Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Michael Dane Star Traveler & the Black Velvet Express


Black Velvet Express
Where the Stars Kiss the Moon
(Flower Records, 2010)

Musicians:
Dane Williams: Vocals, acoustic/electric/slide guitars, Ebow
Michael Fiore: Acoustic/electric guitars
Gerard Moore: Bass guitar
Brian Hughes: Drums, percussion
Glenn Workman: Piano, keyboards

Artwork: Ron Komber
"There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by. There once was a note - listen!" - Pete Townshend, "Pure and Easy"

Black Velvet Express' Michael Dane, Star Traveler is a concept album about the sci-fi adventures of the semi-fictional space-age explorer "Michael Dane" and his quest to bring peace to the universe through the power of music ("the Notes"). I say "semi-fictional" because Michael Dane is actually a conflation of the first names of BVE guitarists Michael Fiore and his longtime friend (and fellow sci-fi enthusiast) Dane Williams, who composed this musical soundtrack to compliment an original story written by Mike Fiore.


BVE's Dane Williams and Michael Fiore

Where the Stars Kiss the Moon came about, Fiore explains, "When I sat down late one night to write a song about one of my favorite sci-fi movies, Forbidden Planet." (The film is one of my personal faves as well, featuring one of the most unusual and sought-after electronic soundtracks of all time.) That song, "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon," became the title track for the subsequent CD.


Fiore film fave: Forbidden Planet (1956)

For years his pal Dane Williams - who Fiore met when Dane came to Baltimore to become part of a group called Voices, a concept band consisting of musicians from surrounding cities on the East Coast - had been saying that they should do a CD together and, after writing "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon," Fiore thought he had just the right project. A photographer friend suggested that Mike create an alter ego for the name of the band and call it "Michael Dane." Though Fiore had already settled on Black Velvet Express as the band name, he kept the idea in mind when he decided to write a sci-fi story (dedicated to his "beautiful wife Deborah," his family, and friends) to go along with his song. (The BVE CD contains a free digital copy of the story, which can also be viewed at BlackVelvetExpress.com.) More songs came - all written by Fiore save the Fiore-Williams collaboration "Lullaby Dream" - and thus the song "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon" and the story "Michael Dane Star Traveler" became a collaborative project between two friends, as well as a concept CD.


Michael Dane's ancestor: Ziggy Stardust

If the idea of a space-rock concept album makes your memory harken back to David Bowie's breakthrough 1972 album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, rest assured - it's no mistake. You see, Fiore and Williams wear their glam rock and melodic Anglo-pop influences on their sleeves, citing Bowie, T Rex, Mott the Hoople, Badfinger, Kinks, Stones, Faces and especially The Beatles (the "four Liverpool lads" name-checked in Fiore's tale as keepers of "The Notes" that once created worldwide peace and harmony) as guiding lights and mentors. "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon," which appears twice on the CD (in electric and acoustic versions), is as anthemic a song as Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and its intrepid-but-lonely protagonist Michael Dane recalls the lost-in-space travails of Major Tom "floating in his tin can" in Bowie's "Space Oddity." (Michael Dane even travels with his three dogs, though no mention is made whether, like Bowie's, they are Diamond Dogs.)


Ground Control to Michael Dane (illustration by Ron Komber)

In fact, from the very first note of this (literally) fantastic song, one cannot escape the comparison to Bowie's Ziggy-era sound. The guitar tunings (both acoustic and electric) evoke none other than Mick Ronson...and the pace, the engineering, the production - it all seems like a time capsule from 1972! (And to this glam rock fan, that's a very good thing!) But the CD cover (and accompanying liner note and story illustrations) evoke an even earlier era, with Ron Komber's artwork recalling '40s and '50s sci-fi pulp covers (thematically more in tune with Fiore's original inspiration, 1956's Forbidden Planet).


Ron Komber's pulpish cover art

Okay, let's just to back-pedal a bit...all the way back to the '80s. You see, I hadn't kept up with Mike Fiore (shown below) since the days when he drummed for The Accused, an early '80s New Wave outfit that regularly headlined at The Marble Bar and Baltimore area clubs.


Michael Fiore circa 1980

Under leader David Cawkwell, The Accused were kind of a big deal at the time and were one of the few bands playing the Marble Bar circuit that actually released a record, 1980's acclaimed 4-song EP on E.S.P (shown below).


"The Accused" EP. Clockwise from L-R: Mark Morgan, Kraig Krixer, Mike Fiore, David Cawkwell

Sometime around 1983-1984, I worked with Accused bass player Mark Morgan (who's now a professional photographer) at the Music Liberated record store he managed in the basement of the old Towson Center Mall (where other musicians, like Montgomery Clift-lookalike Mark Renner of Boys In the River, also worked - Mike Fiore may also have worked for Music Liberated at their North Plaza or Saratoga Street locations, but I just can't remember through the lazy haze of memory lapse); that was really the last time I thought about the Accused until the unfortunate passing of original Accused guitarist Kraig Krixer in January of this year.


Batter Up: Kraig Krixer Memorial Mixer pixers

At the memorial get-together that followed Kraig's death, countless friends and musicians who played with him turned up at Perry Hall's Batter's Box on Belair Road (Krixer's favorite watering hole) to pay their respects, including his former bandmates David Cawkwell and Mike Fiore (seen below).


