Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lahaina Music of Maui, Hawaii


If you are ever on the island of Maui I recommend that you take time to stop in at Lahaina Music, where you will find one of the better selections of Ukuleles on the island, and certainly the best selection on the west coast. I picked up a very nice solid mahogany Kala ukulele here a few years back and have been nothing but pleased with it.

This is a mom and pop music store, so you are not going to see the wide selection of everything under the sun that you would at Guitar Center, but their service is something that you will not find at the big box stores. Jason will help you pick out the right ukulele for your price range, and will also set you up with lessons if you need some help. If you are unsure if the uke is the right instrument for you he also does free group lessons at some of the resorts and the Lahaina Cannery Mall, so check out their Facebook page for times and locations.

There is more to their inventory than ukuleles, of course. They also have electric and acoustic guitars, electric basses, amplifiers, strings, tuners, other accessories and sheet music. Stop in to take a look around -- the guys are really friendly.

When you are shopping you will not get the same bottom scraping price that you will from Amazon, but this is a local business with rent to pay in one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. But they will work with you on price, and you can be assured that you are not buying a pig in a poke, but getting exactly what you need. Besides, what better Hawaiian souvenir is there other than a quality musical instrument?

Lahaina Music is open from 10AM to 5:30PM Monday through Saturday, and is located in the strip mall at 910 Honoapiilani Highway (Route 30), between the Subway and the Sugar Cane Train station.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Changes to the Fender Artist Series Marcus Miller and Geddy Lee Jazz Basses


It was a stroke of genius when Fender Musical Instruments Corporation decided in 1998 to use Fender Japan to produce its Marcus Miller and Geddy Lee artist series Jazz Basses. Their Japanese affiliate has consistently produced high-quality instruments for a fraction of the cost of their domestically built products. I have owned and reviewed both of these basses, and they are very good players and are pretty smart-looking too. But it seems that all good things eventually come to an end.

This past summer I was looking at one of the 3-tone sunburst Geddy Lee basses, and right on the heel of the neck where the serial number is, the serial had an MX prefix with a note that it was made in Mexico. Gasp! Then I checked a Marcus Miller bass and it said the same thing. Double gasp!

I don’t really have anything against the Mexican-built basses as they are also good instruments, but it was still quite a shock. But I should not be too surprised, as the margins on these guitars must be getting very low for Fender. When these models came out the exchange rate was around 130 Yen to the dollar, and now it is around 80 Yen to the dollar. That is a lot less Yen for each guitar that gets sold, and customers really screamed like spoiled little children when the prices were raised a few years ago, so there is not a lot of wiggle room for Fender in this situation.

There are some visible differences to the basses, most notably that the Marcus Miller battery compartment is now in a different location and the Geddy neck seems a little thicker, but they both still seem to play well.

But, the main reason I bring this up now Is that Guitar Center is clearing out their older stock of these basses for stupid cheap money. The one by my house had Japanese Geddy Lee Basses priced at $699 and $799, which is the best bargain I have ever seen on these. If you really want one that was built in Japan, now is the time to buy because they are not going to get any easier to find, and they certainly are not going to get any cheaper.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Rush Clockwork Angels Tour Gibson Amphitheater Review – November 19, 2012


I saw Rush in concert for the first time in the early 1980s at The Fabulous Forum for their Signals tour, and faithfully attended their concerts until around 1995 when I lost interest in their new material. Well, last week I had the opportunity to pick up a prime ticket so I took a chance and headed to their show this past Monday night at the Gibson Amphitheater in Universal City, California.

Gibson Amphitheater is a great place to see a show, as it has good lines of sight and relatively good acoustics for a loud rock show. Despite its name this is an enclosed venue, as a roof was installed back in the early 1980s when it was still called the Universal Amphitheater. Compared to the local sports arenas it is not huge, holding about 6,000 people, and parking is always a breeze there too, which makes for a painless concert experience.

