Exposing the dry cleaning myth

As a small child I would watch my father gather up a pile of dress shirts every weekend to drop-off at the dry cleaners.  They would return a few days later, neatly pressed, lightly starched, bagged and boxed.  It was magical.  Or so I thought.

As an adult I quickly embraced the dry cleaning culture.  Although I own an iron I’ve never actually used it at home (no ironing board, no desire).  Sometimes I use the iron in a hotel room, though.  I like to get my money’s worth (ironing boards are free in hotels).

Everyone already knows that dry cleaners rip-off women by charging them 5 times as much as men for cleaning their shirts.  Allegedly they “dry clean” female shirts which is more expensive than “laundering” men’s shirts – even though they’re made of the same material (cotton) and cut in the same shape.  Yeah, right.

Well, I’m here to call BS – but not just on the unfair female mark-up.  Here’s today’s not-so-crazy theory:

The unfair female mark-up at dry cleaners is a red herring.  The evil dry cleaning cabal created the female mark-up precisely to distract people from the real truth, which is:

There’s no such thing as dry cleaning.  It’s a myth.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Those really are dry cleaning stores that you see littered all over the country.  And they really are taking your money for “cleaning” your clothes.  But they’re not actually cleaning them.  All they are doing is pressing them and putting them into toxic little bags.

Think about it.  The whole idea of cleaning is predicated on the idea that soap plus water equals clean.  The soap does the cleaning and the water gets rid of the soap.  Take the water out of that equation and you can’t rinse out the soap.  Take the soap out and you’re not actually cleaning anything.

So in effect, we pay people for plastic bags and cheap metal hangars.  It’s a pretty good scam.

In summary, there is no such thing as dry cleaning.  Perhaps if you’re looking to save a few bucks during these tough times might I recommend that you cut out your imaginary dry cleaning habit and just bring your wrinkled shirts to the nearest hotel for ironing?

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An Englishman in New York

It occurred to me this weekend, after watching the film Music & Lyrics, that I have seen more Hugh Grant movies than any man rightfully should.  What makes this development particularly concerning is that I have watched hardly any movies in the last eight years since becoming a parent.  And yet, without even trying, I have absorbed most of Hugh’s oeuvre.

In fact, I’d estimate that between 10% and 20% of the movies that I’ve watched over the last eight years have involved Hugh Grant in some way shape or form.  There’s probably an outside chance that I am the foremost living expert on Hugh Grant.  And sometimes, late at night, when the rest of the world is fast asleep, I lie in bed and wonder what this says about me. 

***

As a movie critic, I like to assess movies a simple rating based on their relative value.  Stars and numbers are far too arbitrary for a critic of my discerning tastes. 

Great movies are deemed theatre-worthy.  They are well worth the cost of entry plus the cost of refreshments and the cost of the babysitter.  For example, The Godfather is obviously theatre-worthy.  Citizen Kane is definitely theatre-worthy.  In Grantian terms, the sweet and delightful About a Boy is clearly theatre-worthy.

Good movies are deemed rental-worthy.  It’s much less of an investment, both in time and money, to truck down to your local rental store and pick up a movie.  I’ve even heard that people can now use the magic typing box to order rental movies that magically appear in your mailbox.  Hugh’s spot on portrayal of Daniel Cleaver in the Bridget Jones’s Diary film adaptation (first one only) is a good example of a movie that isn’t good enough to watch in the theatres but is good enough to spend $5 (plus late fees) on.

Most movies fall into the average category, otherwise known as the cable-worthy class.  Yes, you’re paying extra each month for HBO or Starz or Showtime but the cost is minimal and it’s built in to your cable bill.  Movies on pay seem free even though you are paying extra for them.  The nice thing about movies on pay cable is that they preserve the gratuitous cursing and nudity.  The aforementioned Music & Lyrics falls into this category, although it sadly did not include any gratuitous nudity from Drew Barrymore.

Bad movies are considered free TV-worthy, although the endless Frank TV commercials and on-screen graphics tend to spoil any minor pleasure that one might receive from free sub-par entertainment on TBS.  Even an actor as magnificent as Hugh Grant has worked on a few turkeys in his day.  The execrable Nine Months is a prime example of a Hugh Grant film that you wouldn’t want to pay anything to watch but might catch on the TV.  In fairness to Hugh, though, Tom Arnold was also in Nine Months and everyone knows that Tom Arnold is the kiss of death for any film.

***

I’m puzzled why Hugh Grant isn’t a bigger star.  In my estimation he should probably be the biggest movie star living today.  He’s British, he’s handsome, he’s in great shape, he doesn’t look his 48 years, he can play funny or jerky and he can even sing a little.  He’s been in a ton of good to great movies and probably only 2 or 3 bombs.

