Various Artists: The Roots of Popular Music – The Ralph S. Peer Story

October 30th, 2017

The recordings and song publishing of a legend

It’s hard to imagine someone more important to American popular music than Ralph S. Peer. His pioneering achievements in blues, country, jazz and Latin music vaulted him into the highest echelon of A&R, and his career as a publisher built a foundational catalog that remains sturdy to this day. Peer’s recordings of Mamie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and a publishing catalog that stretched from Bill Monroe to Perez Prado to Hoagy Carmichael to Buddy Holly speaks to his ears for originality and his unprejudiced love of music. His talent for placing songs with singers exemplifies the sort of contribution a non-musician can make to music, and his extrapolation of regional and societal niches into popular phenomena speaks to a vision unclouded by the status quo.

Ralph Peer was not the only producer to explore the musical landscape of the United States, but unlike his peer John Lomax, Peer was less a folklorist, and more a producer whose studio was in the trunk of his car. In 1927 he discovered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in a single session in Bristol, Tennessee, and found additional success prospecting in Latin America. His interests in musical areas outside the popular mainstream led him to back the newly formed BMI, which in turn would spur the growth of radio as a medium for records, rather than live performances. The fruits of those labors are heard here in the songs he placed with Jimmy Dorsey, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and others.

The chronological running order of the first two discs gives listeners a sense of how Peer had his fingers in multiple genres at once. The enduring legacy of his work as a publisher is heard on disc 3, in recordings of songs whose appeal continued to grow after Peer’s 1960 death. The focus on Peer’s publishing catalog leaves out many of his landmark recordings, such as Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” The hardcover book includes notes from Peer biographer Barry Mazor, photographs and artifacts, but its lack of discourse on the set’s musical selections renders it more of an exhibit catalog than the liner notes for a fifty-song anthology. Pick up Mazor’s book, and the combination will tell you the story in words and music. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Whitney Rose: Rule 62

October 30th, 2017

Country, soul and girl group blossom under Rose’s command

With her friend and mentor Raul Malo co-producing, and a studio band drawn from the Mavericks, Jayhawks and Asleep at the Wheel, Canadian-born, Austin-based Whitney Rose doubles up on the retro country pop highlighted on 2015’s Heartbreaker of the Year. Across nine originals, and covers of “Tied to the Wheel” and “You’re a Mess,” Rose plugs into ‘70s country vibes, girl group sounds and, on “Can’t Stop Shakin’,” a deep soul groove. There’s an echo of Danny O’Keefe’s “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues” in the downbeat mood of “You Never Cross My Mind,” and the rolling rhythm of the bittersweet “Trucker’s Funeral” suggests John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.”

Rose is decisive as she leaves behind the wreckage of failed romances, and definitively cuts the ties that bind. She leaves without anger, and though hardened by experience, the emotional toll still leaves her numb, and on the Brill Building-worthy “Better to My Baby,” remorseful. Malo pops up throughout the album, singing harmony on “You Don’t Scare Me” and adding terrific guitar leads along with ace Kenny Vaughn. Malo and co-producer Niko Bolas showcase Rose’s vocal charms while also giving the musicians and songs room to shine. Chris Scruggs’ steel, Aaron Till’s fiddle and Jen Gunderman’s piano and organ are perfectly staged, and Rose is commanding as she eases herself into songs whose classic tones belie their originality. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Eilen Jewell: Down Hearted Blues

October 23rd, 2017

Sparkling Jewell covers the blues

Eilen Jewell’s voice has always been from another era. From her earliest country folk to the country shuffles, western swing and hot club jazz that have filled out her catalog, Jewell’s often had at least one peep-toed shoe in the 1930s. Even as she added electric guitars and growling saxophones to the mix with 2009’s Sea of Tears and 2014’s Queen of the Minor Key, she retained the out-of-time otherworldliness of her vocals. Her last album, 2015’s Sundown Over Ghost Town, dialed back the jazz, rock and R&B to electric country folk that married the directness of Woody Guthrie to the choked emotion of Billie Holiday. Two years later, the blues are back, as Jewell rips through a brilliantly selected and deftly executed collection of covers.

