Ambrosia Isn’t Who You Think They Are (with Commentary on Prog Rock)

Ambrosia — current lineup
(L-R: Joe Puerta; Mary Harris; Burleigh Drummond; Christopher North; Doug Jackson; Ken Stacey)

This is Fifty Years After… after 1969. In that year, an unsigned southern California band went to a show at the Whiskey. Onstage, was none other than British prog group, King Crimson. The musical impact that those luminaries of progressive rock, headed by Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, had on those So-Cal boys, now known as Ambrosia, would be immeasurable.

Who They Were (Are)

Despite their finely textured, symphonic beginnings, which were nourished on the lushness and succulence of prog rock, Ambrosia would come to be known for their softer hits, like “How Much I Feel.” This, and other ballads, that still remain staples of mainstream radio, have undoubtedly been their daily bread, but at the cost of stigmatizing them by their pop rock balladry. Even the band members themselves, seem to want to absolve themselves somehow, by offering up various lighthearted puns before playing these pop hits live, which they know are de rigueur.

What I would have said to Joe Puerta, of Ambrosia, last December, when he signed my T-shirt (and what the music world should know)… is that they are so much more. My mission here is to proclaim what other real music people already know, that pigeonholing them by way of their pop ballads would be like branding Thai food by the popular, but unexceptional, Pad Thai, alone.

Late 70’s On

The groups that started prog all seemed to find themselves at the same juncture and impending doom. Prog, with its poetry; its multilayered harmonies; its extended passages; its stylistic experimentation, its vision, and its delight and hunger for cosmic questions, was in a class of its own. In its quest for transcendence and expansion, it took inspiration from other genres, such as classical and jazz.

Prog, with its many moods and texture changes, takes its listeners on a journey, where you’re meandering across sunbaked sand dunes, which seamlessly give way to dew-covered grassy hills. Its keyboard adagios and intricate drumming patterns feel, at times, scarcely contained… as if they were bulging-at-the-seams, yearning for freedom from accompaniment altogether. Well, let’s just say, prog was fighting an uphill battle, in an era suddenly focused on commercial success through catchy, compact, foot-tapping beats.

Enter the quicksand of 80’s pop… what some may call “the sell out.” The streamlining of manifestos into radio-friendly, 3-4 minute, feel good, singalong pop. The trading in of dark-chocolate, richly layered Opera Cake, for a bowl of Sugar Pops.

Chicago did it with “If You Leave Me Now.” Earth Wind and Fire ate well with “After the Love Has Gone.” These songs made it big, but arguably do not reflect the best work of either group (For examples of these bands at their best, listen to Chicago’s “Call on Me,” and EW & F’s “Devotion”). In the bright and bold 80’s cultural climate, all products had a ready-to-wear, disposable quality, and had to provide a quick bang for your buck… even a song. It was an era of big hair; even bigger shoulder pads… to the point of being cartoonish; primary colors, and slick, but formulaic, top 10 tracks.

Enter Punk & Disco

At the same time, British punk and American disco were entering the scene, each making things even more challenging for prog to stay relevant. The three minute message of anger and rage on one side of the pond, and the dance-beat-driven invitation to coke and sex, on the other. Prog was none of those things and was now seen as too serious and self indulgent. 70’s prog was 86’d.

The Industry

How much of this phenomenon was forced by the producers and money makers? How much of the shift in music quality came at the hands of big business wanting to supply only what they supposed the mainstream listeners were demanding… or programmed the listeners to demand? The long and short of it is that Progressive Rock groups either fell apart, reconfigured, or completely changed their style, in order to stay current.

Ambrosia’s Struggle

This was the commercialized atmosphere in which Ambrosia’s rising star began to smoke. They would have wanted, on one hand, to maintain the sonic textures and lushness they were capable of, but they also needed commercial success. To have both at the same time, was mathematically impossible. But, they didn’t fall apart, they didn’t undergo a total reconfiguration, and they didn’t change their style. It has been said that they simply spread themselves too far, but this should not be considered a mark against them, as this constitutes diversity and is generally a quality we appreciate in a group or artist. Led Zeppelin demonstrated this. The Beatles surely demonstrated this. Maybe they were too talented for their own good.