Seriously, how could Elizabeth Hurley let a catch like Hugh Grant get away?  I can’t think of one bad thing, not a single misstep in the divine career of Hugh Grant.

I guess the ways of Hollywood will always remain a mystery to me, Hugh Grant’s #1 unintentional fanboy.

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But Wait…There's More!

People are always asking me why I give away so many amazing ideas for free.  My answer is always the same: I do it for the love, not for the gold.  Worldwide fame and recognition beats a few million dollars any day.

But I have to admit that today’s idea is so good, so easy to execute and so lucrative that even I have reservations in letting it go for free.  I see the site traffic that comes from NBC Universal and FOX so I know that one of you guys is going to snatch up this idea and run with it.  Oh well.

I present to you…The Infomercial Channel.

What this world needs now more than ever is a 24 hour cable channel that is dedicated to celebrating the art of the infomercial.  There are millions of people in this world (not even counting stoned college kids) that love watching infomercials purely for entertainment value.  I know that I sure do.

I’ve even thought of some initial programming for the channel:

Ron Popeil Classics: The King of the Infomercial would host a show that played old Ronco informercials while Ron provided commentary.  Who wouldn’t love to watch the Veg-O-Matic, the Chop-O-Matic or the Showtime Rotisserie (‘set it and forget it’)?

Biography: A look at the lives of the most famous infomercial stars of our times, for example: Billy Mays (watch his hair get darker!), Mike with the Ugly Sweaters and glasses and the British guy with the suspenders.

Behind the Pitch: Similar to Biography, but for the more salacious characters in the infomercial world.  Obviously the Vince Schlomi/ShamWow episode is already in pre-production.

Face-Off: Real “as seen on TV” products are put to the test to see if they really deliver on their promises.

The Next Infomercial Star: A reality show where regular people compete to become the next iconic infomercial pitchperson.  Judges may include Ed McMahon and MC Hammer.

28 Minutes: A free-flowing discussion with infomercial experts that discusses the craft of making infomercials.

Cele-B-rity Showcase: A snarky pop-culture look at all of the B-list celebrities that have made appearances in infomercials.  Now, I’m not naming names, but ‘I pity da fool’ that don’t watch Cele-B-rity Showcase!

As you can see, the programming possibilities are endless!

The best part of the Infomercial Channel is that ironically it’s commercial free!  We’ll just sell blocks of time to current infomercials to fill out the schedule.  So the channel will be a mix of new infomercials, classic infomercials and infomercial related content.

So what do you think?  Is this an amazing idea or what??

(This essay, originally written in April of 2009, is dedicated to Billy Mays and Ed McMahon, two wonderful pitchmen who were both done too soon.)

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Secrets of the Admiral's Club Revealed!

I hope I never make it inside the Admiral’s Club at the airport.

I know, that sounds crazy.  Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to hang out at the Admiral’s Club when they’re waiting for their plane?

The craziest part is that I’m all for luxe living.  I travel on a regular basis and I have no burning desire to be lumped in with the rest of the riff-raff (no offense).

But here’s the thing.  I don’t want to go inside the Admiral’s Club because I know that it’ll just break my heart.

In my mind, the Admiral’s Club is literally teeming with Admirals and other power brokers.  Behind those sliding glass doors is a veritable world of pleasure.  The liquor flows freely and is always top-shelf.  The massages are free; they don’t require an appointment and they come with or without aromatherapy treatments.  Scores of important decisions are made inside the club: everything from IMF policy to casting decisions for next season’s crop of TV pilots.

Inside the Admiral’s Club I’ll be so stuffed from the Wagyu beef skewers that I’ll barely have room for the lobster tails.  I’ll watch movies in the hi-def screening room before they’re even released in the theaters.  My ipod, Blackberry and laptop will be thoughtfully charged up for me and even the little wheels on my standard-edition black wheely bag will be oiled up for smooth gliding.  When I’m finally, reluctantly ready for my flight a secret pneumatic tube will effortlessly deliver me to the front of the line for boarding.

Now that’s what I call an Admiral’s Club.

In reality, I suspect that behind those sliding glass doors will be a depressing desk manned by an underpaid and overworked airline employee.  They’ll be a few over-stuffed but under-comfortabled chairs facing a 27” tube television permanently set to FOX News.  The only refreshments will be a basket of honey-roasted peanuts and a couple of warm cans of Mr. Pibb.  If I’m lucky, I’ll find yesterday’s edition of USA Today, but the junior jumble will already have been ruined.  The room will be so hot from the broken A/C that I’ll doze off and miss my flight.

See my dilemma?

It reminds me of when I was a boy and I was completely convinced that women’s rooms truly were lounges – spacious, filled with comfy loveseats and flattering lighting.  Of course, I was shattered when I learned that women’s rooms were exactly like men’s rooms, except there was an extra stall replacing the urinals.

