Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Who Hits WISH-TV Holiday Airwaves

Did you ever see the faces of the children,
They get so excited
Waking up on Christmas morning
Hours before the winter sun's ignited.
They believe in dreams and all they mean
Including heaven's generosity.

As a young reporter in 1970 I asked my favorite cameraman to shoot film of his young kids descending the stairs and arriving at the Christmas tree surrounded by presents on Christmas morning. He grumbled about having to set up lights and work during his day off, but agreed to help. I took my well-worn copy of the four-sided rock opera by The Who into the station and dubbed off the opening lyrics to “Christmas,” which we played over the film footage to start the six o’clock news that night.

Normally I would not have been producing the newscast but on that holiday staffers without kids subbed for those who had families. So I had the freedom to do something a little different. The result was a “cold” opening to the show, no headlines, no logo, no teases…just The Who and the kids. I am sure my news director, watching at home, choked on his egg nog when he saw it. Everyone at the station seemed to enjoy it and catch the spirit, but I suspect most of them did not know the lyrics that followed told the story of a “deaf, dumb, blind kid that sure plays a mean pin ball.”

That brief moment has become a fond memory for a couple of reasons. The two kids have grown up and have kids of their own (who are grown up). The cameraman has recently recovered from some serious health issues. “Tommy” has gone onto a life of its own: a true operatic treatment with the London Symphony, a major motion picture (Tina Turner’s “Acid Queen,” is a gem), a Broadway Play (which we saw), regular rotation on classic rock stations and finally a revival tour with Roger Daltrey.

For me the short clip was a chance to buck the system established by CBS News of forbidding the use of music over news stories. It was a policy no doubt enforced by my former professor Fred Friendly when he was President of CBS News and one that influenced the local affiliates.

It also served as a precedent for a second effort during the 1972 presidential campaign in Indiana. I produced a 30-minute special called “Plant Gate Primary” which opened with Joan Baez singing The Stones' “Salt of The Earth.” With some license we used the opening line as sort of a headline: “Let’s drink to the hard working people…Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.”

As we head into yet another campaign, the vision of Jagger and Richard still shines through.
Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter
His empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray suited grafters
A choice of cancer or polio

It was after watching that bit of film and music that my sister declared: “Frank you just want to do the news using rock and roll.” Guilty.

So Merry Christmas to all and as you ponder whether or not the first music video appeared on WISH TV some four decades ago, lift a drink to the salt of the earth and
Let's think of the humble of birth.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Music Milestones, MTV and Mr. Tony Bennett

It is hard to tell who likes milestones more: the media or the music makers but as time rolls by, there are new opportunities for both.
PBS recently aired a film by Cameron Crowe, "Pearl Jam 20: American Masters." Another 20-year anniversary for the U-2 Album "Achtung Baby" also merits a documentary about its recording sessions in Berlin airing on Showtime. U-2 did not just reissue a remastered version, they created a multi-level audio marketing experience for their fans. According to USA TODAY, at the bottom is the basic CD ($14). At the top is the "Uber" edition "in a magnetic-puzzle box that adds such bonuses as vinyl singles and Bono's "The Fly" sunglasses ($470)." In between are a double CD with extras ($30), a four-disc vinyl box ($120) and a super deluxe set with six CDs, four DVDs, 16 art prints and a hardbound book($168). Something for every U-2 fan on your Christmas list.

And who knew that MTV is celebrating its 30th birthday this year? I would have missed it if I had not seen the authors of a new book, I Want My MTV on a morning talk show. For me the music video era and MTV have been a generation-skipping phenomenon. I am fascinated by the documentaries made in the early years of all of kinds of music but by the time music marketing merged with cable television it seemed a competition for gimmicks and computer generated special effects over the words and music. MTV was an interesting chapter in modern musical history. The authors, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, point out how "Thriller" put the cable channel on the map and rocketed Michael Jackson into pop icon status. It offered a similar launch pad for Madonna (whose success is hard to imagine without the moving pictures) and to a lesser degree REM, Bon Jovi and U-2. MTV is also great business school case study. They were able to start it up because the content came for free from the record companies and they dropped the three-minute movies (or relegated them to subchannels) as soon as they found their reality shows drew bigger ratings than the music. At least they provided the platform for creating a visual music history that can live on at You Tube (if not the Smithsonian).