So, then, why is this first-rate band now playing for only a few hundred people? Because they spilled over into multiple genres, the record companies probably didn’t know what to do with them, nor how to categorize them and thus, how to market them properly. One possibility is that, to get away with that kind of diversity, you have to be better established first, like the aforementioned big two… Zeppelin and The Beatles, the latter of which were already colossal, by the time they released the experimental Sgt. Pepper, giving them the foundation necessary to support their growth as a band, without alienating their fans.

Waxing Metaphysical

Or, maybe, it’s not even an answerable question. It’s just an armchair musing… like, what is the meaning of existence? In this case, to take it even further, just for extra fun; Why are there so many talented people that are completely unknown… playing on Promenades around the world, and peddling their self-produced CDs from their guitar cases?

With regard to Ambrosia, Paste magazine once said it bluntly; the critics would never really understand the band and therefore never rallied behind their music. And yet, Ambrosia has demonstrated real staying power. Maybe the number of people you play for doesn’t matter. And it’s not a case of talent, at all. Since the most famous and commercially successful are often complete shiite… just turn on the radio.

Breakdown (So, what was Ambrosia’s best?)

Even the soft, radio friendly hits demonstrate the soulful, R&B soaked vocals and rich harmonies, by both David Pack and now Ken Stacey, as well as bassist, Joe Puerta.

For a taste of Ambrosia’s mastery, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” and “And…Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled” both stand as consummate examples. The latter is a lushly woven piece that begins with Drummond on vocals, leading in, over soft percussion, and dream-like chimes. If sounds could twinkle, they would. Layered keys & vocal harmonies glide effortlessly, in heartfelt motion, and in unspoken urgency to soar above it all, as if ready to break through the cloud layer in flight. The multi-layered interplay is propelled by Puerta’s emphatic, but free-spirited, fluttering bass line.

This melody… this masterpiece of a song, makes you feel the tenderness and passionate quality of existence, within seconds of its first note. You feel all of life’s joys and loves, as it continues its ascent. You feel its moments of intensity and unexplainable magic, as well as its fragility. By way of the graceful, but powerful movement and changes in tempo, you feel the emotion of being fully alive in a fleeting world. As the song progresses, you feel yourself lifting off into the afternoon sun… with light beams in your eyes and wind in your hair. And as a vague, but deeply felt, mood of nostalgia rises up, you feel that you could fly, like a bird. As the keyboard sings in joyful rapture, the vocals join in again… ahh ahh…

Put on earphones and listen… really listen… to Joe’s bass on this one. Listen to how it catapults this ecstatic, cosmic flight. It defines the drive and the feel of the song… listen to how it pushes the mood up… and how it leads to a most powerful lift off… Yes, this is Prog… and at the level of their inspirational band, King Crimson… but even better.

Yes ARW: August 29th, 2018

After a two hour set, which started at 7:45 PM, Jon Anderson, who looked as great as he sounded, closed the show with his message, to give love each day. It won’t sound romanticized to longtime Yes fans to consider that this is what he has been doing for over 40 years, through the gift of his voice and lyrics, which seem to be divinely channeled for the purpose of transporting us to higher realms.


Yes splintered

Tension had been increasing since the death of founding member and bassist, Chris Squire, in 2015. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Yes splintered into two versions of itself, after their Hall of Fame induction, just last year. This lineup, with Jon Anderson on vocals; Trevor Rabin on guitar; Rick Wakeman on keys; Lee Pomeroy on bass, and Louis Molino on drums, goes by the name, Yes, featuring ARW, with the acronym standing for the three original members.

An Assessment: Jon Anderson & Jon Davison

As exuberantly noted in my review (above) of the other Yes faction, who I had just seen with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Jon Davison, at LA’s Ford Theatre, I was more than accepting of Davison on vocals, despite the resistance of many other Yes fans, and still believe he is the one to carry on Yes’ mission and sound for the next generation. For now, the world is better for having both.

This is a story of the teacher and the apprentice. It is the story of a fine craftsman at work. It is a tribute and a salute to Jon Anderson, whose craft is his song. It is a lesson in mastery. It is a tale of The Grand Duke and The Count, where Anderson is Duke and Davison is Count… Or, the Shogun and the Samurai, though the teaching is indirect. And if they were to spar, we can well imagine them humbly bowing in deep respect to one another.

