Music

Mike Keneally Band: bakin' @ the potato!

bakin’ at the potato! isn’t just a consciousness-raising, ante-upping, grab bag o’ awesomeness, it is the sole inspiration for that phrase.


Mike Keneally Band

bakin’ at the potato!

Label: Exowax
US Release Date: 2011-06-07
UK Release Date: 2011-06-07
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In 2010, Mike Keneally Band bassist Bryan Beller hatched a rather ambitious plot: to launch a tour in support of his own two solo albums and have the Keneally Band open for itself under the Beller moniker. Fairly simple, really. Called the They’re Both The Same Band Tour, the jaunt saw the Keneally Band -- Keneally, Beller, guitarist Rick Musallam, drummer Joe Travers -- augmented by longtime friend and guitarist Griff Peters. Circumstances dictated that the tour was brief, so the two bands reconvened in September 2010, at the legendary Baked Potato in Los Angeles for one more show, the results of which were captured on Beller’s recent inaugural live release, Wednesday Night Live (available on both CD and DVD), and this, the third official live album from Keneally.

If there was a weak spot in the Keneally output of the past, it was 1996’s Half Alive in Hollywood. A two-disc affair, the record served as a kind of aural documentary of Keneally and Beer For Dolphins both in the studio and on the stage at the Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood. Half Alive is the sound of a band finding its way in those two mediums with occasional aplomb. But it’s a far less confident sounding unit than the one that appeared a decade later on the more streamlined and time-tested Guitar Therapy Live. That record saw the written-in-the-stars rhythm section of Beller and Travers mesh flawlessly with the guitar brotherhood of Keneally and Musallam. It was the quintessential Mike Keneally Band and the quintessential live Keneally release.

Until now.

Here, Keneally sounds more relaxed as a live performer, a more confident and at-ease vocalist, an artist more fully in tune with himself and his music. Thus, one might reason that bakin’ @ the potato! would be another leap forward, the sound of the man and the band’s potential made nigh on tangible. You might reason that this is further evidence of an outfit capable of receiving vital, engaging music that inspires the mind and elevates the soul. And your reasoning would be, in this writer’s estimation, correct.

Keneally consistently levels expectations and the opening moments of bakin’ are no exception. The album opens with “Kedgeree”, a track that appeared late in the sequence of 2000’s Dancing. Its placement on that release was exactly correct––it unleashed some late-album fireworks and its Who-ish rhythms and vibe begged for the piece to be a show-closer or a highlight of encores. But its placement here at the top of the set eases listeners into an hour-plus of musical mastery, majesty, and magic. Rather than thrust a typical rockin’ pyrotechnic opening track upon an unsuspecting audience the band offers an implicit promise that there are plenty of peaks to come but that this journey, like many journeys, has to begin on the ground. By the time the quintet gracefully glides into “Blameless (The Floating Face)”, the album’s second track, there’s no doubt that bakin’ is Keneally’s live masterpiece.

Like most great bands this one sees the inherent potential in live performance, the way that the stage can push and pull and re-shape material into fascinating new forms, how the stage demands its own nomenclature and how the almighty moment can be as much of compositional tool as a quill or a pawn shop guitar and an archaic echo unit. “My Dilemma”, a favorite that originally appeared on 1994’s Boil That Dust Speck, is presented in a way that respects the studio version and the spirit in which the piece was conceived but lacks the kind of painful reverence that frequently renders live rock albums as exciting as a bowl of day old Quaker Oats. “Dilemma” is a tune owned by the Beller-Travers rhythm section and on this version said rhythm section does not disappoint. To call their performance a textbook example of how to lay down an earth-shattering groove is unfair as the term textbook carries with it a clinical aroma; rather, this is the kind of performance that reveals the character of both the players and the composer, demonstrating for us the certain indefinable elements that come together when two players are as cosmically linked as these gentlemen are—and it sounds as dirty as a coal miner’s lungs.

Peters’ presence offers a new density to the material here, especially on tracks such as “Taster”, wherein you can almost weigh the atmosphere, and “Chatfield Manor”, wherein he and Musallam re-create the track’s Southern California-ness with sublime effortlessness. Musallam is an equally mesmerizing presence as he seems not so much to play the music as channel it especially during “Chee”, “Pretty Enough For Girls”, and the aforementioned “Taster”.

If it seems that Keneally’s name is sorely lacking from the above paragraphs it is perhaps because what emanates so brilliantly from the heart of this release is the San Diego resident’s skills as a composer and bandleader and the benevolence of his presence. That is to say that his presence is so there that it’s, paradoxically, not there. The presentation of the music is clearly a shared endeavor in which the players pass the energy of the notes, of the emotions, of the moment between them in such a way that they function as a seamless unit. It is, in short, a selflessness and a spiritual bond that allows the experience of these songs and these players to connect with the listener.

Some of this is perhaps best witnessed on the bakin’DVD which contains 20 selections against the CD’s 16. Watching the magic unfold during “Taster” and on “Career Politicians” (originally recorded by The Mistakes, a mid-90s collaboration between Keneally, guitarist Henry Kaiser, former Dixie Dregs bassist Andy West and drum wizard Prairie Prince) is awe-inspiring, but you really do have to experience it for yourself to get the full awesomeness, the complete Bang! Zoom! contained within its confines. (The DVD commentary tracks––two of them––are unusually entertaining, funny, and insightful.)

bakin’ at the potato! isn’t just a consciousness-raising, ante-upping, grab bag o’ awesomeness, it is the sole inspiration for that phrase. Isn’t that enough?

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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