April 13, 2024

From the Vaults – Michael & Tommy

     So much attention seems to be given to certain names in the music business, it is a wonder that the majority of artists out there even get the chance to get their music heard.  All too often, some of the ‘big names’ in music put out sub-standard albums (in comparison to their own work) but very few take them to task.  No matter how many units a band or solo artist may have moved in the past, record buyers still buy their albums regardless of the direction the artist’s muse may have taken them.  Music being spread on-line generates a fraction of the money albums generated in the past.  Yes, word of mouth can make or break a new record and ‘trending’ clips is the new benchmark of success.  With that said, new musicians may gain a large following, but on-line revenue for millions of hits on a website are not enough to sustain a career these days.

     Sheryl Crow recently released a new album and noted she earns less than $5,000 for a million views on the internet.  A million hits on-line sounds like a lot, but she made far more money from her debut album (Tuesday Night Music Club 1993) which moved 43 million records.  If these 43 million albums were ‘hits’ on the internet, she would have made a paltry $215,000 for her efforts.  Crow said if it weren’t for licensing some of her older hits for movies, TV and commercials, she would have a hard time making a living these days.  I digress, but what got me going on this track were two excellent albums that came my way recently.  Let me explain exactly who Michael and Tommy are.  

     Michael Kessler’s recently released solo album Gravel Road landed in the WOAS-FM inbox a couple of weeks ago.  Circumstances kept pushing a listening session off until I finally hit play on the opening track, Roanoke, and I darn near tapped my foot off.  Having sustained a hip-pointer two weeks ago retrieving the mail on an icy street made for some uncomfortable time keeping, but I couldn’t help myself.  This rollicking dose of New Grass flat picking and fiddle work is certainly a solid introduction to what Kessler does.

     Kessler came to music early at the young age of 11 and has spent the last 25 years pursuing his love of Americana music.  His band American Folk performed extensively in southeast Wisconsin from 2006 to 2014.  To fulfill a professional goal of his, 2024 found Kessler recording and releasing a full length solo album, the aforementioned Gravel Road.

     Ashokan Farewell features more outstanding fiddle and adds organ backing that would make The Band’s Garth Hudson proud.  You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere dials it back to a slow country shuffle featuring more tasty organ.  The first vocal is a semi-spoken affair and the chorus introduces some very Nitty Gritty Band style harmony.  Track four, Cherokee Shuffle jumps back into more flat picking with some nicely played guitar licks trading off with (yes, again) more great fiddle work.  Kessler and Daystorm Music’s Gary Tanin recruited a fine mix of musicians to bring Michael’s broad base of influences (Bluegrass, Country, Rock, Funk, and Blues) come to life.  Kessler’s interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Roy Buchanan and RadioHead (yes, Radiohead) are familiar but not just copycat versions. 

      The promo material mentions that Michael’s vocals, “have been compared to John Lindell (They Might Be Giants) not to be pretentious, disrespectful, neither irreverent nor sarcastic,” but I can find no fault with Michael’s style.  Half of these tracks are instrumentals and these tunes certainly play to his strengths, but I can also listen to Kessler’s voice and enjoy what he is doing on those tunes as well.  Does anybody remember how rough Kris Kristofferson’s vocals were back in the day?  I loved Kristoferson’s songs but I had a hard time listening to him sing.  With Michael’s vocals far surpassing most of what I am currently hearing on the radio (don’t even get me started about those artists using electronically enhanced voices), let me just say, “Sing on, Michael, your guitar isn’t the only instrument in your bag of tricks.” 

     There Is A Time moves along with a nice drum and strum bed with organ, guitar, and fiddle percolating in the background.  The arrangement of Morning Dew is absolutely beautiful.  The title had me expecting the old folk tune of the same name but just like there are only so many chords that can be used to write songs, the same can be said for titles, right?  I am looking forward to hearing all of these tracks again but Morning Dew is the one I listened to multiple times before I could move on.  Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) is carried by the melodic organ, flute, and background vocals.  I kept waiting for it to sound like the Manfred Mann record but it didn’t stray from Kessler’s fresh take.  How about a little Gospel tinged romp?  Working On A Building qualifies with a little Holy Ghost piano in the mix.

     Track nine’s title (Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos) left me scratching my head a bit, but the slow tempo country burn and the lyrical guitar melody put me in Eagles mode.  Of course, Eagles would probably have ended up writing a bunch of lyrics that would have ruined the song (no, I kid – but we do get hung up on lyrics don’t we?).  Another track I will need to hear with the headphones on to get the full effect one does not hear when doing a first listen through on a computer sans good speakers.

     I am a ‘come to the party late’ Roy Buchanan fan who bought one of his anthologies just because everybody was name checking him all the time.   The Messiah Will Come Again became an instant favorite and I haven’t heard a better version until now.  Gravel Road wraps up with Fake Plastic Trees.  Starting with the sound of tom toms in ‘doom mode’, the song‘s wistful organ and fiddle arrangement compliment the lyrics perfectly.  It might sound like a bit of a downer song to end the album, but I found myself hearing shades of The Beatles by the end.  If Kessler wants to set a mood that sounds like The Beatles, I, for one, won’t complain.

