TV Review: “Master of None” Season 2

Woody Allen can retire now if he wants. That’s because Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have done something unexpected: two Asian-Americans — who did not grow up in New York — have made a uniquely New York comedy/ drama that, at times, feels very Woody Allenesque. By that I mean, Ansari and Yang have, like Allen at his best, come close to creating a masterpiece of storytelling in the second season of “Master of None” on Netflix. As a long time Woody Allen fan, I do not say this lightly, but it’s clear that the duo have progressed beyond the cuteness of the first season to a new level of storytelling that’s both innovative and compelling.  

The series stars Ansari as Dev Shah. Dev is an actor whose jobs consist of commercials,  B-movie roles, and in this season, the host of a cupcake competition show called “Clash of the Cupcakes.”  Season two picks up where season one left off — with Dev and his girlfriend broken up.  He heads to Italy to learn how to make pasta (something he loves), and she moves to Tokyo. Setting the early episodes in Modena, Italy has many advantages. The first being that it takes Dev out of New York and gives him different experiences so he can nurse his wounds from the break up with his girlfriend Rachael in the first season. When we see him in Italy, it’s clear that he’s embraced the Italian culture by learning to make intricate pastas, speaking the language, and making friends with some of the locals. And while there are many amusing scenes that take place in Italy (including a visit by Dev’s friend Arnold, who tries to convince his ex-girlfriend not to marry her fiance, and an episode shot in black and white with more than a nod to Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”), the stories really take off when the location is set back in New York City.  

The episodes that deal with religion and dating (appropriately titled “Religion” and “First Date”) focus on each activity that doesn’t run into stereotypes. For example, in “Religion” Dev pretends to be religious around his parents during Ramadan, but can’t help being in love with pork and drinking wine. While there’s some anxiety over his “coming out” as a pork eater, it’s handled with the right amount of sensitivity and avoids any neuroticism that Woody Allen would have infused a scene with. “First Date” comes close to being stereotypical in a couple of scenes, but redeem themselves by throwing curveballs that are both funny and unexpected.

One of the long arcs of the series is a smoldering crush that turns into a deep love between Dev and Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) — a woman Dev befriends in Italy. Though the romance between the two is isn’t apparent at the beginning, it later evolves to the point where there’s real heartbreak over poor timing and promises made to others. What’s refreshing for the series is that Ansari and Yang will devote an episode to different styles of filmmaking. So in addition to a certain post-World War II Italian film, they also dabble in short vignettes focusing on characters not seen in the series before, and even evoke a “Manhattan”-like feel in a sequence shot in a park with giant modern art sculptures. And while Allen’s films often zoom in on his anxiousness and insecurity of being jewish in a mostly white Protestant culture, Ansari and Yang’s characters rarely have issues with their ethnicity when it comes to the larger society  — save perhaps Dev’s friend from childhood, Denise.  Denise is a black lesbian who, in the first season, seemed like she was shoehorned into the Dev’s universe. Her presence didn’t seem authentic, but the episode “Thanksgiving” (co-written by Lena Waithe who plays Denise) gave both context and believability to Dev and Denise’s friendship.  

Episodic television is often trapped by a formula, and that’s why it rarely transcends its conventions.  “Master of None” is such a departure from the formula of episodic TV because it defies convention. Ansari and Yang are clearly more than comedic writers — just as Allen became more of an artist once he stopped trying to recreate his “older, funnier films.”  Making a conscious effort to explore more serious material that requires an actor like Ansari to shed his usual wisecracking persona can sometimes flop because of the material and the limitations of an actor’s abilities (remember when Bill Murray made “The Razor’s Edge?” Or when Steve Martin made “Pennies from Heaven?”). Ansari is no great actor, but he is savvy enough to know his limitations and not create situations where those limitations are accentuated.

Overall, “Master of None” is thoroughly enjoyable, adult storytelling.  The fact that most of the characters are in their early 30s — and are relatively normal — dispels the myth that Millennials are a bunch of narcissistic, self-deluded, and ultimately horrible people that Lena Dunham’s “Girls” has got the market cornered on. You can binge watch “Master of None,” and feel like you’re watching a novel unfold in the space of ten compact and wonderfully written episodes —  with characters who are sympathetic, funny, and don’t always make dumb choices.