Eventually, reality always wins.  So in the case of the Admiral’s Club I’m going to hold onto my imagination for just a little while longer.  Next time you’re at the airport look for me.  I’ll be the guy not in the Admiral’s Club with a dreamy, wistful look on his face.

Fight Club Discovered North of Boston!

I’ve never read the book “Fight Club,” nor have I seen the movie.  Nonetheless, I’m well aware of the fact that the first rule of fight club is that there is no fight club.

That’s my first problem.

Recently, a building in the picturesque New England town where I reside underwent a minor transformation.  What was previously an abandoned hair salon (according to the faded letters on the door) became an abandoned hair salon with some sort of plastic tarp covering up the large front windows.  Now, I’m generally not a big fan of the abandoned-hair-salon-with-tarps-taped-to-the-windows look but this one piqued my interest for some unknown reason.  Each day, as I drove past the former salon, I would steal a glance or two in a vain attempt to figure out exactly what was going on in there.

First, I saw a refrigerator and a hot water heater.  Interesting.  Next, I spied some clothing and racks.  Intriguing.  Finally, I noticed some free weights and dumbbells.  My mind quickly jumped to three possible conclusions: illicit repair shop, underground boutique, or storage facility.  These were all reasonable explanations but they were all too safe for my liking.  I knew there was more to this story and I was determined to crack the case wide open.

A few weeks went by with no action.  But like most cases, I got a solid lead right when I was starting to give up hope.

Never give up hope, kids.  That’s the real lesson of this tale.

It was a warm spring day.  The kind of warm spring day that makes you wish that it was slightly earlier in spring.  Driving by the former salon I noticed right away that something was different.  The door was open!  I discreetly pulled over to get a better look.

Inside were a group of men.  I’d call them thuggy looking men, but that would be judgmental of me.  From what I could see, a few of these men were actually lifting the weights.  As suspected, this was no innocent storage facility.  To make matters worse, a couple of the hooligans looked like they were itching for a fight.  And that’s when it hit me.  Fight Club.  The abandoned salon was a real life fight club!

The evidence was overwhelming.  Tarps on the windows, weightlifting and ruffians: the three classic signs of a Fight Club.  But evidence wouldn’t be enough this time.  I’d need proof!

That’s my second problem.

You see, I really want to break this story.  Think about my credibility as a journalist if I could prove the existence of a Fight Club on the North Shore of Boston!  I’d be huge.  We’re talking international celebrity here.  But how can I prove it?

My problem is that I’m not really that good at fighting.  Sure, I earned my green belt in karate back in 1984, but these days I prefer the art of verbal sparring.  And I’m pretty sure that the only way to get into a Fight Club is to fight your way in.  Otherwise, they’d just deny that it’s a Fight Club, per the aforementioned rule.

So there you have it.  I’m almost positive that I’ve discovered a real live Fight Club but I need a little help in proving it.  If you’re interested in this assignment (and half the credit!) please feel free to contact me and I’ll slip you the address.

Fight Club!  Fight Club!

Dear Michael McDonald,

You don’t know me, but I’m your brother.

And as such I just don’t understand why you hate me so. Why, Michael, why?

Let me explain.

Every time I buy tickets to a concert where you’re slated to appear something happens and I end up not seeing the show.

At first I thought I was suffering from a Steely Dan curse. Even though we’ve seen the “Dan” a couple of times over the years, twice I’ve had to ditch tickets to Dan-related shows: once because we couldn’t get a sitter and once because Donald was sick and we were out of town for the make-up date.

But now that I’m forced to ditch our 2nd row center tickets for your upcoming show with Boz Scaggs and we’re still planning on seeing Steely Dan perform Gaucho live in July, I realize that YOU’RE the problem. Don’t try to deny it – I know that you were touring with Steely Dan when we missed that show.

Truth be told, we’re not terribly upset over missing your show with Boz. At first we were really excited. You know that we see Boz every chance we can, we scored great seats and we thought it would be nice to see you open up the show.

Then the tickets arrived in the mail and we discovered a shocking thing – your name was listed first. It appears that Boz is opening for YOU.

Seriously? How is that even possible? No disrespect intended, but Boz is a million times better than you.

Michael, I love your voice. You were great in the Doobies. You were great with Steely Dan. You even have a handful of decent solo hits. But I know Boz Scaggs. I’ve loved Boz Scaggs. And you’re no Boz Scaggs.

In disbelief, I asked everyone in the office who they thought was a bigger star. Sadly, I work in an office full of 25 year olds who had never heard of either of you. But you’ll be happy to know that among my peer group they all favored you over Boz.

Eh. What do those idiots know anyway?