This event was billed as “An Evening With Rush” in support of their most recent studio album, Clockwork Angels. No warm up band is mentioned on the tickets because Rush does the whole show, which includes two sets and an encore. Not bad for a bunch of old guys.

Rush concerts were always interesting when I was a kid because they were such a polarizing band, and people either loved them or hated them, so their shows were exclusively populated by fans. Nothing had changed in the last 30 years, as there was nothing but diehard fans around on Monday night. The kind of fans that knew the lyrics to all the songs and sang along (not that you could hear them singing, this is still one of the loudest bands on the planet).

These fans got what they paid for, with a 2 ½ + hour show that included many of their hits. The first set kicked off with “Subdivisions” and the bass on the synthesizers and kick drum was cranked. From my seat on the edge of the 2nd row (stage right) my jacket was actually moving from all the air the subs were pushing out. It was evident from the first song that this power prog rock trio has not lost a step. The last four decades of touring has honed their live show to a razor edge, and they did not miss a cue all night.

This hour-long set continued on with nine more songs, including “The Big Money”, “Force Ten”, and “The Analog Kid.” Throughout these songs, I was amazed to watch Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee closely replicate what they had done in the studio through the use of synthesizers that were trigged by their feet while they were still playing the guitar and bass. Neil Peart gave up the first of two thunderous drum solos near the end of this set, and he proved that he is still one of the best drummers in the business (probably #2, right behind Danny Carey from Tool).

After the intermission, I was stunned to find eight string players on the stage, and that they were directed by David Campbell, who also happens to be Beck Hanson’s dad. This set was frontloaded with a lot of material from the Clockwork Angels album, which I have not heard before. These are good songs, and I was pleased to find that the band had moved beyond the cliché heavy lyrics that made me drift away from them back in the 1990s. The strings added a lot to the show, and along with the beautiful visuals on the video screens made for a memorable experience.

The second set finished up with pure gold for any true Rush fan. After “Manhattan Project” there was another drum solo, followed up by “Red Sector A”, a kick-ass rendition of “YYZ” and their old opening song, “The Spirit of Radio.”

The encore started off with “Tom Sawyer,” which has to be their biggest hit, and they finished the show with parts I, II and VII of their 1976 tragic rock opera, 2112: “Overture”, “The Temples of Synrinx” and the “Grand Finale.”

Overall it was a great show, and any Rush fan would have been happy with the evening. Though they do not show any signs of slowing down, I recommend that you get out and see one of their shows sometime soon before they decide to give up on the grueling life on the road. I rank their live shows among the best I have seen, and I think you will agree.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Johnny Neel Every Kinda' Blues CD Review

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the August 2, 2012 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Johnny Neel – Every Kinda' Blues

11 tracks / 59:14

Johnny Neel’s latest album title promises “Every Kinda’ Blues…but what you’re used to.” That is a pretty tall order, but he gives his all to make good on it. It helps that he has a lot of experience with writing and performing. Originally from Delaware, he moved to Nashville in the mid-1980s, where his prowess on keys and harmonica earned him first-call studio musician status. He has recorded and toured with high-profile acts, such as the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule, and has written material for them as well as Travis Tritt, John Mayall, Dickey Betts, The Oak Ridge Boys and John Schneider. Yes, that John Schneider.

Besides constantly writing, recording and performing for other artists, Johnny still makes time to work on his own material. Every Kinda’ Blues is his latest album, with nine studio tracks and two songs that were recorded live in Italy. He has writing credit for all eleven tracks, and it is nice to see that he gives credit to co-writers on all of them. Mr. Neel co-produced this CD with bassist Dennis Gulley, who also took on the engineering responsibilities, of which there were plenty as there was quite a cast of characters involved. Contributing musicians included seven guitar players, four drummers and six backing vocalists, which is a lot to keep track of.

The title track comes up first, and I could hear right away that these guys know their way around the studio, as “Every Kinda’ Blues” is a really slick song. This blues rock offering has layers of distorted guitars, Hammond B3, imaginative harmonica parts and oodles of backing vocals – and these parts are mixed perfectly so the listener can take it all in. Johnny Neel’s voice is still throaty and powerful after all these years, and his experienced tone lends credence to his assertion that he has paid “every kinda’ dues.”