Album Review: Gerry Devine and the Hi-Beams, “Fire Lane”

There’s something about power pop that even albums that are 22 years old can sound as if they’ve been recorded yesterday. That’s definitely the case with Fire Lane, a 1995 album from Gerry Devine and the Hi-Beams that has just been reissued.

The band formed out the remains of the Floor Models, the New York bar band that Devine fronted in the ‘80s and released a compilation of its originals, Floor Your Love, in late 2013. After Andy Pasternack left the band, Devine, bassist Steve Simels and drummer Glen Robert Allen picked up guitarist J.D. Goldberg, and rechristened themselves as Gerry Devine and the Hi-Beams.

They signed to Mitch Cantor’s Gadfly label and released Fire Lane in 1995. However, the band was never happy with the mastering job. After Simels finished work on a second Floor Models project, an EP of new material called Letter From Liverpool, he discovered the original DAT mixes of Fire Lane, and which also had some live tracks and a few outtakes, and decided to have it properly mastered for a reissue. It didn’t hurt that “A Drop of Rain,” written after Devine watched Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War, seemed still sadly relevant.

But the downbeat earnestness of “A Drop of Rain” is an outlier. Like Floor Your Love, these are smart, adult songs with sweet, catchy melodies, but with less power and more Americana. As befitting a band that defined its sound as “Merseyside Cowboy Music,” many of the songs pick up where the Beatles’ excursions into country ended once they discovered acid (the solo of “Nowhere Man” is even briefly quoted in the jangly “The Exception That Proves the Rule”). Devine’s hooks are subtle, like the key change that introduces the bridge of the opener “Anybody Else” and the setup to the titular line in the lovely ballad “Excuses, Excuses.” There’s more than a touch of Buddy Holly in “Why Does Love Have to Be Like That.” The lone misstep is “(Man Oh Man) That Was Some Short Ride,” a perfectly fine bluesy rocker that Devine and the band lack the muscle to convincingly pull off.

You can, and should, buy Fire Lane at Amazon or CD Baby.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Fourteen

Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross hit the double sevens…

Settle in for another engaging back-and-forth between Jon and Rob as they touch on everything – for this edition, they speak about the passing of Chris Cornell; new music from Ellie Perry, Wade Jackson and Allison Johnelle Boron’s introduction to Big Thief and their new video; Rob’s showcase of Paul Weller’s two recent albums, the psycho circus known as the Trump Administration and the popular “In Our Heads”.  Get ready to sit back and let your thoughts be provoked while being entertained.

Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross:  Episode 14


The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.


(Not So) Famous Firsts – Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat

Jonathan Demme’s passing was marked by tributes to Silence of the Lambs, an American horror classic. Demme would still be considered one of the great American directors even if that was the only film he ever made.

But it overshadows the rest of Demme’s filmography to the point that most casual film goers can’t even name another Demme film. Some will probably mention the brilliant Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense or the late masterpiece Rachel Getting Married. Others will remember Lambs’ follow up Philadelphia, still the most effective film about AIDS. Cult fans will remember Demme’s odd ball ’80s comedies like Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

But nobody has examined where Demme came from and what inspired him, even though Demme himself has been very open about it. Like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ron Howard, Demme started under Roger Corman’s wing. Demme never forgot his mentor, casting Corman in his films (including Lambs), even as other people did. Demme used the opportunity with genre films (like Angels as Hard as They Come) to comment on fresh, emerging trends in cinema.

Demme’s first directorial work was the Corman produced Caged Heat, a “women-in-prison” film. This genre has fallen out of favor as people realize just how exploitative and degrading to the actresses the films are. The films are barely examined or acknowledged any more except by the most jaded critic.

So it’s almost understandable that people would ignore Demme’s debut. But is that fair? What does Demme’s first film say about the rest of his work?

