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Spins: The Mekons, Signal The Launch, Foreigner, Journey

| June 11, 2019 | 0 Comments

The Mekons


This isn’t the Joshua Tree that U2 wrote about 30 years ago. But peering into their crystal ball, you would think they’d approve (and be disturbed) by the Mekons version of southern California’s treasured landmark inspiration on Deserted. Climate change, industrial expansion, government shutdowns, and neglect threaten Joshua Tree National Forest, and The Mekons have created an album full of metaphors as the soundtrack to it, recorded at their new studio set up just outside of Joshua Tree in Yucca Valley, CA. Give John Langford and friends credit; they’ve managed to thrive and grow despite the fragmented music business, other musical distractions, and father time. Formed during the Thatcher-governed late punk era in Leeds, the Mekons dabbled in nearly every musical punk genre spinoff you could think of in 40 years of music making and Deserted brought them together at bassist Dave Trumfio’s new Joshua Tree area studio.

Deserted isn’t all doom and gloom – though the music is chaotic in layers of shambling guitars on “Lawrence of California,” a meshing of British army hero T.E. Lawrence and Indiana Jones powered by Jefferson Airplane-ish shouty verses, wobbly feedback, and mayhem. “Weimar Vending Machine” is a Bowie and Eno inspired tribute with short bursts of old Roland synths and signature Mekons lyrical wonder (“Iggy pops up in Berlin”). If we can survive the damage to the planet, “After The Rain” delivers an anthem for survival. With the band scattered by geography, The Mekons feel like a periodic hobby, but Deserted shows whenever they assemble, they make the most of it.

Appearing in Chicago 7/12 & 7/14 at The Hideout; 7/13 at Square Roots Festival, Lincoln Square, Chicago.

7 out of 10

– John Vernon


Signal The Launch

Dance Like A Vampire EP


Chicago-based melodic rock trio Signal The Launch had a life and music defining moment three years ago when Mariusz Owczarczak flipped his vintage Ford Bronco on Lake Shore Drive when a tie-rod (steering) end dislodged from his vehicle, seriously injuring him. Like a scene from the Blues Brothers, he knew he needed to “get the band back together.” Shortly after that, the Lane Tech alums commenced Signal the Launch with brother (bassist) Dan Owczarczak and drummer Kevin Karpa rounding out the lineup. The band smartly recorded an EP with famed Nirvana producer and Big Black founder Steve Albini at Electrical Audio.

Dan Owczarczak told IE their EP songs “are a representation of our ‘launch period.’ They exemplify our musical evolution from rehearsals to clubs to the studio.” The title song showcases the bands super tight chops, yolking a bed of Mariusz’ spirited but clean bluesy guitar, and raspy but melodic vocals. Being a trio puts a band out in front of their audience nearly naked, but Albini’s beefy production and Owczarczak and Karpa’s lockstep rhythm section fills all the gaps. STL’s F. W. Murnau-inspired 1920’s horror film music video (directed by Zach Spangler) “Dance Like A Vampire” shows the band has their visual game locked down as well. Glammy EP track “Derail” mixes Grand Funk sensibility with a Lenny Kravitz style guitar jam, where Mariusz’ guitar work really gets to shine.

Appearing 6/29 at O’s Tap, Chicago.

7 out of 10

– David Gedge



Live at the Rainbow ’78 (film)

(Eagle Vision)

This concert film features classic rock stalwarts Foreigner from the days when they were still hot-blooded upstarts. The quintet spent 1978 crisscrossing Europe and America cementing its freshly-minted status as world-renowned rock stars during heavy touring in support of sophomore album Double Vision. A month before that began, however, the band performed this well-oiled and muscular show at London’s Rainbow Theatre at the tail end of supporting its 1977 self-titled debut. The set leans heavily upon that album, performing all of its 10 songs in shuffled order. The concert features enduring favorites like “Feels Like the First Time” with Al Greenwood’s sparkling keyboards, a spine-tingling “Cold as Ice” introduced by Dennis Elliott’s percussive thunder, and urgent set-opener “Long, Long Way from Home.” The band also previewed its future Billboard #3 sophomore disc with raw, vibrant versions of “Hot Blooded” and title cut “Double Vision.” The arrangements of songs like “Cold as Ice” and “Double Vision” include the band’s live-show breakdowns and instrumental excursions, building tension for different impact than the group’s streamlined radio singles. The remastered audio is clear and present, led by Mick Jones’ biting guitar solos and meaty riffs and Lou Gramm’s passionate, powerhouse vocals.