And he keeps changing things up with every track on the album, never staying in any one place too long. “Right Out The Old Window” adds horn sounds, honky-tonk piano and gospel backing vocals. I cannot decide if it sounds more like country or Chicago blues. Next comes “Won’t Lay Me Down”, which starts as a blues song that morphs into a full-fledged Robin Trower-esque 1970s acid blues rock anthem with organ and some fabulous guitar work. This is the first of the two live tracks, and I wouldn’t have known it was live if not for the applause at the end and the mention in the liner notes -- that is how well it was recorded. His live show must be to die for.

Chicago blues come next with the hard-driving “I’m Gonna Love You.” This song has a clever twist on the tired promise to “love you until the day I die,” and the thumping bass up front in the mix shows that the player was also the producer. From there he moves on to Nashville with “Sunday Morning Rain” which is a slow country rock song with electric piano, organ and slide guitar. This is one of my favorite tracks on the album, which is not too surprising as I love the Allman Brothers. I think I even hear a little Memphis in the 1950s piano rock of “Johnny Needs a Shot,” and I can tell you that Jerry Lee Lewis has to be one of his influences.

“How to Play The Blues” seems to start as a smooth blues ballad, but ends up as a full-fledged gospel song with terrific backing vocals and Leslie-warbling organ. I am not usually a big fan of gospel, but this one does not get preachy, and it sounds thunderous through my headphones. The delta blues is not left out of the mix, as “Mighty Mississippi” gives a taste of distorted harmonica combined with some super-thick guitar parts. There really is a little bit of everything here.

Every Kinda’ Blues closes out with “My Kinda’ People” which is a beautiful ballad, featuring only Johnny’s voice and his piano. This is a neat story of love and friendship told in a way that I thought only Randy Newman could. He managed to change his sound on every track, and this song proved to be a tasteful way to end the album. And, while I cannot say that he gave me every kind of blues but the one I expected, Johnny Neel did give me every kind of blues that I wanted.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Live Wire Solutions SPDI Passive Direct Box Review


Last month I did a quick article on why you should carry a direct box with you if you plan on plugging your bass or guitar directly into a PA system, but I did not recommend any products. Well, today I am going to let you know which ones I carry around for my PA system, in case some hapless bass player shows up without one.

I think one of the best values out there for a passive unit is the Live Wire Solutions SPDI passive direct box. The latest version of this product has a few more features, and is a really handy thing to have around. As this is a passive unit, it is best used on instruments with an onboard preamp (active electronics), and if you have a passive bass, you will want to consider an active direct box (which I will be reviewing at a later date, but do not buy the Live Wire Solutions ADI…).

The SPDI is small, but it weighs in around 12 ounces and it has a real solid feel to it with a rugged steel chassis. They stuck a rubber pad to the bottom so it will not slide around as much.

This is not a terribly complicated piece of equipment, with 1/4-inch high impedance input and throughput jacks, a balanced XLR out, a ground lift switch and a 0/-20/-40 dB attenuation switch. That is all, folks!

This DI box is easy to hook up, just plug into the ¼-inch in, and hook an XLR cable to the out and run it to the mixing board. If you want you can use the ¼-inch out to send the signal to your onstage amp too. If the instrument’s signal is too hot, the attenuator switch can cut the signal down to more normal levels.

The Live Wire DI works well, and I do not notice any degradation in tone, although I do hear a slight drop in level. I have even used this unit a few times when I did not really need to so that I could use the ground lift to get rid of some extra signal noise. There is not much to the SPDI, but it does everything it is supposed to without any drama. I wish I could say that about more products.

Best of all, the Live Wire Solutions SPDI direct box is dirt cheap. It has a list price of $39.99 and a street price of $29.99, but I see these units on sale all the time for $19.99. When you find them that cheap I recommend picking up a couple of them, because they are really handy to have around.