At first glance, Caged Heat is nothing more than an amateur exercise.  The characters are flimsy and the plot barely exists. When you hear the words “women in prison film made in the 70s,” whatever you just pictured is exactly what Caged Heat is. There are robbery scenes, breakout scenes, a sadistic warden (played by Eurohorror legend Barbara Steele) who doles out random punishments after the inmates perform a risqué sketch at a talent show, and numerous sex scenes. All of it is shot on cheap film stock and features dated ‘70s fashion cliches and a problematic mise en scene. I never once believed that the characters in this movie were serving prison sentences in a real jail.

But Caged Heat also showcases a lot of Demme’s interests that would be explored better in later films, particularly Silence of the Lambs. Demme’s best films are about female empowerment and transcending gender roles. Caged Heat would be taken seriously as a female empowerment movie today, but it was the best Demme could do at the time working with the constraints Corman placed on him.  He clearly cares about the characters and wants the audience to relate to them. There’s a great scene in which Pandora (the Pam Grier knock off in the movie) is thrown naked into a solitary confinement box. Her tough exterior cracks as she stares at the walls around her and seems to hear the same fast heartbeat that the audience hears on the soundtrack.

Caged Heat still has moments that made me remember this is about a director learning his craft. Demme does several things here that foreshadow tricks he’d use later. There are several dumb jokes that would only be tried in a B-movie, but they still work in this context. Yet Demme still uses the opportunity to showcase his budding talent. One gag shows a woman vigorously shaking with her hand just out of frame as she moans, “come on, baby, come on.” Only when the camera pans down do we realize she’s rolling dice. It’s a silly gag, yes, but it shows how Demme was already eager to play with the camera. Immediately after that, he uses the same tracking shot that would be repeated in Lambs to introduce Hannibal Lecter for the first time as he moves us down the cell block and tries to give us an introduction to some of the other inmates. And the bizarre pageantry of the cabaret show the inmates put on (in which two wear men’s clothes) seems to show Demme experimenting with the sort of stage craft he’d perfect in Stop Making Sense. Nearly everything in Demme’s filmography can be glimpsed in Caged Heat.

The film doesn’t let Demme explore the material in the way he would be allowed later in his career. Corman didn’t want a subversion of the genre; he wanted something that could be done quickly and would get people’s attention. Yet despite this, Demme was still able to be subversive. The electroshock scene is shocking, one that would be borrowed the next year in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And the women are still the ones who triumph over the sadistic warden. And the slow motion shootouts and bank robbery scenes are great attempts at trying to create a Sam Peckinpah style shootout with a low budget. All the shootouts would, at the time, have immediately reminded audience of the infamous security photos of Patty Hearst. There’s a lot of skill and ambition on display in Caged Heat, something that hints at what Demme would achieve later in his career.

Still, these interesting moments are destroyed by the weak material. Even though I want to care about the characters, I never feel like I get to know them. It doesn’t help that none of the actresses seem like they have any sort of experience in front of the camera before. Even Barbara Steele acts as though the act of being filmed is torture. This isn’t something that can be blamed on Demme, however. Corman’s cost cutting made it unlikely that someone like Faye Dunaway would be in the cast. But, as grateful as Demme was to Corman, I still feel like the material is hurt by the limitations Corman undoubtedly called for.

Today, Caged Heat is virtually forgotten and would remain that way if Jonathan Demme’s name were not attached to it. But without Caged Heat, we wouldn’t have some of the greatest American thrillers in history. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s an important thing we need to examine if we want to understand a director who gave his audience a lot in his filmography.

Former Panama Strongman Manuel Noriega Dead at 83

The news this morning indicates the following: “Authorities in Panama have announced the death of former military ruler Manuel Noriega. He died in Panama City on Tuesday at the age of 83, after recently undergoing a brain tumor operation.”

It is a rather inglorious end to the flamboyant Panamanian leader, pictured most often in full military regalia. What people will remember most about Noriega were the tactics that were employed against him in his capture. “Operation Nifty Package” was, according to Wikipedia,  “a United States Delta and Navy SEAL-operated plan conducted in 1989 designed to capture…Noriega. When Noriega took refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (diplomatic quarter), deafening music and other psychological warfare tactics were used to convince him to exit and surrender himself.”