The dozen selections here weigh towards the 1950s and 1960s, with sides drawn from the Chess, Checker, Excello, Ace, Finch and Bluesville labels. The disc opens with a killer take on Charles Sheffield’s “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” driven by the spellbinding guitar of Jerry (“Not Moby Grape’s”) Miller. The covers include singles and deep album tracks made popular by Howlin’ Wolf, Big Maybelle, Little Walter and Otis Rush, and reach back to earlier sides from Bessie Smith (“Down Hearted Blues”) and Moonshine Kate (“The Poor Girl’s Story”). This is a connoisseur’s’ selection, highlighted by a rockabilly-inflected take on Betty James “I’m a Little Mixed Up” and a smokey, Peggy Lee-styled read of Little Walter’s “Crazy Mixed Up World.”

Jewell loosens up her voice, not to a full blues shout, but with an extroverted passion that, supplemented by Miller’s wicked guitar playing and a crack rhythm section, leaps from the speakers with authority. Even when playing coy, there’s no doubt who’s in charge, and unlike idiosyncratic stylists such as Holly Golightly or Lucinda Williams, Jewell takes a lighter touch in rethinking her covers. Jewell tips her hat to the material without losing centerstage, and in doing so the album sheds new light on the songs and the singer. The diverse material, drawn from the 1920s through the 1960s, fits together into a cohesive album, aided by Miller’s range of guitar styles and a flexible rhythm section. From start to finish, this is a love letter to the blues. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Flamin’ Groovies: Fantastic Plastic

October 2nd, 2017

The Flamin’ Groovies rise again

San Francisco’s Flamin’ Groovies broke into the underground with a string of critically revered records – Sneakers, Supersnazz, Flamingo and Teenage Head – whose lack of commercial success drove the band to musical itinerancy. By 1971, founder Roy Loney had left the band, and his co-founder, Cyril Jordan joined with Chris Wilson to shift the band from retro- and blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll towards British-invasion styled pop. They resurfaced in the UK five years later, releasing the iconic “Shake Some Action” and three albums full of solid originals and covers of the Beatles, Byrds and others.

But much like the band’s original lineup, the revised and revitalized Groovies garnered critical accolades, but didn’t break through commercially. Chris Wilson left the band in 1980, and though various configurations and editions of the group have reunited and toured off and on, it’s been nearly forty years since Cyril Jordan and Chris Wilson have collaborated on new material. For this reunion, they recorded with original Groovies bassist George Alexander and latter-day drummer Victor Penalosa over the course of three years, laying down ten originals and covers of the Beau Brummels and NRBQ.

The band charges out of the gate with the Stones-ish “What the Hell’s Goin’ On,” reaching back to the band’s bluesier roots (though oddly crossed with the central riff of John Mellancamp’s “Hurts So Good”) and playing to Jordan and Wilson’s guitar chemistry. There are numerous moments that rekindle memories of the band’s jangly 1970s Sire albums, including the harmonies of “She Loves Me,” the hopeful “Lonely Hearts,” the Shadows-styled instrumental “I’d Rather Spend My Time with You” and a cover of NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad.” The chime reaches its apex with the Byrdsian closer “Cryin’ Shame.”

There are dabs of psychedelia on “End of the World” and the jammy coda to their cover of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.” There’s also a defiant anthem, “Let Me Rock,” that would have sounded at home at the Grande. Jordan and Wilson lean to the group’s British rebirth, but give their due to the band’s full range of blues, R&B, rock, rockabilly and pop roots. Jordan’s original cover art pays tribute to Jack Davis’ cover for Monster Rally and RCA’s Living Stereo logo, and the CD is screened with an homage to the Laurie Records label. The retro touches are nice, especially for an album that’s a great deal more vital rock ‘n’ roll than nostalgic rehash. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request

September 22nd, 2017

The Stones’ red-headed stepchild gets a lavish 50th birthday party

Released between Between the Buttons and Beggars Banquet, the Rolling Stones’ 1967 foray into psychedelia has often been heard as a divisive outlier. Recorded in sessions spread throughout a tumultuous year, and often relegated to also-ran status as a me-too derivation of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album hadn’t the conceptual grandiosity to create such a stir. Worse, the band’s own indifference, exemplified by quotes printed inside this lavish four-panel album-sized package, hasn’t redeemed the album’s image. But on this fiftieth anniversary, one can ask whether the album has been fairly assessed, and see if hindsight illuminates the work more clearly than the flashing, multicolored light shows of 1967.