Friday, November 16, 2012

2012 Fender Kurt Cobain Mustang Guitar Review

Como estas?

I have owned a few of the Kurt Cobain Jag-Stangs over the years and thought they were neat guitars, so I got an involuntary twitch when I heard that Fender was going to issue a Kurt Cobain Mustang guitar this year. Last year’s Kurt Cobain Jaguar must have sold well if they are coming out with another Cobain model again so soon.

The Cobain Jaguar was a pretty close reproduction of Cobain’s guitar, and Fender makes a big deal about this guitar being like the 1969 Mustang that Kurt used in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, but it has a few differences. Differences such as: not having a matching headstock, having a humbucker instead of a single coil pickup at the bridge, and having the wrong bridge. Other than this stuff, it is pretty close.

But don’t get me wrong here, this is a really cool guitar and the ones I have played were very well made. Plus it appears that they are available in right or left-handed versions.

The Cobain Mustang is built in Japan, and my friends know that I am gaga over Japanese Fenders because they are super nice. They are available in three different poly color schemes over an alder body: Lake Placid Blue with a competition stripe, Fiesta Red and Sonic Blue. The Fiesta Red and Lake Placid Blue guitars get aged white pearloid pickguards, while the Sonic Blue one comes with faux tortoiseshell. Lake Placid Blue is the way to go, in my opinion.

As with other Mustangs, this artist model has a 24-inch scale neck and 22 vintage-sized frets sunk into the 7.25-inch radius rosewood fretboard (the ivory-colored dot markers are a nice touch). The neck has a C- profile and is compact enough for the smallest hands. The headstock and the back is shot with urethane, and the whole thing is capped off with a set of vintage-style tuners that seem pretty nice.

The electronics are hot-rodded a bit, with a solid-mounted Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB humbucker in place of a single coil at the bridge position. The controls are the same as the Mustangs, with master volume and tone knobs, as well as switches for each pickup that allow them to be used in series or parallel, and to put them out of phase. I always thought this set-up was pretty cool…

Finishing out the spec sheet is an Adjusto-Matic bridge. This is not the standard Dynamic Vibrato bridge that is usually found on Mustangs, and it is totally different than how Kurt set-up his guitars (he had the tremolo blocked with washers, so there was no tremolo available. I am not sure why Fender picked this bridge, particularly when you consider that it is a terrible piece of hardware, and it will make the guitar instantly go out of tune if you try to use it once.

Aside from the bridge, this is a wonderful instrument! The craftsmanship is very good, and the one I got played terrific right out of the box, with no set-up needed. It has a lot more than garage band sound to it, too. It has terrific clean tones and the humbucker allows things to get very dirty if you let it.

The Fender Kurt Cobain Mustang is a fun guitar, and is a natural choice for anyone that would like a smaller stature guitar (for whatever reason). These guitars have a list price of $1399 and a street price of $999, and I saw that Fender has a current coupon so you can get these for $899 at Musician’s Friend right now. Maybe you can use the extra hundred bucks to buy a case, because this guitar does not come with one.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Koss Porta Pro On-ear Headphones Review


If you are looking for a good pair of headphones for less than $50, there are plenty of choices out there, and some of them are very good. I think one of the best buys out there would be the Koss Porta Pro headphones. These on-ear semi-open cans were quite revolutionary when they were introduced in 1984 and are still very popular, even though they have not changed a bit. Koss got the design right in the first place, and they were smart enough not to mess with it.

As they are still the same 28 years later, the black and silver design looks a little funky, but that is subjective, I suppose. They have a 4-foot cable with a 3.5mm mini plug. The replaceable ear cups are attached to headband that has three different level of tension adjustment (Comfort Zone!) so that the headphones put just the right amount of pressure on your noggin. They will spring back when you take them off, and might snag your hair. I find them to be quite lightweight and comfortable, except for the hair thing. By the way, they also fold up neatly into a circle for travelling.