Using loud music as a form of distraction and a component of sleep deprivation is not uncommon. Neither would be the varied and extremely cheeky selections that would be used. Of course, there would be tons of sly taunts thrown in to “get Noriega’s goat,” as it were. The problem is that the in-jokes were likely only for the benefit of the mixtapers, not the mixtapee. I seriously doubt Noriega fully understood the words of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” much less be intimidated by them. What he — purportedly a lover of opera — would take away most were volume and cacophony, and any loud, fast music could have accomplished that.

Beyond that, there’s lots of debate over what was actually played. For instance, some reports say “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses was utilized while others claim it was “Paradise City.” More elaborate shade-bearing titles would be added to playlist over the years, but I suspect those are the fanciful additions of people who would be less amused if they thought the opposing forced only played Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” over and over again.

From a quick glance around the Internet, here’s what may or may not have been played to drive Noriega out of the diplomats’ haven:

You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
Wanted Dead or Alive – Bon Jovi
Don’t Look Back – Boston
I Fought The Law – The Clash
Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Paranoid – Black Sabbath
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
If I Had A Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn
No More Mister Nice Guy – Alice Cooper
Electric Spanking of War Babies – Funkadelic
Paradise City – Guns & Roses
Welcome to the Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die – Jethro Tull
This Means War – Joan Jett
The Party’s Over – Journey
(You’ve Got) Another Thing Coming – Judas Priest
Heaven’s On Fire – Kiss
In My Time of Dying – Led Zeppelin
Your Time is Gonna Come – Led Zeppelin
Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins
Jungle Love – Steve Miller
Dead Man’s Party – Oingo Boingo
Refugee – Tom Petty
Run Like Hell – Pink Floyd
Wanted Man – Ratt
Blue Collar Man – Styx
Renegade – Styx
We’re Not Gonna Take It – Twisted Sister
Panama – Van Halen
Judgment Day – Whitesnake


At first listen, London’s Cowbell doesn’t sound the slightest bit English; they sound like they come from the deep South, with their stripped down but watertight guitar-and drums combination – they don’t sound sparse or empty at all, which is no easy feat.  On this new album, their third, Haunted Heart, they explore several different styles of American music. Jack Sandham and Wednesday Lyle, two British students of American roots music are, indeed, very eager to share their 21st Century synthesis of the music that earlier influenced Alexis Korner, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

Understand, this is a definite major leap forward for a band that keeps it down to a minimum which is why this album is so impressive.  “Nothing But Trouble” is a classic ’60’s garage rocker with great backing harmonies and vocals, handclaps, reedy organ and as catchy as can be; “Neon Blue” has a swampy, blues-y groove and Mr. Sandham’s vocals are smooth as the backing harmonies are dynamic and “What Am I Supposed To Do?” is a tight, very low-fi rocker with on-point harmonies (the vocal chemistry is so good between Mr. Sandham and Ms. Lyle) – and listen for that keyboard solo…  “Doom Train” gallops along like all good modern blues riff-driven pieces; “No Wrong” is a slow, piano-based, gospel-tinged moment of sweet melancholia and “None Of Your Business” is one of my favorites of this collection, with its tight, spy-like vibe and ’60’s feel.

There have been only a handful of guitar/drums combos that have made their mark on me – the last one would be Flat Duo Jets, but Cowbell has that something special that makes me want to hear more.  As it’s been said, Haunted Heart has more fuzz, more fizz, more greasy foot-beating, party-greeting, soul treating music and I would agree.


Haunted Heart will be released on Friday, June 2nd, 2017



Exit Lines: Hello, Divas!

Let’s talk around the star of Hello, Dolly! for a moment. I don’t have much to compare her with: other than clips of Carol Channing performing her signature role (something she did in four Broadway productions, starting with her Tony-winning turn in 1964 and all the way up to 1995, when the 97-year-old trouper was a relative chorus gal of 75), I only know the 1969 movie. “The whole archaic big-musical circus here surrounds a Happening–Barbra Streisand–and it’s all worth seeing in order to see her,” wrote Pauline Kael. (It is, though you’ll have trouble seeing her through the elephantine production, from a time when Broadway musicals and not Marvel comics got the luxe treatment at the movies.)

