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Todd Rundgren’s Shifting Utopias

Todd Rundgren's Utopia Group | photo by Danny O'connor | courtesy of the artist
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Group | photo by Danny O’connor | courtesy of the artist

The last time audiences caught a Todd Rundgren (and there are many to choose from), they were treated to a sound more in league with his sumptuous, blue-eyed soul past (such as 1972’s epic Something/Anything), teamed with the often caustic lyricism of, say, 2004’s Liars, the result of which was 2017’s White Knight, and its singularly humorous Trump-bashing “Tin Foil Hat.”

Now, in 2018, Rundgren is returning to an occasionally more peaceful (or existentially humanist) set of lyrics and a Technicolor progressive rock-ist sound with his ensemble Utopia, a box set of collected works and a tour that brings him home to Upper Darby and the Tower Theater on May 5.

“When I first formed Utopia in the 70s, a lot of it had to do with the fact that as a songwriter working primarily at that time on the piano, that I had put aside the guitar,” said the man whose 60s instrumental roots were in the bluesy Woody’s Truck Stop and the psychedelic The Nazz. “I started getting the feeling after Something/Anything, that I was losing my chops. I hadn’t created the opportunity as a songwriter or producer for the sort-of guitar playing I wanted to do.” Continue reading →

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Two To Tango: Kyle Molleson of Makeness and Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Makeness
Makeness | photo by Dexter Lander | courtesy of the artist // Unknown Mortal Orchestra | photo by Neil Krug | courtesy of the artist

When it comes to uneasy experimental electronic pop, Ruban Nielson (the Mint Chicks man currently making dire and dreamy noise by fronting the neo-psychedelic Unknown Mortal Orchestra) and Kyle Molleson (the solo Scot behind the broke-beat Makeness), are masters of the form. For 2018, both artists have expansive, nervous, diverse new albums to tour around – UMO with Sex & Food, Makeness with Loud Patterns – and hit up Union Transfer on April 28 to prove as much. Continue reading →

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Trouble Every Day: 25 years since his passing, Frank Zappa is all over Philadelphia in April

Frank Zappa’s Philly ’76 LP cover | via Amazon

There are so many Frank Zappas to consider that it’s often a struggle to focus on which one to pinpoint. Is he the man who lovingly crafted intricate and tender guitar solos from “Black Napkins” to “Inca Roads”?

Or the silly ribald humorist of “Titties and Beer” or “Bwana Dik”?

Or the high-minded composer behind “Lumpy Gravy” or “Orchestral Favorites”?

Or the psychedelic rocker and jazz-bo of “Freak Out” and “Hot Rats”?

What one can focus on, twenty five years after his death, is that innovative guitarist / composer / socio-political satirist / free expression activist Zappa is more crucial than ever (especially when you consider that the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer will soon get his own hologram treatment) and by, all accounts is having a busy spring by Philadelphia standards. Continue reading →

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John Prine’s New Prime Time: Veteran troubadour holds court with Kurt Vile at the Merriam Theater

John Prine | photo by Matthew Shaver for WXPN

There are not many of the old original issue John Prines left; that breed of craggy, earnest-but-dryly humorous storyteller-troubadour with Midwestern roots running as deep as ancient maples and ruminations of lives past that are equally old and pulsing and grainy. As a songwriter who poised his characters in a constant state of distress, distaste, wry sly circumstance, or even love with an historic downhome perspective, Prine was (and is, from the sound and furry of his first album in 13 years, The Tree of Forgiveness) a treasure. Add in his usual mix of rough-hewn country and folk with hints of soul and rockabilly, and you’re cooking with gas. Prine’s gruff and ready expressive voice is but icing on a savory confection. And now, Prine – still a mailman at heart, always a contemporary to elders such as Kris Kristofferson, Steve Goodman and Jackson Browne – has hollowed out a new niche as a godfather to the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Brandi Carlisle, and as a man who outran death (two cancers) and the age’s usual ravages to find himself comfortably humble (and hummable).

In a sold out performance at the Merriam Theater, Prine, his crack musical team (including multi-string man Fats Kaplin), and opening act/occasional on-stage collaborator Kurt Vile, formed a circle around material that was bruised, even busted, but never completely broken down and out for the count. Continue reading →

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Martha My Dear: Martha Stuckey goes her own red way with Due To The Sensitive Nature at SEI Innovation Studios

Martha Stuckey | photo by Travis Chantar | courtesy of the artist

Away from her glittering and theatrically driven disco-funk-Philly outfit Red 40 & the Last Groovement, singer-actress-lyricist Martha Stuckey is no less dramatic. It’s just that the characters in Stuckey’s solo sights are more isolated and quite frankly boiled down in number to a noirish, ritualized and sexualized few. And that’s where Due To The Sensitive Nature comes in.

