Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mark Stein Keeps Hangin' On

In a career spanning 50 years, Mark Stein has been responsible for some of the most legendary sounds in Rock history. After earning acclaim with the great Vanilla Fudge in the late ’60s, he continued an incredible sonic journey that saw him work with the likes of Alice Cooper, Dave Mason, Carl Palmer and the late Tommy Bolin of Deep Purple. A true artist who shows no signs of slowing down, he recently launched a new band, The Mark Stein Project, which makes its worldwide debut tonight at the BB King Blues Club & Grill in New York City. Other upcoming shows include February 1 at Daryl’s House in Pawling, NY and February 2 at the Bull Run in Shirley, MA. Stein discusses his new group - and a few important figures from his past - in the following interview.

We could probably spend hours talking about various things in your career, but let’s start with the here and now. What led to this current band you’re doing and the selection of the players you have for this thing?

Vanilla Fudge, over the last 18 months to two years, really haven’t been doing a lot of shows. I was speaking with Robbie Krieger from The Doors on the phone; he was out doing his own band. We were talking, and I said, ‘You know, maybe I should try to put my own band together.’ I started thinking about it, and I called my friend Margo Lewis from TCI [Talent Consultants International] and said, ‘Why don’t you help me try to put this together? I think it could work.’ One thing led to another. It’s called The Mark Stein Project, and it’s a really a tribute to Classic Rock and all of the artists that I’ve been lucky enough to play with throughout my career. It’s mot just the fact that I’m the lead singer, keyboardist and arranger of Vanilla Fudge. I toured with Alice Cooper for the Welcome To My Nightmare show in the Southern Hemisphere back in the ‘70s. I also played with Dave Mason in his heyday in the late ‘70s during the ‘We Just Disagree,’ big-hit time, and I wrote a lot of songs with Dave. I also played with Tommy Bolin; when he left Deep Purple, he put a great band together. We had a terrific Rock Fusion band, and I played on his last album, Private Eyes. In 2017, I played with Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer. We did a handful of shows; I did a guest appearance on a tribute to the late, great Keith Emerson – and after that, [we lost] Greg Lake, unfortunately. I’ve appearance with The Doors, and I’ve made appearances with Deep Purple and just so many people.  

The night is songs from all of the bands I’ve played with. I’m also doing an original tune I wrote called ‘Let’s Pray For Peace,’ which is getting pretty popular around the world. I’ve got a great drummer, Charlie Z. [Zeleny], who’s played with Jordan Rudess from Dream Theatre, Joe Lynn Turner from Deep Purple and a whole bunch of people. I’ve got a young cat named Jordan Steinberg, who’s a really great bass player and a terrific vocalist as well. I have a cat by the name of Mark Hitt on guitar; a lot of people know him from the New York area from a band called Rat Race Choir. He’s played with John Entwistle [from The Who] and Robin Zander from Cheap Trick and Brian Johnson from AC/DC – just a whole bunch of people. This is a really cool combination of young and seasoned pros.

Considering all the artists you just named in terms of folks you’ve played with, what is the level of difficulty in trying to figure out which key songs to incorporate into what you’re doing live?

I’m basically doing the songs that I think are really popular with the audience and some songs that I love. ‘We Just Disagree’ was one of my favorite Dave Mason songs; it used to go over so great back in the day with the harmonies and the way we were doing it. We’re going to be be doing that song. ‘School’s Out’ is an Alice Cooper classic; we played that in front of thousands and thousands of people, and they freaked out over it. It’s just a great rocker. I’ve got my own approach to the song; I’ve got some really cool, different kinds of arrangements that I think will be really cool. It’s going to be a lot of fun. From the Carl Palmer experience of 2017, we’re going to be doing ‘Knife Edge.’ We’re going to do ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On,’ the iconic arrangement from Vanilla Fudge, and then the psychedelic, slowed-down version of ‘Season Of The Witch.’ There’s going to be a lot of energy, a lot of dynamics and a lot of fun.

