CD Review: Eric Van Aro’s “Endless Roads”

September 1, 2015
Brian Arsenalt

Brian Arsenalt

By Brian Arsenault

The last time I reviewed an album by this guy in early 2014, I complimented his reclaiming stellar jazz singing for the guys in the face of so many fine current female jazz singers.

This time, with Endless Roads, Eric Van Aro has reestablished the stripped down rock/pop sound amidst an avalanche of overdubbed, over-produced, echo chambered, synthetic slop so dominant today. (We won’t name the purveyors as they know who they are; unshaken TV commercials abound for their concert tours; Good Morning America appearances before overexcited pre-teens. You know the drill.)

Eric Van Aro

Eric Van Aro

Eric himself writes that he has “been taught that the musical roads one can and should take are endless . . .” He may need to be careful, though, as the musical world has long since shown an obnoxious need to characterize artists and their art forms, neat little boxes to keep our tastes in without a lot of thought.

Eric, though, can find room for works by Pat Metheny, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, Jimmy Page/Robert Plant, Bruno Mars and himself in the same album. Really.

Maybe the bravest piece is Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.” Reworking a big hit by a pop giant is to walk on the edge of unacceptable, as the original version is tucked so deeply into our musical consciousness. Singing along with the car radio and such. Eric pulls it off anyway by tipping his hat to the hit while singing it in his raspier, deeper way.

Eric Van Aro

Eric Van Aro

The lesser known Zep piece “Friends” moves effortlessly from bluesy at the start to jazzy at the end.

“This Is Not America” opens the album and sets the rocking tone with Max Elli’s slick rock guitar opening. Elli is a strength throughout the album, weaving in, under and around Van Aro’s vocals as if they had played together for years. In actuality, they seem to have met musically on Endless Roads.

Eric’s artistic generosity means this could almost have been billed as Elli’s album with Eric providing vocals, rather like the long ago days of Jeff Beck with Rod Stewart.

He notes that on this album he “really tried to let the producer in me stay at home and let myself by guided by my producer and my musicians.”

Kudos to Giordano Colombo for his production. As noted, a clean, crisp, basic sound is quite rare in these days of dubbing to the max.

Drummer Giordano Colombo is solid throughout and really breaks out on “Stratus.” If there’s such a thing as rock scat singing, Eric shows it off here.

Nyro’s “And When I Die”, recorded memorably by Blood Sweat & Tears, adds a little country flavor and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” has just a dash of Van Morrison flavor in Eric’s vocal.

The album closes with Van Aro’s co-written “One Life One Song” and as an earlier song notes: “. . . that’s the way to treat a friend.”

The friend in this case being any listener.

Endless Roads will be released on September 17.

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To read more reviews, essays and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


CD Review- Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Columbia/Legacy)

July 16, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon Wendell

Many jazz aficionados like myself have been waiting for a live box set like this one for most of our lives and it’s finally here. Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 consists of 4 CDs featuring 20 years of Miles Davis performances (8 shows in total) showcasing Miles at different stages of his prolific career. The official release date is Friday, July 17th.


The first CD kicks off with a stellar set by Miles at Newport on July 17, 1955. Joining Miles is a “Who’s Who” of the bebop era: Thelonious Monk on piano, Zoot Sims on tenor sax, Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kay on drums. After a delightful introduction by Duke Ellington and Gerry Mulligan, Miles and the band perform three pieces: “Hackensack” and “’Round Midnight,” both by Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time.” There’s a laid back yet stark beauty to this short set. Miles and Monk compliment each other perfectly. Miles proves that he understood Monk’s music better than most. The melodic beauty of Sims on tenor and Mulligan on baritone sax is a perfect joyful juxtaposition to the haunting beauty of Monk and Miles.