Finally, there is the guy with so many milestones, he could have his own Stonehenge: Tony Bennett. He's back doing (like a lot of other superstars) an album of duets (with a lot of other superstars) and it debuted as #1 on the Billboard pop charts when it was released. Although it will not be until next year that Tony can celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his first album, we hope he will still be going strong and the media will mark it with much fanfare. Tony is doing music videos (with Lady Gaga) and he's getting a lot of press for his duet with Amy Winehouse in the Abbey Road Studios on "Body and Soul." On The Daily Show recently Tony paid her tribute as "the only singer who sang the right way because she was a great jazz, pop singer." He added that when he told Amy she sounded like Dinah Washington, it changed the whole session. "Oh my god, that's my god, that's who I love," Amy replied.
That prompted Tony to recall the greats he had performed with and admired over the years. "Corporations will say that's old music but to me it's not. It's gonna last forever. Nat, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, is gonna sound great 50 years from now."
Jon Stewart: And you know who else?

Audience Applause.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and Me

While Americans took a day off to shop in honor of the that now controversial explorer Christopher Columbus, the kids in Glasgow were observing a more civilized holiday: Canadian Thanksgiving. During the course of a flat party, the conversation (as my daughter later retold over the phone) turned to all the musicians Canada has produced and a sort of trivial pursuit ensued as they named as many as they could.

The list began with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Arcade Fire. And of course, Neil Young, I chimed in.

"Yes Dad,"she interrupted, "That's who the radio was playing. We were going for all the people they should have been playing."
"Don't forget The Band," I added.
"Robbie the guy who the deejay has been interviewing today," she countered. Well he is the one with a new album to plug.

The game sent me to the CD cabinet for one of my favorite compilations: "Neil Young Unplugged." (Remember when MTV gave us something besides rental house reality rants?) Recorded in 1993 with Nils Lofgren, Nicolette Larson, Spooner Oldham and others, this collection is still a great tour through Young's catalog with much of it still fresh as today's protests on Wall Street.

Well Hello Mr. Soul I dropped by to pick up a reason
For the thought that I caught that my head is the event of the season.

Neil Young's hall of fame career has put him at the crossroads for nearly half a century of rock history: Buffalo Springfield (March 8 Post: Happy 45th), Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Crazy Horse. I think my first attraction to Young was to his writing, as enigmatic and vivid as Dylan, but somehow smoother and often more languid, especially his ballads. From "Helpless"
There is a town in North Ontario
With dream comfort memory despair
And in my mind I still need a place to go
All my changes were there.

Or from "Harvest Moon" where the music carries the day for the hopelessly romantic lyrics:
Because I'm still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I'm still in love with you
On this harvest moon.

(Now try to get that tune out of your head)

Whether it is a pop hook or a country swing sound, Neil can grab you and stick in your head. (His "Tonight's the Night" album is a haunting trip into the dark side of the music world but the tunes are wonderful.) He's a songwriter the rock ladies love to cover and a rocker who can blow out the amps. I confess that I drifted away during his hard rock, loud phase but I keep coming back for a little nostalgia, a little melancholy and sometimes just a good time sound.

It's a tribute to think how many of his songs have become anthems for a generation (or two)from "Keep on Rockin in the Free World" to this one:
Long may you run
Long may you run
Although these changes have come
Wtih your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run.

When you are thinking you don't have much to be thankful for, take out some made-from-Canada music and enjoy. And while you are at it, wish happy birthday to Paul Simon, who at 70, has had a long run and is still crazy enough to try new things.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Street Music in Scotland

Each evening upon returning to our hotel in Edinburgh, we were greeted by the sounds of one of the more unusual “rock” bands I have encountered. The Spinning Blowfish include a drummer, a guitar player and a bagpiper. It was surprising how natural the three seemed to be creating a distinctive Scottish sound but with a rhythm and feel that was clearly rock and roll.

