The Fuzztones – “1-2-5” (1984)

October 17, 2008 at 8:05 pm (Garage Rock)

Cover of this great song by Canadian garage rockers The Haunted. NYC’s The Fuzztones put out a few great albums of 60s-inspired lunacy themselves before breaking up.

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“Hoping”

October 17, 2008 at 8:02 pm (Poetry & Literature)

 

I hand you my number when no one is looking

Everyone else is too drunk to notice

It seems like it’s just you & I here,

All alone

Your boyfriend is passed out in the other room

I’m hoping he doesn’t wake up

I just want a few more minutes with you

And I’m trying hard not to make a pass

Simply trying to show some class Read the rest of this entry »

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Stevie Wonder – “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976)

October 17, 2008 at 7:52 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Nov. 8, 1976 Village Voice review of Stevie’s then brand-new double album magnum opus, written by Robert Christgau… 

 

Stevie Wonder Is a Masterpiece

 

The first notes of Songs in the Key of Life waft up from a choir of humming colored folks who might be refugees from Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky. Their music is mellifluous, placid, and elevated; it seems to epitomize (as black critic Donald Bogle wrote of Cabin in the Sky) “ersatz Negro folk culture. . . . passed off as the real thing.” The catch is that this ersatz culture may be the real thing. For the leader of the choir, distinctly audible in the foreground, doesn’t sound so innocuous; the other voices are obviously there to round out a quavery tenor of subtly disquieting indecorum. What’s more, his mild uncouthness extends to the lyric; within two lines, nine words–“Good morn or evening friends/Here’s your friendly announcer”–he has committed two minor literary gaffes: the skewed parallelism of “morn or evening” and the apparently inadvertent echo of “friends” and “friendly.”

Fallacious or not, questions of intention arise immediately, as they so often do in popular culture. In order to understand what is actually going on here we are well-advised to try to determine what is supposed to be going on. So if we’ve forgotten for a moment who this artist is, with his “serious news for everybody,” we are now obliged to remember. This is Stevie Wonder. He is black and considers that an advantage; he is blind and given to mystic visions. His music is both meticulous and wildly expressionistic; his words combine a preacher’s eloquence with an autodidact’s clumsiness. And a small detail: In one of his best and favorite jokes, he impersonates a disc jockey, everybody’s friendly announcer.

Who can gauge what intentions these credentials imply? Perhaps Stevie Wonder hopes to reclaim an unfairly discredited manifestation of black culture–the genteel Hollywood gospel chorus–with his blessing. Or perhaps the chorus–which, as it turns out, consists entirely of taped overdubs of Stevie’s own voice–merely reifies the man’s idealist notion of black spirituality. Perhaps the musical ambiguity is deliberate, the stilted language a gentle gibe at the “announcer,” at Stevie himself. Or perhaps it’s all just sloppiness. Only two things are clear. First, this man is too secure in his own artistic power to concern himself with such quibbles; he doesn’t worry whether we think he’s wise or foolish, careless or precise. Second, this music is so audacious and so gorgeous that it seems pointless for us to worry about it either.

That is to say, among other things, that this album has presence–it’s really out there–and that its presence counts for something. After playing it obsessively for a few days, I put on WNEW-FM for a taste of the real world, and, as if in a dream, there was my friendly announcer, and I don’t mean Dave Herman, crooning the song I’ve just been writing about, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Why had I bothered to tune in, I wondered, when this lovely stuff was waiting on my turntable? But I bristled nevertheless when Dave Herman referred to the album as “Stevie Wonder’s new masterpiece.”

Words like “masterpiece” get thrown around much too glibly in the music biz, and when you talk about someone’s “new” masterpiece, you’re coming close to implying that the someone is a genius (now where have I heard that before?) who just churns one out every year or two. As the virtues of rock and roll are not those commonly associated with masterpieces–works which, as Bob Dylan sardonically observed, are supposed to make everything “smooth like a rhapsody”–this seems unlikely. Yet for all the indulgence of the usage, I found myself in sympathy even as I bristled. The irresistible beauty of this record calls for inept superlatives. In fact, Stevie Wonder has had me thinking for the better part of a week about just what a rock and roll masterpiece might be.

