Greetings from Tel Aviv: A conversation with blues guitar slinger Andy Watts

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If you’re a fan of the blues, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with the work of Israeli guitar slinger Andy Watts. He’s performed with legends such as Johnny Winter, Joe Louis Walker, and Kenny Neal while simultaneously carrying the torch for a music scene in Tel Aviv that has proven to be much more fertile than those of us in the Western world realized.

His latest album, “Supergroove,” is a 10-track collection of blues, jazz, rock, soul, and whatever else Watts and his dynamite backing band feel like conjuring up. I caught up with Watts this week to discuss the project and hopefully gain a deeper understanding of how the American bluesmen of the past inspired a kid from Israel to embark on a lifelong journey.

MNOD: How have you been getting through the pandemic thus far?

AW: It’s a global thing. The entire world is being tested right now and hopefully we’ll get through it soon. We into our third lockdown in Israel and my last show was on March 11, 2020, but I’ve spent the last six months or so laying the foundation for my next album. I’m not going to release anything until Corona is behind us, so lately I’ve been doing promotion for “Supergroove,” which I’m very proud of.

MNOD: Are you optimistic that things will get back to normal before 2021 is over?

AW: I have to be. If we stick together to defeat this common enemy, I think we can beat it. The vaccination program in Israel has really caught on lately, but the proof is in the pudding. We’re a country of 9 Million people and 10% of our population received the vaccine by the end of 2020. We must stay strong. I don’t want to play shows again until everyone is comfortable with going back out, because I want to have my full band up on stage.

MNOD: Who were some of your influences when you were first getting into music?

AW: When I was 12-years-old, I loved John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, and, of course, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac. That period really changed my musical destiny. Hearning the blues on the radio was life-changing. I learned to play the guitar by myself, but I don’t read music. I know that’s not what everyone wants to hear, but I think it gives me the freedom to play outside the box sometimes. My playing isn’t confined by expectations. I try not to overplay and I’m always trying to be in the right state of mind for the song.

MNOD: What inspired your sound on “Supergroove?”

AW: That’s a great question. Sound is always important to me, because it can really define the attitude of an album. First, I had to decide what kind of guitar I wanted to play. Did I want a Strat? Did I want a Les Paul? Or, did I want an ES-335? I only play Fender or Gibson, so finding the right guitar sound is crucial to getting what I want out of the studio. When you’re making an album, I believe that each song should be cut in one, two, or three takes. Anything more than that and you start nitpicking rather than trying to capture the essence of the band at that moment. When you get into that zone, it’s important not to overthink it. For “Supergroove,” there’s a kibbutz in central Israel that had a chicken shack converted into a studio, so we ended up recording there. It’s a warm, analog room that really worked for me.

MNOD: What was Kenny Neal like to work with as a producer?

AW: He’s a fantastic musician. I brought him over to Israel to play some shows with me and we had great chemistry, so it was easy to get him on board with this project. He liked the concept for the song I wrote called “Don’t Take My Blues Away” and the message of not giving up, which is one of my favorite tracks on this album. One of my goals is always to widen the audience for Israel’s music scene and getting all of these great players to collaborate with helps me do that.

MNOD: How did the rest of the guest appearances on this album come together?

AW: This album contains five originals and five covers, but the covers aren’t the copy and paste versions that people may be used to. That’s not what I do. I wanted to inject my own flavor into the song and make each cover fit the concept of what I wanted this album to be. Each song usually starts with a riff and then I do all of the initial vocal guides for them. Joe Louis Walker recorded the vocals for “Burning Deep” in the US while Rick Estrin recorded his harp parts for the album in Israel.

MNOD: Is there a particular track that you feel embodies the overall vibe of this album?

AW: I think my version of Peter Green’s “Supernatural” is one that people will really enjoy. I tried to picture in my head what it would sound like to drive at night and that guided me when shaping the sound of the song. Overall, though, I just wanted everything to have a good flow. It’s hard to put me into a box, because I incorporate elements of soul, funk, jazz, psychedelic, and the blues into my sound. Rejuvenating the blues is important, because I always want to evolve and move forward.

MNOD: What is something unique about the scene in Tel Aviv that people from the outside wouldn’t necessarily know?

AW: It’s a melting pot. We’re very Western-oriented, but we also have Middle Eastern influences. It takes about an hour to drive from one end of the country to the other, so Israel is small but lovely when it comes to its music scene. I dedicated this album to Tel Aviv, because there’s a genuine artistic pulse here that I want more people to know about.

MNOD: What is the significance of the graffiti used for the album cover?

