Stephane Wrembel: 20 July 2012 - San Diego

Wrembel is certainly a virtuoso guitarist, but he also incorporates elements of blues, rock and folk to broaden his sound beyond the jazz realm.

Stephane Wrembel
City: San Diego, CA
Venue: The Cosmopolitan Hotel
Date: 2012-07-20

It's a downright balmy Friday night in San Diego's Old Town district, a somewhat touristy area, yet one that retains a certain old world charm. There's no shortage of Mexican food, margaritas, and cervezas all around. It's a perfect summer night for the Gypsy Jazz Under the Stars series at the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

A few rows of chairs are set up, while other patrons sit at patio tables eating dinner and sampling the eclectic cocktail menu where the Fresh Fruit Bourbon Smash is like a nectar of the gods, with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, ginger beer, champagne, honey, and fresh berries. Stephane Wrembel and his band are on hand and it's clear from the beginning of the set that Wrembel is eclectic too, in a spiritual sense, which lends an extra dimension to his music.

The French-born guitarist's star has risen over the past year since his music appeared in Woody Allen's acclaimed Midnight in Paris flick. This earned Wrembel a new level of recognition as one of the planet's premiere jazz guitarists, and rightfully so. But he tells the audience that the music is not so genre specific, but rather more like scoring a film. “Let the music take you on a journey... It's not about the note but the impression”, Wrembel says before launching into “Voice of the Desert”, which he says was inspired by a visit to New Mexico. It's the ambient lead track from his new Origins LP and, as on the album, it leads into “Momentum”, an upbeat tune where the full band dynamic comes into play. There's an upright bassist, a second guitarist, a drummer, and a percussionist with some tricked out custom gear. Wrembel's chops are both dazzling and graceful, showing a supremely tasteful sense of dynamics. He's certainly a virtuoso guitarist, but he also incorporates elements of blues, rock, and folk to broaden his sound beyond the jazz realm.

“I like to believe that it is beyond any one genre and that there is something in it for everyone. It’s not only for the rock music lover, or for the Django lover; it’s not only for the jazz lover, or for just young people or old people. It’s for the music lover,” Wrembel said in press for the new album.

The crowd here definitely leans to an older demographic, although one can't help but suspect that Wrembel's audience will widen when the jam crowd learns about what's going on here. The band delivers a number of space jazz improv jams, and Wrembel also comments on a variety of intriguing spiritual concepts. This includes a little commentary on Buddhism, where he speaks of everything being a cycle as way of introducing “The Edge”. This one has more of a old school Django Reinhardt toe-tapping flavor as the set continues in a delightful fashion. This is followed by the melancholy “Tsunami”, which Wrembel says was inspired by watching the footage of last year's cataclysmic tidal wave disaster in Japan. These are the first four songs from Origins and display a diverse sonic sensibility.

Then Wrembel dips back to his first album for a song he says was inspired by a club in New York City that the band played at every week for ten years, where they had the opportunity to stretch out and explore. This leads to some more great jazzy jamming and interplay. “Back to the Light” and “The Child's Dream” keep the set flowing, with Wrembel implying that he even remembers being born. Wrembel goes on to note how “The Selfish Gene” was inspired by a scientific book of the same name for “non-scientists” that he calls a “life changer”, by Richard Dawkins. It's another upbeat tune with fluid riffing as Wrembel zips around the fretboard.

Wrembel introduces “Voyager” as a tribute to legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, whom he compliments as able to translate the wonders of the world into words, forcing us to question our place in the universe. This is also something that great music can do, taking the listener on a journey into metaphysical energies that can uplift the soul or lead to new revelations and pathways of discovery. This might seem like a lost art if one were to judge only by mainstream music. But it's alive and well in the jam rock scene and it's refreshing to see an artist like Wrembel keeping the tradition alive in the jazz sphere.

“Voyager” is one of the highlights of the Origins album and of the show, as the musical explorations do indeed seem to take the listener on a thought provoking journey into the nature of the cosmos. Maybe the margaritas and bourbon smashes are partly responsible, but it does feel almost as if the audience has been transported to a spacecraft for a little cosmic sightseeing. There's also a great drum jam where the percussionists are left to do their thing as a dynamic duo.

“San Diego is a beautiful city and I hope you are happy here, otherwise something is wrong with you,” Wrembel says playfully at encore time before he leads the band through another tune to end the show. San Diego is a nice city with almost perfect weather throughout much of the year, although the local music scene does tend to lag well behind Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it's hard to think of a better way to enjoy a gypsy jazz show than outdoors at The Cosmopolitan on a gorgeous summer night in Old Town.

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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