Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tully Kennedy - Aguilar Artist Interview

Tully Kennedy
Lessons Learned

It would be easy to focus solely on Tully Kennedy’s work with Country megastar Jason Aldean. In the course of the last decade, the group has scored numerous chart-topping singles, sold millions of albums and went from playing clubs to arenas and eventually, stadiums. Aldean’s latest album is Old Boots, New Dirt, another colossal hit which features plenty of Tully Kennedy’s unstoppable shuffles and melodic upper-register work.

But in the course of his career, Tully Kennedy has grown beyond a journeyman bassist and into a more complete musician. He immerses himself in a multitude of projects outside of the Aldean camp which call upon all of his skills as a songwriter, lyricist, producer and bassist.

We spoke to Tully recently in between legs of the band’s current tour and it was hardly surprising that he called as he was leaving the studio where he was finishing up one of the projects that he is involved in. So let’s check in with Tully Kennedy to find out how to keep busy in the increasingly crowded Nashville studio scene, his love for Aguilar gear and his current, more compact, touring rig.

To read the Q&A with Tully, click here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

ColecoVision Flashback system review
6.5 stars out of 10

Perhaps I date myself here to a specific age bracket but when I think of vintage video game consoles, I do not refer to the Atari 2600 or even the later Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) - my mind heads straight to the ColecoVision. I was always fascinated with electronic games - hey, we even had a TelStar (also made by Coleco) with the faux wood-grain console back in the late ‘70’s - but the ColecoVision was the one that made me lose my 10-year old mind.

I can still remember those ColecoVision commercials from the fall of 1982. With the promise of "arcade-like graphics and sounds" and by brilliantly packing in the then-new hit Donkey Kong with their console, Coleco all but guaranteed themselves a hit upon release. And so, the ColecoVision burst onto the burgeoning home video game scene with much fanfare. And there I was, caught up in the 8-bit hoopla.

Jump to 2014 and the news starts to surface that the Coleco name was purchased by a new company and that some of the old products were being reintroduced to the marketplace - including a new version of the ColecoVision called the Flashback that would come loaded with 60 games. These types of “flashback” systems are not new - various permutations of these have been around for years but they have started to shift more towards the retro gamer recently with the games coming in a console reminiscent of the original rather than a clunky-looking controller with built-in games that hooks to your TV.

For better or worse, the Coleco Flashback replicates the vintage experience for all. The cool points is the the system, while much smaller, looks similar to the Coleco consoles of yore. The controllers may have slight color differences and are slightly smaller than the originals but are otherwise fairly close in shape and feel. Bonus points for including the keypad inserts for games like Blackjack/Poker - a very nice touch.

For the bad points… I need to first set the scene for you: There you are in 1982, sitting on the carpet in front of the TV with your game console in front of you and your box of cartridges off to the side. Now the wires for everything were rather short so you were probably sitting way too close to the television and since the wired controllers only had about a 12-16” travel from the unit, you and your co-player practically sat right on top of the console.

That was magical when I was ten. At 42 it means that after 15 minutes, my back is killing me and I wish this thing came with wireless controllers so I can geek out properly on my spiffy West Elm recliner. While there is something inherently cool about retro gaming with an actual console
- stretching wires from the TV as far as they can go and still be stuck sitting on the floor in the middle of the room sucks! Clearly the comfort factor means more to me now than getting the “complete vintage console experience”.

So, let’s stick to the system itself because a console only means so much without games to play. AT Games certainly gives you plenty of vintage bang for the modern buck as the ColecoVision Flashback comes pre-loaded with 60 games. But I can’t say you get 60 classics. While I would not expect Nintendo to grant the license for Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong JR., their absence is strongly felt. I also felt pangs of nostalgia recalling the many other Coleco classics that are not here: Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle, Front Line, Time Pilot, Mr. Do, Looping, Subroc, Lady Bug, Carnival, Mouse Trap… you get the picture.