You mentioned Tommy Bolin. In many ways, he’s an artist who – even 40-plus years later – doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for his time here. You were part of that final album; when you look back at that period, what stands out for you most in terms of working with Tommy on that particular project and where he was at that stage of his life and career?

Tommy was an amazing talent. He was gone at 25; he just couldn’t overcome his demons, unfortunately. Many people who were close to him, including myself, tried. This was ’75 I think; I was pretty much a kid myself at 26. He was just a terrific songwriter, not just a great guitar player. His style of playing was just so fresh and different. We blended really well together. Narada Michael Walden from the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the original drummer in that band, along with Reggie McBride, the really cool bass player from Stevie Wonder’s band back then. We had Norma Jean Bell, the great and sax player from Frank Zappa’s band. It was a real eclectic group of musicians, and we rocked the house. A lot of Progressive musicians like John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer – and a whole host of people – used to get drawn to this band. It was short-lived, but it sure had a lot of energy. I can’t imagine where he would have been if he was still with us as far as a writer and a player. That was a great loss. As far his legacy, I disagree; I think his legacy is pretty strong. You’ve got a legion of Tommy Bolin fans; the remains of his family keep everything alive with Tommy Bolin Fests every year in the Midwest. I’m constantly seeing it and commenting on Tommy Bolan events on Facebook and other stuff going on in the internet. For somebody who was only around such a short time, I think he left a pretty decent legacy, actually.

You mention that Tommy had his demons during that time, and I know Alice has been very open about that particular time in the late70s when he was having his ups and downs. How would you characterize him during the time you were working with him?

I’ll tell you, back in ’77 when I did the Welcome To My Nightmare tour in Australia and New Zealand, he was deep into those problems. I’m not going to get specific, but we pulled it off; the shows were great with great production. He was one who overcame it, and he went on to live a great life. He’s still doing fantastic. He’s a great guy – a real regular guy off the stage. Every time we’ve run into each other over the years, he’s always made time for me, which I really appreciate. He’s a tremendous performer and one of the true icons of Rock. No question.

I interviewed your Vanilla Fudge bandmate Carmine Appice a few months ago, and we talked about a lot of things including the fact that Vanilla Fudge is at least 50 years into it. After so many years, what is it about working with Carmine and [guitarist] Vince [Martell] in 2018 that is still something that continues to attract you all together to make the band an ongoing reality?

First off, we’re doing the Rock Legends Cruise with Sammy Hagar, my friends from Blue Öyster Cult and Bad Company and a whole bunch of great people this February 15-19. To answer to your question, we’re like brothers who fight and yada yada, break up and get back together, but we’ve just always had a natural chemistry together. When we hit the stage, me and Carmine are just great together, and Vince Martell fits right in there like a glove as well. We started out when we were just teenagers, and we’re still doing it today. It’s a mature energy [now], but it’s a great energy on stage. You can feel it from the people, and it’s the people who keep us going and vice versa. I hope it goes on a long time yet. It’s still a trip.

It’s always interesting to me to talk with an artist who’s been around for many decades, because you’re clearly someone who’s seen the music industry change and evolve – and devolve, in some cases. The landscape in 2018 is so vastly different than what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Because you have remained active and are still working within the industry, what do you see as some of greatest advantages and disadvantages of the way the music industry seems exist in the here and now?

Well, the advantage is the sound, first of all. Most of the venues have a great sound. Back in the olden days, a lot of the sound wasn’t developed yet; we didn’t really have monitors, and we didn’t great mixing. They didn’t have the elaborate boards that they have today. As far as disadvantages, the only thing I can say is the lack of enough gigs, because we really love to work a lot.

The music industry is funny place where a lot of people don’t last 50 weeks, let alone 50 years. We’re talking about your new project and your music, so things are obviously moving forward for you. This isn’t the easiest profession in the world. What drives you to keep moving forward after so many years? What does doing this still provide you that you couldn’t find walking away and finding another line of work?

