A Tale of Two Concerts…

If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you might have noticed that I have an affinity for music. It really doesn’t matter what the genre is…rap, rock, country, metal, punk, you name it, I probably have an inkling about it. About the only thing that I might be a bit deficient on would be classical music, but I can listen to it an appreciate it. Thus, a couple of shows that I saw within the past month demonstrate both sides of the musical spectrum.

On June 22, my lovely wife and I headed to Amalie Arena to see the rapper Pitbull and the balladeer Enrique Iglesias entertain a packed house. When you can fill a 20,000-seat arena with no problems, you know you’ve made it. And the crowd was as diverse as you might expect for such a multi-cultural show: whites, blacks, Latinos/Latinas, young and old…everyone was there for the party. And, for their part overall, the two entertainers for the night held up their end of the deal.

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Iglesias was, for me, the surprise of the night. Considering that he had his first success back in the 1990s as a younger man, the 42-year old Iglesias was energetic and put on a great show (something that those who have been around the business for a lengthy time don’t sometimes do – that’s what they mean by “mailing it in”). There are those of you reading that might recognize the song “Hero,” which was a massive hit in 2001, but I was a bit surprised by how many of the other songs that I recognized by him. “I Like It (which also featured Pitbull prior to his massive success),” a song that was made popular on the reality show Jersey Shore, and other tunes had the crowd going over the span of his 45-minute set.

There was one moment that was extremely special, however. Bringing the mood down into a very intimate setting, Iglesias and his band slowly trod a path through the crowd to the back of the arena, where stools were arranged for the performers to sit on. From that locale, Iglesias and his band performed a couple of tunes for the entirety of the crowd, but made it special for those in the back who are often ignored during a show. It was a nice touch, especially the “troubadour” walk from the stage to the alternate stage and back.

Between shows, there was a DJ (my wife informed me that he was supposedly Pitbull’s uncle, although I am not sure on that) who performed as the roadies broke the stage. I’m not the biggest fan of watching someone work the turntables – it takes a special talent to do it, don’t get me wrong – and as such I was less than thrilled with this part of the program. It was a good time to go get refreshments, however, and it seemed that many were following my lead.

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As far as Pitbull’s performance, it wasn’t the first time I had seen him. My wife and I had attended the 2016 93.3 FLZ Jingle Ball prior to Christmas, which was headlined by Pitbull. Instead of getting a reduced show (the Jingle Ball lineup also featured Martin Garrix, Fifth Harmony, Walk the Moon, and a few others), this would be the first time seeing the Cuban-American superstar doing a whole show. Let’s just say that I wasn’t disappointed either time.

Pitbull’s music – a goulash of Cuban rhythms with pop, rap and dance stylings tossed in and usually featuring Pitbull rapping while a vocalist fills in the chorus – isn’t for everyone but, if you are someone who does enjoy this genre, then you know how good he is. He was backed by a full band and a cadre of female dancers who changed costumes at least four times by my count. But it wasn’t the accoutrements that made the show great, it was the skills of Pitbull to work the crowd.

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Whether he was using his music – and there’s a lengthy resume of hits he rolled out, including “Timber,” “Hotel Room Service,” and many others – or simply speaking to the gathering, Pitbull maintained control of the show entirely. With this said, it didn’t seem as if it were that much longer than the abbreviated show he delivered when he was performing at the Jingle Ball. It was a fun show and would do it again, to be honest, but it was kind of like cotton candy – sweet to eat but with little substance.

Less than a week later (June 28), I went to a show that was completely the other end of the spectrum. The venue was Skipper’s Smokehouse, a nice little dive with great food and an even greater repertoire of music. Imagine if you will an old tobacco shack with a stage, a restaurant that doesn’t have any air conditioning and an outdoor area looking at a bare bones stage that has a few seats but, for the most part, has its patrons standing up for a show.