The singer jumps onto the drum riser alongside Elliott for rollicking and bruising concert-closer “Headknocker,” propelled by the groove of bassist Ed Gagliardi. “I think we can bring the walls down,” shouts Gramm with enthusiasm. An expanded, 12-minute excursion through the proggy “Starrider” features King Crimson veteran Ian McDonald on flute and more. Picture quality is better than one might expect from 41-year-old footage of a two-year-old band during its ascent, albeit a bit dark. Fans who have stuck with the band through the decades will tell you that current singer Kelly Hansen does a tremendous job as frontman and entertainer, but there’s no denying the special chemistry of the band’s classic line-up fronted by Jones and the stellar Gramm. Gramm recently announced his retirement from touring, and this film serves as a potent reminder of the singer as a young lion, full of fire, and riding with a pack of like-minded players who would eventually achieve status as one of the world’s best-selling bands. Live at the Rainbow ’78 is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital video.

8 of 10

– Jeff Elbel



Live in Japan 2017 (2CD/Blu-ray)

(Eagle Vision/Universal)

44 years into its career at the time of this triumphant concert at Tokyo’s fabled Budokan arena, four-fifths of the classic Journey lineup were assembled to celebrate the 35th anniversary of 1983’s Frontiers album and its indelible predecessor Escape. The concert jumps directly into a full performance of Escape, which would suffice as a greatest hits album for most other bands. After a brief guitar intro by bandleader Neal Schon, the show begins in earnest with Jonathan Cain’s unmistakable piano intro for “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Clearly, no warm-up period is necessary. Fans instantly have their cell phones aloft to capture the moment.

Recently-returned drummer Steve Smith presents the first session of his percussive master class during “Stone in Love,” anchoring the band with precision and just enough flash to keep things entertaining (like his nimble cross-stick fills and a casually back-handed gong strike). “Who’s Crying Now” reminds everybody of the pivotal position bassist Ross Valory has played in Journey’s legacy, as he underscores keyboardist Cain’s melancholy chords and singer Arnel Pineda’s mournful melody. Although the native Filipino clearly isn’t singing in his primary language, Pineda stokes the Budokan audience to connect by any means available. His acumen for English and Japanese are both on display, but his chief means of communication is pure emotion. Schon’s meticulous guitar solo is so tasteful and fluid that it plays like another lead vocal. After “Keep on Runnin’,” Schon pauses to greet the crowd. “This is the first time we’ve ever done this,” he says of the full-album treatment for Escape, before describing the origin of “Still They Ride” as a burst of inspiration between Schon and Cain following Schon’s session with Jan Hammer. “Mother, Father” features another of Schon’s soaring leads, this one in tandem with Cain’s elegant piano. Pineda impresses with clarion high notes during Escape’s title cut. Travis Thibodaux taps in to lend his soulful tenor during rocker “Lay it Down,” and later resurfaces for Frontiers’ “After the Fall.”

The Escape presentation culminates with Pineda’s bravura performance of Journey’s most powerful of power ballads, “Open Arms.” The diminutive singer stands atop his monitors and achieves the stature of a giant through the power of his voice. The trip through Frontiers begins with grinding, dramatic rocker “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” featuring Valory’s bedrock pulse on a song that was written in the tumultuous wake of his own divorce. “Send Her My Love” fuses the technical and emotive strengths of each band member to express a single, heartsick emotion.

“Tokyo, domo arigato,” says Jonathan Cain, telling the story of a familiar song written during a long 1982 bus ride that described the toll touring life can take on loved ones back home. “Let’s dedicate this to our loyal and faithful Journey fans from Japan,” he says, introducing “Faithfully” and sparking a thousand blinking cell phone lights among the crowd. The normally reserved Japanese audience sways and sings the song’s emotive “whoa-oh-OH-oh” coda under Pineda’s blissful direction. The Frontiers album rundown omits only the deep cut “Troubled Child.”

The band encores with “La Raza del Sol.” Schon introduces the Latin-styled prog-fusion track as something that was intended for Frontiers, although it wound up as a b-side. The song serves as a final showcase for Schon’s deft guitar work, and he identifies his debt to Carlos Santana before lashing into its sinewy solos. The tune also allows Smith and Cain to display considerable chops outside of the arena rock and power ballad styles. The 13-minute instrumental workout incorporates a tribute to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” for good measure. The set-closing “Lovin,’ Touchin,’ Squeezin’” from 1979’s Evolution album (the first Journey LP to feature Smith) seems positively tame by comparison, but it gives the crowd a final chance to join the massive “na na na” chorus. Throughout the performance, Schon leads the band with transparent pride. It’s a quality shared by Pineda – who at this filming was nearing a full decade of filling former vocalist Steve Perry’s shoes.

Filmed on February 7, 2017, this concert was performed less than three months before Journey’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, featuring many of the songs that put the band on the roster. At the closing bows, Valory reminds the crowd that although Pineda has made just albums of original material with Journey, he is “last but not least, the gentleman that has been with us longer than any other singer.” Fans will likely always miss the group’s chart-making heyday with Perry, but Live in Japan 2017 proves that the current crew has the goods to convincingly deliver hit after hit.

7 of 10

– Jeff Elbel




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