Monday, February 16, 2015

Best of 2014: Personal Picks

Here we are in 2015 … a year that my students describe with wide-eyed wonder as being “as close to 2030 as it is to 2000!” With the new year halfway into its second month, temperatures hovering a few degrees above zero, and the first full day of winter break, what better time to look back at the past year with some personal remembrances and opinions as to the Best of 2014?
For this lifetime fan, hearing the first solo release from David Crosby in 21 years was an electrifying experience. Now in his early 70s, the former Byrd and founding member of Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) sounds as if he’s found his personal Fountain of Youth and has drunk deeply from it. His February 1 performance at City Winery in NYC was, to coin a favorite phrase of the artist’s, a stunner. His two-set concert included many selections from the new album, Croz, as well as a sampling of Crosby classics from all eras of his career. For the album, the concert, and for just being here, David Crosby earns my vote as one of the Best of 2014.

David Crosby

On a local note, singer/songwriter Cass Dillon reemerged onto the scene after a lengthy hiatus spent exploring the world of screen and stage acting. Dillon is an artist whose innate sense of melody and finely-honed songwriting craftsmanship results in ear-catching tunes that are refreshing to listen to, and bears testament to an individual who is, in my opinion, more than ready to step into the national spotlight. For everything he brings to the table, Cass Dillon earns my vote as Best Singer-Songwriter of 2014.

Keeping it local for the next entry, The Little Red Men are a group of teenagers whose brand-new EP, Off Guard, leaves no doubt as to the level of talent this band possesses. The three-song CD has taken up residence in my car since receiving it a few weeks ago and It seems that I cannot get enough listening in. Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Brandon Gurba stakes the band to superior material with his finely developed writing skills; lead guitarist Nick Granelle is a wunderkind on the instrument whose sense of melody, tone, timing, and placement is perfectly suited to the songs. The rhythm section of bassist Andrew Golub and drummer Jordan Godfrey is a musical match that reveals just how much these two are in perfect sync with each other. They also know exactly how to give the song what it needs. The Little Red Men earn my vote as Best New Band of 2014.

The Little Red Men
In the Best of 2014 event category, Crosby, Stills and Nash receive two votes for their moderated talk at the Paley Center for Media on July 7, followed four nights later by a stellar performance at the Beacon Theatre.

Crosby, Stills and Nash at the Paley Center for Media
July 7, 2014
photo by Roy Abrams

Crosby, Stills and Nash at the Beacon Theatre
July 11, 2014
photo by Roy Abrams


One night after CSN’s Beacon Theatre concert, YES took the stage at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury for a triumphant appearance that saw the band, featuring original members Chris Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White, perform material from Close to the Edge and Fragile, two of their best-loved albums, as well as a few other "greatest hits" and a selection from their latest release, Heaven and Earth.  Although I missed the presences of original vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, vocalist Jon Davison captured the magic and delivered it with spine-chilling accuracy while Geoff Downes handled the keys with confidence. At several points during this concert, tears of unmitigated joy sprang to my eyes as the band brought these studio recordings to life in a manner which can only be described as awe-inspiring ... another Best of 2014 event!

