bravado and the four leads’ wit and
charm. More than one reviewer likened to the Beatles to modern Marx
Unfortunately, the band’s debut also marked its apex as movie stars.
Having presented the four in ersatz documentary fashion, Lester went to
the other extreme for the ’65 follow-up, “Help!” This time, the Beatles
were placed (read: cut adrift) in an outlandish story involving ancient
Eastern sects and incense-shrouded sacrificial rites. The broader focus
found the band fighting for screen time with not only the rest of the
comic cast but the movie’s picturesque locations (Bahamas, Austria). John
Lennon was to grumble ever after that in “Help!” the Beatles had been
extras in their own film.
”Help!” was a hit, of course, and there was talk of a third feature to
fulfill the UA deal. As the Beatles dropped touring (and their moptop
image), however, no movie materialized. Their own foray into directing for
the small screen, “Magical Mystery Tour” (1967), was a debacle and as such
hardly likely to encourage them to get back in front of the camera.
It was in this atmosphere – which would grow increasingly acrid as the
Beatles moved into their final two years together – that “Yellow
Submarine” took shape. Produced by Al Brodax and directed by George
Dunning, the film was conceived as a way to fulfill the UA deal with
minimal group involvement. Based on the popular, largely McCartney-penned
track from “Revolver” (1966), it featured voice actors standing in for the
Beatles themselves. The soundtrack became a dumping ground for songs the
band deemed inferior; “It’ll do for the film” was a familiar Lennon
refrain. Two of the just four new songs, “Hey Bulldog” and “Only A
Northern Song,” were last-minute, little-inspired creations written
primarily to fill out the soundtrack album’s first side. (The second side
was comprised of George Martin-scored instrumentals.) It was all the
producers could do to get the Beatles together to film the forced,
charm-challenged cameo that concludes the movie. Hardly promising stuff.
And yet, “Yellow Submarine” somehow emerged as a Beatles triumph. A box
office success at the time, it did much to placate fans put off by the
“Magical Mystery” misery and the group’s growing social and political
agitation. Critics hailed the production’s ambitious and adventurous
animation, the skill with which it married mid-period Beatles to
psychedelic mindscapes. The imagery impressed, the music soared and the
cartoon cast (Old Fred, the Lord Mayor, the Boob, the Blue Meanies)
And they still do. Nearly 45 years after its initial release, “Yellow
Submarine” stands as one of the Beatles’ best-known and -loved projects.
Because it’s animated, the film has introduced generations around the
world to the Beatles’ music and personas. That includes the band member’s
own children. Sean Lennon, interviewed for the late ‘80s documentary
“Imagine: John Lennon,” talks about having seen “Yellow Submarine” at a
friend’s house and, putting two and two together, asked his dad if,
indeed, he had been in that group. Yes, Lennon acknowledged.
Dhani Harrison had a somewhat similar, if less pleasant, experience. In
the recent George Harrison documentary “Living in the Material World,”
Dhani recalls getting chased home from school one day by a group of kids
singing “Yellow Submarine.” At first, it made no sense: why would they be
taunting him with that song? Once the light went on, he said, “I came home
and freaked out on my dad: ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were in the
”Oh, sorry,” was George Harrison’s deadpan response. “Probably should have
told you that.”