My first conclusion is that presence counts for a lot. A rock and roll masterpiece must be a pop masterpiece. Not pop as distinguished from rock–Exile on Main Street and Layla, both assuredly rock, are two of the worthiest pretenders to the category–but pop as distinguished from aesthetic. This is an old riff, very un-’76, and I feel a little I fogeyish coming down on it after arguing the primacy of the aesthetic for the past couple of years. I really do believe that Eno’s Another Green World is a greater rock record than, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s perfectly admirable One More from the Road, without benefit of sales, airplay, or (for that matter) blues chords and backbeat, and that something similar goes for Ramones, in many musical ways its polar opposite. But those are tours de force; they’re too rarefied. Even efforts like Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (with an audience that acts like a cult) or Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic (a gold album masquerading as polished dross) are borderline. Or so I feel right now. For Stevie Wonder has reminded me vividly of the reason I’ve always paid attention to rock and roll, rather than to potential passions like jazz or the novel–which is that rock and roll not only says something about masses of people but also says something to them. For the first time in too many years, a large, heterogeneous mass of people has communed around a musical package of consistent and considerable aesthetic interest, and they have lent it their collective authority.

I mean, lots of people ask me about this record–not pros, or fans, just contemporaries, give or take five years on the up side and 15 on the down. To an extent, their curiosity reflects a suspense hyped up by titanic money battles and Stevie’s perfectionitis in the studio and then relieved by the evidence on the radio that at least their anticipation would not end in flatulent letdown. But it also reflects something more sustaining. People care about Stevie Wonder–they like him, they respect him, they find pleasure and hope in him. And while it is impossible to credit this audience with critical reserve–the $13.98 double-LP was instant number one–it is also impossible, at least for me, to fault its faith. Frankly, I was expecting a letdown. This is one of those instances when the audience knew better. That’s one of the rewards of being a rock critic sometimes.

But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go ahead and do my job. The only people I know who don’t like this album are people who have no use for Stevie Wonder, but lots of people seem confused by it, and that needn’t be. Granted that studio double-LPs invariably dish up too much new stuff to digest comfortably, and that Wonder’s cannily self-indulgent decision to add a fifth side (in the form of a seven-inch 33-that-looks-like-a-45) has added to the sense of surfeit. Granted, too, that a promotional arrangement whereby a gaggle of journalists was flown to the country to listen, once, to the forthcoming release didn’t clarify things any. And granted, finally, that Stevie Wonder resists analysis consciously and even aggressively–in the first stanza of “Joy Inside My Tears” he apologizes for using the nasty word “but,” the analytic weapon that begins this paragraph. It’s still possible to figure out what kind of masterpiece this might be.

The answer, as one might predict, is that it is a flawed one–not in the manner of Dylan and the Stones, who cultivated a rough tone that made flaws inevitable, even welcome (smooth like a rhapsody was not what they wanted their music to be), but by identifiable mistakes, failures of taste and concept. In this it reminds me a lot of Carole King’s Tapestry. Especially since Tapestry was King’s breakthrough, whereas Songs in the Key of Life is Stevie Wonder’s fulfillingness, the parallel is far from exact, and it may bring sarcastic moans from the skeptical. But those who remember how fresh Tapestry sounded before it was transmogrified into an aural totem–the delight of finding that when a promising artist surpasses her potential, there’s no way a few banal passages can diminish the general affection and admiration that results–will know what I mean.

There are errors of commission on Stevie Wonder’s new masterpiece. A lot of this music (the final refrain of “Isn’t She Lovely,” for instance, or the homiletic “Black Man”) goes on for too long; there are many awkward phrases (“founder of blood plasma”), forced rhymes (“red, blue, and white”) and uncolloquial constructions (“for Christmas what would be my toy”); several of the songs (I would name “Summer Soft” and “If It’s Magic”) are, hopefully, quite forgettable. Talking Book is closer to a perfect album. But when Talking Book came out Stevie Wonder was still coming off the Rolling Stones tour. A more complex and satisfying delight–a delight that combines the freewheeling energy of Dylan and the Stones with the softer accessibility of a Carole King–is provided by an artist with the ambition to ride his own considerable momentum and the talent to do more than just hang on while doing so.