First and foremost, Satanic Majesties was a clear break from the tough, R&B-driven music on which the Stones had minted their reputation. The overt use of mellotron, oscillators and studio manipulations gives this album textures unlike any of the band’s other releases. And while drugs certainly influence other Stones recordings, none are so entrenched in psychedelia as this album. 1967 was a year of band turmoil, with Mick and Keith having been arrested on drug charges in February, Brian Jones’ girlfriend leaving him for Richards in March, Jones being arrested on drug charges in May, and the band’s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, leaving the fold. And it was at an intersection of personal tribulation and acid-drenched communal ethos that the Stones recorded this album.

The sessions were chaotic and weighed-down by hangers-on, and with Oldham abandoning ship, the band was left to produce themselves. The results were uneven – with jeweled classics rubbing elbows with uneventful jams. The album’s release on December 8 was foreshadowed by the single “In Another Land,” written and sung by bassist Bill Wyman. The tremelo-processed vocal, harpsichord, mellotron and dream-within-a-dream lyrics fit the album’s mood. With the A-side credited to Wyman (and with the B-side, “The Lantern,” credited to the Stones), the single scraped into the Top 100, leaving the album to generate its own publicity.

The LP performed well commercially, reaching #2 on the U.S. chart with the help of a late December single of “She’s a Rainbow” backed by “2000 Light Years From Home.” Critics were mixed, and though the album earned a gold record in America, it seems to have been largely forgotten by the Stones the moment it was released. The studio recording of “2000 Light Years From Home” was used to introduce the group’s 1972 stage show, but it wasn’t until 1989 that they performed it live, and it was another eight years before they performed “She’s a Rainbow.” The rest of the material remained at rest on record, and the group’s return to rock ‘n’ roll with 1968’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the rock, blues and country of Beggars Banquet, rendered Satanic Majesties an anomaly.

Beyond the hit single, the album has many charms. “Sing This All Together,” while not of the caliber as the hit single, opens the album with group vocals that echo the feeling of communal opportunity that was in the 1967 air. The track’s middle jam is edged along by percussion and horns until the vocals return and lead into the memorable guitar-riff that opens “Citadel,” “In Another Land” and the terrific “2000 Man.” Side one closes with the return of “Sing This All Together (See What Happens),” which, unlike the taut reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” is an unstructured eight-minute improvisational jam that returns to the album-opening mood before segueing into a theremin rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

The indulgence that closes side one is redeemed by the perfection that opens side two. Introduced by a carnival barker, Nicky Hopkins’ music-box piano and John Paul Jones’ string arrangement key the brilliant and beautiful “She’s a Rainbow,” with bass and acoustic rhythm guitar reigniting the song each time it slows. The group’s blues roots shine through “The Lantern,” particularly in the blistering electric guitar riffs, but the tablas and flute jam of “Gomper” hasn’t aged well. The latter pales in particular comparison to the inspiration of “2000 Light Years From Home.” It’s this latter track, with discordant piano, mellotron, theremin, dulcimer, oscillator flourishes and a lyric of growing physical and emotional distance that will haunt your memory long after the record’s finished playing.

The music hall closer, “On With the Show,” seems to both mimic the frame of Sgt. Pepper’s and anticipate that of Magical Mystery Tour, and provides an entertaining coda to the album. The album’s psychedelic underpinnings glow on many tracks, including the band’s preceding hit, “Ruby Tuesday,” and singles recorded during the Satanic Majesties sessions, “We Love You” and “Dandelion.” Unfortunately, these period tracks aren’t included as bonuses – nor are the outtakes and demos that have been bootlegged elsewhere. But what’s here was freshly remastered by Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering (2016-mono, 2017-stereo), and pressed onto both vinyl (from a lacquer cut by Sean Magee at Abbey Road) and hybrid SACDs.