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This was the venue for one of the true treasures of the music world. Alejandro Escovedo may not be a household name of the level of Pitbull or Iglesias, but he’s is one of the most respected musicians in the industry, cited by Bruce Springsteen and “Little Steven” Van Zandt as an influence. Escovedo has also been through the travails of the music industry, starting off with the punk rock band The Nuns before joining Rank & File in the early 1980s (whom Escovedo said sounded like “punk rock done by George Jones”). He went solo after leaving Rank & File and, for the past 30 years or so, has been grinding the small venues of Texas and, on this night, Florida, plying his trade.

Pat Puckett, an old friend who backed Escovedo during the 1980s, opened the night with a very bluesy set that was perfect for the surroundings and for opening for Escovedo. Puckett’s guitar work was quite good and it really seemed as if his set was too short. He is a popular performer in the Tallahassee area so, if you’re in the mood for some excellent guitar work and a solid rock & roll show, you should check out Puckett.

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Escovedo came out as a thunderstorm broke out, but you couldn’t have moved any of the roughly 600 people who were massed there from their spots. Escovedo ripped through some songs from his current CD, Burn Something Beautiful, highlighted by his performance of “Heartbeat Smile.” By the time he closed the night’s proceedings with his best-known song “Castanets” (notable as it was seen on former President George W. Bush’s iPod), the entirety of the crowd was on its feet, rocking the shack around them as the skies cleared around midnight.

One of the nicer things about these smaller shows is that the performer will more often than not come out and sign CDs and talk to those who attended the show. Escovedo did that, spending some time with my wife and talking about the Austin, TX, music scene before getting a photo with both of us. It was a great way to end the evening.

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So, which was better?

I lean more to the rock side of things, so Escovedo would get my vote. But what was remarkable about the shows was the complete 180 that each presented. From the stylish, staged, and choreographed show from Pitbull and Iglesias to the rugged, rough and ready rock & roll show presented by Puckett and Escovedo, there wasn’t a thing that they had in common except for one thing…the love of music.

If you haven’t done it in a while, I suggest you get back in the ring and give it a try. Go to a concert at your local stadium – doesn’t matter if it’s a rock show or a pop concert – and go to one of your local venues that has performers sometimes just playing for the drinks they’re quaffing. They are both the heart of the music world and, with hope, you can get something out of both experiences.

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Halestorm’s “ReAniMate 3.0,” Letters from the Fire’s “Worth the Pain” Two Worthy Hard Rock Efforts

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I’ve long been a music aficionado, especially the hard rock/metal genre. Sure, I’ll enjoy a Billy Joel concert (as I did most recently in Orlando) or even the newer pop music out there (my lovely wife and I went to the 2016 Jingle Ball, featuring Pitbull, Fifth Harmony, Martin Garrix, Chainsmokers and many other artists residing in the Top 40 today), but I always come back to my home. Perhaps it is the power of the guitars or the political nature of many of the lyrics (yes, they are saying something with their words and commentary – take the time to read the liner notes if you miss them the first time around), but hard rock/metal speaks to me more than many other genres in the industry.

Honestly, today’s hard rock/metal scene isn’t your granddaddy’s brand. The blues rock that such groups as Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Who and the Rolling Stones (yes, I am going to toss them in the hard rock genre – for their time, they were the “punks” of their era) bear little resemblance to the power drivers such as Metallica, Disturbed or even more pop-driven hard rock/metal bands like Breaking Benjamin or Shinedown. But they’re still hard rock/metal and still damned entertaining in their own right.

There’s a great deal of hard rock/metal out there right now, but these are two efforts that have caught my ear of late. If you’re looking for some great music, you might want to look these up.

Halestorm, ReAniMate 3.0

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Halestorm is one of the preeminent bands in the hard rock/metal genre today. Powered by the blistering vocals of Lzzy Hale (who happens to throw in badass guitar work also), the nimble and crushing lead guitars of Joe Hottinger and the guttural tempo setters in bassist Josh Smith and drummer AreJay Hale (Lzzy’s brother), Halestorm is one of the most popular acts in the business. That perch has allowed them to take on some pet projects, including the continuation of this series of cover EPs.

ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs eP is the third in a series of “cover Eps” that Halestorm has issued over their career. The first, naturally called ReAniMate: The CoVeRs eP and released in 2011, brought a diverse selection of songs such as Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (one of the best covers of all-time in this writer’s opinion), the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and Skid Row’s “Slave to the Grind” under one artist. In each case, Halestorm took the songs and added their own touches to them, basically creating their own versions of songs people thought they knew (the exact challenge facing anyone who takes on a previously released tune).

That highly successful EP (how successful? A recent eBay auction for a signed copy of the CD went for $175) begged for a follow up and, after releasing a CD of their own material, Halestorm obliged their fans. ReAniMate 2.0: The CoVeRs eP was released in 2103 and followed in the same format as the first. This time around, Hale & Company took on Judas Priest (“Dissident Aggressor”), Daft Punk (“Get Lucky”), Pat Benatar (a natural in “Hell is for Children”) and Fleetwood Mac (“Gold Dust Woman”). It also seemed to leave the audience wanting more and, earlier this month, Halestorm would deliver again.

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ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs eP rockets out of the gate with arguably the best song on the disc. The remake of Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” gets the unmistakable treatment from Hale and her mates, hedging close enough to the original that it is familiar but applying their own touch. Hale’s voice gives Whitesnake lead man David Coverdale a run for his money and the rest of the band is more than able to power out the song.

The second-best song on 3.0 is Halestorm’s take on the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts classic “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” On the first two discs, Hale and her group did not touch any Jett tunes, either solo or from her days in the Runaways. It seems as if it would be a perfect match and, in this case, it was, as Halestorm takes the Jett standard to new heights.

There was one clunker on the disc, however. I never was a fan of Sophie B. Hawkins and perhaps that is why I didn’t really care for the Halestorm remake of “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” While Hale can pull off the poppy tunes like this (and she’s already put some country artists to shame who dared try to match her on stage), it didn’t work for the remainder of the band, in my thought. This is the only down point of the record, however, as the rest of ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs more than makes up for it. These cover Eps are nice, but it really whets the appetite for original Halestorm material that is supposed to come later this year.

Letters from the Fire, Worth the Pain

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Trying to reach the rarefied air that Halestorm exists in, the band Letters from the Fire have had a jaded history. Originally formed in 2007 as Park Lane, guitarist Mike Keller and high school friend Grayson Hurd found bassist Clayton Wages and singer Eliot Weber and mucked around the San Francisco area, eventually changing their name to Letters from the Fire in 2012. Following their debut release Rebirth, there was apparently another overhaul of the band, with Cameron Stuckey coming on as rhythm guitarist and, perhaps most importantly, shifting from Weber’s male voice to the female voice of Alexa Kabazie (with Hurd and Weber departing).

The changes have made a great deal of difference for Letters from the Fire. Their latest full-length album, Worth the Pain, is a magnum opus of their career. From start to finish, Keller, Kabazie and Company have put their entire heart and soul into the record. For that effort, they have created a 13-track crusher of an album.

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Where to start with the best songs of Worth the Pain? It comes out of the gate with “Perfect Life,” featuring Keller’s excellent lead guitar efforts and Kabazie’s emotional and powerful vocals. “Mother Misery” continues the high level of excellence out of the band and “Give in to Me” is simply outstanding. The title track is a powerful tune…it is angry, aggressive, and appropriate. “My Angel” has excellent tempo and mood changes throughout the song and “Holy Ghost” starts quietly but turns into a raging storm by the end.

If there were one qualm to have with this record from Letters from the Fire, it would be that the lyrical content could reach out a bit more. Most of the songs are of the “fuck you, you broke my heart” sentiment; there are indicators, though, that the band could stretch beyond this with some deeper lyrics. As this is the first effort from this lineup, it really raises some expectations for the follow up.

Letters from the Fire’s Worth the Pain is reminiscent of Amy Lee and Evanescence, but to lop them in with that band would be doing them a disservice. They’ve got the chops to stand on their own and they’ve got the experience. Now it is just a matter of driving to the end and the success that they seem destined for…and Letters from the Fire seem to have the spirit to do just that.

