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Familiar Voices (12/03/99) Write to CD Shakedown

Saturday Night LiveVarious Artists, Saturday Night Live: 25th Anniversary (Dreamworks 1999) - Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Saturday Night Live has always boasted solid live music performances. Drawing from an archive of nearly 1,000 performances, SNL 25 is distilled in two live volumes, each with 15 tracks.

Disk 2 is the "contemporary" album, with recordings by Hole, Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, and Green Day. Volume 1 is the "classic" performers, such as Sting ("If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," taped 12/20/93) Tom Petty ("Honey Bee," taped 11/19/94), James Taylor ("The Secret of Life," recorded 11/19/94), and the Grateful Dead ("Casey Jones," from 11/11/78).

Grateful DeadAccording to producer Lorne Michael, "In the early days, we were very vigorous about who we booked. The show was much more defined by who we wouldn't put on than who we would." And of course, the talent added to the dynamic, such as John Belushi's famous dueling imitations with Joe Cocker (many thought Belushi was a better Cocker than Joe himself).

Volume I captures performances by artists who enjoyed the live studio feedback. Thus, Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo played with gusto on the leadoff recording of "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (11/22/86). Other standouts include a subdued, "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton (3/24/90), and Annie Lennox's buoyant, "Why" (4/18/92).

Elvis Costello, from 1977 Another highlight is the sweet voice of Jewel on "Who Will Save Your Soul?" (5/10/97), though I question her sax-driven arrangement, and none will forget the pissed-off energy of Elvis Costello, who had his band, the Attractions turn on a dime by starting with "Less Than Zero" before abruptly shifting into the rant, "Radio, Radio" (12/17/77).

An added plus is the recording quality: except for the initial material from the late 70s, all of the tracks sound like they were recorded and mastered on first-class equipment.

SNL 25 captures some great live performances. And it has a coherent feel, something often lacking from multiple artists collections. Grab this fine overview.

Best of Steve WinwoodBest of Steve Winwood (Island 1999) - Part of its ambitious Millennium Collection, Best of Steve Winwood delivers 11 early tracks recorded by Steve Winwood, all remastered from the original tapes.

Actually, the title is somewhat misleading: a better title would be "Best of Early Steve Winwood." Thus, the set draws on tracks recorded by Steve Winwood between 1966 and 1971, beginning with two songs recorded with the Spencer Davis Group ("Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man"), both with the teenage Winwood on lead vocals and keyboards.

Young Steve WinwoodThen follow four tracks from the original 1967 lineup of Traffic, with Jim Capaldi on drums, Chris Wood on flute and saxophone, and Dave Mason on bass and harmonica.

After one album, Winwood disbanded Traffic and joined the "supergroup" Blind Faith with Eric Clapton on guitar, Rich Grech on bass, and Ginger Baker on percussion. Blind Faith released only one album, which is represented on Best Of by "Had to Cry Today" and "Can't Find My Way Home."

Lots of hairWhen Blind Faith ended, Winwood went back to Traffic: Best of features the title tracks from John Barleycorn Must Die (1970) and Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (1971).

For my taste, the four-CD Finer Things box set is a better overview from this important artist, as it includes his later 70s solo hits. But if you want early Winwood, look for Best Of: Millennium Collection.

King KongKing Kong: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Rhino 1999) - Here's a surprise soundtrack. The movie "King Kong," starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, premiered in 1933.

An instant hit, the story combined elements of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lost World," with (what were then) state-of-the-art special effects, culminating in Kong's plunge from the Empire State Building.

On the setThe new album consists of two parts, all built around the score by the legendary Max Steiner. The first part is a radio show-style edit from the movie soundtrack, which tells the story.

The second half of the album (which includes 24 minutes of previously-unreleased material) draws from the complete Steiner score, and includes tracks that were placed on unreleased out-takes, together with demo acetates.

Fay WrayGive Rhino Records credit for making King Kong hold up after more than 60 years. In addition to solid editing, the album includes comprehensive and helpful liner notes written by film historian Rudy Behlmer.

Among the interesting anecdotes told by Behlmer: a dispute over the movie title. Producer Merian Cooper wanted to call the movie "Kong." But the sales force insisted that the public would think it was about a Chinese general. Cooper replied in a hotly-worded telegram, "If Kong is properly advertised, and people see a picture of a giant gorilla dominating the Empire State Building, I'll be damned if they think he's a Chinese general." Eventually, the film was christened "King Kong."

King KongAnother story: Kong's roar. Lead soundman Murray Spivack went to the zoo and recorded a number of animals, including a lion and tiger. Recalled Spivack in an oral history, "I took the tiger growl and played that backwards. And played the lion growl forwards, also at the same speed, and got a mixture of those two so that it was an unrecognizable sound, but it certainly was a roar."

With selections like "The Adventure Begins," "A Rival at Skull Island," "Kong Attacks the Village," and "Death of King Kong," the soundtrack captures the excitement of the movie. Film buffs will enjoy the soundtrack to King Kong.

Karla BonoffAll My Life: Best of Karla Bonoff (Columbia Legacy 1999) - Los Angeles native, Karla Bonoff, together with Linda Ronstadt and Maria Maldaur, helped define the West Coast female pop sound of the late 70s.

All My Life is a comprehensive retrospective, and draws from Karla's three Columbia recordings, with seven cuts from her 1977 self-titled debut, four tracks from the 1979 Restless Nights (including the traditional, "The Water is Wide"), and two songs from the 1982 album, Wild Heart of the Young, including the title track and the hit single, "Personally" (written by Paul Kelly).

Karla BonoffMixing elements of country and folk, together with her introspective songwriting, Bonoff helped form the band Bryndle in 1970 with Kenny Edwards, Andrew Gold and Wendy Waldman.

Bryndle received acclaim but disbanded without releasing an album. Yet Linda Ronstadt later picked on songwriting talents of this group, recording songs both by Gold and Karla, including "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" on her 1976 album, Hasten Down the Wind.

Karla BonoffAnother interesting note: Karla was first brought to record label attention by John Densmore, the drummer with the Doors. Indeed, the Doors' engineer Bruce Botnick recorded Karla's 1969 demo tape.

Also included is one track from the 1995 Bryndle reunion ("Daddy's Little Girl"), and three songs released in 1988 on New World, part of the short-lived "Gold Castle" folk revival label.

Karla BonoffRecording with such musicians as Leland Sklar, Waddy Watchel, Dan Dugmore, and Russell Kunkel, Bonoff was a strong component of the 70s West Coast soft pop hitmaking team.

With hit songs like "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me," "If He's Ever Near," and "Lose Again," Bonoff exemplified an introspective style of songwriting. Listen for All My Life.

- Randy Krbechek © 1999

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