Author Archives: Steve Matteo

Graded on a Curve: V/A, The Story of Vanguard

There was a time in popular recorded music history when certain record labels had a clear artistic vision or were a home for true artists. These labels—Blue Note, Sun Records, Atlantic Records, Motown, and Stax to name five—became the home of some of the most groundbreaking talents of the post-war era, primarily in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Later, labels like Reprise, Warner Bros., A&M and others became a place where musicians could begin their careers and slowly develop, eventually becoming the blockbuster artists of the vinyl album heyday of the 1970s. There are certainly many others worthy of mention here.

One of the keys to the success of these labels was the men and women that ran them or, in some cases, also owned them. Elektra Records, founded by Jac Holzman, must be mentioned. The label began primarily as a folk label, was significant in the development of world music through its Nonsuch imprint, and then became a defining label of ’70s popular album music. Independent Jazz, R&B, and folk labels in their heyday often released albums that transcended music and became culturally significant in the development of the rapid social and political changes of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Along with Elektra, Smithsonian Folkways was a major label releasing folk music.

A label that has been one of the most important and longest-lasting folk and roots music labels is Vanguard Records. Any record collection that includes a healthy amount of seminal folk music would include plenty of releases from Vanguard. Begun in 1950 by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon in New York, early on the label was the home of Eric Anderson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richard and Mimi Farina, Cisco Houston, Ian & Sylvia, Phil Ochs, Paul Robeson, and Tom Paxton, among many other artists.

Vanguard also released classical music, blues, country, and music from such undefinable artists as Sandy Bull, John Fahey, and Bert Jansch. Even as folk music waned in popularity in the mid-’60s, the label still released albums that redefined popular music from such artists as Country Joe and the Fish, Jim Kweskin, Patrick Sky, and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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Graded on a Curve:
Cat Stevens,
Teaser and the Firecat
& Harold and Maude

The singer-songwriter movement that began in the late ‘60s and blossomed in the ‘70s became one of the most dominant musical movements of that very rich era. It’s influence only seems to continue to grow and the key music of the genre holds up remarkably well.

While many think of American or Canadian artists as the dominant artists of the genre—Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Gordon Lightfoot, Carly Simon and others—some British artists were also key to the sound, particularly Cat Stevens. His album Tea for the Tillerman in 1970 became one of the most important and commercially successful albums of the era. A Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition of the album was released in 2020, along with Mona Bone Jakon, his previous album, which was also released in 1970.

Mona Bone Jakon signaled a sea-change in Stevens’s music. He had previously written and recorded very pop-oriented music for the Deram label, that was often lumped in with the then waning British Invasion sound. Mona Bone Jakon also began his relationship with Chris Blackwell and Island Records. Equally influential and as timeless as Tea for the Tillerman, his next album, Teaser and the Firecat, released in 1971, is now also available in a Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition.

This set is as fulsome as the Tea set including for starters four CDs. CD one is a 50th anniversary remaster of the original 10-track album. CD two includes 17 demos, alternate versions, rehearsals, bonus tracks, and new recordings of “The Wind” and “Bitterblue.” CD three, entitled Live On Air, UK 1970/71, includes 20 live radio and television performances, mostly from the BBC. CD four is a 12-song live performance from Montreux, Switzerland on May 2nd, 1971.

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Graded on a Curve:
Think I’m Going Weird: Original Artefacts From The British Psychedelic Scene 1966–1968

Many fans and collectors of music from the 1960s have a particularly soft spot in their hearts and minds for psychedelic music. The genre broadly encapsulates a variety of styles, yet is narrowly slotted into a very brief time period, roughly late 1965 through late 1968.

When one thinks of ‘60s psychedelia, two British groups, and specifically a handful of singles and albums they released in the ‘60’s, come to mind. Those two groups are, of course, The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Yet, when many music fans think of psychedelia from the ‘60s, American groups, particularly from San Francisco, are usually thought of first. British psyche, other than the aforementioned, are often forgotten.