A large crowd had gathered, some with camp chairs, in the plaza of the Grassmarket section of the city, so named because it was where the cattle grazed before being sold. The street stage was also the site of many a public hanging over the centuries with those poor souls remembered by a marble cross next to Blowfish guitar case for contributions.

Street musicians seem to be everywhere in big cities these days. In Edinburgh, many were drawn by the Fringe Festival. Some to promote shows (the favorite trick seemed to be lying on on the street holding instruments in frozen poses with flyers scattered around) while others were busking where the crowds gathered on The Royal Mile. Every few hundred feet they were playing fiddles, pipes, guitars, horns and drums. In between were people juggling chainsaws, riding unicycles or doing card tricks. (I have no idea what the bearded man in the Wonder Woman outfit was up to.)

The sounds we heard on our travels varied between local light pipes and classic American rock and roll (at one pub along Loch Duich we heard the entire Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits during lunch). I suspect there is a Bagpipe Muzak Service for gift shops to keep the tourists in a buying mood.

In Glasgow the shoppers on Buchanan Street (recently re-opened after nearby areas had been dressed to look like Philadelphia for shooting scenes in the new Brad Pitt movie, World War Zed) drew more street musicians. A sax player did a pretty fair “Aint No Sunshine When She’s Gone.” Outside a subway stop we saw a fiddler who had attached a trumpet horn to his violin to amplify his sounds.

The American influence was prominent. Posters advertised an upcoming Brian Wilson show at the Glasgow Royald Concert Hall. The Oran Mar Theater (in a former church’s basement) advertised a cabaret show: A Bottle of Wine and Patsy Cline.

Back on Buchanan street, I felt sorry for a couple of tow-headed ten year olds on guitar and drums trying to be heard over a most unusual Scottish Band.

I think these guys were called ClairDonaigh but that is my rendition of their Gaelic CD title. I can report they were loud and I shudder to hear what they would sound like indoors at a bar like King Tut’s Wa Wa Hut up the street.

As for the Spinning Blowfish, I sprang the five quid for a CD so now when I am asked for the magazine ad: What’s on your Ipod? I can say: Scotland The Brave.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Bands of Battle in Scotland

Inside the ancient castle that towers over Edinburgh, Scotland, is a small chapel with stained glass windows and regimental books containing the list of names of Scots who lost their lives in wars around the world. The Scottish National War Memorial was opened in 1927, initially in honor of the 147,000 Scots who died in World War I.

Every summer for the past six decades, the bagpipers and drummers who have played the Scots into battle gather on the castle esplanade to perform the military music that can be haunting, rousing and even homorous at times. Today’s military tattoo is performed by a cast of nearly 1,000 in a temporary stadium packed with tourists drawn to the city for the theater and book festivals.

To some, military music is at best an acquired taste; to others, it is part of our cultural DNA, ingrained from years of Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades or as background to fireworks displays. Bagpipes also divide people sharply between fans and foes. There is no denying, however, that pipes and drums along with horns (and even strings) can be very stirring given the history of their roles on battlefields and at funeral services.

This year’s tattoo was surprisingly global with enough comdey to make the Disney folks take note. The first show stopper came when the music band of the Royal Netherlands Army rode into the arena on vintage bicycles, in World War I khakis, playing their instruments. Can you ride a bike and play a snare drum at the same time? While weaving in and out of crossing bicycles?

And who knew that the Brazilian Navy had a military band that included bagpipers? They were there and performed with Bossa Nova dancers in short frilly beach outfits. Not to be outdone the German Army Mountain Band from Bavaria brought along a synchronized wood chopping demonstration, four alpenhorns and an anvil (which they played).

Between musical numbers, there was a cannon pulling contest by teams from the Scottish Royal Navy and a (slightly hokey) reenactment of anti-piracy raid by sailors from the HMS Montrose.

Then it was back to music and marching, with three units from the Royal Marines who were joined by the Royal Highland Fusiliers, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and finally, the other bands from around the world for the finale: The National Anthem, Auld Lang Syne and the Evening Hymn. Then from the ramparts a lone piper played A Parting Glass across the castle heights and across the years.

