Up in the foothills of the Sierra, in the little town of Murphys, you will find a winery that is so much more than grape fields and a tasting room. The beautiful grounds, which celebrate the history of the California gold rush, are complete with a museum featuring the world’s largest gold leaf specimen, gardens, wine tasting and gourmet deli, and an outdoor amphitheater to rival the best in the state. On Friday night, August 15, Jeff Beck and ZZ Top rocked the hills under the stars as part of the Ironstone Summer Concert series.
Jeff Beck led off with his four piece band, mixing half instrumentals, and half vocal songs with the addition of singer Jimmy Hall. When Mark Knopfler wrote in the Dire Straits song Sultans Of Swing about a character called Guitar George that, “he’s strictly rhythm, he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing”, he could have just said he’s not Jeff Beck. Beck is all about making his guitar cry, sing, shout, whisper, run, jump, and scream. Never a vocalist, he says it all with his guitar, and says it eloquently.
Beck and group delivered a set featuring songs from his past, like Morning Dew and his version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, along with covers, like an instrumental version of the Beatles A Day In The Life and the traditional Irish Danny Boy. The legendary guitarist also let his top notch band shine, as bassist Rhonda Smith, drummer Jonathan Joseph, and Guitarist Nicholas Meier all took solos, as well as jamming with Beck. They even played a Meier penned song featuring him on a unique acoustic guitar. And when he came on, vocalist Jimmy Hall delivered the goods, especially on Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come.
If The Beach Boys are the quintessential California band, and the Velvet Underground are New York’s, then ZZ Top defines Texas rock & roll. Along with Cream, The Police, Rush, and to Nirvana and Green Day, ZZ Top is also one of rock’s great power trios. With Billy Gibbons on guitar and vocals, Dusty Hill on bass and vocals, and drummer Frank Beard, they emerged in the early 70’s to join the growing blues rock movement, but mixed it with a sold Texas boogie-woogie sound, adding clever and often suggestive lyrics. While never venturing into heavy metal, they rode their popular wave of Texas party rock into the 80’s, and were almost reborn as MTV stars, as their growing beards and sexy ladies filled the screens of music video fans.
Virtually unchanged after over 40 years, the trio took the stage at Ironstone greeted by thousands of screaming fans, jumping right into Gimme All Your Lovin’, and a few more hits and lesser known ZZ Top songs. The band KISS became famous because —just because—they hid their looks behind makeup and made a big deal of not revealing how they really looked for many years. However, to me, ZZ Top is even more enigmatic. Gibbons and Hill hide their faces behind giant beards, dark sunglasses, and hats. I have a pretty good idea about what their noses look like, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, Beard sits largely hidden behind his drum kit, eyes closed and looking downcast.
While Jeff Beck probably hasn’t played a power chord in 40 years, Billy Gibbons’ magic on the guitar is his seamless blending of power chords, riffs, and lead guitar runs, which flow together and rise over Hill’s active bass lines, and Beard’s drums running slightly behind the beat, as Jeff Beck describes it. “It's the same way that the Rolling Stones have this side of sloppiness that somehow when it reaches the air and the audience, it becomes one” he said in a Rolling Stone interview about this tour. “They play fairly sloppy. But when it all gets in the air, it somehow tightens itself up.”
After a few more crowd favorites like Sharp Dressed Man and Legs, for which they got out their super fluffy guitars, ZZ Top took a brief break. When they came back, Gibbons asked the crowd if they’d like to have Jeff Beck join them on stage. The crowd loudly agreed. Beck joined them for that set and the encore, trading riffs with the band on favorites like La Grange and the Dusty Hill sung Tush. Despite their divergent backgrounds and musical styles, both Beck and ZZ Top are based on good old blues rock, and found a lot of common ground and great fun on stage together. It was amazing to see them rocking out as a four piece.
The facility, as I mentioned, is first rate and rivals similar outdoor concert venues such as the Shoreline Amphitheater, and is much more pleasant than the Sleep Train arena. Though limited, the food selection was good, and not too pricey. The best part was that you could get a carafe of Ironstone wine for only $15.00, a nice deal for about 4 glasses worth. (Their Old Vine Zinfandel was very tasty.) I recommend getting there early to explore the grounds and avoid the traffic, which I of course couldn’t do on a Friday afternoon after my day job… And we even had a bit of an adventure leaving. The lot we were in had what appeared to be a “secret” back exit, which led to a one-way road going away from the rest of the crowd filing out. We followed a few other cars, and the road became a dirt road winding through the dark hillside. We continued on, feeling some degree of safety in numbers, and after a while it became paved at least, and we passed a few wineries. After about 20 minutes, we were relieved as it emptied out to Highway 4 and the way home. (Google maps later revealed we had found “6 Mile Road”.)
This concert completed Ironstone’s Summer Concert Series, which also featured Lady Antebellum. We will be looking forward to the next shows at this venue, and next time find a way to make a whole day of it. For information about Ironstone Vineyards, see www.ironstonevineyards.com.