AW: There’s a hip neighborhood in Tel Aviv called Florentin that is full of art and graffiti, and I wanted to highlight its contribution to the scene. Also, putting interesting things on an album cover leads to people asking questions and being curious, which is a good thing. I’m sure a lot of people are wondering why I put a yellow rhino on the cover, so hopefully it encourages them to dig deeper and check out the music.

“Supergroove” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

For further information about Watts, check out the following links:

www.andywattsguitarslinger.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkYfXtVNCPI

https://www.facebook.com/pg/Andy-Watts-GuitarSlinger-2049678055247214/about/?ref=page_internal

The Cosby Conundrum

If Cancel Culture Was Real, We Would Have Canceled Bill Maher By Now

Before Netflix released “Pieces of a Woman” earlier this month, the idea that the film’s impact would be stultified by the latest allegations of abuse against Shia LaBeouf was already being floated about by publications that should know better than to dignify the hive’s inability to separate the art from the artist. But that’s where we’re at now as a culture. Rather than praise Vanessa Kirby for one of the most fearless screen performances in recent memory, people were suggesting that her work wouldn’t even be seen due to what one of her co-stars may or may not have done to an ex-girlfriend.

What we think, what we know, and what we can prove are three completely different animals at this point, but, if LaBeouf really did commit the abhorrent acts he’s accused of, HE deserves to be punished. I emphasize he, because we need to put an end to proximity cancellations before something I like to call The Cosby Conundrum runs amok.

The Cosby Conundrum is what arises when an otherwise deserving work of art gets sacrificed at the altar of public opinion based on the actions of an individual. Prior to Bill Cosby ever getting convicted in a court of law, The Cosby Show was essentially “cancelled” everywhere without anyone considering whether or not Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and the rest of that talented ensemble deserved to have a significant period of their career erased from existence. Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin Tibideaux from 1985-1992, once said that the lack of syndication led to him taking a side job at Trader Joe’s, so who are we really punishing by pretending as if “The Cosby Show” never spent five consecutive years as the highest rated show on television?

Then again, “Cancel Culture” never really had any rhyme or reason to its implementation to begin with. Who and what are punishable has more to do with likeability and/or ideology than anything else, because the entire movement has devolved into a mechanism for eliminating anyone with whom we disagree.

For example, Phil Spector was convicted of second degree murder in 2009 yet all is forgotten whenever the holiday season rolls around and his productions comprise the majority of Christmas music playlists. The problem with Spector is that his reach was so profound that cancelling him would result in a slew of industry giants being guilty by association, but the obvious question is why does Cosby get cancelled and Spector does not?

Therein lies the dilemma, because no one knows. While what each of them did was as serious as it gets, we’re now seeing careers get ruined for less and less every day with no end in sight.

All that matters now is that one person gets offended by something and garners enough support from the Twitter mob to create a controversy. These people don’t care about victims or facts as long as the outside world validates them as trying to make a difference. There are plenty of figures whose accomplishments are matched only by their questionable behavior, but at what point do the positives cease to be outweighed by the negatives?

I reflected on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. yesterday by watching Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI,” a documentary exploring the US government’s harassment of one of the greatest leaders this country has ever known, and couldn’t help but think about how the fact that he had multiple extramarital affairs would play out in today’s news cycle. Certain people would be so outraged by his behavior that they’d be trying to negate the validity of his work. Pollard’s film works, because he’s not concerned with trying to paint King as anything other than a flawed human being whose ideas about where America needed to go were too vital to be stifled by a scandal.

Just as the adults involved are responsible for the decisions that lead to their proposed cancellation, the rest of us should be deemed responsible enough to choose for ourselves whether or not we wish to continue to appreciate the ouevre of someone despite any allegations that are brought against them.

If you don’t care to watch “The Cosby Show” anymore, that’s your choice, but don’t make that same choice for everyone.

It’s as if you were there: 10 Essential Live Albums

317 days have passed since I last went to a concert. I haven’t experienced a drought this extensive since I was 13 and that number could easily double by the time our local stages are open for business again.

While nothing can ever replace the spine-tingling sensation of actually being there, I’ve assembled a list of 10 albums that I consider to be among the finest attempts at capturing that lightning in a bottle for the at-home audience.

If you’ve heard them before, hopefully you’ll agree, and, if you haven’t, hopefully you’ll be open-minded enough to at least give them a listen.

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Warren Zevon – “Stand in the Fire” – This release just turned 40 last week, but its resonance has never waned. Zevon goes all in on versions of “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” “Mohammed’s Radio,” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.”

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Genesis – “Seconds Out” – Whether you’re partial to Gabriel or Collins shouldn’t matter, because the execution of every track here is as tight as could be.

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Judas Priest – “Unleashed in the East” – The debate surrounding just how much of this album is live has persisted for years and Halford himself has admitted that, while the music is live, his vocals had to be re-recorded after being ruined during the original mix. Despite that, it remains a blistering collection.