Thankfully, a glorious new 5CD set, Think I’m Going Weird: Original Artefacts From The British Psychedelic Scene 1966-1968, has been released, and it will remind everyone how rich and varied the British psychedelic scene was from 1966 through 1968. This set is particularly welcome, as the only other such box set to be produced that included almost as much music as this new one, is sadly out of print. That one, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, released by Rhino in 2006, covered more years (1964–1969) and was just as lovingly produced as this set, but decided it would be cool to spell artefacts incorrectly.

The Beatles and Pink Floyd are not included on this set and they may be the only serious omissions. Also, not only was the music here wisely chosen, spanning 122 tracks and including 50 minutes of previously unreleased music, but the packaging is unbeatable, including period photographs, album and singles cover art, and a 60-page book, with an informed and entertaining 25,000-word essay. This is a package to keep one busy for months at a time and it can be dipped into for listening, reading, or just tripping out on the artwork.

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Graded on a Curve: Curtis Harding,
If Words Were Flowers

One thing the recently delayed and altered Grammy Awards made clear is that rock music is no longer on the radar of today’s pop music tastemakers and many music fans. Other than a few token nods to the genre, the awards show and today’s music charts reveal an almost total absence of what was once the ruling musical sound in popular music.

Thankfully, another genre that also was in its heyday during the ‘60s and ‘70s does seem to be going through a revival. That genre is R&B and its cousin soul music. Silk Sonic and H.E.R., while also mixing other styles with R&B and soul, were prominent at the Grammys. Groups like The Black Keys and The Roots have been exploring related retro genres with much success, and Alabama Shakes and Brittany Howard have also been scoring with their roots stew. Gary Clark Jr. has also brought a guitar blues approach to the party.

These groups and artists are just some of the more popular and well-known, and all mix different styles to create their own contemporary sound. The Black Pumas have quickly joined the elite of this revival, and Michael Kiwanuka has slowly achieved a key place in this scene. Others that have been making soul waves include Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Leon Bridges, and Yola. One more name to add to this welcome revival is Curtis Harding.

Harding released his third album and second for Anti late last year and could easily eclipse everyone mentioned here. Like Leon Bridges, he prefers a more chill vibe, and like Michael Kiwanuka, he puts out recordings that are immaculately and imaginatively produced. Unlike most mentioned here, he draws from many other strands of music, including both cool and more experimental jazz. On this latest release, there are times he seems to be tapping into What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye and the experimental, but groove-conscious side of ‘50s and ‘60s Ornette Coleman.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pink Floyd,
PULSE Restored &

Pink Floyd has been extremely busy over the past several years in releasing ambitious reissue projects. The two most talked about have been The Early Years (2016) and The Later Years (2019) mammoth boxes. Both sets are sold out, but available on the used market and fetch high prices.

As a consolation for those who missed out on the sets when they were released, or who would prefer to only have various parts of the sets, several live releases have come out in the past few years. So far, The Delicate Sound of Thunder (2019) was released on its own from the upgraded The Later Years box version, and Live at Knebworth (2021), available in full for the first time in The Later Years box, has also been issued on its own.

Both reissues, in addition to the new PULSE Restored & Re-Edited, are from the post-Roger Waters years. All three are released on vinyl, CD, DVD, and Blu-ray, except the new PULSE which is being re-released on DVD and Blu-ray. The PULSE audio reissues on CD and all-analog vinyl came out in 2018. The vinyl reissue is already out of print and commands hefty prices on the used market.

PULSE, directed by David Mallet, was originally released in 1995 on VHS, DVD, and Laserdisc. It chronicled the group’s October 1994 concert at Earl’s Court in London on its Division Bell tour. It was also released on CD/MiniDisc, vinyl, and cassette. The original CD release featured a red pulsing LED light, and the four-LP edition is also a collector’s item. The music releases were mixed in QSound to provide a 3D sound effect on two-channel stereo sound systems and the vinyl was mastered from analog tapes.