Ken Kiunke 8/16/2014 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Frank Beard, Dusty Hill, and Billy Gibbons have been ZZ Top for more than 40 years
The 2014 California State Fair opened Friday at Cal Expo in Sacramento. The perennial summer highlight is back again in the heart of the summer. Though the fair brings hundreds of attractions and highlights in its just over two week run (July 11 to July 27), music is always a big draw, and there is always plenty to see and hear. There are venues located throughout the fair, but the biggest name acts are featured at the Golden One Stage in the Toyota Concert Series, which kicked off Friday night with John Kay and Steppenwolf.
Steppenwolf emerged in the late 60’s out of the LA scene and rocketed to fame with Born To Be Wild, which became a biker anthem, and introduced the term “Heavy Metal” to rock music. Though it referred to the heavy metal thunder of a motorcycle, it ushered in a style of blues-based hard rock that John Kay and his bandmates pioneered. The use of their music in the film “Easy Rider” solidified their reputation as a biker band, and a string of hit albums and singles established them as one of the key commercial bands of the early 70’s. They have endured over the years with many lineup changes, and Kay is the only original member left.
John Kay was in great voice Friday night, as the “Wolf” howled under a full moon. They did a full hour of great boogie based hard rock, featuring heavy guitar, bass, and that distinctive organ sound, before winding up the show with their iconic hits Magic Carpet Ride and Born To Be Wild. They also played the song Monster/America, a political anthem that features changing movements and is a cross between progressive rock and a jam band piece. Kay’s soaring baritone at times reminded me of David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat & Tears—at times smooth and expressive, and then rough and bluesy.
The concert series continues at the fair nightly, with a healthy mix of baby boomer appeal and contemporary sounds. Like Steppenwolf, the boomers can look forward to The Spinners, the R&B group known for I’ll Be Around and Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, who are playing Thursday, July 17. Great female rocker Joan Jett and the Blackhearts of I Love Rock and Roll fame plays Friday the 18th. Opera singer turned multi-platinum pop singer Pat Benetar plays with longtime collaborator Neil Giraldo on Tuesday July 22.
In 1971 the group America brought the world big hit songs with a gentle acoustic sound and harmony vocals. Their songs were pretty and engaging, while their lyrics were often perplexing, and left people to wonder what the “tropic of Sir Galahad” was, why the horse couldn’t be named, and why run from the Sandman. And in the many times I have been on Ventura Highway, I have never seen an alligator lizard in the air. Though their music was often called “soft rock,” it is really just steeped in the singer/songwriter tradition, with three of them combined into one group. I look forward to seeing the remaining two, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, hit the Golden One Stage on Sunday, July 20.
I also look forward to seeing a band we saw last year at the fair, Queen Nation, playing Saturday July 19. When people list the greatest rock bands of all time, they usually hit the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and so on. And then someone will remember Queen. The amazing vocals of Freddie Mercury, the stellar and unique guitar of Brian May, and the multi-layered harmonies of Mercury, May, and Roger Taylor brought forth a series of remarkable albums and songs that put Queen in the pantheon of great bands. With styles ranging from the heavy metal of Death On Two Legs to the whimsical Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy, they did it all and did it great. You can see Queen touring with Adam Lambert in the late Freddie Mercury’s spot, which would be an awesome show. But Queen Nation does a great job of recreating the Queen sound and feel, and should not be missed if you are a Queen fan. And speaking of tribute bands, Blaze Of Glory, a Bon Jovi tribute, will close out the 2014 state fair on July 27.
Of course, many other more contemporary acts will also hit the Golden One stage. R&B singer Macy Gray headlined on Saturday July 12, and country star Phil Vassar on Sunday the 13th. Hard rock band Hinder plays Monday the 14th. Speaking of hard rock, Bret Michaels, originally from the band Poison, hits the stage Monday July 21, bringing his current mix of heavy metal and country music to the fans. That naturally leads to the “redneck rock” of Blackjack Billy, featuring Jana Kramer on Wednesday the 23rd. Christian rock band Mercy Me, soul singers The Whispers, and country group Trick Pony round out the lineup for the Toyota Concert Series.
Most of these shows allow pre-purchase tickets to get the best seats, but you can also stop by the stage entrance earlier in the evening and get a wrist band to insure you get admittance to the remaining seats. If the show is not sold full, they usually open the two front side sections to general admission fans.
The great thing about the fair, however, is if you just want to hear some good music, you always have plenty of choices. To hear some good old blues, grab a Heineken at the Blues and Brews stage. Country music fans can go to the Honky Tonk stage over by the animal exhibits and get some barbecue at the Honky Tonk Saloon. Mexican food and music can be found at Hussong’s Cantina under the Expo center, and right in the middle of the main food promenade, the Groupon Stage features a variety of pop and rock bands, often covering today’s hits.
Besides music and the exhibits, there are other entertainment options available. Be sure to check out the daily Freestyle Motocross show at the lagoon. Stunt motorcycle riders jump twenty feet in the air and perform unbelievable acrobatics. And depending on when you go, there is horse racing, the Splash Dog competition, a demolition derby, motorcycle racing, and more.
Check www.castatefair.org for details of everything the fair has to offer this year. And don’t forget fireworks on Friday and Saturday nights!