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Chris Cornell – “Songbook” – Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and Audioslave are all covered here, but Cornell’s devastation on his 2009 solo cut “As Hope and Promise Fade” is what really sets the tone.

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse – “Live Rust” – There’s something combustible about Neil’s collaboration with Crazy Horse that keeps him coming back.

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UFO – “Strangers in the Night” – They remain one of the unsung bands of the era, but this release shows why they always deserved more respect.

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Led Zeppelin – “How the West Was Won” – “The Song Remains the Same” had the ’70s self-indulgence and mountainside mysticism, but this release cements the band as the raucous rock ‘n’ roll machine they were.

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Etta James – “Etta James Rocks the House” – The fact that she’s wearing a bandage on her arm to cover up the track marks sums up how raw this performance is.

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The Allman Brothers Band – “At Fillmore East” – A 22-minute version of “Whipping Post” is the centerpiece, but every second of this album is transcendent.

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Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Live 1975-85” – Recreating the euphoria of a Springsteen show is essentially an impossibility, but this collection comes pretty close.

The Year the Earth Stood Still: A to Z of 2020

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Normally around this time, I would be mining through a year’s worth of concerts in search of what I consider to be the purest gems of the bunch, but, instead, I’m peering out the window at a minacious sky that is emblematic of just how unforgiving 2020 has been. Western New York had shows with Tool, Rage Against the Machine, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, King Crimson etc. taken away just as swiftly as they were announced and a return to normalcy still feels far off given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Some want it, some don’t, and some want more information regarding side effects before making their decision. I can respect the latter, but, based on the various musicians I’ve spoken with this year, how soon they get back on the road again in 2021 is likely tied to how quickly the vaccine circulates through the population.

As bad as our live music withdrawal has been, I think we can all agree that safety should be the top priority moving forward.

In lieu of a standard year-end recap, I’ve decided to churn out a half-serious, half-facetious list of words, people, and phrases that, for better or worse, will be eternally linked with the year that was.

Enjoy.

Asymptomatic – I don’t think it’s ever been used as much in conversation as it was this year.

Bubble – The smaller yours was, the better.

Cuomo – His obsession with power skyrocketed this year as he became New York State’s self-proclaimed lord and savior.

Death – Whether or it was a result of COVID-19 or otherwise, the number of people we lost this year stings.

Elon Musk – Space exploration doesn’t capture the country’s imagination as much as it once did, but the intrigue associated with his SpaceX developments can’t be denied.

Frontline Worker – Time Magazine further solidified its irrelevancy by not naming them as its “Person of the Year.”

Google Meet – If you’ve never seen a video chat in which 12 kindergartners are all competing for the teacher’s attention at the same time, you haven’t really lived.

Hot Spot – The reason why so many people put the kibosh on traveling this year.

Isolation – After almost a full year of not being able to see certain loved ones in person, I’d like to think that we’ll never take our time on this planet for granted again.

Joe Biden – Despite running one of the least energetic campaigns I’ve ever seen, he’s our guy and I can only hope that he has enough left to get the country to where it needs to be.

Kobe Bryant – Jordan is the greatest player I’ve ever seen, but Kobe was right there with him and it pains me to think about what his post-NBA career could have been.

Loss of Smell – One of the many frightening symptoms we heard about this year.

Murder Hornets – They gave people quite the scare back in the spring, but eventually faded into the background given everything else that went wrong.

Non-Essential – What nobody wanted to be considered this year.

Online – Work, school, shopping etc. It was all done online this year.

Parasite – The first foreign-language film to win Best Picture and it was well-deserved.

Quarantine – Another word that can’t disappear from conversation quickly enough.

Records – I only went to two concerts before everything came to a halt, so my record collection was vital.

Side Effects – With the vaccine starting to make the rounds, only time will tell if there are any unintended consequences.

Tiger King – Early on in the pandemic, you either watched it or you lied about not watching it.

Unemployment – According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, April led the way with a 14.7% unemployment rate in the United States, which was the highest since the Great Depression.

Vaccine – The future of our economy depends on it.

World Health Organization – Trump’s withdrawal was one of his many questionable decisions this year.

Xi Jinping – From suppressing data on the origins of COVID-19 to not warning people about the severity of the virus until it was too late, the President of the People’s Republic of China came off as an even greater threat this year.

YMCA – It doesn’t get more 2020 than paying for a gym membership that you haven’t used since the pandemic began just so you can get a discount on child care for three days a week that your son isn’t in school.

Zoom – In-person meetings have been replaced by video chats that allow you to mute people and essentially wear whatever you want during the call.