The Newport show from July 3, 1958 has been available on CD for many years, but it just sounds even more inspirational on this box set and the sound is vastly improved. This is the same band as on Kind Of Blue ( except for Wynton Kelly), released a year later: John Coltrane, tenor sax, Cannonball Adderley, alto sax, Bill Evans, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Miles’ lyricism on trumpet is breathtaking. That elegant swing that Miles created at that time really shines through this performance. Coltrane on the other hand plays like a mad man, ripping through “Ah Leu Cha,” Fran Dance” and “Bye Bye Blackbird” like a man on fire. You just cannot believe what you’re hearing. Coltrane was that incredible by 1958. Cannonball Adderley swings hard with his distinct blues- bop driven alto sax style and the rhythm section cooks. Evans takes a more subordinate role on piano but what he plays is perfect.

Hearing Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet (Wayne Shorter, tenor sax, Herbie Hancock, piano, Ron Carter, bass, and Tony Williams on drums) at Newport on July 4, 1966 is a true highlight of this box set. The energy of these brilliant players feels unearthly. Miles’ chops are in top form. Tony Williams’ drumming is hip, imaginative, and adventurous. On “Gingerbread Boy” and “All Blues,” Williams often changes the tempo and the rest of the band is right there with him without missing a breath. Shorter, Hancock, and Carter swing beyond belief. “All Blues,” “Stella By Starlight” and “R.J.” are some of the most spectacular live jazz recordings I’ve heard in my entire life. The band takes the material to new places and the vitality of the players is jaw-dropping. The sound is so clear that it feels as if Miles and the band are performing right in front of you. This set alone makes this box set an essential purchase.

That same infectious energy is felt on Miles’ Second Great Quintet performance on July 2, 1967. The band stretches out on Shorter’s masterpiece, “Footprints” and on “’Round Midnight.” Miles and the band even keep the older compositions sounding fresh with new ideas and boundless energy.

On July 5, 1969, Miles played The Newport Festival with his new electric sound. Maybe the audience didn’t “get it” yet but who cares? This music demonstrates that Miles was still moving, growing, and leading the way in the jazz/fusion movement. Joined by Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland, bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Miles’ reinvents his sound once more. Listening to the band perform “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and “Sanctuary” from Bitches Brew is both loud and wonderfully funky. Corea’s distorted psychedelic electric keyboard work is nasty in all the best ways. Holland and DeJohnette’s chemistry was already very strong by this point.

As great as the ’69 set is, the show from November 1, 1973 at The Newport Jazz Festival in Europe in Berlin, Germany is even hotter. Here we have Miles with Dave Liebman on soprano, tenor sax, and flute, Pete Cosey, guitar and percussion, Reggie Lucas, guitar, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Al Foster, drums, and James Mtume Forman on percussion. “Turnaroundphrase” and “Tune In 5” are just preposterous. By this time, Miles had out psychedelicized the psychedelic rock bands of the day. This set is more of an exploration in sound and freedom than executing perfectly arranged compositions to fit a brief festival set.

The Avery Fischer Hall show on July 1, 1975 features Sam Morrison on tenor sax, Pete Cosey, guitar and percussion, Reggie Lucas, guitar, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Al Foster, drums, and James Mtume Forman on percussion performing Miles’ original “Mtume.” Like the Berlin set, this is electric Miles leaving the past behind as he and the band explore new sounds for a more youth-oriented audience. But the results are transcendent on another level than Miles’ more bop oriented performances from the first 2 CDs of this box set. Sam Morrison burns on tenor sax and Mtume’s thoughtful percussion is original and matches the funkiness of the great Al Foster’s drumming.

The box set finishes with an amazing performance in Dietikon, Switzerland on October 22, 1971. Here is one of Miles’ greatest bands from the ‘70s with Gary Bartz, soprano, and alto sax, Keith Jarrett, electric keyboards and organ, Michael Henderson, electric bass, Ndugu Leon Chancler, drums, Don Alias, percussion, and James Mtume Forman on percussion. This is without a doubt the tightest of Miles’ electric performances on this box set. Henderson’s bass locks in with Chancler’s drums, creating some truly innovative funk grooves. Gary Bartz’ soprano work on Joe Zawinul’s “Directions” cooks. The set consists of material mostly from Bitches Brew. “What I Say” sounds both beautiful and wicked at the same time. Henderson is one of the greatest bassists of all time and the proof is right here in this performance. The combination of the tight grooves and psychedelic rock sounds is further proof that Miles was not only in touch with the funk rock of the early ‘70s but was also an original, key contributor to that sound.

