Tag Archives: Thunder Road

Clarence Clemons: A Tribute

I’ve written a lot about how Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band captures the sounds of summer.  Much of this really has to do with Clarence Clemon’s instantly identifiable saxophone playing.  Clemons elevated Springsteen’s most classic songs into anthems of warmth and comfort perfect for afternoon sing-alongs even if the subject matter was a little bleak (see “Badlands”).  Clemons offered a fun and soulful side to the band – a perfect foil to Springsteen’s earnestness an sincerity.  The cover of Born to Run says it all – these two musicians were bonded in brotherhood and music.

“Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” Springsteen declares mid-way through “Thunder Road”.   Even back in 1975, no one believed in the power of rock and roll like Bruce Springsteen and Clemons breaks into his famous sax solo at the end of the song, it’s the perfect embodiment of that idea.  Rock and roll can mean something.  The ending to that song is so perfect, that if the rest of the album weren’t so damn good, you’d be inclined to never listen to the rest of the album.

Without a doubt Clemons was the most famous saxophone player in rock and roll.  Who else is there?  He had no contemporaries – maybe Bobby Keys (who played saxophone on many of The Rolling Stones songs from their classic era) – because in a way, for many Clarence Clemons was the saxophone.  When you picture the instrument, you automatically envision Clemons with his lips pressed to the horn ready to wail.  To the public, he seemed to live for music.  There was always a joy in his eyes in interviews when talking about playing.  Even recent health issues couldn’t keep him from playing on the last couple of E-Street Band Tours.

I came to Springsteen late in life.  I had a few of his albums but never really “got” him until I heard the Live at the Hammersmith Odeon ’75CD.  It was the performance of “Spirit in the Night” that truly made me a Springsteen fan.   It was a wild, and chaotic treatment of the song – nearly veering out of control. (I’ve heard many version of the song played from that era, and none of them are as commanding as this one.)  Springsteen can barely contain himself as he spits out the lyrics – a song about drinking and summer love turns into something erotic and and sinister – the chanting of “all night” becomes “all damn night”.  Amidst all this chaos, Clemons playing remains grounded – holding the song together.  When it comes times for the instrumental break, Springsteen shouts, “Big Man! Woooow!” – as if there is no other option, but for Clemons to take control of the song and bring it back to some sense of normalcy.    It’s one of those performances that almost feels unreal.  How can a band be this amazing?

E-Street will never be the same without Clemons.  While Clemons was surely Springsteen’s brother in music and life, he also felt like ours as well.  Rest in peace, Big Man.  Heaven surely got a lot cooler with your saxophone playing.

 

 

 

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Great Songs With Horns

A friend of mine suggested a while ago that the use of horns in rock and roll is very under-rated.  While a horn section is certainly a staple of soul and old school R&B, it’s not an instrument that comes directly to mind when you’re thinking of rock and roll.   So for this blog post I’ve decided to list some of my favorite rock songs that make full use of horns.

The Rolling StonesRocks Off

I could probably list about 15 different songs by The Rolling Stones alone for this.  The obvious choices would be “Waiting on a Friend” with the saxophone solo by the great Sonny Rollins.  But I’m going to go with Rocks Off for this.  For starters, it’s one of the Stones’ best rockers.  It’s messy, and the harmonies on the chorus don’t entirely sync, and the horns nearly drown out the vocals.   Yet they all carry the same melody and somehow it works – you get the horns stuck in your head.  After the final chorus Mick Jagger lets out an exuberant, “Wooo!”.  It’s as if even he knows it can’t get any better than that.

Bruce SpringsteenThunder Road

I’m sure lots of people will read this post and suggest that I choose “Jungleland” – The Big Man’s de facto anthem.  Truth is, I don’t rank Jungleland as highly as one of Bruce’s best as other people do.  But on “Thunder Road” rarely has a saxophone solo sounded so triumphant as it does here.  “Thunder Road” is as perfect rock song as they get, but the entire song rests on Clarence Clemon’s saxophone at the end.  The open road would not sound as as convincing without it.  The song may be about getting away, but the saxophone represents the possibilities of the destination.

U2 – Angel of Harlem

One of my favorite U2 songs, and one of their best.  Bono name drops Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and A Love Supreme on a song about Billie Holiday which would almost be unbearable if it weren’t for the sheer joy he shows in the song.  But it’s really the brass that makes the song.  The horns weave in and out between Bono’s lines during the verses, adding extra life to his ode to Billie Holiday.  In concert Bono has often declared that “the goal is soul” – they achieved it in spades on this song.

The Beatles – Penny Lane

An obvious choice, but you could also pick about a dozen or so other Beatles songs just like The Rolling Stones.  I’m going with Penny Lane, because the trumpet is so an integral part of the song.  It’s a song about childhood, and like the flip-side of the single Strawberry Fields which saw Lennon experimenting with both lyrics and music- Penny Lane is also experimental just not quite as extreme.  The trumpet solo is in fact in a mock-Baroque style, which also fits the over-all sound of the song extremely well.