The Great Pixar Debate

Winter Break is upon us and, if your family is anything like ours, things can get dicey whenever everyone sits down to watch a movie at the same time. A unanimous selection seldom occurs and one person or more usually choose bed rather than continue to stump for their candidate long into the night.

At my son’s request, each of us put together a list of our Top 10 Pixar films in an attempt to guide your viewing for the next week.

Hopefully, this will make decision time a little less adversarial, but probably not.

David –

  1. “Inside Out”
  2. “Ratatouille”
  3. “Toy Story 3”
  4. “Toy Story 2
  5. “Up”
  6. “Soul”
  7. “Monsters Inc.”
  8. “Coco”
  9. “Wall-E”
  10. “Toy Story”

Amanda –

  1. “Ratatouille”
  2. “Up”
  3. “Toy Story 3”
  4. “Inside Out”
  5. “Coco”
  6. “Monsters Inc.”
  7. “Soul”
  8. “Brave”
  9. “Finding Nemo”
  10. “The Incredibles”

Cooper –

  1. “Soul”
  2. “Brave”
  3. “Toy Story 4”
  4. “Toy Story”
  5. “Toy Story 2”
  6. “Toy Story 3”
  7. “Coco”
  8. “Inside Out”
  9. “Ratatouille”
  10. “Up”

Once Upon a Stream: The Best Films of 2020

“Sound of Metal” directed by Darius Marder

When I started writing about movies for a weekly newspaper back in 2006, the world was very different.

Myspace was the largest social networking site in the world, Twitter was in its infancy, and Netflix was still mailing out DVDs with varying degrees of playability as its primary form of customer interaction. Now, Zuckerberg is king, Twitter continues its publicly traded evisceration of civil discourse, and Netflix is firmly entrenched as the largest streaming platform in the universe with 183 million paid subscribers. This matters, because people’s relationship to cinema continues to be influenced by all of these external forces whether they realize it or not.

For example, when a film comes out that dares to present a worldview at odds with whatever the progressive establishment deems acceptable, the shitstorm of vitriol emanating from the Twitter hive can prevent an otherwise intrepid work of art from ever being consumed by the public. People are already losing interest in the long-form analysis of anything at an alarming rate, so the fact that we’ve allowed 280-character hot takes to carry more weight than a meticulously thought-out essay means that the casual filmgoer likely determines what to watch based on whatever they’ve read on social media.

Thus, the role of the critic has changed, as well, because the days of writers having any incentive to challenge readers to think beyond themselves appear to be long gone. What people really want is universal reinforcement of their opinion at all times and anything to the contrary to be verboten regardless of the source.

Many critical voices are happy to oblige, but I’m not one of them. I still believe that intellectual disagreement is healthy and don’t see the value in dismissing anyone with an alternative opinion as my mortal enemy. For all the talk about how much we yearned for the theatrical experience this year, the fact is that we’ve been ideologically isolating ourselves for years, so perhaps watching movies without the potential to be offended by something someone else said or did in your presence is just the next step in the process.

I’ve been putting this list together every year since 1997 and this is the first time that none of the 10 films selected were seen in a theatre, which means that a considerable amount of effort went into making sure that I sought out everything that needed to be seen before narrowing them down. COVID-19 may have resulted in the labeling of movie theatres, concert halls, and other cultural institutions as “non-essential,” but how many of us made it through the last nine months without watching a film or listening to an album?

While you’re contemplating your response, check out my choices for the best and worst films of 2020:

“Sound of Metal”Directed by Darius Marder – We seldom see the deaf community portrayed in such an authentic and respectful way on screen. Riz Ahmed’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Available on Amazon Prime

“Da 5 Bloods” – Directed by Spike Lee – As good as 2018’s “Blackkklansman” was, this is the return to form that I’ve been waiting for from Lee. Delroy Lindo is at the peak of his artistic powers. Available on Netflix

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Directed by George C. Wolfe – Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman square off in a battle of wills that is nothing short of electrifying. Available on Netflix

“Small Axe: A Collection of 5 Films from Steve McQueen” – Directed by Steve McQueen – I suppose you could say that it’s cheating to include five films in one spot, but they’re impossible to separate given how much passion went into telling each story. It’s the only binge-watch that matters this holiday season. Available on Amazon Prime

“Palm Springs” – Directed by Max Barbakow – It pushes the irreverence of “Groundhog Day” even further and ends up being the funniest film Andy Samberg has ever done. Available on Hulu

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” – Directed by Radha Blank – Every frame of Blank’s directorial debut gives the impression that we’re witnessing the emergence of cinema’s next great voice. Available on Netflix

“On the Rocks” – Directed by Sofia Coppola – I could watch Rashida Jones and Bill Murray drive around the streets of Manhattan all day, but it’s the gradual reconciliation of the father/daughter relationship that really moved me. Available on Apple TV