My reasoning, if that’s what it is, is entirely appropriate to this album. Indeed, it’s just what the announcer ordered. To put it in the jargon of a time gone by, I’ve overcome my own negative vibrations. Such, a discipline is the key to Stevie Wonder’s prescription for life, what he means literally to denote when he says “love’s in need of love” or warns against living in a “pastime [that is, “past time”] paradise,” or, God knows, opines that “God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed.” Sometimes he almost seems to mean that bad thoughts are the source of all evil, and I should point out to those sympathetic to this interpretation that its practicality is questionable, because it supplies no surefire method of eliminating the bad thoughts. I should also point out’ that Stevie acknowledges just this problem in “Village Ghetto Land,” which serves as an empiricist postscript to the idealist “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Have a Talk with God” by implying quite pointedly that poverty and happiness are often mutually exclusive. The man is obviously no giant ideologically, but he does have a reasonably accurate idea of what’s going down.

Ideology can hardly be his specialty in any case, because the locus of ideology is written language, whereas, for Stevie books must talk. In fact, no verbal analysis can do him justice. What makes the contradictory platitudes of his lyrics worth following through is the rhetorical impetus of his music. Even in the accompanying 24-page booklet the words aren’t as stiff and preachy as his worst moments might have made you fear; sung or declaimed over a music much less vague and ballady than his worst moments might have made you fear, they take on a convincing vivacity. It is no accident that the rich, hortatory one-man music of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” is counterposed against the more intimately devotional one-man music of “Have a Talk with God,” or that when the theme turns sociopolitical in “Village Ghetto Land”, Stevie’s synthesizer, still solo, turns from African sounds to an ironic (though elegant) string-quartet minuet–the calm detachment of which is rudely interrupted by a jazz-funk instrumental from Stevie’s Wonderlove band, which then moves into the boogieing black-music tribute, “Sir Duke.”

There is wit, pace, variety, and dimension to this music. In themselves, the words–especially as brought to life by Stevie’s high-spirited multivoice–have it all over the musings of Maurice White, or Eddie Levert reciting the verse of Kenneth Gamble; they’re funnier and trickier. But as validated by the music they come close to redeeming the whole genre; they make clear that no matter how annoying the sociospiritual bullshit of Earth, Wind & Fire or the O’Jays may get, it still surpasses the escapist mythopoeia and greeting-card sentimentality that passes for poetry among too many white rockettes these days.

If Bob Dylan, say, scores an artistic punch with the rough tone, then Stevie Wonder is familiar with the artistic benefits of the genteel tone. He wants something like that gospel chorus in the sky–a chorus which has echoed through much of the most ambitious black music–just because of what it can say to masses of people. Sometimes he takes his advantage in a straightforward and seemly way–with synthesized strings, for instance, or with the beauty of that chorus itself–but sometimes he makes it work ass-backwards. His literary gaffes and ideological inadequacies can be blamed on confused cultural aspirations only after we’re sure blame is called for; it may well be that it is only through such indiscretions that the earth-shattering, or -mending, presumption of his music can be conveyed. A blind man who can envision a time “when the rainbow burns the stars out of the sky” or write a song called “Ebony Eyes” is like a black man who can stick Glenn Miller in between Count Basie and Louis Armstrong in a litany of music heroes. He doesn’t even acknowledge limitations that some would hope were beneath him. As in most rock and roll masterpieces, the flaws are a part of the challenge, and of the fun.

Robert Christgau

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Bob Dylan – “Slow Train Coming” (1979)

October 17, 2008 at 7:41 pm (Bob Dylan, Reviews & Articles)

Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner reviewing Bob Dylan’s infamous “born again” album Slow Train Coming from the Sept. 20, 1979 issue of RS…

 

Faith is the message. Faith is the point. Faith is the key to understanding this record. Faith is finally all we have.

Because Bob Dylan had the power of insight and poetry early in his career, he became an article of faith himself. He gave so much identity and energy to so many people that eventually it could only blow up. And it did. Which was bitter, disappointing and confusing to a lot of people, including myself and, I think, also Dylan.