There are a few bona-fide A-listers here including Zaxxon, Bump ‘n’ Jump, Cosmic Avenger, Venture, Jungle Hunt and Frenzy. You also get a few forgotten classics that really have aged quite well like Destructor, Frantic Freddy, Miner 2049er, Choplifter, Omega Race and Pepper II.

And then you get the C-listers... you know the ones; those games that you may have purchased back in the day because the box art looked cool but in reality, the game was crap. But you played it anyway as you were just excited to get a new game but deep down, you knew it was a dud. That was all well and good 30 years ago but now it leads to about 60 seconds of frustrating gameplay before I head back to the main menu looking for something a bit more satisfying. There are quite a few of these here - most from Imagic, purveyors of the "great box, bad game" concept.

You also get a few "home brew" games which are original games coded for the ColecoVision. These games give a very interesting take on where the ColecoVision could have went - in fact the graphics for Mech-8 are almost reminiscent of the NES proving that there was more life to Coleco had the company been able to continue production.

I wanted to love the ColecoVision Flashback but I couldn’t help myself from feeling that wireless controllers - or at least longer cables on the included controllers - and a few different games would have helped this system get a perfect 10 from me. Instead, the ColecoVision Flashback gets a 6.5.

Something tells me that 30 years ago, I was doing this same exact thing!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theater - An Appreciation

Burt Reynolds has been getting plenty of press recently with the announcement that he would be auctioning off many personal items and memorabilia collected during his incredible 50-year career. More press followed afterwards when his personal, 1978 Trans Am fetched a whopping $480,000 on the auction block! Whatever reason there may have been for the auction – financial or personal - Burt’s star power still shines brightly.

While I am always happy to see Burt garner some well-deserved press, I am sad to see that a few of the items being auctioned used to be on display in his museum in Jupiter, Florida. I cherished the three treks that I made to the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theater (BRIFT) - originally named the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum – because Burt’s films meant the world to me as a young boy in the early ‘80’s. I was hoping that when the museum shuttered its doors after my third visit that it would reopen in the near future. While that is still possible, a few of the items that I had the joy of seeing in person have now gone to the highest bidder.

So, in tribute to Burt and his fantastic museum – here are my thoughts on the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theater from a post I wrote in 2006. At the end of the article is a link to many of the pictures that I took from the museum - lots of cool "Bandit" goodies!