“His House” – Directed by Remi Weekes – The plight of Sudanese refugees is exacerbated when their new home isn’t quite what they had in mind. Available on Netflix

“Mank” – Directed by David Fincher – Debating whether or not the title character actually wrote the script for “Citizen Kane” isn’t nearly as interesting as how Fincher frames Old Hollywood as a sleaze factory whose only allegiance is to its own sustainability. Available on Netflix

“Sylvie’s Love” – Directed by Eugene Ashe – A sweeping romantic tale in which both characters feel lived-in and devoid of cliche. Tessa Thompson shines. Available on Amazon Prime

Honorable Mentions – “The Invisible Man,” “Soul,” “Relic,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and “Other Music”

The Worst

“Antebellum” – This is what you get when your script has nothing to it other than the tired “white people are the devil” trope.

“You Should Have Left” – Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried should have left this script at the bottom of the pile.

“Fatal Affair” – Nia Long and Omar Epps are wasted in what I hope is the final attempt at reimagining “Fatal Attraction.”

Steve Hackett takes you ‘Under a Mediterranean Sky’ on Jan. 22

COVID-19 has made it so that most of us in the United States are unlikely to be under a Mediterranean sky anytime soon, but guitarist/songwriter Steve Hackett has crafted a resplendent, mood-driven collection of acoustic travel tunes aimed at holding us over until we get there. All 11 tracks are inspired by Hackett’s extensive journey through the region and comprise his first acoustic album since 2008’s “Tribute.”

He was kind enough to grant me 30 minutes of his time this week to discuss the album and how he hopes that it can bring light to people during one of the most difficult years in modern history. Whether you sit down to absorb its majesty with friends or alone with a glass of wine, it promises to be one of the most exciting listens of the new year.

MNOD: The pandemic has essentially loomed over every interview I’ve done this year, so I’d be remiss not to address it once again. How have you been holding up thus far?

Hackett: I’ve been staying well. It’s been a very productive time, actually, because I’ve substituted playing live for making an album and releasing other projects. I put out the “Selling England By the Pound” and “Spectral Mornings” live DVD from Hammersmith back in September and I also had my autobiography published in July, which was a very rewarding process. I’m very proud of the new record and I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.

MNOD: How comfortable are you with touring again in 2021 if things play out that way?

Hackett: We’re scheduled to get back out there in April, so hopefully we can still do that. Vaccines are going to play a big role in whether or not we’re open for business again, but we want to play as soon as we can. It’s been frustrating, but safety is most important. Not only for me, but for my team and the audience. The virus is no joke. We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for a while and infections are going up. Christmas is coming and people will want to gather, but hopefully it gets under control soon. That’s what I love about art and music, though. They’re not dependent on external factors. I was able to finish the album and other projects without depending too much on what was going on in the outside world.

MNOD: Your new record, “Under a Mediterranean Sky,” is an acoustic collection that also has an orchestral vibe to it. Was this something that came to you while in lockdown or had you already been working on it?

Hackett: As I said, I’m very proud of this record. It’s acoustic, it’s orchestral, and each track describes a particular place that I’ve traveled to in the Mediterranean. It was a labor of love, really. There’s nylon classical guitar as well as world music influences. My record company came to me and said that they were prepared to release whatever I wanted to do, so I decided to do this. We were halfway through the US tour when everything stopped and thankfully we were able to catch the last flight out of Philadelphia before the lockdown began. I love this record. I listen to it every day, which is rare for me. I usually don’t listen to my own records that often, but I’m particularly proud of the playing and production on this one.

MNOD: What drew you to the classical guitar style?

Hackett: Nylon strings give you a wider range of sounds than steel. They’re adaptable and have very wide dynamics. It can be a challenge to play them at times, because they require you to be precise and really have a love affair with the classical style. You have to be inspired or else you won’t get out of them what you want. Electric playing is very heroic, but I’ve always found the classical style to be very magical. I’m amazed by what I can get from one instrument. I find the nylon strings to be limitless. I haven’t given up the electric playing, I just see classical playing as the other side of the coin. It’s concurrently harder and more rewarding.

MNOD: Because every track on this record was inspired by a specific area within the Mediterranean, I was wondering what you learned about each location and its relationship to music during your travels.