To paraphrase one of the famous lyrics penned by Jerry Herman, Hello, Dolly! is back where it belongs, playing to packed houses at the Shubert. If an old-fashioned production, free of teen suicide (Dear Evan Hansen), Hamilton, and Sondheim, is what you’re looking to spend your entertainment dollars on, prepare to spend lavishly, and know in advance that the money’s well spent. The show is time-warped: Jerry Zaks’ direction, and Warren Carlyle’s choreography, follow the template set by Gower Champion. Santo Loquasto’s sets and costumes, hearkening back to the turn of the 20th century, have a music hall feel to them, and are enormously appealing, as are all the technical trimmings. (No fancy projections here; retro classy is the style.) Happily, Herman is still with us, to marvel at the rebirth of his biggest hit. (His two other smashes, Mame and La Cage aux Folles, would follow.)

The casting is likewise revivifying. The show is about mismatched lovers brought together haphazardly by New York City matchmaker Dolly Levi, who, having endured widowhood, has a secret yen to marry “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder, a curmudgeonly Yonkers shopkeeper she’s shopping around. The parts of Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder’s clerk, and Irene Molloy, the hat shop owner Dolly has promised to introduce to Horace, can be stock, and stiff, in the playing, if the actors don’t have sufficient personality to hold their own against the leads. But handsome Gavin Creel (Hair), who has a Dick Van Dyke-type facility at musical comedy, and the gorgeous red-haired Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow), are a perfect match, and their scenes hum. Second bananas Taylor Trensch (Matilda), as Horace’s other clerk, the bumbling Barnaby, and Jennifer Simard (a Tony nominee for last season’s Disaster!), playing an unlikely “date” for Horace, score in the funny business between standards. With these reserves of good cheer to draw on, the elaborate mega-number “Before The Parade Passes By” has the audience on its feet well before it closes Act I.

Act II gives David Hyde Pierce a chance to really dazzle, with a delightful, never-before-performed “charm song,” “Penny in My Pocket,” serving as a curtain raiser, one that gives Vandergelder a chance to explain himself. But we need no apologies, as the actor waggles his mustache and does one inspired double take after another. I wasn’t sure he was right for the part (his Frasier colleague, Kelsey Grammer, would be an ideal replacement) yet I was wrong. He’s a stitch, as they might have said in olden 20th century times.

I was sure Bette Midler was right for Dolly; who wasn’t? But, having seen her, I’m not altogether certain. Part of it may be the role, which seems to be a vessel into which the performer pours her particular gifts. Dolly is one part heart, several parts schtick–and never really a coherent character. (You get more of  a sense of what the part might be from the 1958 film The Matchmaker, the adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s original comedy, which starred Shirley Booth.) Midler, of course, has a whole lot to give, and she and Hyde Pierce are sensationally funny in the second act dining scene, playing off one another perfectly and further embroidering an awkward situation caused by Dolly’s meddling. Whereas Channing grew (and grew, and grew) into Dolly, however, the 71-year-old Midler may be past it, vocally. She was noticeably hoarse when I saw her (not that her energy flagged) and the Broadway chat boards are doing everything but posting EKGs and MRIs after each performance. That said, the signature tune is what we’ve come to hear, and she delivered where it most counted.

Donna Murphy, no slouch herself, is soon to begin performing on Tuesdays, a win-win, for audiences, and for Midler, who can conserve her strength for two-show Wednesdays. I think the Divine Miss M will soon refine her take on the Divine Miss L.

Call it Feud: Helena and Elizabeth. In real life, rival cosmetics queens Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden never met. The new musical War Paint contrives  a late-in-their-long-lives meeting for them, where they wonder, briefly, if their makeup innovations were just another form of enslavement for women. It’s a silly notion–there’s no way Rubinstein and Arden, who stuffed their formulas with all kinds of junk that eventually attracted government ire, ever questioned their mission. But: It gives two great stars of musical theatre, Patti LuPone (Helena) and Christine Ebersole (Elizabeth), a chance to interact onstage. The fiction is easily forgiven.