Within a very short period of time, forces came together that reversed Dylan’s musical strength and social weight. They were events of all sorts—personal, professional, accidental: the inevitable pauses and doubts that come with age and the kind of success Dylan had. There were the times themselves—long, depressing years in which we all became hopeless.

It takes only one listening to realize that Slow Train Coming (Columbia Records) is the best album Bob Dylan has made since The Basement Tapes (recorded with the Band in 1967 but not released until 1975). The more I hear the new album — at least fifty times since early July—the more I feel that it’s one of the finest records Dylan has ever made. In time, it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest.

This claim will not go down easily, especially with all the “born again” clamor. So much emotion has become invested in Dylan’s public image that the greater numbers of his critics and devotees torture themselves before they will put aside their previous definitions of him. In fairness, his followers have seen his work steadily weaken for almost a decade and have legitimate reasons to be extremely rigid.

In the Seventies, Dylan’s situation turned almost paralytic, both for himself and his audience. Five or six superb songs weren’t enough to overcome this long, stagnant interval of doubt and reconsideration. As the “spokesman” of a generation, Dylan created so many images and expectations that he narrowed his room for maneuverability and finally became unsure of his own instincts. Whatever his dilemmas, they were tied up in the social and political themes of the last ten years. In the hard times of confusion, just as in the easier times of conviction, Dylan continued to reflect society.

A broadly drawn historical perspective is the most valid way to consider Slow Train Coming, especially if it is important to understand the old-time religion and evangelism woven into these songs. Before anyone had even heard this album, the news that Dylan was doing a little Bible reading stirred up great winds of cynicism and distrust: a kind of controversy recalling the intensity of past debates about Dylan.

Bob Dylan has, at long last, come back into our lives and times, and it is with the most commercial LP he’s ever released. Slow Train Coming has been made with a care and attention to detail that Dylan never gave any of his earlier records. The decision to take such time and care comes from a deep artistic and personal reevaluation. He wanted — and after so many weak efforts and near failures, perhaps felt he had no choice—a commercial success. He was also smart enough to see that this thrust might even be the only road left for his return to brilliance.

The musicians on this album are the best Dylan has worked with since Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966) and The Basement Tapes (1967).

For the third time in his long career, Dylan has turned to a full-time producer. (In the early Sixties, he used Tom Wilson; in the late Sixties, Bob Johnston.) His choice for Slow Train Coming was an act of instinctual genius: Jerry Wexler, the éminence grise and veteran wise man inseparably connected with the classics of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, among many others. Like Dylan, Wexler has his finest LP since those fabulous Sixties, one that ranks with his greatest achievements. (Wexler shares his production credit with Barry Beckett, the extraordinary pianist of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.*)

BOB Dylan once again has something urgent to sing. He’s back in the land of opportunity, fate and inexplicable twists. Slow Train Coming, built on an accumulation of reluctant and arduous changes, is the record that’s been a long time coming, with an awesome, sudden stroke of transcendent and cohesive vision. This is what makes it so overwhelming.

Dylan’s new songs are statements of strength and simplicity, and the lyrics again equal his early classics. The words are rich with the ambiguity of great art. Dylan has not self-consciously reached for the colorful imagery and language of Highway 61 Revisited, symbols that, as we look back, seem dated. Slow Train Coming‘s lyrics are timeless, simple, yet rich in potential levels of meaning.

Dylan’s apocalyptic visions and Biblical symbolism are wholly consistent with the “protest” or “message” songs that are the historical foundation of his work. We also recognize the characters and the humor from earlier tunes: thieves, the rich and the poor. Instead of dwarfs, we have bankers. And, as always, landlords.

“Gotta Serve Somebody,” the opening cut, uses a religious allegory in each chorus, but it’s no different than the choice between good and evil that Dylan has always sung about.

There is no letup in the power of the rhythm and arrangements from the opening track through the last, because there’s no letup in the message. Over and over again, Dylan tells us that we have a choice of doing good or doing bad.