Those in audience on this night, under the faintly illuminated stars at LA’s Greek Theatre, were watching a consummate performer at his craft. Although it may seem trite to point to the most commercialized of offerings, it was “Roundabout” that made this most evident.

Roundabout; The Ultimate Test

Roundabout was one of the few that both lineups played… and it was the one they both saved for last. As if by some unseen, but divinely ordained, appraisal by the high court in the sky… it became the ultimate test. The final battle. The concluding duel.

It was the only song Davison faltered on, but by official cosmic decree, it had to be played. The people want to hear it. Well… Anderson soared, as he did on every song. He freewheeled through the air. He performed elegant pirouettes and light-footed chassés, with his seemingly ageless, crystalline voice. And so, at the final moment, we see the color of the mantle and cross… the master is revealed.

The Assessment Continues: Howe & Rabin

As it happens, “Roundabout” would confirm another impression… one which, like a whispered confession, my partner and I divulged with some hesitation to one another, after only a few songs in: Rabin was the true weak link in this lineup. Despite the years he has been with Yes, it became painfully clear that without Howe holding the reins, his one man guitar show was lacking in shimmer and shine. On song after song, we continued to notice that all the special little twinkling accents went missing… all the perfectly placed twangs and impeccable little plucks, like exquisite seasonings dashed in just the right amount in just the right places… all the extras that give Yes their virtuosity, simply went missing. The fairy dust had been swept away.

In place of the majestic white horse that could whinny proudly, while up on its two hind legs, we had a pony. Where Howe went from lap-steel to Fender to Gibson, in a heartbeat, or sometimes two at a time… depending on the texture he needed at the moment, Rabin never once switched out his one trusted guitar, old faithful. A one trick pony. If you think this is unfair, or if you have any doubts… watch Steve Howe play this song on the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with Geddy Lee on bass, and Rabin on second guitar.

On the way home, with iphone recordings in tow, we scrolled through video clips from last month’s show at The Ford, with Howe & Davison. There it was! “Roundabout” in full. Howe’s attention to detail was so fresh and so immediately apparent. All the enchanting acoustic strums were as they should be. All the little particulars that Rabin left behind, sparkled forth with precision in Howe’s dexterous hands.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYA97-csEfI

(Yes ARW: “Roundabout” Live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUJz5SlVWaY

(Yes with Davison & Howe: “Roundabout” Live)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1-NsnlPc54

(Yes with Geddy Lee on bass: “Roundabout” Live at Hall of Fame Induction)

“Awaken”

Running over 15 minutes long, and described by Anderson himself, as an epic piece of music, “Awaken” is, like so many Yes songs, about nothing less than human transcendence. It began with Anderson on his harp… soon joined by Wakeman’s unmistakeable toy piano-like riff in minor chords, which together, create a feeling of suspense, like the gap in between incarnations… the bardo… while waiting in the wings to meet God.

As Anderson himself, has explained, the lyrics were inspired by the book, The Singer: A Classic Retelling of Cosmic Conflict by Calvin Miller. All of this suspense, while drummer, Molino, adds drama, by hitting his tom-toms with cannon-fire thuds, done with super-padded drumsticks. Wakeman begins to add embellishments, and the chords lighten; the somber, almost ominous minor key gives way to major… like the curtains opening. The air becomes thinner. And Anderson’s voice sails above the pressure line in the atmosphere… soaring now, effortlessly, up to the angels’ gate… as if to say, I’ve triumphed over the trials and tribulations of this lifetime… I’ve passed the test. And he sings:

High vibration go onto the sun, oh let my heart dreaming past a mortal as me. Where can I be?…

And as he sings, he takes us into the mystical realm, into ecstacy… into timelessness.

And you and I

Anderson clinked his tingshas (Tibetan ritual chimes), and thus began “And You and I.” This magnum opus of a song is a dedication to our collective reunion with the divine. The first thing any longtime Yes fan (what other kind is there?) would notice is, again… Howe’s missing acoustic accents. But nonetheless, he sang:

And you and I climb over the sea to the valleyAnd you and I reached out for reasons to call...