They share the stage at the Nederlander often enough. From much the same creative team that took us into the shadow world of Ebersole’s Tony winner, Grey Gardens (Scott Frankel, music; Michael Korie, lyrics; Doug Wright, book; and Michael Greif, director), War Paint contrasts their teeter-totter rises, falls, and rises again in vignettes. The gruff and utilitarian Rubinstein steals Arden’s husband (John Dossett)–not for her libido, but for his marketing prowess. In turn, the more patrician and “ladylike” Arden steals Rubinstein’s right-hand man (Douglas Sills) to learn her secrets. Wright weaves a good deal of fascinating social history into this one-upswomanship (Arden’s first ardent customers were suffragettes, who were eager to stand out in newspaper photos) and though the back and forth is repetitive, I learned a few things about two pioneers known more for their brands than their accomplishments. (They both disdained the vulgar upstart Charles Revson, played by Erik Liberman, who ate their lunch when his firm, Revlon, took to TV to hawk his inferior, but cheaper, products.)

Lacking the emotional underpinnings of the mother-daughter psychodrama behind Grey Gardens, which made its songs funnier and more poignant in equal measure, War Paint isn’t an outstanding musical. But the two performers give it everything they’ve got, in numbers whose lyrics they trade (“If I’d Been a Man”) and in powerful solos (toward the end, Arden has an ode to the color she made her own, “Pink,” and Helena considers the passing of time in “Forever Beautiful.”). LuPone and Ebersole are so good, so rich, and so seasoned, they’d easily sell War Paint as a straight drama. As a musical, they make it sing.

In good times, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939) is a classic melodrama. That’s how it played when at age 15 I saw its most famous revival,  in 1981, which starred Elizabeth Taylor as the rapacious schemer Regina Giddens, and Maureen Stapleton as her sister-in-law Birdie Hubbard, who, through the fog of alcoholism, is still hanging on to what’s left of Southern gentility. To consolidate her fortune in the early 20th century, when only sons were considered legal heirs (hello, dollars!) Regina goes to war against her duplicitous brothers and her ailing, courtly husband, Horace, who can’t be too far from his pills…

In uncertain, Trumpian times, the play is more than that, as if Hellman just published her (somewhat autobiographical) broadside against greed, questionable family values, and the stain of corruption. Knowing that he’s got the goods, and trusting us to sort out the parallels, director Daniel Sullivan has staged this Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Friedman very simply, even downplaying its moment of supreme horror (no one who’s seen its 1941 film version, directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis, ever forgets it). One look at Regina in Jane Greenwood’s money-colored gown indicates her basic character, and the production never underlines Hellman’s urgent, heated prose.

The show’s one indulgence is stunt casting, with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon trading roles each performance. I’m sure it’s good value either way–but the steely Linney proved a natural to play the biggest of the foxes, briging the axe down with an assassin’s precision, and Nixon achingly good as Birdie shatters. (She has a lovely rapport with the excellent Richard Thomas, as Horace; Michael McKean and Darren Goldstein shine as the blackhearted, if not quite competent, brothers, and Francesca Carpanini lets in a ray of light as Regina’s sensible daughter.) I wish we could all just enjoy The Little Foxes as a good yarn, safely tucked away in the past, but two terrific stars and a handsome, unfussy production get it right up in our faces.

Album Review: Don Barnes, “Ride The Storm”

There were a bunch of clever ways to jump into this review with, ultimately, all of them failing the veracity test. In the end, the actual story is more intriguing than any concoction I could attempt to cook up. 

In the late-’80s, the band .38 Special was mainstreaming, getting more synthed-out, and were fairly representative of Album Oriented Rock at the time. Journey, REO Speedwagon, just about any group around this time were shooting for Top 40 pop radio. This was at odds with a shift in rock tastes, be it the harder take Guns ‘N Roses were putting out, the glam-infused side of Poison, or the juggernaut that was Def Leppard’s Hysteria record. In only a few more years, nearly all these would be struck by the next wave that was alt-rock, but we’re not quite there yet.

A&M Records, the home of .38 Special, approached lead singer Don Barnes with a promising offer: they would set him up with a solo side project and stock his backing band with a murderer’s row of studio talent. We’re talking about session players like the Porcaro brothers, Dann Huff, Alan Pasqua, and others; people with proven track records and gold on the wall. The record was recorded.