Let’s figure this out sports sections style with a head to head matchup:

Singing

Boz has a beautiful and flexible voice that has aged perfectly. He has the range to cover blues, jazz, standards and disco-flavored pop.

Michael has one of the most iconic and memorable voices in rock history and still sounds great, even on weak-ass Motown covers.

Advantage: McDonald

Playing

Boz is an excellent blues-guitar player. Although he keeps a lead guitar player in his band to handle most of the heavy-lifting he still graces us with a smoking solo or two every show. That cat has gorgeous tone.

Michael is a master of the Casio, a decent but unspectacular keyboard player.

Advantage: Scaggs

Songs

Boz fills 2 CDs with well-known and well-loved hits from all phases of his long and illustrious career. There is absolutely no filler on his Greatest Hits collection. For a (very brief) moment he was the biggest star in the music world. I own his entire discography.

Michael’s greatest hits album is 50% filler even with some Doobie Brothers hits included. I hate to admit it but I skip at least 6 songs (out of 18) on the disc. I mean, “Jah Mo B There” is the 4th song on the album for Jah’s sake. In fairness, the good songs are awesome, though.

Advantage: Scaggs

Associations

Boz was a member of Steve Miller’s band before going solo in the late ’60s.

Michael made the Doobie Brothers great, added wonderful background vocals to Steely Dan’s best albums and recorded many famous duets as a solo artist.

Advantage: McDonald

Final Score: 2-2

It’s a tie! Sweet Georgia Brown! I never saw that coming!

Well, Michael, I guess we’ve got nothing to argue about after all. I hope you have a great time in Boston. Catch a Sox game. Take Boz on a Swan Boat. Eat a lobster roll at Neptune Oyster.

Love Always,

Mitch

The Black Crowes Album Project: Lions (2001)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
Lions (2001)

Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar, bass
Steve Gorman, drums
Audley Freed, guitar
Eddie Harsch, keys

Additional Musicians:

Craig Ross, lead guitar on “Greasy Grass River”
Maxine Waters, Oren Waters, Rose Stone and Julie Waters, background vocals

Produced by:

Don Was

Mitch’s Review:

Upon starting The Black Crowes Album Project I was never deluded enough to think that I would suddenly realize that By Your Side or Lions were underappreciated gems in the Crowes catalog. I was curious, however, to see which album I liked better. Now that the results are in I can safely declare Lions the winner by the slimmest of margins. Unfortunately, it’s a pyrrhic victory as Lions still doesn’t qualify as a good album. Like its predecessor it’s a half-good album, with 7 good to great songs and an astounding 6 dogs. One wishes that Rich would have programmed a keyboard hotkey for ‘delete’ on the old ProTools.

There’s a weird discord that runs through the album – it’s almost as if Rich wanted to make a straightforward guitar rock album but Chris just wasn’t into it. With a few notable exceptions, Chris’s lyrics are incredibly lazy. Musically, there are some solid riffs on Lions but they often fail to blossom into fully satisfying songs. A good example of this phenomenon is “Cypress Tree” which starts strong but doesn’t really go anywhere.

The best song on the album, “Lay It All On Me” would be a great epic on any of their albums. I gained a new appreciation for LIAOM after Chris busted it out when he was on tour with Phil Lesh. It’s a great tune. “Soul Singing” is a classic Crowes track that is well represented on the disc and provides a wonderful platform for some mind-bending jams live. And “Miracle to Me” is simply a beautiful ballad.

Lions also has the dubious distinction of delivering to us the worst Crowes song ever – the loathsome “Lickin’” of which the less said the better. (Except for the dance mix, to which I say “haw haw.”) Now, I can forgive experimental toss-offs like “Young Man, Old Man” and “Cosmic Friend,” which are fairly harmless tracks, but I have a harder time accepting indifferent songs like “No Use Lying” and “Midnight from the Inside Out.”

So let’s (thankfully) put the dark period of the Black Crowes (1998-2001) into perspective. Truth be told, one could take the best tracks from BYS and Lions, plus the solid material that ended up on the cutting-room floor (i.e. ‘Love Is Now’, ‘Last Time Again’) and easily create an album that would stand alongside the first 4. The Robinson brothers didn’t magically lose their songwriting abilities or musical talents in the late 90s, but they did lose a lot: two of the best musicians in the band, control of the sound/production and their sense of direction. But failure isn’t always the worst thing for an artist to endure (just ask Dylan). And I’m optimistic that the dark period of the Crowes will eventually be seen as a footnote, and not an epithet, to their career. Final Score: 2.7

1) Midnight from the Inside Out: 2
2) Lickin’: 1
3) Come On: 3
4) No Use Lying: 2
5) Losing My Mind: 3
6) Ozone Mama: 2
7) Greasy Grass River: 3
8) Soul Singing: 4
9) Miracle to Me: 4
10) Young Man, Old Man: 2
11) Cosmic Friend: 2
12) Cypress Tree: 3
13) Lay It All on Me: 4

Don’s review:

Shit.