I started off 2006 by finally visiting the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum (BRM) in Jupiter, Florida.  I had waited a long time to do this so, when I went to visit my Parents down in the sunshine state this year, it was with a mission and I can honestly say that the museum was so much better than I could ever have anticipated.  Despite the photos I have seen of it, this is a place that deserves to be seen in order to gain a full appreciation for the man, his work and the movie world in general.
    I have always thought that having a museum while still being alive was a bit too self-congratulatory; you have already garnered enough press and accolades to last five lifetimes; do you really need to house it all in a shrine for the entire world to see?  Once in the museum, I began to see that this was hardly the case, in fact, I was surprised at how classy and down to earth the entire presentation was.  Mr. Reynolds notable achievements are undoubtedly impressive but that is not the impetus behind the museum.  The BRM is more like a chapter in an ever growing book on the movie industry shown through the work of one man.
    Pulling up to the museum from U.S 1, I had to wonder if the place was even open as you cannot see much from the outside.  There is only one window (actually, sliding glass doors - more on these doors later) in the back of the building opposite the parking lot and the front doors are of opaque, smoked glass.  I cautiously tried the doors and was dumbfounded as the doors swung fully open and my eyes struggled to take in everything as I walked into the elegant lobby area.  The BRM is beautifully decorated and their collection is simply stunning.  Obviously, fans of Mr. Reynolds work will be ecstatic over all that is housed here but anyone with even a passing interest in film, pop culture or sports will find themselves charmed by what they find within. 
    There is memorabilia on every wall, counter and display case ranging from movie posters, magazine covers, promotional materials such as soundtrack albums and toys, honorary acknowledgements from numerous cities throughout the US as well as awards from every Performing Arts academy in existence.  Since the BRM’s official name is the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum, there is also a vast collection of sports memorabilia, and autographs from many of Mr. Reynolds close friends such as Frank Sinatra, Liz Taylor, Jackie Gleason and countless others.  To give you a few highlights, you can find autographed baseballs from Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Reggie Jackson, a pair of boxing gloves from Muhammad Ali and original Cowboy regalia from Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  They even had the canoe from the classic film, “Deliverance”, which Burt had fully restored.
    Since pledging my unwavering allegiance to all things “Smokey and the Bandit” on this website last year, there should be no surprise as to where my attention will now be heading. 
    I practically had an out of body experience over the amount of “Bandit”, “Cannonball Run” and even “Hooper” items on display!  They even had the “Stroker Ace” jacket along with a belt and buckle set.  Granted, I think “Stroker Ace” was a cinematic abomination of a movie but it was cool to see items like this from the production.  I loved seeing the “Cannonball” toy cars (in the original packaging!) that I had not seen since I was a kid.  What memories they brought back; I remember staring longingly at them in the store and the thrill when I was finally able to bring them home.  They also had a few candid photos from the set that were a joy to see as well as press kits and the soundtrack album for “Hooper” which I didn’t even know existed.  There was an extremely rare ‘preview’ poster announcing an upcoming movie called, “The Stuntman” which eventually morphed into “Hooper”.  Oddly enough, it says that “shooting is scheduled to begin early in 1976”, which is when they were shooting “Smokey and the Bandit”.  My guess is they had no idea that “Bandit” would be such a colossal hit because it would be two years before “Hooper” ended up on the silver screen. 
    There was a large section dedicated to Bandit merchandise, as would be expected, and it was better than I could have hoped for.  There was most of Burt’s “Bandit 2” outfit; the red Trans Am jacket, a pair of flowered cowboy boots and the infamous ‘gay Caballero’ shirt!  There were also the prerequisite movie posters, mint condition toys and rare promotional stills including a candid shot of Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed and director Hal Needham sharing a laugh.  Of course, it is also autographed by all three!  Two of the rarest items in this collection had to be the brass belt buckles from the first and second movies respectively.  My inner truck driver went ‘hog wild’ over these two insanely cool relics.
    There was only one thing that could have marred an otherwise perfect trip to the BRM: I did not get to see the car.  Apparently, the 1980 Turbo Trans Am (or Son of Trigger as it was known in the credits of ‘Bandit 2’) is stored elsewhere and occasionally even travels to car shows.  I called the museum and tried to pick a day when the car would be there and it was supposed to show up towards the end of my visit.  Unfortunately, after its last appearance, it rained and they did not want to bring it out again!  How sad to see the celebrated Pontiac’s beautiful, hardwood stage empty.  If the car was there, I was ready to beg with all of my might for a chance to sit in it for just a few seconds to fulfill yet another childhood dream that has been with me for far too long.  Of course, if I can inject a little automotive snobbery here, the ’77 Trans Am from the first movie is really the car I want to see but, I’ll settle for the sequel car! 
    I must also mention the BRMs kind and welcoming staff, who were simply fantastic and so eager to show me and my parents around the facility.  I felt like I was being given a private tour of a friend’s home rather than a museum.  They seemed so appreciative that I had made this a destination on my trip from New York City.  I also think they got a kick out of me taking so many photos, that I had to run across the street to get more batteries for my camera!
    I can say with all certainty that this will be a place I intend to visit on every future trip to Florida; it really was that good.  I cannot recommend it enough; this place needs and deserves to be seen.  And next time I’m sitting in that car! 
For pictures, click here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thompson Twins
Remixes & Rarities
**** (out of 5)

The year 2014 has been a great one for fans of the Thompson Twins. First, frontman Tom Bailey announced his return to the concert stage to perform TT classics for the first time since 1987 as part of the Retro Futura tour. A few months later as fans barely got over the fact that they will be seeing the enigmatic Bailey live once again, there was the announcement of a new double-disc collection on the horizon entitled Remixes & Rarities.