“PRECIOUS Angel” is the most beautiful melody on the record, and it matches the beauty of the lyric. It is a country-rock arrangement (a la Nashville Skyline), and a Dylan trademark. There are numerous Biblical references, but in no way do they overwhelm — or ever become differentiated from — the undisguised passion of a lover’s question. The song has intensely sensuous words:

 

You’re the queen of my flesh, girl

You’re my woman, you’re my delight

You’re the lamp of my soul, girl

You torch up the night.

 

The refrain — “Shine your light, shine your light on me/I just can’t make it by myself/I’m a little too blind to see” — tears your heart out.

I am struck by two other lines: “Men will beg God to kill them/And they won’t be able to die”—a terrifying idea; and the verse that starts, “Sister, let me tell you About a vision that I saw/You were carrying water for your husband/You were suffering under the law,” which is a clear essay on the rights of women.

“I Believe in You” is a story that shifts from the personal (love) to the philosophic (the stranger) to the religious (the disciple), and may even be a story about Jesus. In part, “I Believe in You” is about someone who adopts unpopular beliefs (implicitly religious) and faces an outcast’s fate, yet the lines “I believe in you/Even on the morning after” are a rather obvious clue to quite another, yet parallel interpretation.

All of these tales — the outcast’s, the believer’s, the lover’s—are intended as one, because Dylan is finally saying only one thing: “I believe in you.” The power of this song is the discovery of faith and belief, and the release and pleasure of accepting them.

“Slow Train” is unequivocally in the tradition of the “state of the union” songs that Bob Dylan has put on every record he’s ever done. But for the first time since Highway 61 Revisited, the song that is his boldest statement on the American condition is the title tune, which signals the theme of the album.

The title track is nothing less than Dylan’s most mature and profound song about America. His patriotism is absolutely clear: it is a statement filled with his belief in the American Dream, as well as being infused with outrage, and with anger. I think it’s his best state-of-the-union song ever, because it’s tempered and deepened by a wiser understanding, which is where religion really does fit into this album.

I find it devastating.

The image of a “slow train coming up around the bend” is thoroughly American. The “train” is not just a suggestion, but it’s an affirmation of America’s greatness. Dylan begins this song “wondering what’s happening to my companions,” and verse after verse explains who his companions are and what is happening to them. There’s his “backwoods girl from Alabama,” undoubtedly a very personal companion. Then, there’s the nation itself—a people frustrated — because they lately see themselves as powerless to affect their own national destiny. “Look around you It’s just bound to make you embarrassed.” Among other things, he says, “The enemy I see Wears a cloak of decency” and “They talk about a life of brotherly love But show me someone who knows how to live it.” The solos by Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits’ lead writer and guitarist, like the lyrics, are angry. They suggest vengeance and a desire to strike out.

In essence, “Slow Train” is a new kind of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Desolation Row.” But the times are now more complicated and not as easily open to broad strokes and simplistic insights. Only prophets and those most personally involved are willing to risk definitions. This has always been Bob Dylan’s special link to his audience. On “Slow Train,” Dylan is stating that the way you see yourself is inseparable and must be no different from the way you see others. Thus, the most powerful lyric of them all:

 

My baby went to Illinois

With some bad-talking boy she could destroy

A real suicide case

But there was nothing I could do to stop it

I don’t care about economy

I don’t care about astronomy

But it sure does bother me

To see my loved ones turning into puppets.

 

Set in a tough, relentless rhythm, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” is a fire-and-brimstone sermon stripped of subtlety, though not of poetry. Lines like these are priceless:

 

I got a God-fearing woman

One I can easily afford

She can do the Georgia crawl

She can walk in the spirit of the Lord.

 

This piece of music comes as close as anything ever has to matching the Rolling Stones. The horn arrangements and rhythm guitar bring to mind “Bitch” and “Brown Sugar.” For years, Dylan has implied that he could outdo Mick Jagger, and if he ever wanted to prove the point, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” is it. It’s certainly as good as it gets.

Mark Knopfler tears into phrases and attacks with a fearsome skill. (His licks on this song are derived mainly from Albert King.) He is easily the best new guitarist in years. I’m a sucker for great guitar work. My hat is off—and eaten.