[Aside from the crowd-pleasing “Soul Singing” and excellent ballad “Miracle to Me”, Lions was obviously made by a band that didn’t have its heart in it anymore. They didn’t bother to hire a bassist. They used inane effects like phones ringing on some numbers. Rich handled virtually every guitar (save for cups of coffee from Audley Freed and Craig Ross,) “played” bass on 12 of the tracks and even bumped Eddie Harsch to play piano on “Lay It All On Me”. Not even a Bob Dylan cameo on “No Use Lying” could save them. Even the Crowes sounded bored, recycling their own lyrics – the reference to “Remedy” in “Come On” – and riffs – “Cypress Tree’s” raping of the signature descending line from “No Speak No Slave”.]

Sandwich.

Final Score: 2.3 (rounding down for an album cover ALMOST as bad as By Your Side)

1) Midnight from the Inside Out: 3
2) Lickin’: 1
3) Come On: 2
4) No Use Lying: 2
5) Losing My Mind: 2
6) Ozone Mama: 1
7) Greasy Grass River: 3
8) Soul Singing: 4
9) Miracle to Me: 4
10) Young Man, Old Man: 2
11) Cosmic Friend: 1
12) Cypress Tree: 2
13) Lay It All on Me: 3

Previous Release: 1999′s By Your Side

Up Next: 2005′s The Lost Crowes 1 (Tall Sessions)

To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.

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Concert Review: The Dead in Worcester, MA 4/18/09

Concert Review:
The Dead
Saturday, 4/18/09 (night 1)
DCU Center
Worcester, MA

To listen to the show click here (thanks tapers!)

The Setlist

(Set 1)
Feel Like A Stranger>Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad. Mountains of the Moon>Dupree’s Diamond Blues. Althea. Bird Song>China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider

(Set 2)
Dancing In The Street>Milestones>Terrapin Station>Drumz>Space>Days Between>Bird Song Reprise>One More Saturday Night

(Encore)
Johnny B. Goode

Mitch’s review:

When The Dead first announced their 2009 reunion tour I was both excited and apprehensive. Excited because it’s always a treat to see the core four members of the Grateful Dead perform together (even if two of them are drummers); apprehensive because tickets prices were uncharacteristically high and they opted to basically reprise the so-so 2004 line-up (minus Jimmy Herring). I was really hoping that this wasn’t a “pad the retirement account” tour.

For the official record, the 2009 Dead line-up adds guitarist/singer Warren Haynes (Government Mule) and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti (RatDog) to the Bob Weir (guitar, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), Billy Kreutzmann (drums) and Mickey Hart (drums) foursome.

The Dead have played in Worcester many times over the years (my first show was at the Centrum in 1988) and yet the city was sadly unprepared for the onslaught of wookies and metalheads (there was also a metal festival at the Palladium). Everything was painful – parking, pre-game food and beers, bathroom lines, etc. But with the right attitude the craziness can become part of the fun, too, and it was great to hang out with friends, friends of friends and random strangers that made (and backed-up!) unbelievable claims. The energy was high and positive all night long.

In fact, the big difference between your average Phil or Bobby show and The Dead was definitely the sheer number of people and the intense level of energy. This wasn’t a show – it was an event.

Now, the music: Saturday night started off on a promising note with a sloppy but fun Stranger. The band kicked it into high gear with a GDTRFB and could you sense that the crowd was ready to explode. It was an early highlight. Inexplicably, instead of capitalizing on the crowd’s energy, the momentum came to a full stop with a very rough Mountains, definitely the low point of the night. Luckily, a really fun and bouncy Dupree’s picked things up again. Althea was okay, but I honestly don’t think that anyone has really done that song justice post-Jerry. Bird Song was decent but the jam at the end was somewhat of a trainwreck.

On jamming: the weird thing about the 2009 Dead is that everyone looks and sounds great individually but they’re not quite clicking yet as a unit. We know from the Q that Warren and Phil play well together so I suspect that Weir and Warren are the problem. Weir just doesn’t seem to mesh with Warren as well as he does with Mark Karan or Steve Kimock. They sound nice when they trade versus vocally but something is just a little off between those two in guitarland.

The first set finished up with a solid China Cat and a very good Rider. In total, it was a decent yet unspectacular set, with GDTRFB, Dupree’s and Rider being the highlights.

The second set kicked off with an unremarkable Dancin’ in the Streets but quickly picked up with the nicest Jazzy Goodtimes jam of the night on Milestones. I have to give credit to Warren – whom I’ve often slagged off the past for his tendency to solo like he’s playing in a hair metal band – for his tasteful and tuneful guitar playing.