The fans, the friends and the family. It just keeps you going. There have been a lot of times in my life and career when I felt like I had enough. I’ll have a little bit of a down period, and then the creative process will just come into my brain and I’ll start arranging sounds and thinking more about music. I’ll start writing songs, and I’ll want to start recording again. One thing leads to another, and I’ll start talking to musicians and agents. You just keep yourself involved, you know? It’s something I was just born to do. It’s in the blood.

*Portions of this interview were edited for clarity. 

Official Mark Stein Website 

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com

Sunday, January 7, 2018

LIVE REVIEW - The Original Misfits/Alkaline Trio/Discharge: The Forum, 12/30/17

“If you take all of us individually, we’re only so big separately. If you put us together, it’s epic. It’s like you’re collecting action figures – now you’ve got them all!”

This is what Misfits guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein said to me back in November when we discussed the current reunion of “The Original Misfits.” In 2016, Doyle joined up with bassist (and brother) Jerry Only and singer Glenn Danzig to perform two shows together for the first time since 1983. These performances (at the Denver and Chicago Riot Fests) led to more offers for shows in 2017, resulting in a gig at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on December 28 and a sold-out spot at the Forum in Inglewood, CA on December 30. (The Vegas booking came about after the Forum show sold out in minutes.) The band’s lineup for all four reunion performances was augmented by legendary drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Grip Inc./Fantômas/Dead Cross/Bladerunner) and second guitarist Acey Slade (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts/Dope/Murderdolls).

To clarify, the “Original Misfits” moniker refers to Only and Danzig; Doyle (the group’s third official guitarist) wasn’t a member of the band until 1980. The four shows performed so far under this name have been especially meaningful in that the singer and bassist – two guys from Lodi, NJ who spent six years making music together before spending the decades that followed in and out of courtrooms while often trading barbs in the press - actually stood on stage together. Only and Doyle first reformed The Misfits in the mid-’90s without Danzig, releasing two Metal-tinged albums featuring singer Michale Graves and drummer Dr. Chud. Doyle left the band (which by then featured returning ’82-’83-era drummer Robo and his fellow former Black Flag member Dez Cadena on second guitar) in 2001, later reuniting with Danzig for occasional special live appearances for well over a decade. From 2001 to 2016, Only led an ever-fluctuating lineup of the band that most recently featured his son, Jerry Jr. (a.k.a. “Jerry Other”), on guitar. Thanks to the Riot Fest shows, what many fans (or “fiends”) consider to be the definitive Misfits frontline of Danzig, Only and Doyle was finally back in horror business. 

While inner turmoil has been a cornerstone of The Misfits’ existence from the very beginning, there were no signs of inter-personal strife on stage at the Forum. From the opening drum blast of “Death Comes Ripping” to the final notes of “We Are 138,” The Misfits’ nearly 30-song set delivered exactly what 17,000-plus people filled every seat in the house to hear and witness. Most significantly, it appeared that these longtime adversaries were actually enjoying themselves onstage. (The fist bump shared between Danzig and Only in the middle of the show said more than words ever could.) Doyle was his usual monstrous self, while Only was in the best shape he’s been in ages. (It was impressive as hell to see the 58-year-old bassist slide on his knees for half the length of the stage and then immediately jump up on his feet while playing.)

One of the most accomplished and celebrated drummers in the world, Lombardo added a bounce and groove to the songs that elevated the band’s overall musicality to new levels. He took the best qualities of each of the group’s various former timekeepers and actually built on them, adding jaw-dropping fills and maneuvers along the way. He is an absolute king behind a kit, and he fit The Misfits like a glove.

Of course, this was still a Misfits show, so complete perfection should never have been anticipated. Feedback was pretty much the sixth member of the band, while every song was followed by a lengthy pause. (Also, “All Hell Breaks Loose” started slipping off the tracks when Danzig flubbed the placement of a verse, leading the tune to limp to the finish line shortly thereafter.) The Danzig-led version of The Misfits was and still is a band driven by power, not finesse. The Original Misfits’ set list brought a level of intensity not offered by other band lineups, but the constant between-song drops in energy were sobering reminders of just how tight and explosive the one-song-after-another charge of the Michale Graves-fronted incarnation truly was in its prime.