Anyone who insists on seeing Slow Train Coming as some frightening or worthless religious conversion should probably start with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” as their evidence. The song is more than a direct descendant of “With God on Our Side” and countless others in which Dylan’s warnings haven’t much differed from the one used here: apocalypse soon if you don’t watch out. Now, the idea is developed with a stridency that makes for maximum discomfort—and maximum rock & roll.

“When You Gonna Wake Up” is another assessment of America. The tune is a swinging, lowdown groove, which showcases the musicians, including Dylan, whose singing is tough, full-voiced and urgent, sounding like a zealot. Dylan’s chorus, “Strengthen the things that remain,” is the sentiment of a deeply concerned citizen. The lyrics are more acidic than practically anything found in rock music. I agree completely with what Dylan says about Henry Kissinger, who was one of the great evils of our times.

But neither the album itself, nor any firsthand reports from the usual suspects, say that Dylan has been “born again.” At the urging of various personal friends, he went to Bible-study classes led by a fundamentalist preacher. And boy, without a doubt, this record is chapter and verse.

The album’s religious content is pervasive; but more than anything, Slow Train Coming comes directly from Dylan’s own traditions: songs of protest and patriotism; love songs — stories of romance, adoration and friendship.

Dylan’s longstanding philosophy is that personal and public conduct, standards and ethical behavior, cannot be allowed to be separated from each other. These are parables, more numerous and closely woven than ever before, assembled with the judgmental and righteous morality that has transfixed us on every great album and song Dylan has made.

Slow Train Coming is pure, true Dylan, probably the purest and truest Dylan ever. The religious symbolism is a logical progression of Dylan’s Manichaean vision of life and his pain-filled struggle with good and evil.

I am not so full of certainty about these times, our social standards or the conduct of my companions that I can dismiss the validity of Dylan’s religiously phrased ideas. Maybe there is a personal and communal text that offers explanations, laws and practical notions that make sense where there has not been sense, and that can also give us guidelines with which to do good.

I don’t go to church or to a synagogue. I don’t kneel beside my bed at night. I don’t think I will. I have yet to face the terror I read about in all the great literature. But, since politics, economics and war have failed to make us feel any better—as individuals or as a nation—and we look back at long years of disrepair, then maybe the time for religion has come again, and rather too suddenly—”like a thief in the night.”

“When He Returns,” the most religious song on this album, is Dylan’s richest and most beautiful effort as a singer. Because he has been so brilliant in the other areas of his craft, Dylan has never been fully recognized as a singer. When he has a song and idea in which he believes, as he does here, the power, richness and the beauty of his voice are far greater than the words he uses. He sings with a sound that needs no words because he has the sound of the soul itself.

Musically, this is probably Dylan’s finest record, a rare coming together of inspiration, desire and talent that completely fuse strength, vision and art.

Bob Dylan is the greatest singer of our times. No one is better. No one, in objective fact, is even very close. His versatility and vocal skills are unmatched. His resonance and feeling are beyond those of any of his contemporaries. More than his ability with words, and more than his insight, his voice is God’s greatest gift to him.

So when I listen to “When He Returns,” the words finally don’t matter at all. They are as good as they ever were, maybe even better.

I am hearing a voice. 

 

Jann S. Wenner

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The Four Tops – “Baby I Need Your Loving” (Live – 1965)

October 17, 2008 at 6:01 pm (Music)

The Four Tops performing from 1965.
Today, their great leader and singer Levi Stubbs passed away at the age of 72, from cancer. He never received the recognition he deserved (probably because he never recorded on his own) – but he was one of the best singers Motown ever had.
May he rest in peace… 

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Jimi Hendrix – “All Along the Watchtower” (Live – 1970)

October 17, 2008 at 4:02 pm (Jimi Hendrix, Music)

Hendrix from the Isle of Wight, doing the Bob Dylan classic, which was Hendrix’s biggest charing hit. Featuring Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums.

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Pearl Jam – “Even Flow” (Live – 2006)

October 17, 2008 at 3:57 pm (Music)

Live from the 2006 Reading Festival…

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