Hackett: I was very affected by the music from each of these areas. What I wanted to do was paint a picture with music. My father was an artist and one area that he excelled in was landscapes, so I think I’ve created the musical equivalent of that. Each region has its own personality and I tried to evoke that for the listener. The music in Spain is different from Greece while the music in France is different from Egypt. All of that diversity is embraced here. It’s a very pancultural record. There’s a song called “Andalusian Heart,” which celebrates the flamenco guitarists of the Andalucia region. “Joie de Vivre” embodies the sense of joy that the French people derive from their wine and folk music. There’s a song called “The Dervish and Djin” that features musicians from Azerbaijian and Armenia, which is really a beautiful thing when you consider that these two countries are at war with one another. It’s something that music can do that politics can’t. Music unites. I’ve actually witnessed the whirling dervishes that sprung from Persia’s past first-hand and they’re miraculous. Egypt has always been a source of inspiration, as well, so there are really infinite perspectives on this album that transport the listener to places that they can’t otherwise travel to at the moment.

MNOD: Your 2021 tour promises to recreate the classic 1977 live album, “Seconds Out,” which happens to be the first Genesis album I ever owned. What do you think it is about that album that captured the band so well?

Hackett: That was an album that essentially cherry picked our best songs. We drew from Foxtrot, Nursery Cryme, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, A Trick of the Tail, and others. It was a double album, so I didn’t want to take it out on the road unless I could give the fans full-length versions of the songs. A song like “The Musical Box” has sections that could work on their own, but it’s really meant to be experienced as a whole. People like that album, because it’s a live compilation of our best songs.

MNOD: Your 1981 album, “Cured,” is one that I’ve gotten into recently and I read that it was the first album in which you ever handled the vocals entirely on your own. Was that an easy role to slide into?

Hackett: That album was definitely more of a pop record than rock, so I was experimenting as a singer. There are one or two things on there that I still perform live occasionally such as “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” which is one of the heavier tracks from that record. As a guitarist, it’s exciting to get reviewed as a singer, because it’s different. When you’ve worked with singers like Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and Richie Havens, you learn a lot about vibrato and the value of holding notes at the right time. I’ve gotten more confident as I’ve gone on from that record and gained more control of my voice. I’ve also tried to establish both a ballad voice and a rock voice while getting more emotional every time I sing.

MNOD: Your autobiography, “A Genesis In My Bed, ” was released over the summer. Why did now feel like the right time to put your story out there?

Hackett: I’d been writing my story for 15 years or so, but not in an official context. My publisher gave me a deadline and deadlines can be a very motivating thing, so obviously I had more time to write once the shutdown became official. There were certain stories that I was able to flesh out further and really give the readers an engaging narrative. Looking back on it, it was a maddening process at times, because there are certain ideas that come to you in the shower, but you never have a waterproof pen handy to write them down. So I had to remember things and then make sure I got them down correctly later on. Not only did I want to tell my story, I also wanted to tell it in a way that was engaging for people. Drawing people in is important, so I wanted to be as descriptive as possible. I really wanted to capture for the reader what it felt like to grow up in Pimlico during the 1950s. London was smelly, polluted, foggy, and really in a bad state after World War II. I remember seeing bomb damage regularly, so I wanted to describe to people just how different it was back then. When I think back on that time, it’s almost like Dickens, because London from then to now is as different as it was 100 years ago. I had to open up to people and it ended up being a very cathartic experience.

“Under a Mediterranean Sky” is available on Jan. 22, 2021.

See www.hackettsongs.com for details.

2020: Live From Your Living Room

If Willie Hutch was right and you can’t miss something that you never had, then the lack of social interaction during the cultural clusterfuck known as 2020 hasn’t affected my life all that much. I write a lot, I haven’t had a consistent circle of friends in 15 years, and I spend the majority of my spare time reading or listening to music with my son. In other words, I can’t really relate to the idea that the sky is falling simply because you have to spend a little more time away from other people.

That said, the absence of live music this year has been difficult and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the company of 500-65,000 total strangers on a semi-nightly basis. There’s something about the untethered nature of a public performance that can’t be conveyed through a screen regardless of how many $100 livestreams they try to sell you.

With venues shuttered and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future, records, CDs, and any other physical format said to have gone the way of the dinosaurs around the dawn of the iPod have assumed an even greater significance within the confines of the Hens household. We needed a light in a world dominated by darkness and we were grateful for every artist that made the decision to release new music during a pandemic.

While I bought and heard a lot this year, here are the 10 albums that spoke to me more deeply than the rest:

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Bruce Springsteen – “Letter to You

Even as a Springsteen lifer, I’ll admit that he hasn’t crafted anything this moving since “The Rising.”

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Bob Dylan – “Rough and Rowdy Ways”

Dylan hasn’t been this invested in his own material in years and we’re all better off for having heard it.

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AC/DC – “Power Up”

Their most hook-heavy album in 30 years serves as the perfect tribute to the late, great Malcolm Young.

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Fiona Apple – “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”

Trying to explain just how magnificent every second of this album is doesn’t do it justice. Just listen and decide for yourself.