As the mournful sounds died out, the massed bands struck up a rousing march-out medley led by Scotland the Brave which had everyone ready to follow William Wallace with swords drawn.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How The Vinyl LP Founded The Rolling Stones

My summer beach reading (sans sand) has taken me back in time to the late 1950s when Keith Richards and I were listening to the same twangy guitars and the voices of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and The Crickets. Young Londoners attending the Sidcup Arts College with Keith couldn't get enough of American music and status was determined by who got the first releases of blues and (country) rock from the U.S.
In his autobiography, Life, Keith talks about how he listened to Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers but especially "The Chirping Crickets" and "A Date With Elvis", whose backup bands were Keith's first music heroes. Listening to a YouTube version of Elvis doing "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," you can hear the progression from Texas-Memphis twangy guitar to "Sweet Virginia" (Exile on Main Street).

Even more interesting is Keith's wonder at the power of the music on vinyl:
"I’ve learned everything I know off of records. Being able to replay something immediatley without the terrible stricture of written music, the prison of those bars, those five lines. Being able to hear recorded music freed up loads of musicians that couldn’t necessarily afford to learn to read music, like me.
It was the emancipation of music...It surely can’t be any coincidence that jazz and blues started to take over the world the minute recording started, within a few years, just like that...I'don't need this paper, I'm going to play it straight from the ear, straight from here, straight from the heart to the fingers."

In Keith's version The Rolling Stones started at a chance meeting on a train in Darford Station in 1961: "Did we hit it off? You get in a cariage with a guy that’s got "Rockin’ at the Hops" by Chuck Berry on Chess Records and "The Best of Muddy Waters" also under his arm, you are gonna hit it off…..I realize now I’d met him once before outside Dartford Town Hall when he was selling ice creams for a summer job...he mentioned doing a dance doing Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran stuff.

In a letter he wrote his Aunt Pat a few months later, Keith remembered that his calling card was also a Chuck Berry record. "A guy I knew at primary school 7-11 years, y'know, came up to me. He's got every Chuck Berry ever made, all his mates have too, they're all rhythm and blues fans.
When Keith decided to drop in at their regular Saturday morning juke joint, The Carousel, the rest as they say became history.

I can't help wondering two things. First was this the inspiration for "I'm Just Waiting for a Train?" Second, would there ever have been the greatest rock and roll band of all time if two young Londoners, instead of carrying bulky cardboard album covers (readable at long distances) had been listening to ipods with earbuds?

There is no doubt, you'll be hearing more Keith stories before the summer (and perhaps fall) is over because this a big book with lots of great stories and a terrific read.

One final anecdote from Keith's "college" days. He talks about how Sidcup produced a lot of great pickers because the musicians went to art school to hang out together. Wizz Jones was one of the best. He got "Cocaine" from Jack Elliott who got it from Reverend Gary Davis.
“Wizz Jones was a watched man, watched by Clapton and Jimmy Page at the time, so they say.”

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Local Gem Polishes National Treasures

We recently ventured out in the summer heat to hear a gifted pianist, singer, storyteller and musicologist present a grand tour of American popular music, a kind of "best of" sampler of Jazz, Broadway and Blues. I first heard John Eaton more than a dozen years ago when one of my basketball buddies (who grew up in Plainfield, IN) invited us to hear John perform at a local community center doing a concert called Indiana on Our Minds: The Music of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael. He was as funny as Hoagy on the silver screen and his piano playing was as memorable as a Porter lyric.

On this recent night he began with "Lullaby of Birdland" and followed it with an anecdote about a gig in Georgetown when a guy who slipped onto the piano bench and started playing along turned out to be George Shearing. He introduced "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair by saying Richard Rogers hated the jazz version. Then it was Ahmad Jamal's signature song, "Poinciana," written in 1936 and debuted by Glenn Miller.

Next up was a Jerome Kern medley from Show Boat that Eaton described as "no score ever written was greater or more melodic," a view affirmed by the fact that the musical's most recent Broadway revival came eighty years after it first opened. He began with "Make Believe," and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" and by the time he got to "Ole Man River," which he slowed to a single note pace, you could feel the ghost of Paul Robeson on stage as the lyrics ran through your head.