No music lover and especially no Miles Davis fan should go without this wonderfully historic box set. Miles Davis At Newport 1955-1975 The Bootleg Series Vol.4 is a further glimpse into the genius of Miles Davis as it went through constant changes. Each performance defines a specific genre in jazz as only Miles Davis could do.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


CD Review: Van Morrison’s “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue”

March 28, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

I started getting happy listening to Van Morrison’s Duets:Re-Working the Catalog” (RCA) about the time George Benson was singing as smooth as he always is on “Higher Than The World” and I was downright grinning through Van and Georgie Fame’s “Get On With The Show.” Pure 50s jukebox. Drifters, Coasters, gratuitous but funny “cha cha cha” at the end. Just shoulda kept it to two minute twenty second hit single radio time of the era.

You can while away a weekend morning with the album and feel better about things. Be advised, though, you will take a chunk out of that morning. There are 16 tracks. None are bad but some work better than others.

On “Streets of Arklow,” Mick Hucknall (Simply Red anyone) and Van are a perfect matched set of singers on one of the album’s moodiest songs. “Souls are clear. . .”   Mark Knopfler’s voice was made for “Irish Heartbeat” nearly as much as Van’s own. As with Hucknall, their voices flow over each other seamlessly.  Perhaps a bit more Knopfler guitar.

And Van’s good not just with the boys but with the girls too.

Raspy Mavis Staples is the perfect offset to Morrison’s own sharp edges on “If I Ever Needed Someone.”

Daughter Shana Morrison achieves with Dad a hymn of the Church of Music, the only church left to so many, on “Rough God Goes Riding.”

The musicianship throughout is never just background. Of special note are the Whites, Chris on tenor sax and Alistair on trombone. As far as I know, they are not related except by excellence. One example, on “The Eternal Kansas City,” the Whites are at the center of a neat little Kansas City bebop instrumental break.

You can almost hear Neal Cassady yelling, “that’s it, that’s it” on a stop On The Road.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

When I was disappointed it was only a matter of personal taste, not artistry by Morrison and the incredible talent he assembled.

On “Carrying A Torch”, Clare Teal’s voice is literally like the tealing of the purest bell ever cast. I don’t want Van joining in because I don’t want anything to dilute Clare’s singing. But, hey, it’s his album.

More often, though, you may be struck by the fact that you like the original version of songs better. As Kath said, she likes Van so much she wasn’t sure she always likes him sharing favorite songs. But, hey, it’s his album.

I also found that the album slogged along a bit with ballad after ballad before “Get On With The Show” and the late injection of faster pace with Van and Michael Buble on “Real Real Gone.” I may not quite get Buble but the man can sing and who doesn’t love a song with references to Sam Cooke, Wicked Wilson Pickett and James Brown.

Which brings me to Taj, closing the album with Van on “How Can A Poor Boy?” Taj Mahal is so true to the purity of the blues that he seems to step out from an earlier time. I wondered if Van in closing the album with such a blues rendition of one of his signature songs was telling us that under it all, there is always the blues.

Rings true.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


CD Review: Dave Stryker’s “Messin’ With Mister T”

March 25, 2015

By Devon Wendell

What could be better than guitarist Dave Stryker and his famed organ trio (Jared Gold: Hammond B3 organ, and McClenty Hunter: drums with Mayra Casales guesting on Percussion) paying tribute to Stryker’s ex-employee and mentor, the legendary tenor sax giant Stanley Turrentine? On Messin’ With Mister T (Strikezone), Stryker has assembled an all-star lineup of some of the finest tenor sax players in jazz to do just that.

And the results are marvelous. Although Turrentine passed away 15 years ago; his spirit is felt throughout this loving homage.