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Gord Downie – “Away is Mine”

Everything that has been released since Downie died in 2017 has been brilliant and this one is no different.

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Marilyn Manson – “We Are Chaos”

As a 10-year-old fan of Manson’s 1998 masterpiece, “Mechanical Animals,” I used to have adults tell me that his art would never last. They were wrong.

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The Chicks – “Gaslighter”

If you look past the acquiescence to cancel culture, no one unleashes a lyrical firestorm quite like Natalie Maines.

Pearl Jam – “Gigaton”

You’ll hear a lot of blowhards say that everything after “Vitalogy” sucks, but PJ has never been a band concerned with making sure that the hive gets what it wants.

Halsey – “Manic”

The spine reads “Manic,” but the title could have easily been “Portrait of the Artist as a Hot Mess.”

Run the Jewels – “RTJ4”

One of the many crimes of 2020 is that we were deprived of hearing them perform this stuff live on Rage Against the Machine’s reunion tour.

Guitarist Martin Barre on COVID and 50 Years of Jethro Tull

The unexpected upside of not having set foot inside of a live music venue for eight months has been rediscovering records that I had fallen out of touch with over the years. Sure, plenty of artists have chosen to release new music during the pandemic, but there’s something exhilarating about getting reacquainted with an album that you feel the rest of the universe missed out on the first time around.

For example, when the opportunity arose to speak with Martin Barre about his latest project commemorating 50 years of Jethro Tull, my mind immediately cited 1989’s “Rock Island” and 1991’s “Catfish Rising” as two works that were unfairly fossilized at a time when the mainstream’s attention was being seized by a certain city in the Pacific Northwest. Having an album come out 14 days before “Nevermind” would be the commercial kiss of death for any band, let alone one whose style was still very much rooted in the classic rock of the 1970s, so the latter never really had a chance.

I asked Barre about that record and more during our recent conversation, and, if you’ve been missing the feel of a crowd as much as I have, maybe his upcoming collection of Tull classics can fill the void until we’re able to see him grace The Sportsmen’s Tavern stage once again.

MNOD: The last time we spoke was in September of 2018 when you were coming to Buffalo on the Roads Less Travelled tour, so it’s great to hear from you again.

MB: I appreciate you getting the word out about the new CD. Yes, at the Sportsmen’s. That’s always a great venue and we hope to get back there soon. Hopefully, it survives, because they’ve always been good to us.

MNOD: How have you fared thus far throughout the pandemic?

MB: I’ve stayed busy. I had a summer off for the first time in 50 years, which was nice, but I’ve still been working on some things. I’ve done a little writing and I’m getting ready to release a DVD around Christmas. I’m never bored. To be able to spend 4, 5, or 6 hours alone with my guitar on any given day has been great, as well.

MNOD: Live music has taken what many consider to be an irreparable hit this year. What would it take for you to get back out on the road at this point?

MB: It would have to be under the right circumstances. Some people have said they won’t tour until there’s widespread immediate testing and others have said that they won’t be doing anything until there’s a vaccine. It’s not a simple yes or no answer, because it’s a complex question. Even if they allow audiences, people are going to be uncomfortable for a long time, so we really need to think about how we’re going to approach getting back to concerts again. Of all the ideas out there at the moment, I haven’t seen one that feels like the solution yet. Venues like the Sportsmen’s are fighting to survive and I wonder if they will.

MNOD: What have you been doing in your downtime?

MB: I play in a table tennis league and I have a robot trainer, which is amazing. I also like running and playing tennis, so I have a lot of hobbies in my spare time. Being able to spend time playing guitar just for fun has been a pleasure.

MNOD: Celebrating 50 years of Jethro Tull in the middle of a pandemic feels anticlimactic, but being able to revisit the band’s catalog in lieu of live music has given me a deeper sense of appreciation for the later albums. How do you feel about the band’s legacy in 2020?

MB: I’d like the band to be remembered for the way it is right now. Our longevity speaks for itself and we always tried to do the right thing. We were polite and we had a work ethic that ensured that there would always be a place for us in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. There was a magazine in the UK that did a poll of the Top 200 prog musicians ever and I think everyone from Jethro Tull made the list at one spot or another. We weren’t the greatest band, but we weren’t the worst, either. Of course, it’s not up to me, because music is such a subjective thing.

MNOD: How did you ultimately decide which songs made it onto the new CD?

MB: Mostly, I went with ones that work really well on stage or ones that the other guys in my band enjoy playing. With Tull, we played to primarily rock audiences in the early ’70s, so I wanted songs that have a powerful guitar presence. It ended up being a pleasurable process, because digging back into the catalog was quite fun.