Ken Kiunke 7/12/2014 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
John Kay leads the classic rock band Steppenwolf at the State Fair
A thoroughly American Godzilla is now playing in IMAX 3-D at the Esquire theater in downtown Sacramento on its spectacular 60-foot-high screen with its awesome sound system and superior 3-D effects.
As most people know, the original Gozilla was born as “Gojira” in 1954 Japan. His name (or is it her name? That depends…) means “gorilla whale” and was inspired by both “King Kong” and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, two successful American monster movies. Gojira became “Godzilla King of the Monsters” for America, with Raymond Burr thrown in, I guess to help us understand what was going on.
A total of 28 Japanese productions of the Godzilla franchise were released, usually pitting the fire breathing giant against a variety of other monsters, including King Kong. The beast was generally depicted as wreaking havoc on Japanese cities, and in later films it often teamed up with humans to battle common enemies, like Megalon. For budgetary reasons, he was played by a guy in a rubber suit tramping through scale model cities. Though the special effects weren’t great, a lot of attention to detail was shown in the set construction, and the films became treasured both for their excitement value, and some degree of kitsch. (I love them when done on Mystery Science Theater 3000.)
American filmmakers have tried taking on Godzilla twice. The first came in 1998 with a version featuring great effects, but it met with a lot of negative reception, both by critics and moviegoers. As Godzilla stomped through New York City, people found it both spectacular and nonsensical. A potential trilogy of films was shelved due to the general feeling of failure surrounding this version.
Fifteen years later, British director Gareth Edwards has tackled an international, but in reality mostly American, version once again, trying to get it right. And they have for the most part succeeded, telling the story of the giant atomic monster independent of the previous films, but with unquestionable nods to the past.
Godzilla was born as a Japanese reaction to the devastation their country felt as the two-time victims of an atomic bomb. The prehistoric amphibious beast was awakened by radiation in the original, and was somewhat allegorical for the dangers of atomic weaponry. In this version, it is not only Godzilla, but two new enemies of his that feed on radiation. They lie dormant until it becomes available, and then do their best to breed by feeding off of nuclear power and atomic bombs. In an echo of more recent Japanese tragedy, a nuclear power plant accident (OK, more like an annihilation) and a tsunami kick off events as the “MUTO”s come to life. (MUTOs are Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, and generally nasty looking giant insect like creatures that just love a good nuclear missile or two for lunch, and to nurse their babies.)
Meanwhile, Godzilla has no love for these MUTOs, as they are parasitic to him, so he emerges from his sleep to hunt them down. As before, Godzilla has no particular allegiance to people, but he is looked on as something of a lesser of two (or three) evils, and likely the only chance mankind has of ridding the world of these MUTOs, who are ready to raise quite a passel of youngsters.
After Hollywood’s beating up on New York City and Washington D.C. for years, I have now twice seen San Francisco get destroyed in full screen IMAX, as a starship plowed into the 23rd century city in Star Trek – Into Darkness, and now Godzilla and the MUTO couple use it as their arena for battle. The MUTOs chose Chinatown as a good place to make a nest, and Godzilla creates a new opening in the Golden Gate Bridge while they fight it out downtown. The Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower seemed to escape the destruction, but lots of generic skyscrapers were leveled. And I’m not sure, but it looks like Candlestick Park may have been the gathering place for survivors to meet up when it was all over. (Perhaps just for kicks, they devastate Las Vegas and Honolulu as well.)
The film overall is pretty dark and serious throughout, which makes sense when the world is being threatened with destruction, but there could be some room for a little more joy in the challenge of defeating the monsters and saving the world. You like to get that in a good old fashioned popcorn movie, but they play it pretty straight and serious here. There are several nods to previous films, most notably King Kong. Look for Godzilla to pull apart the MUTO’s jaws, the way Kong fought the t-rex, and Godzilla’s final scene almost matches Kong’s famous death scene. Ken Watanabe, as Ishiro Serizawa, seems to stand in for every Japanese scientist who tried to deal with Godzilla in the early movies, and Aaron Tayor-Johnson, playing a military explosives expert, briefly teams up with a young Japanese boy, perhaps as a nod to the important role children played in many of them. And Bryan Cranston, playing a nuclear engineer, has the same last name as Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody from the movie “Jaws”, perhaps because he’s the only one who can see the danger coming. They didn’t play Jaws music, but it was pretty cool to see Godzilla swimming through the ocean with his big fins and tail.
The film is rated PG-13 for violence and some language, but it’s probably fine for mature 10 to 12 year-olds. There is no intense people killing—they mostly fly through the air when attacked. But it is long, with stretches of plot development short on action, so younger kids may have trouble sitting through it. But fans of action will no doubt love it, even if it does lack some of the Bruce Willis style snarkiness and bravado in the face of destruction. Godzilla is currently playing at the Esquire IMAX theater in downtown Sacramento, at 1211 K Street.)
See https://www.imax.com/oo/esquire-imax/ for more information.
Ken Kiunke 5/27/2014 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
An updated Godzilla rises once again