The performance runs from April 12 to 14 at SEI Innovation Studios, and finds Stuckey accompanied by steel guitar and gurgling 80s-ish synths, discovering a hole in her heart and her past that runs along the sweat-filled lines of a modern day James Cain or Erica Jong…an unnerving sensualist place where easy escape seems unlikely. The Key and Martha chatted about leaving homes of all sorts in the midst of a bitter chill. Continue reading →

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The Academy in Peril and Jocularity: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends live in Philly

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends: New Worlds at Kimmel Center | photo by John Vettese

The current theory behind all things “Bill Murray” is to expect the unexpected of the 67-year-old lion of comedy. Murray hangs out with Scandinavian students in Scotland and washes dishes. Murray visits Austin during South by Southwest and hits up house parties. Murray sends wild rice to a Charleston restaurant table filled with women with the caveat, “Don’t gobble it.” Murray crashes an engagement party and gets his photo taken with the betrotheds. Murray pops up at Oscar’s Tavern in Rittenhouse Square on leave from his son’s wedding. How odd then could a chamber-devised album (New Worlds) of recitations of the writings Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain teamed with the compositions of Stephen Foster, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein be within that framework? Or a live performance art concert of those same musical moments at a damn-near-sold-out Academy of Music with forlorn cellist Jan Vogler, vexing violinist Mira Wang and prancing pianist Vanessa Perez? Continue reading →

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Bettye’s Bob: A conversation with Bettye LaVette about Dylan, interpretation and how Things Have Changed

Bettye LaVette | photo by Mark Seliger | via facebook.com/bettyelavette

Releasing a new album during God’s holiest of holidays was a smart thing for Bettye LaVette. The raw-voiced interpretative R&B singer and current New Jersey resident makes the music of others a deeply religious and innovative experience as she uncovers (no, crafts lovingly and with incendiary force) never-before-witnessed nuances to songwriters such as Roger Waters, Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading, Peter Townshend, Willie Nelson, Eddie Hinton and others in her immediate past.

Her new Things Have Changed, however dissects and reassembles the stuff of Bob Dylan in a manner that resembles a mad scientist at play – cutting and changing and re-stitching the 20th Century Bard’s lyrics and music into something newly marvelous and provocative. LaVette shows up at World Café Live on April 5 and chatted with me on Good Friday, the album’s release day, about the good that God brings…even if she’s not so sure of divine providence. Continue reading →

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Marc Ribot’s Music of Resistance

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog | via facebook.com/MarcRibot

From his time as part of Lower East Side Manhattan’s loft jazz scene through to his major label entrée with Tom Waits and onto his own solo/band list (Rootless Cosmopolitans, Young Philadelphians, Ceramic Dog), guitarist-composer Marc Ribot is the ultimate indie musician and a working class iconoclast/union leader with old world smarts. His newest, most combustible Dog work with Shahzad Ismaily (bass, electronics) and Ches Smith (drums), Y R U Still Here?, also finds Ribot at his most angrily and committedly political – a rant he’s sure to lay out when he plays an Ars Nova Workshop gig this Thursday, March 29 at Johnny Brenda’s. Continue reading →

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Two To Tango: Kristin Hersh and Grant Lee Phillips

Kristin Hersh | photo by Peter Mellekas // Grant-Lee Phillips | photo by Denise Siegel

A co-headlining bill with the one-time front persons for Grant Lee Buffalo and Throwing MusesGrant-Lee Phillips and Kristin Hersh – could be, for lesser artists, a trip backwards and something indicative of our current obsession with the 90s. Yet neither of these moody singing songwriters have ever bothered to wallow or follow. Phillips’ new Widdershins album is exquisitely timed and tuned to our torturous political climate, and Hersh’s most recent album is the delicately poetic Wyatt at the Coyote Palace from 2016. The two old friends hit Boot & Saddle on Wednesday March 14. Before that, however, they played Two to Tango. Continue reading →

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Two To Tango: The Fantastic Imagination’s Josh Meakim and Prowler’s Keith Greiman

Josh Meakam of The Fantastic Imagination and Keith Greiman of Prowler | photos courtesy of the artists

When two veterans of the Philly odd-tronica scene get together for a party, there’s always the promise of menace and mayhem. For neither Prowler‘s Keith Greiman (and his brand of boogie-space-glam) nor A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s Josh Meakim and his wonky electronic The Fantastic Imagination are easy listens. That’s why they’re each brilliant in their own way.

While Prowler is currently out-and-about with a new EP whose release is celebrated at Ortliebs on February 24, The Fantastic Imagination is still recovering from its cassette EP party for its Good Knight, Sweet Dreams – also at Ortliebs and also with Prowler – as well as its more recent Moonphases Vol.1. Continue reading →