An 'odds & sods' collection such as this are usually not the cause for much celebration but this album is the first Twins release of note since the reissue of the band’s first 5 albums in 2008. But while those discs were plagued by weak liner notes and questionable remastering, the new collection has been remastered from the original master tapes and sounds like it. This is absolutely the best these tracks have sounded since their respective vinyl debuts.

While Remixes & Rarities mostly sticks to the classics - there are a few choice ‘deep cuts’ along the way - this is not a simple "greatest hits remixed" compilation. Instead this collection offers a revelatory look at the songs since the music of the Thompson Twins lends itself perfectly to the extended format. The original recordings of these songs were deceptively dense so the 9 1/2 minute extended cut of Hold Me Now peels back each layer of sound one at a time, allowing certain parts to jump out in the mix and gently enveloping you in their percussion-heavy groove.

As an added bonus, the liner notes in this set are excellent, consisting of a career-spanning interview with Tom Bailey by Paul Sinclair from While many retrospectives suffer from the interviewees "lack of detail" - i.e they were too drunk to remember, the lucid Bailey offers up nuggets of information in every paragraph such as the surprising fact that despite the variety of sounds contained within, the entire Quick Step and Sidekick album was recorded with a single drum machine and one Oberheim OB-Xa synthesizer! Aside from Alannah Currie's omniprescient percussion, the rest of the instrumentation could have fit into the trunk of a car!
The Thompson Twins dominated the international pop music scene of the early/mid 80’s with their trio of synth pop masterpieces: 1983's Quick Step and Sidekick (Sidekicks for us Yanks), 1984's Into the Gap and 1985's now-ironically titled, Here's to Future Days. While never a favorite of critics during their hey day, the music of the Thompson Twins has aged better than any of their detractors could have predicted. Like many of their fellow New Wave brethren (Duran Duran, OMD, Depeche Mode, etc.) who now enjoy massive acclaim, the synth pop pendulum has now swung entirely in the Twins favor.

Perhaps having just wrapped the Retro Futura tour and the release of Remixes & Rarities, the time is right for a more critical re-evaluation of the music of the Thompson Twins - “Here’s to Future Days” indeed.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Retro Futura Tour
Best Buy Theater, NYC
August 21, 2014

Picture it – 1987 and two 15 year old, New Wave-obsessed boys from New Milford, Connecticut are trying to concoct a way to get to Radio City Music Hall in NYC to catch the Thomson Twins on their Close to the Bone tour. Having missed the group the last time they came to CT in 1985, the boys devised every possible scenario that would get them to this show but not matter what they tried, the answer from their parents was the same – NO – and their efforts were thwarted. Forced to endure the agony of defeat, the boys swore to each other, “next time dude. We will catch them on the next tour.”

I was one of those boys but little did I know that by the time ‘the next time’ came around, I would be 42 years old!

In early 2014, with the announcement of Tom Bailey joining the Retro Futura Tour, I was excited yet slightly cautious by these prospects – would this taint the legacy, the mystery of the Thompson Twins that had built up over the ensuing decades? Or could this signal the start of a new chapter in their story? Or at least Tom Bailey’s story as both Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway have retired from performing.

A package tour is an odd thing – a nostalgia trip on one hand while on the other, a possible reintroduction to a band. While Retro Futura packed in five acts, expect fairly short sets from all the acts. It was a wise move then to have a house band accompany the first three acts: Katrina (sans the Waves), China Crisis and the mighty Midge Ure. Katrina and China Crisis compiled their hits into energetic 20 minute sets. As fine as those acts were, Midge Ure upped the game considerably with his impressive guitar skills and still-powerful voice. Ure tore into his short set with aplomb – Hymn, Vienna and the classic Dancing with Tears in My Eyes were all delivered with passion and fire.

After Midge Ure’s explosive set, the house band excited and the stage was stripped bare to make room for Howard Jones and his band. The new stage set had an 80’s minimal vibe – complete with electronic drums with light-up neon cymbals, a keytar and racks of flashing electronic lights behind the keyboard. It almost looked like a backdrop from the movie Tron. But aside from these visual flourishes and the fact that the songs were from his classic 80’s period, Jones incorporated plenty of arrangement changes – and killer keyboard breakdowns – to keep things fresh for his very vocal fans who sang along to every song.