The reason you (probably) no nothing about this is because the album was shelved. No direct explanation as to what the problem was has been issued, except to say that this happens more often than you’d expect. A record label spends umpteen thousands of dollars on a recording, but when business alliances change or individuals in upper management switch out or step off, their passion projects get swept into limbo.

Such was the case with Barnes’. A few demonstration mixes were made, but that was it. The record ultimately found its way into the world — albeit in dribs and drabs — through Internet leaks of those demo mixes.

Cut to 2016. Melodic Rock Records head Andrew McNeice started hinting at his wish list for 2017, and one of those was a long-lost AOR contender. He wouldn’t say what it was, as the “I”s weren’t dotted and the “T”s weren’t crossed yet, but there was real money spent on the effort and up to that point, that money was in some box somewhere, collecting nearly thirty years’ worth of dust. 

Finally, in 2017, Don Barnes’ Ride The Storm is here and debuting as a 2-disc set. Why two discs? Well, disc two features what is being called the “alternate mix” which would have comprised the slicker, more era-appropriate version of the album’s ten songs. Disc one, on the other hand, features the “rock mix” with guitars turned way up and keyboards laid in as a support. But was the effort worth it?

First, I’ll try to explain it this way. People who love ’80s rock will love Ride The Storm. It has everything one expects from the music of the time, devoid of the angst and vitriol that was about to come. Even when the songs are about bad times, these are good-time songs at the core. The musicians are guaranteed quantities, so you know what they deliver is as professional as can be. And Barnes’ voice is just solid southern roast beef — not overcooked, not fussy, always on the money and delivering what you hoped for.     

The opening title track is an audible statement of intent, from the invocation of raging thunder to the walls of guitar that successfully approximate it. “I’d Do It All Over Again” finds itself at the intersection of Def Leppard’s “Photograph” and Foreigner’s “Urgent.” “After The Way” is that fabled should’ve-been hit that the A&M team probably could have used around that time. And, oh yeah, let’s not forget the absolutely magnetic cover of Chicago’s “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday.”      

The album has another benefit. As a lot of modern country veers toward an AOR vibe, Ride The Storm winds up firmly walking that fine line. Let’s be clear: it is a rock record and only occasionally lets the southern boogie cards of .38 Special show, but there is a looseness to the intentions that tips the listener to Barnes’ other band, and to their intrinsic feel-good vibe. 

Who won’t like this? That would be those who have an aversion to ’80s rock because there’s no approximation here. nobody is copping the feel or striking the pose, either as homage or parody. This is as sincere an effort as there ever has been, so if that’s not your mug of draft, this isn’t for you. But for those who miss that mindset, that lack of self-consciousness or apologetic tone, or simply miss the sound of a seasoned pro setting them up and knocking them down with confidence, Ride The Storm will certainly put a big grin on your face and an upturned volume knob on your stereo or device.

The album is now available for preorder at Melodic Rock Records:


Dizzy Heights #18: Nineteen Tequilas Later

In which I open with Popdose house band The System, close with the best Nebraska-era Springsteen impression you will ever hear, in my opinion (from a surprising source, to boot), and in between I play a brand-new song from Saint Etienne’s forthcoming, and fabulous, new album Home Counties. And don’t ignore that blonde woman in the corner. She may not be looking at the other people in the room, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a song to sing. (Pssst. It’s Sia.)

I also do a set of cover songs that may make the writer of both songs call me a wanker. One can only hope, anyway.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Thirteen

Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross delivers the baker’s dozen.  Or…  “Won’t you let me walk you home from school?…”

Keep those cards and letters comin’ folks…  Jon and Rob, once again, fearlessly tackle the insanity of Washington D.C.; the new albums from Kristina Cottone and The Blood Rush Hour (who these boys LOVE); a spin on Keith Creighton’s article on Minneapolis music and Jack Feerick’s latest installation of his series, “Too Old To Rock & Roll”, the highly popular “In Our Heads” segment and more.  Give a listen – get into it; it’s meaty…

Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross:  Episode 13


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