YES at NYCB Theatre at Westbury
July 12, 2014
photo by Roy Abrams
Four days after that, James Taylor took the stage at the Jones Beach Theatre for an evening that, once again, proved Taylor to rank among America’s finest singer-songwriters. He is a truly timeless artist whose concert ranks among my Best of 2014.
Another amazing July event was the Great South Bay Music Festival. Three days of live music from both national headliners and local artists made this a music enthusiast’s paradise. Looking forward to the next one! (The Little Red Men have already been booked to perform in 2015.)
In August, a local event took place at Club Revolution in Amityville that bears recounting in full.
What follows is a previously-unpublished review of the concert, written while I was still in a state of near-euphoria over what I just witnessed:
It would not have been out of place had Rod Serling been working the door of Club Revolution at the recent Pop Conspiracy Productions reunion concert on August 15, 2014. Iridesense and Early Edison, two of the three original bands who performed on this night, were joined on the bill by Gerald Bair, one of the Island’s preeminent singer-songwriters. This writer was powerfully reminded that, as once was, Long Island is still home to some of the best original music to be found anywhere. Never mind that all of the performers were either moving into or comfortably settled into middle age, what mattered here was the energy level in the room, undiminished by time, along with the realization that the music still mattered to both musicians and their audience.
Walking into the venue with my stepson Eric, a frequent companion in all things musical, as my eyes adjusted from the setting summer sun outside to the dimly-lit stage area, I stared open-mouthed as a familiar figure stood onstage, preparing for his sound check: Gerald Bair, a Long Island original music mainstay for decades, an artist about whom I have written extensively in the past, and one of the truly nicest people I have met in my travels. I had not seen Bair in more than a decade, and the prospect of hearing him perform again made me smile with anticipation. Chatting with him prior to his opening set, I learned that his musical legacy was bearing incredible fruit in the form of his son Matt, who is better known as Matthew Koma, now one of the leading figures in the EDM genre. Koma recently shared the bill with Maroon 5 as part of the recent iTunes Festival. His father glowed with pride and love as he told me about his son’s expanding musical career. It is a testament to Bair’s nature that he bears not a twinge of bitterness at the almost Shakespearean way in which fame found his offspring while passing him by in the process. In any event, Bair’s opening set perfectly set the tone for the evening. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, the songwriter’s solid sense of craft captivated the audience’s attention with songs from 1993’s Pieces of the Puzzle and 1998’s We All Fall Down. Bair reeled the audience in with his imagery-laden lyrics and hook-laden melodies and I was reminded once again of why I regard him as one of Long Island’s best.
Up next was Iridesense, lead by the brother-sister team of Rick Eberle and Tara Eberle-Drouin. Comprised of Rick on vocals and rhythm guitar, Tara on vocals and bass guitar, Rob Viccari on lead guitar, and Rich Drouin on drums, the band has worked together since 1993. Rick was still in his teens when I originally crossed paths with the band back in the ‘90s. I had heard some new material that the band had recorded in the not–too-distant past and was highly impressed by the quality of both songwriting and performance. Real radio-ready songs, I thought, instantly zapping back into The Island Zone radio show mode. Performing a ten-song set of songs both old and new, the crowd roared its approval as favorite songs were delivered with an energy equal to that of the first Pop Conspiracy Productions concert back at Mulcahy’s in Wantagh in the late ‘90s. Tasteful musicians who know how to focus on what works best for the song, the music coalesced most powerfully on “Life”, a song that encapsulates all that is unique about Iridesense. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive for every other track: “The Line”, “Don’t Say”, “My Revelation”, “Mind Control Society”, “Next to You”, “Believe”, “Negativity”, “Dangerous”, and the set closer, “Holiday”. The members of Iridesense prove that it’s possible to retain musical chemistry over an extended period of time without diluting the mixture one iota.
The frenetically-charged Early Edison took the stage last for a romp through its collection of high energy pop/rock tunes that saw founding members Tom Ashton and Rob Coffin at their “demographically-pleasing” best. (The song of that name was awarded “Pop Song of the Year” by Newsday in 1997.) Again, I could imagine Rod Serling lurking stage right, squinting out through a cloud of cigarette smoke at an audience caught in a Twilight Zone between the late ‘90s and today.
Although the turnout was a fraction of the original event, the Pop Conspiracy Productions reunion concert was an unqualified success on an entertainment level and served as a powerful reminder that great original music is alive and well on Long Island, thanks to great original artists.
My final vote for Best of 2014 goes to ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, who brought his Genesis Extended Tour to The Space at Westbury on November 15. The only former member of Genesis who is keeping his band’s music alive for its fans, Hackett and company performed to an ecstatic audience whose emotion was barely contained throughout the concert. Performing classics such as "Dance on a Volcano," "Squonk," "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight," "Fly On a Windshield," "Broadway Melody of 1974," "The Return of the Giant Hogweed," "The Fountain of Salmacis," "The Musical Box," "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)," "Horizons," "Lilywhite Lilith," "The Knife," "Supper's Ready," "Watcher of the Skies," and "Los Endos," Hackett was clearly enjoying himself, celebrating the music of a band whom many consider to be one of the world's best.
Steve Hackett and band at The Space at Westbury
November 15, 2014
photo by Roy Abrams

Steve Hackett at The Space at Westbury
November 15, 2014
photo by Roy Abrams

Looking ahead to the remainder of 2015, Island Zone Update will continue to shine a spotlight on the very best that musical artists have to offer … count on it!
- Roy Abrams
  Long Island, NY

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