     The second album I purchased after reading a blip about it online.  Drummer Tommy Clufetos is a Michigan native who was born in Detroit on December 30, 1979.  Clufetos has made the rounds playing behind a host of big name artists.  I first encountered him drumming with Ted Nugent from 2001 to 2003.  During this span, he appeared on the albums Craveman  and Love Grenade (he had also done a stint with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels prior to that).  After the Nugent gig, he worked with Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie from 2004 to 2010.  Zombie had no problem with Tommy leaving his band to join Ozzy Osbourne in 2010 but because Clufetos apparently didn’t fess up to his departure ahead of time, it remained a sore point with Rob.  The Osbourne connection later landed Tommy on the Black Sabbath drum throne when original drummer Bill Ward pulled out of the reunion tours they had on tap (Ward felt he could not reach a satisfactory contract agreement with the other Sabbs).  

    When Black Sabbath called it a day with a final show on February 4, 2017 at Birmingham England’s Genting Arena, Clufetos found himself unemployed, but not for very long.  Zombie must not have held a grudge from Tommy’s previous departure as Clufetos was invited to join Rob, John 5, and Nikki Sixx for a recording date.  Dubbed The L.A.Rats, the supergroup recorded a cover of I’ve Been Everywhere’ for the soundtrack of the Liam Neeson movie The Ice Road.  The Nikki Sixx connection landed Tommy another opportunity, this time to back Motley Crue from June 16 to June 28, 2022.  His short stint subbing for Crue drummer Tommy Lee came about because Lee was unable to perform a full show while nursing broken ribs.  Lee would start and end the show but the injury made it impossible for him to play the whole set without a great deal of pain.

     When the world shut down for the COVID 19 pandemic, Clufetos finally found the time and the motivation to try his hand at making his own music.  Tommy told Chad Bowar of Heavy Music HQ, “I had never had the time or motivation to make my own music [prior to COVID].  I found musicians I respected and knew would be open to play the music the way I wanted it played.  I was very adamant the music had to have the energy, groove, and feel that I wanted.  And to me it came out exactly how I wanted.”

     Though Beat Up By Rock ‘n’ Roll was released in 2021, I only became aware of Tommy’s Rock Trip this spring.  Having seen enough film of Clufetos banging away on his massive kit behind all of the aforementioned artists, I had to pick up a copy and see how he fared as a band leader and sometime vocalist.  Tommy described the writing and recording process to Bowar:

“I sang most of the ideas out, then we rehearsed them the old way of getting together and plowing through them all together.  Loud and together in the same room, no computers, no sending tracks back and forth.”  As far as being a vocalist, the three tracks he did scratch vocals on turned out well enough, he decided to keep them rather than have Eric Dover recut them.  “I liked the vibe they had, so I ended up keeping them as they were,” he told Bowar.

     Asked to describe the record, Clufetos was brief but to the point:  ”Heavy rock ‘n’ roll.”  Once I got my copy of Beat Up By Rock ‘N’ Roll, I got it on the air enough times that I must agree with his description.  The band Tommy put together for the album included Jellyfish alum Dover, Eliot Lorengo (bass), Hank Schneekluth (guitar), Nao Takashima (guitar), Tommy C (sax), John Schreffler (guitar), and Doug Organ (Hammond B-3).  Takashima shares song writing credits on several of the tracks with Clufetos.

     The interview cited above took place in 2021 just as concert tours were beginning to open up again.  When asked if he was planning on touring with the Tommy’s Rock Trip crew, Clufetos confessed the album only got done because of the pandemic.  Frontier Records had asked him about several projects during the lockdown, but he said, “Why don’t I just  make my own music.  I have no plans at all as no one knows the future as of this moment.  There is a tune on my album called ‘You Got the Cash, I Got the Flash’ by the way.”  To me, it sounds like he was biding his time until the next opportunity to tour with someone else came along.  The ‘next’ tour in que was apparently with The Dead Daisies with whom he had previously worked in 2015.

     Michael and Tommy are quite polar opposites in terms of the music they create.  As for their plans for the future?  It would not surprise me to find Kessler following up his fine solo album with another one sooner than later.  By his own admission, there probably won’t be another Tommy’s Rock Trip album in the offing anytime soon.  As I was putting together this FTV, I stumbled upon another new release that I had to order and it is already on its way.  

     The late entry to this FTV could have added BOC to the title.  As a long time lover of Blue Oyster Cult, I can’t say I own every one of their albums, but I do have quite a few from all across their fifty year career.  With at least ten live albums to their credit, they have never been shy about showing off what they do live and without a safety net.  Frontier Records released 50th Anniversary Live – First Night on December 8, 2023.  No doubt this one will appear in my collection sooner or later, however, this is not the album I just ordered.  The new Ghost Stories album was released on April 12, 2024 and features a dozen tracks recorded between 1978 and 1983 and one from 2016.  The album piqued my interest because it features contributions from original band members who have not been in the band for several decades (including keyboard / guitar player Alan Lanier who passed away in 2013).  The Bouchard brothers (Albert on drums and Joe on bass) did come in and contribute to the re-recording of some of these tracks making it as close to a reunion of the original band as one can get, all things considered.

     There are some familiar titles from their live shows (covers of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams and Mann and Weil’s We Gotta Get Out of this Place) but most are deep cuts.  Some of these were partially completed songs and others just never found a home on an album release.  It does not matter because I am a sucker for these kinds of records.  I am not much for reissues of classic albums that include an entire disk of outtakes and studio chatter, but Ghost Stories seems to be an interesting way to help BOC celebrate their 50 years together.

     Thank you to our friend Gary Tanin at Daystorm Music in Milwaukee for putting us in the loop with Michael Kessler’s Gravel Road album.  Gary briefly mentioned there will be more new music coming from Daystorm artists Peggy James and Jim Eannelli in the future.  We will keep you informed.




Top Piece Video – Roy Buchanan’s The Messiah Will Come from 1976 – Mike Kessler does a wonderful version on his new album.