MNOD: “Crest of a Knave,” “Rock Island,” and “Catfish Rising” are a few later works that contain a lot of great material yet often get overlooked. Did you find yourself being surprised at all by songs that you may have forgotten about?

MB: There were a few songs that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover. The Tull catalog is so vast that I never had to worry about running out of material. The thing about the Tull albums is that they all had something about them to enjoy. When I started playing my solo sets, I would include all Tull, but, later on, I would find the right mixture between Tull classics and my own songs. I started cutting out a few that I didn’t enjoy as much. When we won the Grammy for “Crest of a Knave,” I think everyone knew that the metal category was wrong, but we were honored to get the recognition. The category didn’t matter. That’s the thing about music. When an album is special like that, the genre is unimportant. “Still Loving You Tonight” is a song from “Catfish Rising” that I included on this release, but it’s not a song that was fresh in my mind. I listened to it again for the first time in a long time and enjoyed the guitar parts.

MNOD: Is there a lineup of Jethro Tull that sticks out in your mind as being your favorite?

MB: We never had a bad band. I really liked the lineup with John Glascock on bass, but they were all great in their own way. Of course, I think the band I’m playing with now is the best, but I’m biased.

MNOD: Now that you’ve had some time to go back through the catalog, is there an album that you feel deserves to be reevaluated?

MB: “Under Wraps” is an album that I don’t think got enough credit at the time of its release. The use of electronic drums was a mistake, but there are a lot of good songs on there that I think would have a different feel if re-recorded. The songs were good and the playing was good.

MNOD: You mentioned earlier that you were writing some new music. Are there plans to turn it into something down the line?

MB: Not right now. I won’t go any further with it until early next year, because I’m still waiting to see what happens with everything.

“50 Years of Jethro Tull” will be released on Nov. 6. Do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.

Visit http://www.martinbarre.com for further details.

Grief In the Time of COVID

Everything dies,┬ábaby,┬áthat’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” – Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City” (1982)

In her 1963 book, “Not Quite Posthumous Letter to My Daughter,” author Caitlin Thomas set out to write a manifesto in which every morsel of matriarchal wisdom that her 50-year-old self had accumulated up to that point would be passed on to the next generation. Despite being a product of both its time and situation (i.e. Thomas’s toxic marriage to poet Dylan Thomas), the desire to steer her child in the right direction is something that anyone with daughters can relate to, because she essentially created a survival guide for girls looking to succeed in a world that has yet to universally recognize a woman’s worth outside the home.

I discovered her book as an 18-year-old university student with no expectation of ever getting married or having kids, but, as writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders once said, “life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” In other words, my days of being single were numbered and everything that I never envisioned for myself ended up filling a void that I never knew existed.

When my wife and I found out that we were going to have a girl earlier this year, my mind began to assemble its own version of Thomas’s book before we even had a chance to process the news with each other. I was as excited as I had been at any other stage of my life and couldn’t wait for her to arrive. There was always the question of why anyone would to choose to have another child given how ugly this country’s political climate has gotten on all sides, but I never bought into that defeatist bullshit.

As parents, we have a duty to introduce our children to the warts-and-all reality of America in hopes that they’ll be inspired enough to learn from the past and continue fighting to make a better future, and I was ready to impart that outlook to my daughter.

Alas, my optimism was fleeting, because my wife experienced what the doctors referred to as a “late-term miscarriage,” and, on August 28, was put in the unenviable position of having to fully deliver a baby that had no heartbeat.

In the immediate aftermath, she had people reach out with their condolences, but the truth is that there was no way to adequately express how we were all feeling at that moment. The truth is that no amount of “It’s not your fault” or “I had a miscarriage, too” was going to make her feel better, because the image of a lifeless yet fully-formed baby girl named Cadence was still so fresh in our minds. People are often unsure of what to say when it comes to consoling someone in a time of crisis, so I don’t blame anyone for trying to make her feel as if she wasn’t alone. They tried their best to make a shitty situation less so and we’re eternally grateful for the support.

As for me, I’m sad a lot and find myself unable to get as excited about things as I once did, but I’m hopeful that the tide will turn sooner rather than later.

Like Tony Soprano whacking Febby Petrulio while on a college tour with Meadow, we all crave certain things that make us feel alive, things that make us feel as if we’re existing beyond just the motions of fulfilling our daily responsibilities. For Tony, the thrill of physical altercation does the trick, but, in my case, writing has always been the one thing that external forces can’t take away. While I haven’t felt much like writing during the past month or so, I forced myself to crank this piece out in an attempt to recapture some semblance of normalcy and finally move on to the next chapter.

To everyone out there fearful of what else 2020 can possibly pile on in the next three months, all I can say is what Tony would have said:

Salut!