Staying in the 1920's, Eaton made no attempt to sing Bessie Smith's version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out" but as he spoke the lyrics against the piano counterpoint, you got an instant lesson in what "talking blues" were all about. Ironic how those lyrics seem relevant today:
"So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again
I'm gonna hold on to it till them eagles grin"

Then it was a Bessie Smith version of "Empty Bed Blues" (When you get some sweet lovin,' don't tell no one else...they might get some lovin' too), followed by a Duke Ellington medley that brought the Steinway roaring to a toe-tapping finish. Eaton and bass player Tommy Cecil had given us a great musical ride.

Eaton ( has done public television shows on George Gershwin and Duke Ellington and his Smithsonian Conert Series have aired on public radio. In his introduction to the "Indiana" CD, Gary Burton described Eaton's work as "imaginative interpretations...and the keyboard wisdom of a true expert in the genre."

In another tribute to American pop music, Bob Edwards aired a July 4th interview with Philip Furia author of a number of books on Ira Gerswhin, Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer.
He has also written American Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Sounds like the perfect beach book.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Capitol Fourth: Motown on The Mall

In Washington, D.C., when someone says, "Bring in da funk, bring in da noise!" it usually just means Congress is back in session. But this Fourth of July weekend, when the people took over the mall for fireworks and the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, it was the real thing. This year's tribute to Rhythm and Blues featured some founding fathers (and mothers) of the modern music era. For me the main attraction was The Funk Brothers, another group of studio musicians who have shed the phrase "back-up" and become their own act, show band and even documentary film (with award-winning sound track).
Assembled in Detroit's Motown studios starting in 1959 they played for everyone that Berry Gordy invented or produced: The Temptations, Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, et al. They were introduced as having played on more # 1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined. Numbers aside, the music they created has become part of our cultural DNA, from 45s to film soundtracks to television commercials. All they had to do was to hit the opening chords to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the packed tent ooohhed and aaahed in anticipation of listening pleasure. The dance floor was jammed for hit after hit, from "Heat Wave" to "Dancing In The Street" and even audience tryouts for "My Girl" solos because everyone knows those lyrics.
Watching tourists and baby boomers boogieing in the 94-degree heat made me wonder if the Park Police had some ambulances idling nearby because "there aint no party like a Funk Brothers Party cause a Funk Brothers Party don't stop."

Earlier we caught a set by the legendary doo-wop group, Sonny Til's Orioles. There are no original members left from the Baltimore days but this group would make the founders proud the way they carry the musical mantle of being the "first" R & B vocal group. Dressed in matching light blue leisure suits (a basic jumpsuit-pajama style that seemed appropriate for a hot July day) they sported gray beards and bald heads. But when they launched into the Orioles first hit, "It's Too Soon To Know," recorded in 1948, it gave new meaning to the word ageless. It was as if their bodies had changed around their voices which still sounded as fresh and young as we all once were. They too had us up dancing with hits like "Baby Please Don't Go," "Mother-in-Law" and "Crying in the Chapel." Their show ranged from a song written during World War II, "Why Don't You Write Me" to Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There."

We also sampled a few songs by Shirley Jones and the Jones Girls and Nat Dove and we stuck around for a glimpse of Swamp Dog (aka Jerry Williams) a Virginia native who quit his job as an A&R man for Atlantic records (Patti Labelle, the Drifters and Gary U.S. Bonds) for a solo career that produced what The Washington Post called "the fiercest, funkiest album the world still has never heard," Total Destruction To Your Mind. The title track opens with these lines:

Sitting on a cornflake
Riding on a rollerskate
Too late to hesitate or even meditate.
Always looking up what's down,
They've come to get me from the lost and found.
But believe me I'm feelin fine
To the world I toast some wine,
I do total destruction to your mind, mind, mind.

Swamp Dogg did not disappoint, appearing in a velour suit the color of lime green sherbet with matching fedora and tie.