The true highlight of the night, Terrapin, came next and the boys really nailed it. They were finally in the groove. Drumz was excellent and Billy and Mickey should be commended for their solid playing all night long. They add so much depth and texture to the music and it was a treat to hear the rhythm devils in action again. I also want to compliment the dude doing dance tai chi in the aisle during Drumz. You owned it, brah!

Next up was a rough double-header of Space and Days Between. Both were fine musically but they posed a big survival challenge for the heads. I paced myself well on Saturday, but I know from past experience that an extended second-set slow jam can take down even the heartiest of partiers. The Bird Song Reprise was actually better than the original Bird Song and the OMSN was expected and wonderful as always. Fate cursed us with a Johnny B. Goode encore to close out a really fun night.

While I can’t in good conscious call the night “epic” (even though I really would like to) the good news is that the band will undoubtedly get tighter as the tour progresses and the setlists will keep changing. They’re playing hard with a lot of positive energy, busting out some old chestnuts and it looks like they’re having fun up there. Hopefully they’ll keep playing as a unit for a while and will return to the east coast for another run next year (at the Boston Garden, please).

Kenny B.’s review:

The moment that was most impactful for good or bad (spoiler: it was bad) was during “I Know You Rider” when Phil was taking the “wish I was a headlight on a northbound train” verse. He makes a hand motion directly back to Mickey as if to say “hey, back off I’m not going to do the big, Jerry-esque climax here.” Mickey and Billy were both looking at him and just kept pounding away (quite nicely I might add). The climax came and went but it wasn’t impactful at all.

So why does that moment stand out? All of the members of the Grateful Dead have said in interviews, books, etc. over the years that their performances were (I’m paraphrasing) non-verbal, musical conversations between them. If Jerry wanted to go somewhere with a song, the others followed. If Billy wanted to speed things up to change the direction of the show, the others followed. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but the musical dialogue between them never stopped. That’s what Grateful Dead shows were; a nightly experiment in musical communication. I guess that’s why when Phil made a hand motion and a look back I questioned a few things. First, why is the hand motion necessary at all? Shouldn’t Phil have followed the flow of the show? Or if he really did want to hold back, shouldn’t he have started doing that (holding back) a few seconds or minutes before which would have been his musical signal for the others to follow his lead?

And that’s really what the problem is. These guys lived on the road for 30 years and played with each other hundreds of times a year. Now they don’t know each other musically at all. They NEED to have verbal signals and hand gestures in order to get through transitions and to regulate the tempo and mood of the show. So what kind of product does that leave? It leaves a nostalgia act that is nothing more than a mediocre cover band…except that they’re not covers.

I knew we weren’t getting vintage a vintage ’77 show. I didn’t even want that. I just wanted a nice evening of well-played music by the same guys that used to “Wow” me at times and leave me wanting more. I didn’t expect anything beyond hearing some good music by some of my favorite musicians. What I got was the feeling that everything that was the Grateful Dead, the buildup, the flow, the psychedelic jamming into god knows where, was all gone.

Even the song choices were bad. Stranger into Goin’ Down the Road was great but then the momentum just came to a screeching halt with Mountain of the Moon. The second set had the same issues. Terrapin quickly got the crowd back into a frenzy and just then they killed it again by going into “Drums/Space“. Once they came back into “Days Between” there was no emotion good or bad emanating from the band or the crowd. Even the “One More Saturday Night” failed to really light the party fuse as it almost always did, and still does with Ratdog.

Overall, an unbelievably disappointing night, and as a final note, the businesses in and around the DCU Center should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for being grossly underprepared for a concert. To show up in Worcester 2.5 hours before the show and not be able to get some dinner ANYWHERE (and barely being able to get a beer) is just appalling! Shame on you Worcester.

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The Black Crowes Album Project: By Your Side (1999)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
By Your Side (1999)

Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Sven Pipien, bass
Eddie Harsch, keys

Additional Musicians:

The Dirty Dozen, horns
Zoe Thrall, flute
Curtis King, Cindy Mizelle, Tawatha Agee, Brenda White King, Vanees Thomas, background vocals

Produced by:

Kevin Shirley

Mitch’s Review:

Where to begin?

Contrary to popular belief, The Black Crowes’ 5th official album, By Your Side, is not a terrible album. Unfortunately it’s not a very good album either. Of the 11 tracks, 5 of them fall into the ‘shitty’ category and only 3 or 4 can be considered to be truly worthy of the canon.

So what went wrong? The obvious answer would seem to be the absence of lead guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt. The Crowes are a five piece on BYS with Rich Robinson handling both lead and rhythm guitar and Sven Pipien debuting on bass. Listening to the album, however, one quickly realizes that Sven is a great bassist and Rich acquits himself quite well as a lead player. It’s really the songs and the production that are lacking.