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Paperback Writer: A Beatles Book Roundup

Fans of The Beatles have no shortage of excellent new books related to the group to read these days. A slew of tomes that cover a wide variety of topics have come out lately and all are not to be missed.

Bruce Spizer continues to write and publish some of the best books on the Beatles. Along with Mark Lewisohn, he is one of the foremost experts on the group in the world. Spizer started out by writing and publishing several books that dissected the history of the group, primarily through the volumes he wrote on the record labels that released the group’s music, with an emphasis on Vee-Jay, Parlophone, Capitol, and Apple.

His books about Apple Records also covered solo recordings from members of The Beatles. These oversized editions were sturdy, hardcover books, with slick color art, heavy on detail, and truly definitive works. They are not just for the serious reader of books on The Beatles, but also for those who love beautiful books filled with a myriad of images related to the group’s recorded output. For several years now, Spizer has changed direction and is writing and publishing books that focus on individual albums and are in a more compact 9 x 9 format.

The latest book in this Albums Series is The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine (498 Productions). Like the previous editions in the series, the text gives an informed look at the music and times, with additional contributions from Spizer’s regular collaborators and fan recollections.

The books make wonderful companions to the deluxe reissue packages on the music of The Beatles that have come out since Sgt. Pepper, although this latest book works better in tandem with the respective film reissue packages. Serious fans of The Beatles will want to have all of the books Spizer has written and published on the group and keep them close to their collection of the music and films of the group.

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Graded on a Curve:
The French Dispatch Original Soundtrack

The Oscars were telecast on March 27th. Hans Zimmer won best original score for Dune, “No Time To Die” by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell won best original song. Although Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch surprisingly received zero nominations, the film’s original soundtrack album should not be overlooked.

One of the delights of the films of Wes Anderson is the music. It’s no secret that Anderson is a huge fan of the key British bands of the mid-’60s, particularly the mod pop bands of the Swinging London period. This may be partially why many of his soundtracks are released through ABKCO Records, the label that owns the London Records/Decca years catalog of the music of The Rolling Stones that covers all of the group’s 1960s recordings.

There are other sounds Anderson clearly loves, including the kind of sophisticated continental European film soundtrack and pop music sound that wouldn’t be out of place in movies from France or Italy that were made in the ’50s or early ’60s.

These tracks are all wonderful musical touchstones and add greatly to Anderson’s films by either placing appropriate period music in a certain scene, or serve as a counterpoint to contemporary action that adds a gauzy romantic verisimilitude to the film. If all that wasn’t enough, Anderson has employed on five soundtracks the music of French film composer Alexandre Desplat since Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Desplat won one of his two Oscars for best-original score for the soundtrack music he provided for Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, both animated Anderson features, garnered Oscar nominations for him.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paul McCartney and Wings, Wild Life

Fans of Paul McCartney continue to be treated to a myriad of archival releases of solo and Wings music. CDs, expanded CDs, box sets, standard vinyl reissues and expanded vinyl reissues have recently been joined by the Paul McCartney Half-Speed Mastering Series.

These are single album vinyl releases, with no bonus materials, that faithfully replicate the original album’s art and packaging and are mastered using the bespoke audiophile mastering technique at Abbey Road studios. This series has so far yielded his debut solo album McCartney from 1970 and, from Paul and Linda McCartney, Ram from 1971. The newest in the series is Wild Life (Capitol), also released in 1971.

What distinguishes this release from the previous two is that it is a Wings album. This was the first album from the group, and is credited on this reissue to Paul McCartney and Wings. That group consisted of Paul, Linda, Denny Laine, formerly of the Moody Blues, and Denny Seiwell on drums.

This is also the first album in the series that did not use the original analog tapes for the remastering process but instead used a high-resolution transfer of those tapes. It’s not clear why the original tapes were not used, but the sound here is fine, and in fact the nature of some of the instrumentation may have even benefited from a more digital approach, if that’s possible.