From a technical side, the Porta Pros have high-output neodymium magnets with Mylar diaphragms that are very stiff, reducing distortion. They are 60 ohm cans with a frequency response of 15-25,000 Hz and a total harmonic distortion of 0.2%. Blah blah blah. How do they sound?

They sound really good! Using them with solely an iPod or my laptop, or in conjunction with a variety of headphone amps they have a tremendous range with tight mids and amazingly full bass. They faithfully reproduce sound and have a very realistic 3D sound stage. Remember that they have a semi-open design, so outside sounds can make their way in and sound will leak out. Be warned that they might not be your best choice for your next 12-hour flight.

On top of all of these good things, the Porta Pro headphones come with a carry case and include the legendary Koss limited lifetime warranty. If they fail during normal use, they will send you a new pair for the cost of shipping. This should be enough to put you over the top if you are considering picking up a pair of these.

As far as cons, there really are not very many. They will leak sound out and annoy your neighbors, your hair might get snagged in the adjustable band, and they may try to strangle you when you put them around your neck. Oh yes, and they do look funky. I think they look cool, though, and the other stuff does not bother me because they sound fantastic.

The Koss Porta Pro headphones have a list price of $49.99 and seem to sell online for between $35 and $80. The $80 is at Crutchfield, I am not sure what is going on there, but this shows you that it pays to shop around. You will not find a better pair of headphones for the money.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Teisco Guitars of Japan


My friends know that I love Japanese guitars but one brand has always eluded me: Teisco. I have hit countless secondhand stores in Japan and have never seen one of these guitars in the flesh. I know they have to be out there somewhere, and I always see them on eBay in the US.

Teisco was a Japanese company that built guitars from 1948 to 1969, and Teisco is an acronym for Tokyo Electric Instrument and Sound Company. They built amplifiers and keyboards and distributed drum sets (made by others), but I am most interested in guitars and basses, so this is what you get. They sold instruments domestically and also distributed gobs of them to the United States and Great Britain. The company was sold to Kawai in 1967, and they discontinued selling guitars under the Teisco brand name in 1969 (for export) and 1977 (for Japan).

The company was the brainchild of a guitarist, Atswo Kaneko, and it went through various company names before Teisco was chosen in 1964. So most of the Teisco badged guitars you see were built between 1964 and 1969, or 1964 and 1977 for Japanese market instruments. These guitars were often sold at department stores (such as Sears), and were also imported under other names including: Arbiter, Audition, Beltone, Duke, Heit Deluxe, Jedson, Kay, Kent, Kimberly, Kingston, Lyle, Norma, Silvertone, Sonatone, Top Twenty, Tulio and World Teisco. But everybody and their brother want s a Teisco Del Rey. By the way Teisco Del Rey was the name found on guitars imported to the US by Chicago’s Jack Westheimer.

From 1948 to 1964 the company built Spanish guitars and played it safe on the electric side by copying guitar and bass designs from Gibson, Fender, Hagstrom and EKO. But in the 1960’s they started building unique instruments with bizarre and modernistic features. We started to see bitchin’ hook-shaped headstocks with distinctive 4+2 tuner layouts (or 3+1 on basses), as well as sexy sculpted body profiles. They experimented with pickguard designs, and a lot of these guitars are pieces of art.

Teisco also came up with over the top electronics for these guitars too. There were guitars with up to four pickups, with either humbuckers or single coils, and oodles of volume and tone knobs. They also had a penchant for adding switches like they were going out of style, and usually these change the phase of the pickups or turn them ON and OFF.

So these guitars looked cool and had tons of sounds that you could get out of them. They also usually goofy bridges and tailpieces that changed their sound even further. As time went on, these guitars gained a cult-like status with bands that used them as they were a good substitute for a Jaguar or Jazzmaster, and were a lot cheaper too. These guitars were used by Jackson Browne, Hound Dog Taylor, Jesus and the Mary Chain, and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Many of these guitars were beginner model guitars and were not really quality instruments or very well made, but there were higher grades of guitars too, and some of them are really quite valuable now. Some of the more sought after models include:

∙ The Teisco SD-4L with four pickups, six switches and bizarre barrel type volume and tone knobs. and eight switches. These guitars came with a tremolo and I have seen some of them covered in vinyl. This is the model that Hound Dog Taylor used.