Throughout his set, Jones was the charismatic front-man chatting up the crowd and calling out for audience participation. Highlights included the new grooves added to the set opener Like to Get to Know You Well and the reworked Things Can Only Get Better which featured a funky clavinet solo that would have made Stevie Wonder proud and a pounding techno reprise at the end of the song.
One of the main criticisms that used to be leveled at musicians from the New Wave era was that the music was devoid of feeling and simply programmed into a keyboard. Jones dispelled that notion straight away and delivered a high-energy set full of classic songs and tremendous musicianship.

Between Midge Ure’s unrepentant rocking and Howard Jones turning the Best Buy Theater into a New Wave-themed rave, the question emerged – how would Tom Bailey compete with that? Especially after returning to the live music fray only DAYS before this show!

Taking the stage to the instrumental backing tracks of the Thompson Twins’ We Are Detective, Bailey and his all-female backing band – who have been affectionately dubbed “The Sisters of Mercy” after another Thompson Twins song – launched into a buoyant version of In The Name of Love, which set the tone for the next 45 minutes as love was certainly in the air in Times Square.

While the audience happily danced here and there, a majority of the crowd seemed transfixed on Bailey himself, almost shocked that they were actually watching him perform these classic gems live after 27 years away. Early on in the set, Bailey, who looked shocked and moved by the loud reception, told the crowd, “I can’t believe this – this is amazing; just look at you all!” It was a warm and beautiful moment between band and performer and the crowd made sure to let Bailey know that the feeling was mutual.

His short set was comprised of all the expected hits but Bailey made sure to pepper in a few surprises such as the Middle-Eastern-sounding bridge during In The Name of Love, the additional versus added to If You Were Here, a stomping rendition of Lies, and a reworked King For a Day which was much slower in tempo than the original hit. This slower tempo and more somber delivery actually brought out the bitter-sweet quality of the lyrics which tended to get overshadowed in the original’s synth-pop groove.

Shifting between the guitar, keyboards and electronic percussion, Bailey worked the stage like a seasoned pro that never left the game. Age has not touched his voice and he has lost none of his range or unique vocal quality. And let’s not forget the previously mentioned “Sisters of Mercy” - keyboardists Angie Pollack and Amanda Kramer and drummer Emily Dolan Davies - who made the perfect backing band.

Twenty-seven years is an almost unspeakable amount of time to step away from the limelight. Judging from the response to his return to the stage, Thomson Twins’ Tom Bailey has an eager audience waiting for more. He has always retained his air of mystery so whatever is in the cards will remain in the cards until he chooses to reveal his hand. Let’s hope that whatever it is, it happens soon. 

#tombailey #retrofuturatour #thompsontwins #howardjones #midgeure 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Barry Stephenson
"Love Riots"

There are plenty of proven stage tactics that musicians can use to engage and entertain a live audience – the entire band leaving the venue is usually not one of them. For John Batiste and Stay Human, leaving the stage has become an extension of the show. For these off-stage excursions, dubbed “Love Riots”, Baptiste leads his band – and many times – the audience themselves, in a New Orleans-style parade out of the venues and through the streets.

Did we mention that the band also grabs acoustic instruments as they leave the stage so that they can continue playing outdoors?

Bassist Barry Stephenson is the musical glue which holds this swampy, ‘New ‘Awlins’ outfit together. Known for his ability to switch between electric and upright basses, Stephenson came to the attention of Baptiste over a year ago after playing a late-night session at Club Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center in New York. After a three-week tour of Europe, Stephenson’s role in the group was cemented in place and they have yet to look back.

Getting ready to record a new album with Stay Human, Stephenson came by the Aguilar Artist loft this summer to give us the details on what is next – including upcoming solo releases, the joy of playing festivals and having dinner with Earth Wind & Fire’s Verdine White!

Want to read the interview with Barry? Click here for more!