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Graded on a Curve:
An Alternative
Grammy Roundup

By this time of the year, the Grammy Awards would usually have been in the books. Due to covid, the awards show was cancelled, but then rescheduled in mid-January with Sunday, April 3rd as its new date. 

Although this roundup is not a replacement for the show, we present a handful of 2021 releases that, for the most part, seemed to have gotten lost in the year-end glut of critic’s faves and popular releases. One or two of the releases here maybe did get some of the attention they deserved but these are personal favorites, and all except the last LP, are reviewed here from the vinyl releases.

My Morning Jacket quickly followed up its Waterfalls II, which was released in 2020 with an excellent new self-titled album on ATO late last year. Available as a double-album gatefold package that comes with a large circular poster, it features one album in blue marble and the other in orange marble and both of which are 180-gram pressings. Thankfully, it wasn’t a full five-year wait for this new release, as it was with Waterfalls II, after Waterfalls I had come out in 2015.

The group’s gripping, dreamy, timeless and almost retro sound remains intact, as it balances rural, roots rock with trippy jams. As always, the heart of the group revolves around the pleading, emotional, heartfelt and engaging lead vocals of Jim James. There are some interesting influences this time out, including electric Neil Young on “Never in the Real World,” the loungy side of the Mark Almond Band on “Least Expected,” and even a ’70s LA rock vibe on the album’s finale “I Never Could Get Enough.” This album is yet another step for the group toward being one of the best, if not the best American band on the scene today. B+

Dean Wareham has quietly built for himself one of the most enduring and still relevant musical careers of any artist to first emerge in the 1980s. His time as the leader and founder of both Galaxie 500 and Luna alone guarantees him musical immortality, as one of the true heirs to the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground school. However, unlike some from that rarified club, he is worthy of the lineage, has gone on to make his own sounds in four distinct musical configurations and shows no signs of slowing down.

Galaxie 500 began in 1987, made only three studio albums, and dissolved in 1990. Roughly 10 years after the formation of Luna, in 2003, Wareham started recording with Britta Phillips as part of the duo Dean and Britta. He has also released two solo outings, including an EP in 2013 and a self-titled, debut full-length album in 2014 and made the one-off Dean Wareham Vs. Cheval Sombre in 2018. On top of all that, he and Phillips have done extensive soundtrack work, including for The Squid and the Whale.

As good as his previous solo album was, his latest album I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of L.A. (Double Feature), on red vinyl, in a poly-lined sleeve, is one of his best works ever. Obviously influenced by the pandemic and reflective of both political anger and disillusionment with the record business, Wareham quietly makes his point with an album of mostly self-penned songs of subtle introspection, but with healthy doses of self-effacing humor.

There are also some wonderful covers, including one from the short lived, obscure Boston ’60s psychedelic band Lazy Smoke (“Under Skys”) and a spot-on cover of “Duchess” by Scott Walker, an artist Wareham seems born to interpret. This is an album that reminds one how potent the New York music scene once was. Although Wareham cut his teeth in the hometown of his college alma mater Harvard, for decades he has made New York his home. This may be the last great New York underground rock album one is likely to ever hear. A

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Graded on a Curve:
John McLaughlin, Liberation Time and
The Montreux Years

British guitarist John McLaughlin has had an extraordinary career. Having recently turned 80, he has given mixed messages on retiring. While it seems tours of the United States may be out of the question, he will continue to play live and most likely continue to record.

McLaughlin is best known as one of the world’s foremost jazz guitarists. He co-founded the seminal jazz fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, collaborated on several albums with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia and, since the mid-’60s, recorded with an array of artists, mostly from jazz, but also from rock, world, and pop music. Two groups he co-founded—Shakti and Remember Shakti—offer fresh takes on Indian music.

His earliest forays into music, were oddly as part of the burgeoning British blues scene of his birthplace. He played with a variety of ’60s British blues and rock legends at that time, including Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Jimmy Page, Brian Auger, and Georgie Fame.