It was great day for listening to music that not only made history but made you tap your feet and smile.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Clarence Clemons: The Big Man Leaves the Band

I have been wondering why the death of Clarence Clemons has hung over me like a dark cloud. Every few days, there is an obituary about some music pioneer or rock and roll sensation who has died, the passing of a generation. But this event was somehow different and I have been looking back for answers.
As a fan of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band since before he was on magazine covers I have marveled at how his music has evolved, remaining thought-provoking and entertaining for decades. When Clarence brought his one-man horn section to the band, it was not just the straw that stirred the drink, it was more like a Waring Blender that mixed up the music to produce a new sound. From the guitars and drums and harmonica of folk rock, a big band sound emerged that produced the blockbuster album Born to Run.

The cover art for that gives the clue to the chemistry between the two front men: Clarence made Bruce laugh. I think he also could keep Bruce on an even keel even as he skyrocketed to superstardom. You just got the feeling that Clarence did not put up with bull---- from anyone (not even Bruce).
It seems in retrospect that Clarence's towering presence gave Bruce the cover he needed to keep experimenting and reworking his musical styles. His "partner, his friend" could be both a sounding board in the studio and the go-to guy on stage when the band needed a kick-start. And I wonder if back in the early days of playing in little seaside bars, that a lot of drunks thought twice about messing with the skinny lead singer when Clarence was on stage.

More recently Clarence became the big finish to Bruce's lengthy musical introductions of the E Street Band members ("and on bass, the man whose mother was a talent and whose father was a talent...Gary Tallent). He didn't have to remind the audience what instrument Clarence played, he just slid on his knees in front of the high priest in the temple of soul and rock and roll.

It was a good thing for Bruce and the rest of us that knee trouble kept Clarence from making it in the NFL and even though his passing seems to mark the end of the Glory Days for the rock and roll generation, his music can still bring back those memories.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What makes a great song? John Hiatt on Treme

A recent episode of HBO’s Treme featured a “live” performance by a dapper John Hiatt of his song, Feels Like Rain, which resonates in the post-Katrina setting of the show.

Down here, the river meets the sea
And in the sticky heat I feel you open up to me
Love comes out of nowhere, baby, like a hurricane…
Feels like rain.

Almost as good as the cameo was the discussion that followed between Annie, the violin busker and her new mentor, Harley Watt. Annie says, “Good song.” Harley says, “Great Song.”  For those who have not been watching Treme, Annie is trying to boost her career by writing songs but without much originality. Harley has taken her to see Hiatt for educational purposes.

As they walk home,  Harley asks what was great about it.
Annie: The melody is simple, like the blues. It’s not locked into those chord changes.
Harley: Yeah, the music gives you what it can. Keep going
Annie: The lyrics not so simple. I mean it starts off and he’s singing about the weather, the river , the sea and you realize it’s New Orleans. But then he isn’t singing about New Orleans. It’s really love he’s got on his mind.
H: Okay
A: And love is not simple. It’s a little dark sometimes  and a little dangerous—like New Orleans.
H: (laughs)
A: And he’s riding it out, no matter how rough it gets. He’s like us, now, after the storm.
H: Hiatt wrote that song 20 years ago darlin.' You still had training wheels on your bike and nobody had ever heard the name Katrina.
A: Really?
H: That’s what makes it a great song.

One of the ironies here is that Harley is played by a grizzled, grandfatherly Steve Earle, a pretty fair country singer-songwriter in his own right. The other is that it takes a television series by David Simon to give John Hiatt his due after all these years. (After some twenty albums, he’s gotten several Grammy nominations but no trophies.)

Hiatt, who was born about six blocks from where I went to grade school in Indianapolis, is one of those artists who is more revered by musicians and singers than the general public. It’s almost easier to list who has not covered his songs than the myriad of people who have: Bonnie Raitt (Thing Called Love) to Eric Clapton and B.B. King (Riding With the King) and Roseanne Cash (The Way We Make A Broken Heart) to The Neville Brothers (Washable Ink).

Wikipedia lists the following musical genres for Hiatt: Americana, folk rock, country, blues and Heartland rock.  I would add comedy because he can turn a funny line (“We rolled that Camaro like a cowboy cigarette”).
Wikipedia does not include the fantastic collection of covers that Rhino released in 1993,
“Love Gets Strange.”  It would be the perfect starter album for Annie’s songwriting 101 course.