The two vinyl LPs and two SACDs are housed in a heavyweight, four-panel fold-out cover, with the album’s original lenticular art restored to the front cover and the gatefold art to the inside. A 20-page booklet includes an essay by Rob Bowman, and candid photos from Michael Cooper’s original cover shoot photo session. The package is hand numbered, and the pressing is advertised as a limited edition. So what’s actually new here? The mono master is the same as was used for the 2016 box set (vinyl and CD), but it’s reproduced here with a new vinyl lacquer, and as a first-ever high resolution mono release on the hybrid SACD. The stereo remaster is new, as is its vinyl lacquer. The lenticular cover art isn’t new, but has been out of circulation for many years.

For those who’ve already collected the original mono and stereo vinyl, reissue stereo vinyl and SACD, and reissue mono vinyl and CD, the wholly new elements here are the high-resolution layer on the mono hybrid SACD and Bob Ludwig’s new stereo remaster. Are they worth the duplication? That depends on how much you value this album – particularly the punchier mono mix – or whether having mono, stereo, vinyl, redbook and high resolution digital in one three-pound package simply tickles your collector’s fancy. The absence of contemporaneously recorded singles, alternates and outtakes may disappoint some, but having the original dozen tracks, mono and stereo, with lenticular cover art intact will be a treat for the album’s faithful fans. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Peter Himmelman: There Is No Calamity

September 15th, 2017

Philosophical rock ‘n’ roll looks at the world’s ills and cures

It’s been three years since Peter Himmelman rebuffed his own doubts with the introspective The Boat That Carries Us. The disillusion displayed in the 2007 documentary Rock God gave way to a more emotionally agile life that turned obstacles into opportunities for recalibration, and found happiness in the realities that his youthful dreams of fame had spawned. On this follow-up he focuses on dialectical questions of the mind and heart, looks outward at society’s barriers and wonders how one’s thoughts and emotions create and might ultimately contribute to the resolution of the world’s problems.

The opening “245th Peace Song” condemns the toxic political and social atmosphere that currently dominates America, but Himmelman seeks healing in place of scapegoating; pleading for solutions rather than protesting problems. He laments fear’s corrosive impact on societal bonds and advocates collective action as an antidote. At turns Himmelman can be defeated, deterministic, nihilistic and existential, noting that rich men run the world, wondering if we can even know whether meaningful decisions exist, and pitying those who coast through life without the friction that creates opportunities for redemption.

But in his heart, Himmelman is an optimist. The gospel-tinged “Ropes or Wings” opines that bitterness and hate are choices, but that hope, kindness and mercy are always ready options. He contemplates the seemingly infinite wealth of one’s memories, and cleverly rhymes his way through the impressionistic “Ribbon of Highway.” He strikes an inspirational tone that is part Springsteen and part Neil Diamond on several tracks, and the guitar playing, particularly the solo on “Smoke and Flames,” will remind you of how much you miss rock music. This album is intellectually deep and emotionally soulful, which will come as no surprise to Himmelman’s many fans. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Mike Younger: Little Folks Like You and Me

September 14th, 2017

Canadian transplant makes socially aware country-rock in Nashville

The hoarse edge on Mike Younger’s voice might remind you of a young Don Henley, and there’s an earthiness to his delivery that’s more middle-America than Los Angeles. Originally from Nova Scotia, he wandered the world before setting down in Nashville where his rootsy honky-tonk and folk fit easily into the scene that lays beneath the city’s commercial sheen. His years as a busker taught him that gimmicks might stop a passerby, but it’s having something personal to say that will make them stay. That same lesson works well on record as he sings of both his own plights, and those of the audience to whom he’s played face to face.