His work from that period and his prowess as a guitarist extraordinaire could have made him a rock guitar god in the same company as Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others if he had chosen that direction. If all that wasn’t enough, he played on and off, beginning in 1969, with Miles Davis, including as part of the groundbreaking and legendary Miles Davis Quintet, as well as on Bitches Brew and as late as 1989.

For roughly the past ten years, McLaughlin has primarily been playing with his group the 4th Dimension. In 2021 he released the solo album Liberation Time. Like the 4th Dimension band, this album includes Gary Husband, Étienne M’Bappé, and Ranjit Barot, along with many other musicians, including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dave Mason,
Alone Together Again

Dave Mason has had a long and distinguished musical career that began in the 1960s. His solo albums have drawn critical acclaim, spawned hit singles, and generated staggering sales. He also recorded an album with Mama Cass, briefly was part of Fleetwood Mac, and was a key contributor to George Harrison’s magisterial All Things Must Pass. For some, aside from his solo albums, he is also known as one of the founding members of Traffic and someone who puts on a superb live concert.

While many of his solo albums are excellent and some have topped the charts, perhaps his most beloved solo album is his debut effort, Alone Together, released in 1970 on the classic Blue Thumb Records. The album is brimming with Mason’s inspired compositions, with one co-written with his ex-Traffic mate Jim Capaldi. Members of Derek & the Dominoes, Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Chris Ethridge of The Flying Burrito Brothers, session drummer king Jim Keltner and many other studio aces contribute. Surprisingly, despite all the heavyweight support, the album has an organic, mostly laid-back acoustic feel. When Mason revs up his electric guitar God chops, it’s never overblown and always tasty.

There wasn’t a bad track on the album, and lucky collectors who were able to snag one of the original marble vinyl pressings were treated to something quite rare for that time. In fact, the entire gatefold package, with a fold-out of Mason, is a work of art.

While the album was released on CD many years ago, it has never been back in print on vinyl, as the master tapes were lost in the 2008 Universal Studios fire. Dave Mason has re-recorded the album, and now it is finally available on vinyl, in a faithful, updated for the 21st century, reproduction of the original package, with the addition of the vinyl album coming in a QRP polyvinyl sleeve.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Dave Clark Five, Glad All Over

The Dave Clark Five were one of the most successful and acclaimed bands of the British Invasion of the 1960s. Unlike The Beatles and many others of that time and place, however, they were not from Liverpool. The group was from Tottenham, in north London. Their big, booming, stomping, brassy and infectious sound propelled them to seven top-ten UK singles and eight top-ten US singles.

The DC5’s unique sound centered around Clark’s pounding drums, Mike Smith’s full-throated voice and wide-ranging keyboard styles, and Denis Payton’s honking sax. The group was rounded out by guitarist Lenny Davidson and bassist Rick Huxley. Huxley also played harmonica and all four members, other than Smith, supplied bracing backing vocals. Unlike most of the groups of the British Invasion, their sound did not center around guitars. They were the first British group after The Beatles to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and they were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

The group disbanded in 1970, but Dave Clark, who was the group’s manager and producer, has always curated the group’s legacy with aplomb. Among his many other activities through the years are acquiring the rights to the seminal British music television show Ready Steady Go! and, in the 1980s, he wrote and produced the 1986 theatrical musical Time.

There have been excellent collections of the group’s music on CD and vinyl, but the latest reissue is the best yet. The group’s debut U.S. album Glad All Over, originally released in 1964 and one of four albums released by the group in the U.S. that year, has been reissued on white vinyl in glorious mono, from the original master tapes from BMG.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Band, Cahoots
50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

Cahoots is the fourth studio album from The Band, released in 1971. Like the previous three albums from the group, Capitol is releasing various 50th Anniversary editions, including a Super Deluxe Edition, which we will cover here.

The album is the fourth of what must be considered the five core studio albums from the group that were the basis of their foundational mythic studio album years. The others are Music From Pink (1968), The Band (1969), often referred to as the “Brown” album, Stage Fright (1970) and Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975), the fifth, which has not received a super deluxe edition reissue thus far.