George Harrison – What Is Life

Without a doubt, George Harrison’s best song as solo artist.  The use of both the saxophone and the trumpet elevate this song right as soon as the drums kick in.  Thanks to Phil Spector‘s wall of sound, the horns almost completely take over the chorus which is one of George’s catchiest.

David BowieYoung Americans

I couldn’t make this list, without listing this one.  It’s Bowie during his “plastic soul” phase.  It’s borderline campy, which is kind of the point.  The saxophone is one of the trademarks of the song – it’s trying to keep up with Bowie’s fast vocal delivery, and it’s a close call over who actually wins until Bowie delivers the famous “ain’t no one song” line near the end.

The Clash – The Right Profile

Just like Montgomery Clift (who the song is about) this song nearly veers out of control several times.  The horns seem to be the only thing actually anchoring it down.  The horns blast around the band and Strummer who delivers one of his best vocal performances describing the destruction of the life of Montgomery Cliff sometimes in horrific detail.  The saxophone solo in the bridge provides some added weight, and lets Strummer breathe for a few moments.

 

 

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Best Live Albums

U2 is planning on releasing a DVD of their current 360 tour.  U2 is one of the greatest live bands ever, yet they insist on releasing live DVDs of all their tours.  As more and more bands put out live DVDs instead of live albums (and sometimes a live CD is included as a bonus disc to the live DVD) the live album is quickly becoming a thing of the past.  As such, I’ve decided to include a list of my favorite live albums.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964 – Concert at Philharmonic Hall

While the “Royal Albert Hall” show might be more historically significant, I prefer this one.  Recorded on Halloween Night 1964, it shows the two sides of Bob Dylan in the mid 1960s.  There’s the political folk of “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “With God On Our Side”  alongside the surrealism of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.   Dylan is evidently stoned delivering some of his funniest stage banter.  There’s also a hilarious introduction to “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” where Dylan clearly forgets the first verse and asks audience how it begins.  For anyone who thinks that Dylan is always serious, this is worth checking out.

Sam Cooke – One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

If anyone thinks that Sam Cooke is just easy listening, one listen to this album will put you straight.  Cooke tears through a tight set of classics (“Cupid”, “Chain Gang” “Bring it On Home”) as if his life depended on it.  This is the sound of a performer clearly in command of his audience.  At the end of “Sentimental Reasons” when he shouts out “everybody!” –  clearly wanting the crowd to sing along – Sam Cooke is wanting everybody in the world to be united in the power of music.  Live at the Harlem Square Club is the sound of everyone “Havin’ a party”.

Van Morrison  – It’s Too Late To Stop Now

It’s Too Late To Stop Now, might be my favorite live album of all time.  Unlike a lot of other live albums I love, It’s Too Late To Stop Now is clean and precise.  Van Morrison isn’t so much a performer here, but more of a conductor of an eleven piece band (including a string section).  It’s a fantastic mix of celtic folk, jazz, soul, r&b and roll are rolled into one fantastic document.  The highlight of the album is “Cypress Avenue”.  Where the album version was a haunting jazz number, on this live album Van Morrison transforms into a 10 minute tour de force including several false endings.  Clearly the stuff of legend.

Bruce Springsteen –Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75

Someone told me recently that Springsteen was too cheesy.  I agree, sometimes he can be.  But not here.  This album is the sound of a man who knows he’s got the world’s greatest rock band behind him and is ready to take on anyone who thinks otherwise.  The solo piano version of “Thunder Road” makes a song that has been overplayed (though still great) sound new and refreshing.  “Spirit in the Night” (always a great live song) is played with such intensity that when Bruce dramatically breathes hard during the bridge you wonder if he’s actually serious.  And this is only in the first three songs.  The version of “Born to Run” here is the closest that Springsteen would ever come to punk.  And just to prove that he could still have fun the second half contains the famous “Detroit Medley” a medley of old soul hits.

The ClashLive at Shea Stadium

Better known as the live album where The Clash blew the Who off the stage.  Even though it’s not the classic Clash line-up (drummer Topper Headon is not on drums) this live album is better than the earlier live compilation From Here To Eternity for a number of reasons.  First of all the song selection is far superior.  No Clash live album is complete without “Clampdown” or “Tommy Gun”.  Since they were opening for the Who, Joe Strummer knows he’s got his work cut out for him and forces the audience to listen to them.  “Everybody please stop talking in the back,” He snarls at one point.  “It’s too loud.  It’s putting us off the song.  Stop yakking!”  They close the show with a furious version of “I Fought the Law”.  Too bad The Clash imploded not too long after this, and The Who decided to keep touring for decades.

Those are some of my favorites.  What are yours?

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