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Repaving The Way 

by Mike Corrigan


In the swirling, ever-shifting rock continuum, it's absurd to count any band -- no matter how apparently stone cold dead -- out of the game for good. Even when vital signs appear flatter than an Eastern Montana highway, the potential for re-animation is always lurking somewhere between thought and expression, between ambition and the acceptance of failure. In fact, there are gobs of bands out there in wonderland that have weathered horrendous rifts, departures, even member demise and farewell tours, only to soldier on without missing so much as a half-beat. Still others that defied premature death by rising from the slab to casually brush the dust from their guitars and once again hit the streets and stages.


While corresponding lifestyle excesses have been justifiably fingered as potentially lethal, rock 'n' roll itself, in its essence, is an elixir of life -- one with an irresistible appeal to mere mortals. And once it passes over the lips, nothing else will ever taste as sweet. In the face of such a compelling, alluring force, something as relatively benign as popular indifference is profoundly limited in its power.


Into evidence we place Exhibit A, the L.A. rock trio known as Concrete Blonde, a band that in its nearly 20-year career has both indulged in the milk of paradise and courted oblivion. After a six-year hiatus, the group's original lineup is back in place with a new album (Group Therapy on Manifest Records), a new tour (they play an all-ages show in Spokane at Fat Tuesday's this Sunday night) and, perhaps, something more.


A new purpose? A new direction? A new opportunity to drink from the chalice?


The seeds of what would become Concrete Blonde first broke in 1982 from L.A.'s post-punk club scene under the big black sun of X and alongside contemporaries Dream Syndicate and Wall of Voodoo. Initially called Dream 6, the group -- comprised of founders Johnette Napolitano on bass and vocals and former Sparks member Jim Mankey on guitar -- changed its name to Concrete Blonde at the suggestion of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. The name change coincided with the addition of drummer Harry Rushakoff and release of the band's 1987 self-titled debut album on I.R.S. Records.


Bolstered by the generally favorable response to that album and songs such as "Still in Hollywood" -- which showcased Napolitano's sensitive, streetwise songwriting and exceptional pipes -- Concrete Blonde released its follow-up, Free, in 1989 (the single "God is a Bullet" was a college radio hit).


But the band's real commercial breakthrough came as a result of its third album, Bloodletting (1990), which introduced the world to a significantly transformed -- if not altogether improved -- Concrete Blonde. Featuring fully realized songwriting, polished production values and Paul Thompson of Roxy Music on the drummer's stool (temporarily replacing Rushakoff), Bloodletting found the band trading in its gnarly thrash boots for more Gothic moods and an introspective lyrical sensibility. The artistic (and, as it turned out, commercial) centerpiece of the album is the single, "Joey," a brooding paean to the power of forgiveness over the demons of substance abuse. The song was an unlikely Top 20 hit.


If Bloodletting was Concrete Blonde's breakthrough album, it also represented the group's high-water mark as far as the popular consciousness was concerned. Walking in London (1992) and 1993's Latin-flavored Mexican Moon were largely ignored commercially, prompting Napolitano to dissolve the band in 1994. She reappeared the following year in the group Vowel Movement with Holly Vincent (of Holly and the Italians) and in Pretty & amp; Twisted with ex-Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland. Napolitano revisited her love of Latin sounds in 1997 with a quasi-Concrete Blonde reunion project that tossed her and Mankey in with the scruffy L.A. Latino rock band, Los Illegals.


The official Concrete Blonde reunion between Napolitano, Mankey and Rushakoff took place in early 2001, and by the end of that summer, the band had completed the basics (in just 10 days) for the 12 cuts that would become the body of Group Therapy.


Hopefully, Concrete Blonde has seized upon this moment of resurrection to shake off the plague of influences, to emerge centered and confident enough in its chosen direction to define success using its own set of parameters.





Jazz Masterworks -- As the oldest continually performing professional community jazz orchestra in America, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra is well-suited to its mission of keeping jazz classics and the thrill of jazz performance alive in the Inland Northwest. Well, they're at it again. This Saturday night at the Met, Maestro Gunther Schuller leads the SJO and the audience on an authentic retrospective journey through the early years of jazz with a special emphasis on the contributions of the great pianists of the Big Band era. "Jazz Masterworks I" will include nearly two dozen pieces, including those by such jazz luminaries as Basie, Gillespie, Ellington, Goodman and Miller -- all meticulously arranged and authentically performed.


"This is the best of the Big Band era," says SJO Music Director Dan Keberle of this first installment of the two-part Schuller-led Masterworks series. "And by best, I don't mean the most popular songs, but the most influential and historically important works written for the jazz Big Band."


Joining the SJO as special guest pianist is Brent Edstrom, who will be featured as soloist on several of the program's pieces. A Spokane native, Edstrom first took up the piano as a sixth-grader after having started on tenor banjo at age seven. He graduated from WSU and went on to earn his master's from the Eastman School of Music. In 1997, he took a position as coordinator of the music synthesis, composition and theory program at Western Carolina University. He returned to Spokane last year to coordinate the music theory and composition program at Whitworth. Edstrom has performed all over the country as a soloist and clinician. He is also an active composer, arranger and music writer. In addition to performances with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, Asheville Symphony, Eastman Jazz Ensemble and the Eastman Chamber Jazz Ensemble, Edstrom frequently lends his formidable talents to the SJO.


"The music Gunther picked out for this concert to feature the piano is extraordinarily difficult, demanding and very exciting," says SJO trumpeter Craig Volosing. "When Gunther first shared his wishes to do these kind of pieces, both Dan and I assured him that we really did have, in Brent, a world-class pianist who could be counted on to get the job done."


Maestro Schuller aims high and demands a great deal from all of his musicians. Keberle selects the individual musicians for each concert based on Schuller's requirements. Once the music is delivered and the musicians are assembled, it's up to Keberle and the individual band members to pull together an authentic repertory sound (representing several different styles, no less) and to polish it to performance-level perfection in just three or four rehearsals.


"Most of the bands that made these pieces famous would perform them on the road six to seven nights a week for months before taking them into a studio," notes Volosing. "We're all confident, after last week's first rehearsal, that Brent is going to dazzle everyone -- including Gunther."


"Having SJO work under Gunther Schuller's direction and guidance is amazing," Keberle adds. "He gets the group sounding extremely authentic. This will be one of the most interesting concerts that the SJO has ever done, and I'm very excited about this music that Gunther has 'rediscovered' for us to perform."





Call to Arms -- Do you perform live music in the Inland Northwest? If so, I want to know about it. That's right -- rock, jazz, hip-hop, blues, country, pop, what-have-you -- I want it all. The Inlander's annual Local Music Issue will soon be hurtling down the tracks of production with only one mission: to throw the spotlight on the men and women in our area who have enough guts, stamina and desire to provide the rest of us poor slobs with the ephemeral thrill of live music. But there are so many of you out there that there is no way I can possibly do it alone. I need your help.


If you haven't made contact already, please DO IT NOW. I mean today. Flood me with your bios, pictures and CDs, and I will do my level best to represent you as the superstars you know yourselves to be. So get off your butts and send all manner of propaganda to Mike Corrigan, The Inlander, 1020 W. Riverside, Spokane, WA, 99201 or e-mail it to me at mike@inlander.com. Deadline for inclusion in the Local Music Issue is Friday, Jan. 31. Thanks.
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