Selected songs from these five albums would also comprise the group’s seminal, iconic and acclaimed live album Rock of Ages, released in 1972, and would remain their primary setlist until their final concert at Winterland in San Francisco in November of 1976, commemorated in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. The group would release the covers album Moondog Matinee in 1973; Islands, a hodgepodge of material recorded between 1972 and 1977; and in 1977 the soundtrack to the The Last Waltz.

There would also be three post-Robbie Robertson releases from the group in the ’90s. They also were a part of three collaborations with Bob Dylan, Planet Waves (1974), the live Before the Flood (1974), and The Basement Tapes (1975), of recordings they did in 1967 and 1968 before the release of Music From Big Pink.

John Simon produced the first two albums from The Band, and their third was self-produced, but on board for that album were Todd Rundgren and Glyn Johns. With Cahoots, The Band were truly self-producing and recording themselves and it was the first time they recorded at the not quite completed Bearsville Studios, near Woodstock, New York, owned by their manager Albert Grossman.

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Graded on a Curve:
Janis Joplin, Pearl
(MFSL Ultradisc
One-Step Pressing)

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has reissued Pearl, from Janis Joplin, originally released in 1971 as an Ultradisc One-Step Pressing. One-Step packages include an album spread over two vinyl discs, playable at 45 RPM for extra fidelity. The albums are pressed on Super Vinyl, developed by NEOTEC and the uber pressing plant manufacturer RTI, offering vinyl with the quietest surface.

The key to the One-Step format is that aside from using the normal MFSL process of working from the original analog master tape recording, the album goes directly from lacquer to what’s called “convert” negative, adjusting the normal mastering process where the lacquer would go through two more steps before being pressed onto vinyl.

Pearl was Joplin’s third studio album. Her first was as part of the self-titled album from Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1967, and the second was I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, released in 1969, after she left Big Brother. The live Cheap Thrills with Big Brother was released in 1968.

For Pearl, Joplin was backed by Full Tilt Boogie, who was her backing band on the famed Festival Express tour through Canada in 1970. The album was produced by Paul A. Rothchild. All of her albums were produced by a different person. Rothchild worked with many of the most acclaimed American acts of the late-’60s and early-’70s, but he is most known as house producer for Elektra Records and for the albums he did with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Love, and especially The Doors.

Like Cheap Thrills, Pearl went to number one, but was released posthumously on January 11, 1971, a little over three months after Joplin’s death. The album’s centerpiece, “Me and Bobby McGee,” co-written by Kris Kristofferson, went to number one and was Joplin’s most popular song.

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Graded on a Curve: Almost Famous 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, Almost Famous 4K Ultra HD Steelbook

Rock music fans can have a healthy debate about what the best rock concert or documentary movie of all time is, but most would likely agree that Almost Famous from 2000, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, is the best, post-A Hard Day’s Night fiction movie ever that uses rock music as its backdrop.

By 2000, Crowe had established himself as a screenwriter and film director with films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (screenplay) and Jerry McGuire, which he wrote and directed, among other films. With Almost Famous, Crowe created his most personal movie. Music was always important in Crowe’s films. His love, knowledge and passion for music came from his years as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine during its ’70s San Francisco heyday.

He began at the age of 16 and the film’s main character, William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit), becomes a reporter for Rolling Stone when he is 15. This coming-of-age story gives us plenty of insights into the main character’s family, while also providing an authentic peek behind the scenes of the ’70s rock era.

While for the most part affectionately told and a little starry-eyed, it is still the most accurate film portrait of that heady time in music and American culture. One of the keys to the story is the role of the fictional band Stillwater and its music and collective persona, which are also important parts of this reissue. The fictitious group are played by actors Billy Crudup playing Russell Hammond, Jason Lee playing Jeff Bebe, John Fedevich playing Ed Vallencourt, and Mark Kozelek playing Larry Fellows.

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