Stryker and the band kick things off with a stellar take on Turrentine’s “La Place Street” with Houston Person blowing for “Mr. T.” At times, Person’s fat, warm, bluesy tone and phrasing are very similar to Turrentine’s style. Stryker’s fluid and melodic arpeggios weave in and out of the melody with elegance and soul. Gold’s B3 playing is reminiscent of Jack Mcduff and Groove Holmes in that it is rhythmic yet subtle and funky.

Let’s check out the action on all the other tracks.

Mike Lee is the featured tenor player on Michel Legrand’s mid-tempo ballad; “Pieces Of Dreams.” Lee’s playing is sweet and economical. Stryker is the shinning star on this number, with some thoughtful, understated, and swinging guitar phrasing.

Don Braden plays it cool without venturing too far from the melody line on the album’s title track, which is a straight blues.

An absolute album highlight is hearing Jimmy Heath blowing his soul out on Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” Heath and Stryker never play a note or phrase that doesn’t belong exactly where these men have so masterfully placed them.

urrentine, Freddie Hubbard and others.

Dave Stryker with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and others in New York City in June 1987.

Chris Potter seams to get better and better every time he picks up his horn. His playing on John Coltrane’s “Impressions” is daring, original, and hard swinging.
Hunter’s drumming drives the band and goes into strong be-bop mode.

But a rendition of Freddie Hubbard’s “Gibraltar” is an unusual choice for a Turrentine tribute. Although Bob Mintzer plays some strong tenor lines, this arrangement goes a little too far into smooth jazz turf for my liking.

Like Chris Potter, Eric Alexander is always on the move and constantly developing his style. His playing on Milton Nascimento’s “Salt Song” is no exception. Stryker’s guitar lines dance and swing with the Brazilian percussion rhythms laid down by Mayra Casales.

Javon Jackson and the band stay true to that jazz-soul sound on Turrentine’s “Sugar.” You can feel Jackson reeling himself in so as not to over-blow, which would not fit this particular piece, which is more about groove than hard-bop acrobatics.

That groove feel continues on “Sidesteppin” featuring Steve Slagle, who really lays back with the band on this funky Stryker original.

Completing the album is a brilliant reading of Turrentine’s “Let It Go.” Tivon Pennicott’s tenor explorations are the most adventurous on the whole album. Pennicott’s bop playing pushes the band to greater heights and soon everyone is cooking like they should. Stryker’s guitar attack is more percussive and daring.

Messin’ With Mister T (the album will be released by Strikezone Records on April 7th) is a soulful, well thought out tribute album to one of the greats. Stanley Turrentine would surely be proud of Stryker and all of the truly dedicated musicians who gave their all on this delightful project.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon “Doc” Wendell click HERE.

Brian Arsenault Takes On GLADSHOT’s CD, “Maxwell’s Cool Demon”

March 7, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

So Kath and I had to go all the way to St. Martin and back in time to find a New York band of distinction, GLADSHOT. We were walking into the hotel and Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill, the band’s two principals, were walking out of their room. In that friendlier way people are on vacation, we all said hello. That eventually led to us becoming vacation pals and their mailing us Maxwell’s Cool Demon, released least summer.

I missed the album then. I miss a lot early on because there’s so much new stuff and I’m too lazy to listen to it all but that’s no reason for you to go on missing this magically melodic album if you have so far.

There are terrific harmonies, hints of the Beatles, and rhythms, a bit of Stones, throughout. Yet it’s the melodic patterns, sometimes CSN and sometimes early Zombies but always their own, that take you deep into the album. That is never more apparent than on my favorite “Dog On A Skylight.”

Debbie leads off vocally and Mike harmonizes and then leads and more harmony and the warm melody swirls around you like the Caribbean Sea even as the lyrics bite on the nature of perception and despair mingled with hope.

Debbie Andrews and Mike Blaxill

Despair mingles with hope more directly and sardonically on “We Live in America.” “Build me a dream with no trace of fear” sings Mike. How appropriate to our times when I’m not sure what to be afraid of: North Korean missiles, Russian aggression in the Ukraine, ISIS insanity spreading everywhere, or pop charts topped by Beyonce and boy bands.