He identifies with a working class that seeks a moment to dream of something better for themselves, as well as those they will leave behind to inherit the planet. His protagonists nobly hold to their convictions, even as their principles become their last possession, and they remain optimistic that the good in people will win over society’s most selfish instincts. He rejects the short-sighted profits of “Poisoned Rivers” and reflects on the gained experience of shared hardship as he laments a mortal ending on “How To Tell a Friend Goodbye.” The latter song’s lack of emotional resolution will be familiar to anyone who’s felt they came up short in a final farewell.

This is a serious album, but not one without lighter charms. “Never Was a Dancer” recalls Younger’s clever effort at turning his lack of experience into an invitation for instruction, with neatly crafted lyrics that leave the actual definition of “dancing” to the listener’s imagination. He falls for a honky-tonkin’ gal on “Rodeo Queen” and celebrates the week’s end with “The Living Daylights.” His songs of social conscience suggest Woody Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, and his first producer (for 1999’s Somethin’ in the Air), Rodney Crowell. Younger’s voice is authentic and he has something to say. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Andrea Stray: Into Blue

September 12th, 2017

Moody rock EP with country and blues echoes

There’s something haunting about Andrea Stray’s new EP. The languorous tempos convey an emotional mood that’s as much weary as it is wary. She sings of love’s dichotomies, suggesting that strength and fragility are two sides of the same coin, and that discord can harden from explosive force to impediment to acrimony. Her vocals are often lost in thought, but the thoughts that break to the surface with “Forgive and Forget” are the last rays of optimism before the unhappy ending is faced on the closing “You’re the Kind.” Recorded in Nashville with professional studio hands, this sounds nothing like the product one associates with the city’s commercial side. J.T. Corenflos’ moody, blues-tinged electric guitar is revelatory, and Scotty Sanders creates atmosphere rather than country twang with his pedal steel guitar. Stray’s singing might remind you of Robin Lane, Hope Sandoval or Neko Case, but her songs, and the moods she creates with them, are all her own. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Jan & Dean: Filet of Soul Redux – The Rejected Master Recordings

September 11th, 2017

Jan & Dean fulfill their contract with a satire of Jan & Dean

By 1965, Jan & Dean were riding high. They’d minted a dozen top-40 singles, including the chart-topping “Surf City,” collaborated extensively with Brian Wilson, hosted the T.A.M.I. Show, filmed a television pilot, begun work on a feature film, and as highlighted here, added comedy to their stage act. As the last album owed to Liberty, Filet of Soul, was apparently too outre for a label looking to milk the last ounce of profits from a departing act, so a more conventionally edited version was released in 1966 as Filet of Soul – A Live One. The full length original record, with sound effects and comedy bits intact remained in the vault, unreleased for more than fifty years, until now.

Although technically a contractual obligation album, Jan & Dean used the opportunity to experiment, rather than simply complete their obligation. The duo brought members of the Wrecking Crew to the Hullabaloo Club for two nights of live recording, and then tinkered with the tapes in the studio. As they sweetened and edited the live recordings, they sought to offer something interesting, while not giving their soon-to-be-ex-label chartworthy new material. The answer was to present a live set of cover songs augmented by sound effects and satirical comedy bits. Except it wasn’t an answer to their contractual obligation, as the label rejected the master and demanded more songs.

To appease the label, several songs from the duo’s television pilot were added, but so too a spoken word piece that was sure to raise the label’s ire. But before the lawyers could engage, Jan Berry was involved in the auto accident that ended the duo’s recording career. The label, seizing the opportunity to release amid the ensuing publicity, edited the album down to its songs, releasing a cover of “Norwegian Wood” and “Popsicle” as singles, the latter rising to #21. So how does the original fare? On the one hand, the label was likely right about its commercial potential among Jan & Dean’s teenage audience in early 1966; on the other, Jan & Dean clearly knew what they were doing, and were ahead of their time.

The album’s opening trumpet flourish suggests something grand, only to have its pomposity punctured by the sound effect of a rooster crowing. A live take of “Honolulu Lulu” is awash with the excited screams of female fans, but the subsequent monolog, “Boys Down at the Plant,” lampoons the show business facade. The live tracks are tightly performed, if not always with huge enthusiasm, but the duo’s chemistry, command of the stage and improvisational skills are on full display. The studio manipulations and dadaistic sound effects point forward to the surrealistic rock and comedy records of the late-60s and 1970s, but haven’t the conceptual coherency that the Firesign Theater and others would bring to records a few years later.