Why I Chose Satellite Radio over Terrestrial Radio

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There have been a couple of things that I have failed to pick up on when they came out. One, believe it or not, was cellphones. When they were becoming more popular in the 90s and even the 2000s, I told people I would never have one. “If it was really that important,” I would say, “they can call me at home. And if I’m not there, they can leave a message.” That lasted until I got my first cellphone and, as they say, the rest is history. Now I cannot imagine not having one.

The second thing was satellite radio, in particular SiriusXM. For 16 years I worked in the radio industry as a DJ and a music director and I felt some loyalty to the industry, that it would be incredibly wrong to buy satellite radio and violate a personal bond with broadcasting and the radio industry as a whole. Hell, the radio station was free and, as long as I could put up with the DJ that came on every 20 minutes or so, I continued to listen. For the last few years, however, I have been an aficionado of satellite radio and I sincerely doubt that I will ever return to “terrestrial” radio.

As a former radio DJ, I knew the ins and outs of the business. I also knew how the music actually got on the air that we played for our listeners. As a music director, I would chart the requests we received each week, monitor the new music added to the station, try to predict what we would add to the station’s playlist and offer suggestions as to the new music we would add. Sometimes, especially in Album Oriented Rock (AOR), those songs were more predicated on the artist rather than any great musical achievement (in this late 80s/early 90s, this meant a lot of crappy music from Aerosmith and many others instead of truly groundbreaking work from bands like Nirvana and Faith No More). But there was a dirty little secret that does still exist, even in the programming of stations today.

Back in the 1950s Alan Freed, the legendary Cleveland DJ who coined the term “rock & roll,” was the man whom artists and record companies needed to sway to guarantee their single or album’s success. Through his radio programs in both Cleveland and later in New York (where he added television), Freed passed along to the youth of the 1950s (probably our mothers and fathers) what was supposed to be the best music in the United States. Freed himself was responsible for “breaking out” such artists as Bill Haley & the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino (Freed was partial to black artists, who would often write and perform songs only to see white artists cover them so they were “acceptable” to the white audiences, according to the record labels). The ability that Freed had to “make or break” careers came with a hefty price, however.

In 1958, Freed was accused of accepting money from the record companies to play and promote certain songs, known as “payola” (a mix of the words “payoff” and “Victrola”) and, to a lesser extent, accepted credits as an author or producer on some of the songs he was playing on the air, which was a conflict of interest if true (this was also the case for a man named Dick Clark, but that is a story for another time). He was immediately fired from his spot at WABC in New York and lost his television gigs also in 1959, although there was no law on the books that made what he did criminal.

In 1960, that was changed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, in a true miscarriage of justice, Freed was convicted on two counts of commercial bribery in 1962 (once again, despite there being no laws on the books at the time the alleged crimes were committed). Given a small fine and a suspended sentence, Freed would be blackballed by the major players in the music community; he would bounce around at smaller stations across the U. S. for the rest of his life, passing away in 1965.

While many would like to think that Freed was the only case of “payola” that has ever existed in the world of music, that isn’t the case. Although many DJs knew about the rules (the FCC put a punishment of a $10,000 fine and/or a year in prison for accepting payments from the record companies), there was a way around the new laws.

Instead of paying off the on-air talent themselves, record companies began to woo those with the power to get the music on the air with special “freebies” that, for all practical purposes, only looked like “promotional” tools. How many times have (or did) you dialed up a local radio station because they were giving away free tickets to a concert or an album or CD? How about special “concert trips” where you were whisked to a far-away show? These were the new “payola” (as some of these “freebies” ended up in station employees’ hands), just this time around those in charge decided to look the other way.

In the 1980s and 1990s (and even today), this was still the way the game was played. The record companies would call up one day a week (usually on a Monday, as Tuesday was the day adds were done to the station’s playlist after the labels released the latest albums) and try to woo you to play the latest music from the label’s artists. Using the “promotional” tools at their disposal, the A&R people would do everything short of sleeping with the DJs and music directors (although I heard of that too) to get their records on the air.