Pop music phobia gets treatment in “Corp Safe” where the music industry “manage(s) the filter.” In fact the corporate pop world as a whole provides a “delicate balance of distraction and fear.” Watched any “Housewives” of anywhere lately? Be afraid, be very afraid.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when it seemed the artists had managed to grab control of music and records and we wouldn’t have to suffer through industry created Bobby Vee “Rubber Ball” pop anymore. That was another ’60s-’70s dream of course. The empire struck back early and often to have us “Call Me Maybe.”

Still the rise of digital decried by many, including myself, created a world in which recordings can be made without the big labels. And sometimes still we get a GLADSHOT; although great bands can toil in relative obscurity without the “Good Morning America/People Magazine” hype machine where today we revel in Kim K becoming a blond.

Maxwell isn’t all anger, though, as the album is too poetic to lock into a single emotion. I like so much Mike and Debbie singing together on “Steady Light” as they each “wait for your steady light . . . (that) doesn’t ever fade away.”

And the blue and yellow “Star Tatoo” has a kind of “Strawberry Fields” imagery and Lennonesque irony. I am pretty sure this would have been Lennon’s favorite song on the album.

By the way, I notice they’ve been kicking The Walrus pretty hard lately. Can Lennon really have been great if he had human flaws, some of them pretty damn big, can he? Guess there have never been great artists who were something less than perfect people. Damn.

Anyway, GLADSHOT is a fine band and Maxwell’s Cool Demon will bring you in, sit you down, separate hot from cold and weave its spell. Who hasn’t wanted to have “Fun With Hydrangeas.”

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


CD Review: Vanilla Fudge “Spirit of ’67”

February 18, 2015

by Brian Arsenault

(Done as a letter to my college roommate.)

Dear Flashman,
You remember in 1967 when we were living in that basement room and the two lunatics in the room above us had those three foot high speakers so hip at the time and they played only two songs? The one they played the most of course was “In A Gadda Da Vida” but that’s another story. The other one was Vanilla Fudge’s overpowered remake of the Supreme’s hit “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Who woulda thunk it but somehow it worked, works.

So a half century goes flashing by (nice way I worked “flash” in, huh) and here’s Vanilla Fudge, or three quarters of the original anyway, back with Spirit of ’67 (Cleopatra), a whole bunch of songs from that year . Do I remember it wrong or did we spend most of our time listening to music then? It was time well spent.

I remember for sure that we weren’t sure about Vanilla Fudge, who kinda symbolized when the beer crowd took over loud rock from the acid eaters. It was bound to happen in the Land of Budweiser but unsettling nonetheless.

Started the inevitable march toward great songs by The Who becoming theme music for shitty detective shows and such.

On this album, though, brave is the word I keep coming around to. Brave to take signature songs of the era and make music of your own with them. I mean there’s millions of us boomer minds that can still hear the deep Hollywood jungle drumbeat of “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and have “miles and miles and miles” echoing somewhere in the recesses. How could you improve on that Townshend song?

Well, you can’t and for me it might be one of the least successful songs on the album. Still it’s very good with a Fudge pounding drums (Carmine Appice is a seminal American rock drummer, n’est pas?) quality that’s all over the album. You’re not surprised, I know.
And it gets better.

Vanilla Fudge: Carmine Appice, Vince Martell and Mark Stein with Pete Bremy on bass/vocals.

Early on in the album the Fudge are showing that after all these years they are a very solid, tight band. They’ve heard Cocker’s version of “The Letter” which turned a bland pop record into a screaming aching for love ode. Fudge’s version shifts from a piano rich bluesy tone to a Mad Dogs and Englishmen frantic pace.

And it gets better.

The guitar based soul of the Smokey Robinson classic “Tracks of My Tears” is for me the surprise success of the album. The yearning, broken-hearted mood of the song comes through and they pull off the harmonies and everything. Just terrific.

The Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” starts as a lounge song, a good lounge song, like when everybody stops talking over drinks all at once to listen, as if on cue. But soon they need to pound those drums and lean heavy on the organ and guitar riffs. Heck, it’s who they are. But after each chorus they sneakily take you back to the lounge.

Really, you probably don’t buy CD’s any more and listen to Pandora (I thought that was jewelry) or get individual tracks from one of those services. Whatever and however, get “Ruby Tuesday.” It’s special.

The track on the album that sounds most like their long ago megahit “Hangin’ On” is their version of “I’m a Believer.” Big orchestral intro, big, big sound throughout which makes you almost forget it was a Monkees hit. Almost. The Monkees were the only band I wanted to kill in that era, remember? Three Dog Night came later.

“Gimme Some Lovin'” Great when done by Spencer Davis. Great here and a little more r&b.
Can’t say much about “Break On Through.” I never could fully appreciate Morrison’s ‘Ain’t I sexy’ angst. “Whiter Shade of Pale” probably comes closest to being a true cover of the Procol Harum original.

“For What It’s Worth” pays tribute to Buffalo Springfield’s original with a neat military drum-beat opening. It’s more atmospheric, more threatening in a darker way, I think. But the times they may be a little darker.

The album closes with the only original song written by lead singer/organist/pianist Mark Stein — “Let’s Pray for Peace.” Peace was hard to find in 1967 but we believed in it.

Remember? Peace is still hard to find but I’m not sure many believe any more. Maybe we’re just tired.

Hope to see you again in this life.

Your friend,


An Appreciation: Remembering Joe Cocker

December 23, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

The memories are so intact. The Grease Band singing crappy falsetto behind him at Woodstock. The kickass chorus on the best damn live album ever, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Belushi coming out to do Joe Cocker with Joe Cocker on SNL.
I know it’s that time of life when that generation, my generation, the greatest generation in rock ‘n roll, is gonna lose guys. Frequently. The ones who made it past 27 are getting to be old guys now and time is implacable in its demands. Still, it hurts. There was a time when he was rock life incarnate.

Joe Cocker Tie dye singing

Some Cocker fans will tell you that early stuff when he was pictured like a fat, greasy bar brawler was when it was best, pure, raw. They’re right.

Others, a smaller more mature crowd, will tell you that the later albums of soft and soulful stuff extended his range as an artist. They’re right.

But for some of us, the crowd that was just about mad ourselves in those days, there is, was, will never be anything comparable to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Oh those Leon Russell arrangements. Oh that incomparable backing band and chorus Russell put together.

I know Cocker and Russell despised each other by the end of the tour. That’s the legend anyway confirmed in more than one story and interview. Who cares? The music, damn, the music.

Who ever had two drummers going so frenetically? (Jim Keltner anyone?) The horn section just blasting. Leon pounding the keys. And the soaring chorus. (Rita Coolidge for one.) Sizzling.

Did you think that old torch song “Cry Me a River” could be done that way? Did anyone?

Could anyone else top the originals with covers like “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Honky Tonk Women.” With apologies to the Beatles and Stones of course. But they know. They know.

And I think crusty ol’ Leonard Cohen might have shed a tear when he heard Joe’s “Bird On a Wire.” If he didn’t he should have.

The energy that’s sustained on the album is just incredible. But that was Joe. Sweat dripping, arms flailing, back arching to seemingly impossible angles. A voice edged with whisky and cigarettes.

You half expected him to be Axl Rose surly. But no. He was the friendly guy standing drinks at the bar. A humble thank you after most songs.

That was Joe. Until maybe he got tired. And the gentle side came to the fore. Those sweet songs. “You Are So Beautiful” and so on. But that was always there. Mad Dogs and Englishmen also includes a lovely cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, though he should have done the whole song and not just in medley.

There’s Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and Dave Mason’s “Feelin Alright.” Song after song.

But at the core, the madman core, is that crazy version of “Cry Me A River.” That’ll do.

(Joe Cocker died Monday, December 20 at his home in Colorado after a battle with lung cancer. He was 70.)

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.



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