∙ The Teisco Del Rey Spectrum 5 with 3 split-coil pickups, colored pickup selector switches and mono / stereo outputs. These were quality guitars with a walnut bodies and lacquer finishes. This is the top of the pyramid for me, and I really want one of these.

∙ The Teisco Del Ray May Queen with simpler electronics that include two pickups, volume and tone knobs and a pickup selector. What makes this guitar desirable is that it is semi-hollow, and it has a goofy oval shape that some interpret as an artist’s palette.

∙ The Teisco TRG-1 with its own onboard amplifier and speaker. These were also sold as "Kay" and "Silvertone" guitars through department stores.

These are all fun and unique guitars and I hope you have the chance to see an play one some time. If you are looking to purchase one, keep in mind that they were not super-expensive guitars to start with, so the hardware is cheap and it may have been broken and replaced with non-standard parts. Also if you find a super minty specimen it might be a re-issue, as Kawai re-issued these for awhile in the early 1990s.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

2005 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Electric Guitar Review

Hi there!

Today we are looking at a really neat guitar, a 2005 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. These guitars have come and gone from Gibson’s line up over the years, and you really do not see many of these for sale at any given time.

The Les Paul Deluxe was originally introduced in 1968 with the usual Les Paul Standard features except for a new choice of pickup, the mini-humbucker (also known as “New York humbuckers.” This was not so much an example of Gibson stretching out and trying something new, rather they were trying to use up a batch of Epiphone mini-humbuckers that were in stock after Epiphone production was outsourced to Japan. These humbuckers fit into P-90 pickup cavities, using an adapter ring that was made from a p-90 pickup cover. This is not one of the most romantic stories ever told.

Deluxe models were built until 1985, when the line was killed due to lack of interest and sales. But, consumer demand built up and in 2005 the model was re-released, probably due to Pet Townshend’s association with the guitar. By the way, David Bowie and Thin Lizzy were also fans of the Deluxe.

This is one of the first Les Paul Deluxes built after the line was re-introduced, and it is finished in a gorgeous transparent Wine Red. This nicely shows off the figuring in the carved maple top. The rest of the body is one piece of unchambered mahogany, and it is single-bound like a Les Paul Standard.

The neck is mahogany (some of the old Deluxe models had maple necks), and it has a rosewood fretboard with trapezoidal pearl inlays. I would say this is a little fatter than the 60’s profile necks that Gibson is currently building. The neck has a tasteful cream binding to match the body binding, pickguard and pickup rings.

Chrome hardware was spec’d out for this guitar, with Grover tuners and a Tune-O-Matic bridge. The electronics include the aforementioned mini-humbuckers that are wires in the usual volume/volume/tone/tone configuration.

This one has been spared the indignities of ill-advised modification/improvements, and it is completely original. It is in excellent condition with no damage or play wear. I have been a harsh critic of Gibson’s quality over the past decade or so, but they did a great job assembling this instrument. The finish and craftsmanship are top notch, and the frets are perfectly level. Thank god.

With the slim neck and good fretwork, it is very comfortable to play and it has a great natural sustain. The sound of the electronics is noticeably different than that of a regular Les Paul. I think there is a bit less output, and it is definitely a lot bluesier. It certainly sounds terrific when paired with a class A or class A/B amplifier.

As it does not sound exactly like a regular humbucker-equipped Les Paul, I could not justify keeping one of these in lieu of one of the originals, which is my same logic for not keeping a P-90 equipped Les Paul around. But if you want to add a Deluxe to your current collection of Les Pauls it would certainly be a fun counterpart.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

November 11, 2012: Art Party in Long Beach - Concert - Dancers - Spoken Word - "LIVE!"