The music then changes. The story changes… for that’s what Yes songs offer… a story. Not just a story, but an allegory, one which offers its willing listener a glimpse of truth… a glimmer of meaning… a glistening forth of the essence of life, itself.

The climb that Anderson sings about, evokes the sense of the grand ascent toward reunion with God… or liberation of spirit, if the “G” word doesn’t suit. But, the cosmic dance is a snaky one, fraught with twists and turns and constant set backs. As Anderson puts it, it is a spiral aim. The Buddhists call it samsara… the constant struggle that is part and parcel of human existence. Life and death, itself. Thank God! Infinite chances to try… try again. Life and death… found in every single breath we take, in this demented world of illusion.

Illusion… because it was right there within us, all along. Like the scarecrow and his heart. And hence, Anderson sings:

All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you… And the You and I is… all of us.

But, as long as we are caught in the world of illusion… maya… we don’t see the splendor that was here, all along. Anderson calls this the eclipse. The chords then darken… imparting the continuance of our personal struggle. And he sings:

… reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you…

A moment of Self realization. Enlightenment. God is within, was within, all along. What a futile search!

The music then soars, and we climb… up, up into ecstasy, into the beyond. Anderson again clings the tingshas—two miniature cymbals held by a string, waking us up from the dream. Just as the Zen Master hits the bell with the padded stick… and boom… instant enlightenment… satori!

But, we are held in the whirl of the cosmic dance, in the ongoing karmic waves of life and death. This movement is conveyed through the stillness that swells up in the form of an acoustic major chord. It is a new turn in the journey of life. In this way, it is a suite, rather than merely a song. This moment suggests the feeling of finally reaching altitude… steady… like flying on a giant wave in the cosmos. And he sings:

Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time. Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme. There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify. Political ends as sad remains will die. Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you. Oooh, ooh…reach over the sun for the river. And you and I climb, clearer towards the movement…

Wakeman’s ascending triads and triplet rhythms express the jagged spiritual journey, alluded to in this opus… impelling a magnificent triumph over each downfall and over time itself, as the echoing chords skip and soar and swirl around one another, creating energy and motion and mimicking the continual drive toward ecstasy and rapturous joy.

SET LIST
1. Cinema
2. Hold On
3. I’ve Seen all Good People
4. Changes
5. And You and I
6. Rhythm of Love
7. Perpetual Change
8. Lift Me Up
9. I Am Waiting
10. Heart of the Sunrise
11. Awaken
12. Owner of a Lonely Heart
13. Roundabout (Encore)

Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”

I stumbled into a casual conversation the other day, about who would top off the list of greatest rock vocalists. One of those impossible questions, with no single answer, but nonetheless, fun to play with.

I immediately thought of Leon Russell, who in many ways, seems to be undervalued, as one of blues’ and rock’s greatest legends. Having faded into relative obscurity, it was Elton John, who brought his self proclaimed mentor back into the recording studio and back into prominence in 2010. Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame the following year.

Originally from Oklahoma, his trajectory from session player to solo artist can be found elsewhere. So, suffice it to say here, that his start in L.A. found him working as a session pianist for everyone from The Wrecking Crew to The Byrds to Herb Alpert to Dave Mason, and as collaborator with artists from Joe Cocker to Delaney and Bonnie to George Harrison. In this article, I am limiting my commentary to one single song and how it showcases his incomparable gifts, both as a vocalist and as a songwriter.

“A Song for You” is a song that’s not just a song. It leaves you in an altered state and utterly rearranged emotionally. It’s the kind of song that can’t be followed with any other song. It needs a moment of silence afterward. It’s intimate. It gets down deep into your soul, uproots it and then leaves you unable to carry on.

It’s not the kind of song you listen to while doing other things. You don’t do your laundry while this song is playing. It’s not a background song. It’s not an office song. You don’t play it at a potluck. You cannot continue what you’re doing after having heard it. Your day will feel different, your life will feel different… you will be thinking different thoughts and feeling different things. It’s not a song you forget.

Russell’s voice isn’t the kind of voice that’s polished and perfect, but that’s what makes it intoxicatingly delicious. You know you’re hearing something real. Something you can’t train your voice to do… no matter how many singing lessons you take. It either comes out that way, or it doesn’t. Just as a twisted, gnarly tree trunk just grows that way… you can’t till it to come out like that, and it’s the most spectacular, special tree you ever saw. There’s no other tree like it.