Although I left radio in the late 1990s, I still felt a tremendous bond with the industry, so much so that when Sirius satellite radio – and then XM – came about, I was about as “anti” as you could get.

The satellite radio industry began in 1990, when the FCC assigned frequencies for satellite radio (using digital sound) to use, even though there were no satellites in the air at the time and no one broadcasting in that format. In 2001, XM became the first satellite radio service and, in early 2002, Sirius joined in the battle. After spending billions refining their products and fighting against each other, the twosome decided to merge in 2007 and SiriusXM Radio came to life. As of this summer, SiriusXM can boast of roughly 28 million subscribers.

In the end, it was my lovely wife’s frustrations with terrestrial radio that brought about the changeover to satellite. After a particularly lengthy drive – in which she had spent much of it looking for a suitable radio station to listen to – we began to discuss getting satellite radio. Because we didn’t always know the stations when we were traveling, we thought that having a set schedule of stations to pick from would be more suitable to our lifestyles. As such, in 2010 we installed a SiriusXM receiver in our vehicle and the difference was immeasurable.

Normally when dealing with radio, you can find one station in each of the formats in a given “metro” area or city:  a Top 40 station, a Classic Rock station, a news/talk station, etc. With SiriusXM, you can pick pretty much any musical genre or era and have a place to go. Want to listen to Frank Sinatra? There’s several channels, including hits from the 1940s and 50s and a “Siriusly Sinatra” dedicated station. Feel like some rock music? There are almost two dozen stations there, covering everything from the 1950s to today. Country music has six channels, Christian music three…as you can see, it covers everything.

Then there is the pleasant respite from commercials that SiriusXM gives the listener. For the most part, every station on the SiriusXM dial is commercial-free radio (save for simulcasts of radio and/or television broadcasts). This means that you won’t be jumping around the radio dial, trying to find some music when your favorite radio station goes off on a five-minute commercial binge (like television, radio goes to commercial breaks at the same times – 10, 25, 40 and 50 minutes past the hour, in most cases). About the only reason you’ll leave a station is because you want to hear something different.

You need more? How about the vast libraries that the SiriusXM stations have put together. Due to the advent of digital music, the SiriusXM libraries play virtually anything that has been digitized for listening consumption. Because they also haven’t been corrupted by radio “consultants” nor the radio conglomerates (in one city my wife and I lived in, two radio groups controlled 15 stations that were in town), they will play things that you won’t hear on terrestrial radio; instead of hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the third time in a week, you might hear instead a deep cut from Rainbow (grossly neglected in terrestrial radio, along with many other artists).

Finally, there are the host of specialty stations that SiriusXM delivers that would never appear on terrestrial radio. Channels that focus on the music of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Pitbull, the Grateful Dead…these are all artists that have their own dedicated stations on SiriusXM (especially my favorite, Radio Margaritaville and Jimmy Buffett). There are also “limited engagement” stations that have featured Billy Joel, Tom Petty and Elton John in the past year. If you would like to listen to nothing but Howard Stern 24/7, there’s a place for that, as there is for the sports fanatic.

For the hour I spent in my vehicle today, here’s where I bounced around:  I started with Buffett, then moved over to the Hits station that played the latest from Fall Out Boy; after getting my son out of the car, I moved over to Octane, where Tesla was doing “Little Suzi” before dropping down the dial to First Wave (the 80s British synth pop era) and hearing the Human League. When I got home, I’d worked my way through the alternative stations, which had told me that one of my favorites in Florence and the Machine were about to play, before getting “back to the beach” on Radio Margaritaville. Tell me you could find that wide a range in terrestrial radio.

After once thinking that there was nothing better than terrestrial radio for as long as I did, I can now confidently say that there is no way I would ever think about not having SiriusXM in my vehicle or on my computer. The reasons listed previously should be enough, but there is also the ability to make up your own playlists (called MySiriusXM) that puts the cherry on top of the sundae. There are some questions about its compensation methods to the artists (something that I might get into sometime), but there’s more enjoyment than you’ll ever get out of terrestrial radio through the SiriusXM satellites circling our planet.