For those of your in the Los Angeles / Southbay area, I want to let you know about a neat event that will be happening this Sunday. Agaves bar in Long Beach will be hosting a party with a little something for everybody; music, dancing, art, food and drinks.

Agaves is located on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach, and has been open since June. They serve contemporary Mexican food, and their décor and ambiance are lovely. And they have an incredible bar and tequila selection...

This is all great stuff, but if you come out this Sunday afternoon there will be even more cool happenings. You will enjoy live music and dancing, as well as artists from all over Southern California who would love to chat with you and show you their art. They would probably be happy to sell you their art, too.

∙A sampling of events and artists include:

∙Guest DJ

∙Flamenco guitarist Anthony Ybarra who will be accompanied by flamenco dancers

∙ Spoken word poetry from by Rich Ferguson,

∙ Stephanie Escobar

∙ Shalla Javid

∙ Nori Shirasu

∙ Stefan Rollins

Date: Sunday November 11, 2012

Time: 5PM to 11PM

Location: Agaves kitchen | tequila

200 Pine Avenue

Suite A

Long Beach, California 90802


It should be a really fun time, and I hope to see you guys there!


Monday, November 5, 2012

Musical Theatre West 42nd Street Review

Buenos dias, amigos!

Musical Theatre West has kicked off their 60th season with an old favorite, 42nd Street. This musical is based on the novel by Bradford Ropes and its subsequent 1933 film adaptation. It debuted on Broadway in 1980 and has become a staple of regional theatre since then.

This is the story of director Julian Marsh and his efforts to debut a new musical comedy, Pretty Lady, in the midst of the economic ruin of the Great Depression. Subplots include the romantic life and waning career of the aging leading lady Dorothy Brock, and the travails of Peggy Sawyer as she breaks into show business and becomes a star. There are a few easily recognizable songs, including “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” and (of course) “42nd Street.” Tragically, “I Only Have Eyes for You” was left out of this version.

This show has music by the legendary Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dublin and a book from Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. The fictional Pretty Lady has no plot, and 42nd Street does little better, with lots of great song and dance numbers that are barely held together with a story, but it does not really matter. This is pure entertainment with something for everyone, and every show does not have to be the next My Fair Lady or Les Miserables.

Musical Theatre West has gone all out to make 42nd Street a success, with a live orchestra and a huge cast that is well suited to this show. Jon Engstrom took the role of director and choreographer, and the show was a visually exciting experience. The music was beautiful and well paced by musical director Michael Borth, who knows the score like the back of his hand.

The wardrobe was great, with a few odd choices, such as the Renaissance Fair-clad paperboy, but the rental sets were a bit tatty around the edges. That is probably my fault for getting seats too close to the stage. The sound guys did a perfect job, and the cast was perfectly mic’d, which I do not hear very often. The guys at the Book of Mormon Pantages shows could have learned a thing or two from these guys. As always, the Carpenter Center is a neat place to see a show, and I do not think that any of the 1000 seats are bad.

42nd Street was well cast, with Damon Kirshe taking the lead as Julian Marsh. He is a classically good-looking man and quite a strong singer too. He has an impressive stage presence, and though his character had more than its fair share of clichés in the script, he played them off well with just the right touch of imperiousness, greasiness and emotion. Tracy Lore is a doll with a beautiful voice; her character (Dorothy Brock) is supposed to have two left feet, but Tracy shows an incredible amount of grace and poise on stage. And Tessa Grady was darling as Peggy Sawyer, with incredible tap work, golden lyrics and the ultimate starry-eyed hopeful guise. She stole the show.

The chorus is a huge part of this show, and they were all very good. From their epic tap routine that started the show to the finale, “42nd Street” they kept it together and added a lot to every scene they were in. Without their dancing and singing skills (and their dizzying number of costume changes), this show would have been impossible to pull off.

Musical Theatre West hit it out of the park with 42nd Street, and it was a pleasurable 2 ½ hours for me and my wife. We are looking forward to their next production, Oklahoma!, which is a show with a lot better book and some truly incredible songs. I am sure that this crew will be able to pull it off with no problems.