David Cawkwell and Mike Fiore @ Kraig Krixer Memorial

Through the wonder of Facebook, I kept in touch with Mike and he sent me a copy of Where the Star Kiss the Moon to see what I thought. I was surprised to see he wasn't listed as the drummer, but as the guitarist - and that he's pretty good! Who knew? In fact, the whole CD is top-drawer and professionally recorded (kudos to Jason George of Towson's Nice Package Productions). Along with Dane Williams' fluid lead vocals, twin guitar strummers "Michael Dane" are amply supplemented by journeyman area musician Glen Workman (Crack the Sky, Howard Markman)'s atmospheric, ethereal keyboards, Brian Hughes' crisp percussion and Gerard Moore's rock-steady bass backing.

The Songs:

1. Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (M. Fiore)
"Push the button, open the door/Yeah, I know what you're looking for
You've come to this forbidden place/Out here in deep dark space
I'll be waiting here for you/Where the stars kiss the moon

Please don't take my love from me/It's all I have, can't you see?
There's a monster inside my head/You can't hide in your silver sled
I'll be waiting here for you/Where the stars kiss the moon

It's been such a long, long time/All alone inside my mind
Way down here in deep dark space/You must leave this forbidden place
I'll be waiting here for you/Where the stars kiss the moon"

The inspiration behind this song is clear in the line "There's a monster in my mind" for it recalls the "alien monster of the mind" hatched from Dr. Morbius' subconscious that wiped out all life on planet Altair IV in the film Forbidden Planet (itself a sci-fi rumination on Shakespeare's play The Tempest).


"There's a monster in my mind..."

This is a lovely song that deserves to be reprised (which it is later on track 5). And I love the crisp electric guitar solo in the middle eight that is like a restrained Ronson riff.

2. Simple Love Song (M. Fiore)
This mid-tempo rocker with the boss backbeat and plentiful guitar soloing caught my girlfriend's immediate fancy; when she heard me listening to the CD, she asked "Who's this?" When I told her, she replied, "It's really good - I can move my hips to this!" She added she could probably hoop her way through a low-impact aerobics workout to the record!

3. Distant Lights (M. Fiore)
"Running away in the dark/Always afraid of getting lost"

Glenn Workman's keyboards are put to their most effective use on the lilting "Distant Lights" while the standout sitar-ish guitar motif recalls session man Reggie Young's sitar solo in B. J. Thomas' hit "Hooked On a Feeling"! (Oh, in case you're wondering, Young - who worked with Elvis and a long line of country artists, including The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) - also played the sitar solo on The Box Tops' "Cry Like a Baby").

4. When Heaven Comes (M. Fiore)
"When Heaven comes, it's gonna come hard - Bang! Bang! Baby, bang bang!" A straight-ahead 4/4-on-the-floor rocker, and my choice for the "hit single." If "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon" is BVE's "Ziggy Stardust," then "When Heaven Comes" is the album's "Suffragette City."

5. Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (acoustic) (M. Fiore)
Reprised because it works just as well acoustically..a slower tempo, more mellow, more reflective feel. Just as "Rock and Roll Suicide" is the calm-after-the-storm following the rock-out of "Suffragette City"'s on Ziggy.

Watch "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (Acoustic)" (YouTube)


Watch "Where the Stars Kiss the Moon" (Acoustic Demo version)" (YouTube)


6. Lullaby Dream
This guitars-only instrumental closes out the song cycle on a peaceful, uplifting note. I like how the guitars interplay and play tag with one another...the second guitar motif reminds me of the start of the Big Star song, "Watch the Sunrise" (from 1972's #1 Record) and I almost expected to hear the ghost voice of Alex Chilton chiming in.

And thus ends the song cycle - and Michael Dane Star Traveler adventure - that is Where the Stars Kiss the Moon.

Be sure to check out BVE's web site (www.BlackVelvetExpress.com), which allows fans to view the lyrics and register for a free cover art print, view the lyrics. The website also provides song samples and the ability to purchase the EP thru CdBaby.com., iTunes Rhapsody, and other digital distributors.

Finally, BVE's web site concludes: We hope that people, dogs and aliens get as big a “Bang Baby” out of this release as we had making it. Join us and take a star filled journey through the “Distant Lights.”

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Black Velvet Express Videos:
"Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (Acoustic)" (YouTube)

"Where the Stars Kiss the Moon (Acoustic Demo)" (Charles Funk Video)


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Other reviews:
"... I love the throbbing groove and spooky slide ... It sounds as if a hybrid of 60’s San Franciso Ballroom Rock and some Pre-Punk Snarl from NYC was tossed into a Spin Cycle with 70’s London Glam..." - Michael Molenda, Guitar Player Magazine

***
Where The Stars Kiss The Moon is an excellent concept EP/album containing several alternative rock/pop gems. The opening title track is a song of real beauty, a moving story about love and loss "out here in deep, dark space." Based on the classic 1956 Sci-Fi movie Forbidden Planet, it's a perfect marriage of lyrics and music with a haunting melody you won't forget (love the eerie intro!) It's later reprised as an acoustic version with an equally haunting sound and feel. If you love Bowie's "Space Oddity," you should love this one, too.

"Simple Love Song" and "When Heaven Comes" are straight-ahead rockers with blistering guitar solos, throbbing bass lines and pounding drums ("Heaven," especially, has a fierce, driving intensity) while "Distant Lights" has a darker and more pensive mood and feel to it (love the new intro and arrangement on this one, along with the eastern-flavored sitar-like solo).

"Lullaby Dream" is the closing track. It's an instrumental using guitars only which shift back and forth between G and D major, with layered chordal harmonies and a clean, sparkling solo - a pretty gem of a song with an uplifting vibe - a good note to end things on.
- heliumbound


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Related Links:
Black Velvet Express (Official site)
Black Velvet Express (Facebook)
Black Velvet Express (MySpace)

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