Omnivore reproduces the ten tracks of the resubmitted master, and includes Beatles songs (“Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”), Jan & Dean’s own “Dead Man’s Curve,” and pop hits of the day (“Cathy’s Clown,” “Lightnin’ Strikes” and “Hang On Sloopy”). The recordings are taken from a mono acetate (hand labeled “Fill it with Shit,” seemingly to indicate the duo’s non-commercial intentions). The 10-page booklet includes liner notes by Dean Torrence and surf music historian David Beard, photos and some of the original graphical elements that Torrence designed for the originally planned release. This isn’t the high point of Jan & Dean’s musicality, but it’s an interesting suggestion of where they might have gone, if not for Berry’s accident. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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Raspberries: Pop Art Live

August 19th, 2017

Astoundingly great 2004 reunion

Reunions are often laden with compromise in service of nostalgia. But three decades after their last performance, this 2004 reunion of the original quartet makes no concession to the passage of time, changing tastes in popular music, nor the yearning for one’s glorious youth. This was a rock ‘n’ roll show as vital and stirring as it would have been in 1974. The band played hard and tight, the vocal harmonies were spot-on and the songs shined with the vibrant colors of photos that had sat undisturbed in a drawer for 30 years. Eric Carmen gave it his all out front, Wally Bryson’s guitars had the perfect tone and touch, and the rhythm section – particularly Jim Bonfanti’s drumming – was as muscular as ever. Nostalgia might have been a spice, but it wasn’t the main course.

The group’s hits – “I Wanna Be With You,” “Let’s Pretend,” “Tonight,” “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” and especially the set closing “Go All the Way” – are as thrilling today as they were blasting out of the radio in the 1970s. And hearing them performed live adds a dimension that many latter-day Raspberries fans missed from the band’s hey day. These are killer songs for live performance, and the band’s even more powerful on stage than they were in the studio. And beyond the hits, the band reminds listeners that they made four incredibly strong albums.

Highlights include the ambitiously epic “I Can Remember” from the group’s debut, the country-styled “Should I Wait,” the harmony-rich “Hard to Get Over a Heartbreak” and Carmen’s declaratory “I’m a Rocker.” The band’s influences are heard in the Who’s “Can’t Explain” and a trio of finely selected Beatles’ covers. The latter includes an extraordinary version of 1964’s “Baby’s in Black” that affirmatively answers James Rosen’s rhetorical liner notes question “is this really as good as I think it is?” It is. Together with four extra singer/musicians (“The Overdubs”), the group is able to reproduce the lushness of their studio recordings without sacrificing the energy of live performance.

As on record, Eric Carmen provides most of the lead vocals, though Dave Smalley and Wally Bryson get significant leads of their own, and their pre-Raspberries band, The Choir, is celebrated with “When You Were With Me” and “It’s Cold Outside.” This is a long, satisfying set, and though Carmen’s voice must have been weary by the time they closed with “Go All the Way,” he’s solid in reaching for the song’s highest notes. Initially planned as a one-off to open Cleveland’s House of Blues, the fan response led to nine more dates, including a tour-ending Los Angeles gig. They did a few shows in 2007, and capped their reunion activities with a 2009 show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Omnivore’s first-ever issue of this show is spread across two discs, and presented in a tri-fold digipak with a 12-panel booklet that includes liner notes by Cameron Crowe (who reviewed the Raspberries’ first album for the San Diego Door at the age of 15), author James Rosen, and Raspberry biographers Ken Sharp and Bernie Hogya. The band’s joy in performing for their loyal (and incredibly patient!) fans is evident throughout the set, and the renewed relationship as a working unit was savoured by all. The confluence of people, places and times that forge a band is difficult to sustain, and nearly impossible to recreate, but the sparks that first ignited the Raspberries were still firing thirty years later, and lit up one of the best reunion shows in pop music history. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

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