42nd Street closes this Sunday, so you only have four more opportunities to catch the show: November 8th, 9th and 10th at 8pm, and November 11 at 2PM. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 East Atherton Street in Long Beach, on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, and parking is $5. There are still a few seats available, so check for details.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Chris Smither Hundred Dollar Valentine CD Review


This CD review was originally published in the July 26, 2012 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Chris Smither – Hundred Dollar Valentine

11 tracks / 38:56

Chris Smither describes his sound as “cosmic blues”, and though I may not be on the same spaceship as him I really like his sound and his message. And he has had plenty of time to work out his sound and figure out who he is, having released his debut album in 1970, when I was just a lad. He has recently finished his 12th studio album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, which is his first that is comprised solely of original material. You will find that it is not all new, as he has revisited a few of his older tracks and approached them from a different direction.

Smither moved to New Orleans as a youngster, which accounts for the delta blues influence in his sound, but he has long been a fixture of the northeast, where he has garnered a loyal following. He does not have a regular band, so they brought in some fine folks to work with him on Hundred Dollar Valentine. This includes Billy Conway on drums, Chris Delmhost on cello, Jimmy Fitting on harmonica, Ian Kennedy on violin and the golden-voiced Anita Suhanin on vocals. Producer David Goodrich kicks in some slide guitar, diddley bo, and xylophone, while Chris provides the vocals and the lion’s share of the guitar work.

Goodrich has worked with Smither a few times before, and has done a fabulous job of keeping things from getting out of hand, and the album sounds natural and uncluttered. As I said earlier there is a delta blues sound, but there is also a folk element to this album. These combine together with his unique voice to give Smither his own sound that is hard to fit into any one box. Maybe that is what the cosmic blues are.

The album starts off with the title track, “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” and true to its name it is an ode to a love that describes how nothing is right when they are separated. The lyrics are a poetic and clever use of words, and are a bit more melancholy than the upbeat score would imply. The overall sound is not over processed, with a perfectly raw drum sound and a dynamic harmonica tone. Anita’s backing vocals work well with Smither’s voice.

“On the Edge” comes next, and the tone of the music becomes more somber at the same time as it becomes more polished with smooth violin and cello that merge well with Mr. Smither’s fine picking. The words to the song provide a few surprises, as it ends up in a totally different place than it starts – it is not the usual love song I expected it to be. This is the blues, and Chris has a great voice for it: raw, strong, emotional and experienced. By the way this is the only track on the album that has any co-writing credit, and it goes to David Goodrich.

From there, the songs use fertile lyrical material, such as disillusionment and disappointment (“What it Might Have Been”), love and loneliness (“I Feel the Same”), getting older (“Place in Line”), and death (“Feeling b y Degrees”). A bright spot in the midst of these blues is “What They Say,” a jaunty tune featuring Chris’ daughter Robin Smither on the violin. She is a fine fiddler, for sure.

“Every Mother’s Son” is the final regular track on Hundred Dollar Valentine, and pretty music cannot hide that the lyrics provide plenty of food for thought. It dares to speak of today’s all too common theme of young men who see no solutions to their problems other than violence. That “this could happen to every mother’s son” is a parent’s nightmare, and might make you hug your kids a little tighter and longer the next time you see them.

The album finishes off with a hidden track that is not terribly well hidden – it is credited on the liner notes as “Rosalie,” which is an “after-hours ‘B’ Room field recording.” This song is the closest thing you will find on this album to his live show, a weary-voiced man and his six-string guitar. It makes me want to seek out one of his shows the next time I am in New England.

Hundred Dollar Valentine is not what one would expect from a modern blues album (not a Howlin’ Wolf cover in sight), and that is one of the things that is so great about it. Though it is not conventional, Chris Smither’s original work has gotten closer to the roots of the blues than most, and his songs’ unique tonal character and smart lyrics combine with superb production and true emotion make this album an enjoyable listening experience.