The Black Crowes are not provided with a producer credit on BYS. That “honor” goes exclusively to Kevin Shirley, producer of late-period pop Aerosmith, who unfortunately succeeds in giving the Crowes an overly-slick, overly-calculated sound, just like late-period pop Aerosmith.

It would make more sense if BYS was a sophomore effort from a young band that used up most of their best material on their debut and allowed themselves to be subsumed by the Borg-like pop music factory. The songs on BYS are slick, accessible and well-played. They are also mostly boring and emotionless. Everyone’s going through the motions here.

Ironically, many casual Crowes fans actually love BYS precisely because it’s commercial pop-rock music that fits neatly on FM radio. After finding Amorica too dark and Three Snakes too trippy, the casual fan thought that BYS was a return to form, a reclamation of the SYMM glory days.

But the difference between SYMM and BYS is massive. Where SYMM is endearingly sloppy, BYS is too slick. Where SYMM is bursting with passion, BYS is cold and emotionless. BYS feels like it was produced by the CrowesBot 5000, set to ‘milquetoast hit record’.

There are only three songs worth mentioning in detail. “Horsehead” is old-school dirty blues. The b-side acoustic version does a better job showcasing the song’s intensity, but the album version is still solid. “Welcome to the Goodtimes” shouldn’t work, between the jingle bells and the “na-na-na” chorus, but it does. Again, the acoustic version (off “iTunes exclusive”) is better, but the BYS version is excellent, too. Finally, “Virtue & Vice” is a classic epic-Crowes tune, complete with Eddie’s oh-so-tasteful outro.

“By Your Side”, “Only a Fool” and “Diamond Ring” are all okay songs. The rest we pretend don’t exist and pray they don’t show up in a setlist. The music is forgettable and the lyrics are lazy at best.

in the end, we’re left to play ‘what if?’ and wonder what would have happened to the Crowes’ career if they released the country-fried Band instead of By Your Side after TSAOC. Final Score: 2.6

1) Go Faster: 2
2) Kicking My Heart Around: 2
3) By Your Side: 3
4) Horsehead: 4
5) Only A Fool: 3
6) Heavy: 1
7) Welcome To The Goodtimes: 4
8) Go Tell The Congregation: 2
9) Diamond Ring: 3
10) Then She Said My Name: 2
11) Virtue & Vice: 3

Don’s review:

For four albums (plus two virtually finished, unreleased classics we later discovered) and the better part of the 1990’s, The Black Crowes were one of the most ambitious, organic and creative bands of all time. Paradoxically, while they unabashedly tapped into rock’s roots (“The Song” they called it), the Crowes never looked back. Each album was a significant step forward. It was as if they were motivated by naïve critics’ accusations that they were retro copycats. The Black Crowes were determined to prove everyone wrong.

But 7 years of touring and the lifestyle of the road finally caught up to the band in the Summer of 1997, resulting in the departures of lead guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt. Undaunted, Chris and Rich Robinson recruited old friend Sven Pipien and Cry of Love’s Audley Freed to replace Colt and Ford, respectively. A new line-up, a track-record of declining sales and a new label left the brothers with less leverage than during their heyday.

The result was By Your Side, released in early 1999. It’s difficult to listen to this album again and impossible to consider what might have been. Many of the songs were born during the 1997 tour and, while familiar, they were different. Producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley absolutely butchered the band’s songwriting, sonically and lyrically. He famously challenged them to write and play like teenagers and that’s exactly what the band did. Ironically, a band that desperately denied trying to sound like their influences was desperately trying to sound like The Black Crowes (or at least what the studio execs thought they should be.)

The opening count-off’s cheesiness is only surpassed by Shirley’s production throughout, which is way too loud, way too fast and way over the top. It’s a shame, because a lot of the songs are actually good. Performance-wise, Chris was better when he was restrained (the underrated “Diamond Ring”) but spent too much time screaming. Rich handled all the guitars (Freed was not yet in the fold while they were in the studio). While Ford was missed, Rich held his own. But, clearly, this was a new era and the future was not as bright as it used to be. Final Score: 2.4 (rounding down because of the album cover, one of the worst in rock history.)

Go Faster: 2
Kickin’ My Heart Around: 2
By Your Side: 3
Horsehead: 2
Only A Fool: 3
Heavy: 2
Welcome to the Goodtimes: 3
Go Tell The Congregation: 2
Diamond Ring: 3
Then She Said My Name: 2
Virtue and Vice: 3

Previous Release: 1996′s Three Snakes and One Charm

 Up Next: 2001′s Lions

To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.