Full marks must be given to Danzig for rising above an apparent respiratory illness to give the crowd the best show possible. While his speaking voice was a hoarse whisper, his singing range was surprisingly strong. (“Some Kinda Hate” and “Hollywood Babylon” were astonishing highlights.) For an unwell man in his sixties, Danzig delivered at the Forum in awe-inspiring ways.

Considering The Misfits’ penchant for creating memorable visuals to accompany their music, it came as little surprise that they took to the spacious environment of the Forum like kids in a massive candy store. A row of Crimson Ghost projections near the top of the Forum greeted fiends outside, while the sizable stage boasted gigantic models of the evil pumpkin that adorned the cover of the 1981 “Halloween” single and a huge screen that displayed many of the band’s iconic images. 

Much has been made of the band’s decision to ban cell phones and other electronic devices at the show. While it understandably created a logistical headache for some, it was fantastic to go to a gig and not have to peer over a sea of screens to see the acts on stage. When it came time for the encore, lighters – not Samsungs – illuminated the venue. The absence of cell phones was a great thing to experience and something that will hopefully become the standard at live music events of this size moving forward. Of course, a few people were still successful in sneaking them in, resulting in a flood of YouTube videos that have already been removed due to copyright claims.  

(As an aside, it was nice to hear The Misfits’ 1980 song “Halloween II” – a track bolstered by pre-Doyle six-stringer and my old Undead bandmate Bobby Steele’s spooky, cane-induced guitar effects – play over the PA as the shell-shocked crowd made its way outside. Bobby might not be part of the “Original Misfits” reunion, but he was still heard loud and clear at the Forum.)

Considering that The Misfits’ “fiend” base is equally comprised of grizzled old schoolers who own the original singles and the Hot Topic contingent that buys up the band’s ever-expanding merch line, it was a stroke of sheer genius to book Discharge and Alkaline Trio to open the festivities. Like The Misfits, Discharge began all the way back in 1977, while Alkaline Trio represents the Pop-infused sounds of modern-day commercial Punk. Any misgivings that some of the old guard might have had over seeing Discharge hit an arena stage were dashed fairly quickly once it became apparent that they would be performing for about five percent of the potential audience. With the vast majority of concertgoers still hitting the merch and concession stands during their set, Discharge might as well have been playing a club. (They played for more people two years ago at the 476-seat Brighton Music Hall in Allston, MA than they did at the Forum.) Fortunately (and not unsurprisingly), the sparse crowd didn’t prevent Discharge from maintaining their Punk street cred and showcasing a blistering set of early ’80s classics (highlighted by ferocious versions of “Protest And Survive” and  “Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing”) and newer material. (The live rendition of “Hatebomb” from 2016’s bulletproof End Of Days was a prime example of just how powerful these underground vets still are in the present tense.) It was also a pleasure to see current Discharge singer Jeff “JJ” Janiak, formerly of the New Jersey Oi! band Dead Heros (misspelling courtesy of the fellas), effortlessly make the stage his own. Janiak was also responsible for one of the brightest moments of the entire evening when he told the audience that they were witnessing the first Punk bill ever held at the Forum.

Playing in front of a gigantic logo backdrop, Alkaline Trio had the unenviable task of being the band that played right before The Misfits. While they are certainly fine players who know how to work a stage, the band’s sonic output was generic at best. Alkaline Trio might provide a great soundtrack for today’s rebellious youth to play on their way to the mall after school, but their pristine, radio-friendly repertoire felt out of place sandwiched between the incendiary groups that bookended the night.

The Misfits’ internal squabbles are the stuff of legend, but their music will always be the most interesting thing about them. While it remains to be seen if this notoriously combustible combination of personalities will keep it together long enough to carry on through 2018 (or beyond), The Misfits’ time on the Forum stage was an unforgettable celebration of one of the most powerful bands in underground music history. I’m glad these guys did this while they were all still alive to bask in the well-deserved glory.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com