Carried within the crackling, the slow vibrato, the soul-bearing pauses and the audible breaths he takes between words, in his sleepy, drunken, growl of a voice, is a certain well-worn weariness, and at the same time, everything that’s sexy. It’s honest. It’s the embodiment of his soul’s yearnings. He sings at his edge and takes his listeners to places they hadn’t planned on going to.

In this one song, he touches on the feelings of everything that’s true about life and captures those feelings in the form of a melody… the sadness, the closeness, the beauty, the fleeting nature of it all. And the depth of longing that is always there, down deep in the bones.

*Below is Russell performing “A Song for You,” live, in 1971. Note how the voice and the delivery are one happening. They go together, precisely because of the honest quality and lack of anything contrived.

Steely Dan—L.A. Forum 2018

Steely Dan took the stage at 9:25 PM, with their multimember band, including a four-piece horn section and backup singers, The Danettes, clad in matching little black dresses. Fagan followed. From the first verse of the uptempo, swing-infused “Bodhisattva,” it was clear he was going to be a wild card, with The Danettes taking what seemed to be an ever-growing piece of the vocal pie.

Nonetheless, this fast-paced, super caffeinated jump-blues piece mobilized everyone. Bebop scales, but cloaked in a pop overcoat. The slightly fuzzed out rockabilly rhythm guitar was layered over by the persistence of the keys, which together escalated into a lush, frenzied fervor, as the trombone and reverberating lead guitar traded solos; Jon Herington did justice to the original solo, famously laid down by Denny Dias, in the studio cut, while Keith Carlock held the whole thing together on drums with a shuffle-style groove, culminating in an ecstatic crescendo.

As long-time Steely Dan fans, my date and I were reticent to confess our shared glances and raised eyebrows of uncertainty as to whether Fagan’s vocal chops could hold the act together, as a lonestar bandleader, although it is no secret that this has always been the band’s weak spot.

But, what may have been the necessary salt in the stew in earlier times, seemed more like a missed step, now. This started to become evident in the lyrically seductive, “Aja,” which found him frequently coasting under the notes. Nonetheless, this lush masterpiece of a song, “either an ode to LSD or to the beauty of life with a woman you love,” was carried by the band, as a whole. Soaked in Jazz chords and peppered with Chinese accents, but bound together with eastern tinged ligature’s, a serpentine meandering from soft and wavy, to frisky and playful. It’s an adventure in some far-away land, taking you through multicolored, imaginary landscapes where you’re first lost in reflective, rainy day musings, before finding yourself suddenly whirling through an Asian marketplace.

“FM,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “Kid Charlemagne” were standouts, as was the lesser known “Green Earrings,” which walks the edge between prog-tinged rock, and jazz funk. Delivered impeccably, and supporting its narrative of stealing, it captures both the deviousness and the thrill of the act, with its driving, supercharged rhythm. Punctuated with Thelonious-like, off-time beats, then caressed by a creamy guitar solo. Together, suggesting the twisted satisfaction of a deed accomplished, as the lyrics say: “Sorry, angel, I must take what I see.”

A fair lot of Fagan’s and Becker’s lyrics capture the tales of eccentrics and misfits; this has been duly noted elsewhere. But an equally interesting study is the mood that Steely Dan creates, through their varied and complex, but polished compositions — a curious sort of freedom… in spite of their characters’ woes, losses and lack of resolution in life, there’s always a delicious feeling of surrender, alongside the weariness. Melodies that are at once wistful and swollen with nostalgia, but warm and sensual, as their famous wu major chord effortlessly glides into that magical, and oh, so recognizable, Steely Dan dreamland.

Fagan and Co. rolled through a handful of radio favorites, like the playful pop riff of “Peg,” played mighty nicely, albeit sans Michael McDonald, whose warm backup vocals give the song its characteristic feel and depth of color, in the studio version. But the highlight was the paradoxically bright-toned (considering the subject matter of a dissolving relationships) “Black Cow,” with its layers of glossy textures and flirtatious saxophone, all intermingling with Fagan’s keys, like watercolors, seamlessly blending and playing with one another. Finishing the night was an encore that included “Reeling in the Years.”