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The Black Crowes Album Project: Three Snakes and One Charm (1996)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
Three Snakes and One Charm (1996)

 Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Johnny Colt, bass
Marc Ford, guitar
Eddie Harsch, keys

Additional Musicians:

Gary “Mudbone” Cooper, Gary Shider, Barbara Mitchell, Erica Stewart, background vocals
Gregory Davis, Roger Lewis, Effrem Towns, Revert Andrews, Kevin Harris, horns
Bruce Kaphan, pedal steel guitar
Rick Taylor, banjo

Produced by:

Jack Joseph Puig and The Black Crowes

Mitch’s Review:

If music in 1996 was still released as records, rather than CDs, then The Black Crowes’ Three Snakes and One Charm would have delivered one of the most beautiful B sides ever. The last 6 songs on this disc are just perfect, showcasing a brighter and more mature side of the band.

There’s a balance on TSAOC between the classic heavy Crowes sound and a more laid-back organic feel. All of the familiar elements are still present: Rich’s crunching riffs, Ford’s solos, Eddie and Steve’s fills and Johnny bass lines. But there’s a different vibe here: a little more acoustic, a little more experimental, a little more out there. In retrospect, TSAOC has a heavy Chris Robinson feel. In other words, it’s a crazy hippie rock and roll freakfest.

There are three funk songs on the disc that work to varying degrees. “(Only) Halfway to Everywhere” is fantastic, with mind-blowing vocal interplay between Chris, Mudone and Shider. “Nebakanezer” features a great descending guitar line and “Blackberry” is slight but still enjoyable.

Mid-tempo ballads that build into a crescendo are the Crowes’ bread and butter and “Girl From a Pawnshop” is the best of their career. It’s the gem of the album.

The side B love songs are uniformly strong and impressive, especially the fantastic “Bring On, Bring On.” And who could overlook Rich’s first “lead” vocal on “How Much For Your Wings?” or the surprisingly tender “Better When You’re Not Alone”

The weaker songs on the album are the generic “Under a Mountain” and the British Invasion-style rocker “One Mirror Too Many”. But even these two tracks are decent. They just pale in comparison to the rest of the material.

In 1996 the creative well was overflowing for The Black Crowes. They had the vision, the songs and the musicians to deliver yet another classic album. I never would have guessed it before we started this project but I actually rate TSAOC slightly higher than Amorica. Wow. Final Score: 3.7

 1) Under a Mountain: 3
2) Good Friday: 4
3) Nebakanezer: 4
4) One Mirror Too Many: 3
5) Blackberry: 3
6) Girl from a Pawnshop: 4
7) (Only) Halfway to Everywhere: 4
8) Bring On, Bring On: 4
9) How Much for Your Wings?: 3
10) Let Me Share the Ride: 4
11) Better When You’re Not Alone: 4
12) Evil Eye: 4

Don’s review:

The Black Crowes took another giant creative leap with 1996’s Three Snakes And One Charm, a sprawling album both experimental and traditional. Everything sounds different. The band members’ (non-soul-sister) background vocals are more prominent, echoing Yes (of all bands) on “One Mirror Too Many”. The complementary percussion (a potpourri of maracas, tambourines and rattles) are way up in the mix, spicing up most of the tracks. Guests include the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Danny Herron and members of Parliament Funkadelic. Somehow producer Jack Joseph Puig makes it all work.

At the core is stellar songwriting. Lyrically, even the basic “Blackberry” is redeemed because it’s just fun. But “Under A Mountain”, “Bring On” and especially “Girl From A Pawnshop” are Chris at the very top of his game. Rich must have been on some sort of performance-enhancing drug, because he was at the peak of his creativity. Nothing could be accused of sounding recycled. It’s all fresh even the rootsy “Good Friday” and timeless “Let Me Share The Ride”.

Looking back, Three Snakes and One Charm might be the Crowes’ most under-rated album. In retrospect, it’s every bit as thrilling as amorica. For me, had they replaced “How Much For Your Wings” and “Evil Eye” with b-sides “Just Say Your Sorry”, and one of the covers (“Mellow Down Easy” or, better yet, “Somebody’s On Your Case”), respectively, it might have challenged The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in overall greatness. Final Score: 3.3

1) Under A Mountain: 4
2) Good Friday: 3
3) Nebakanezer: 3
4) One Mirror Too Many: 3
5) Blackberry: 3
6) Girl From A Pawnshop: 4
7) (Only) Halfway to Everywhere: 4
8) Bring On, Bring On: 4
9) How Much For Your Wings: 2
10) Let Me Share The Ride: 4
11) Better When You’re Not Alone:3
12) Evil Eye: 3

Previous Release: 1994′s Amorica

Up Next: 1999′s By Your Side

To learn more about The Black Crowes Album Project, please read the introduction.

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