Batten down the hatches
But keep your heart out on your sleeve
A little bit of stormy weather,
That’s no cause for us to leave...

Feels like rain
(Copyright Lillybilly Music 1988)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Pat Donohue: From Wolftrap to Lake Barcroft

It is not often that you get to put a face and fingers to a voice and guitar you have been listening to on the radio for years but we got a chance over the holiday when Pat Donohue stuck around after his Prairie Home Campion shows at Wolftrap (and NPR) to do a house concert in our neighborhood.

Stepping out of Garrison Keillor's shadow and into the solo spotlight with his acoustic Martin (Pat Donohue model), Donohue showed his virtuosity as a finger picker (former national champion) and his versatility in doing everything from touching ballads to hot Memphis blues licks and rambling Beatles medleys.

But what had me and the rest of the 80 guests rolling with laughter were his witty takes on modern life.
His lament that "I get the blues when I excercise" is prompted by his baby's complaint, " I think you're sweet but when I hug you my hands don't meet."  Nevertheless, "she's got me running, biking, running hiking, jogging everywhere I go...until I ain't got a muscle that's not in pain."

Or take the Irish Blues in which the verses are done in somber march time. "My brother's a priest, my sister's a nun and my wife  is against any measure of fun. So I go out and get the job done."
 But the chorus is a rollicking Irish jig.
"And last night...we really got going.
And last night the Guiness was flowing.
The singing and dancing I couldn't refuse.
I woke up this morning with the Irish Blues"

His paean to Chet Atkins is a tribute to how he and every other guitar picker in the world learned at the master's knee:  "I'm just sitting in the basement, stealing from Chet."

Donohue has done more than learn(or steal) from Chet and it was mesmerizing to watch him play from the second row of the living room. I was struck by the fact that his fingers were not long and delicate but looked more blue collar. They didn't "dance" across the strings, rather he massaged them at a speed that seemed both impossible and effortless.  Whether he was pounding through the Statesboro Blues or skipping through Banks of the Ohio, he could coax an amazing range of sounds from the guitar, mixing and matching styles seamlessly.

If his satires were rib tickling, his love songs were heart breaking.  Take this sample from Too Gone:
"If I was less, less like I am and more like I could be
I would still have her love, the sweetest I've ever known.
But it's too late...and it's too bad....she's too gone."

On the new CD (from Bluesky Records) his guitar is complemented on that song by Joe Savage on the pedal steel. Rich Dworsky (another PHC regular) adds piano and organ. The CD is called Nobody's Fault and each time I listen to it, Mr. Pat Donohue from St. Paul, Minnesota hits my music sweet spot six strings from Sunday.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Still Swinging at Seventy...Bob Dylan to Paul Simon

Amidst all the hoopla over Bob Dylan's 70th birthday, the mainstream media is having a field day with the phenomenon of the stars of the sixties pushing into their seventies and there does seem to be a trend (can a USATODAY poll be far behind). Unlike the proverbial old soldiers who were supposed to fade away at war's end,  rockers have apparently found the fountain of youth in music. You can't pick up a newspaper or turn on a radio station without learning of a new album or a reunion tour.  Stevie Nicks (67) has a new CD as does Emmy Lou Harris and Aretha Franklin.  The Beastie Boys  are only in their forties but got this headline in the NYT, "The Droll, Buzzing Grandpas of Rap," for their new album.
The Cars  are on what the Wash Post describes as "yet another won't ever happen rock reunion tour" to back their first new album in 24 years. Even Donny and Marie are reuniting.  Robbie Robertson is back off the sidelines with a new CD and at the top of the retro heap is the music master of the last 50 years Paul Simon.
Something is happening here but we don't know what it is do we Mr. Jones?  Maybe the reunions are happening because as Steve Earle said recently,  "I'm no longer as addicted to being right as I used to be." Maybe once you get to be a star, your fan base is big enough to sustain any CD you release. Maybe we are longing for the good ole days when the music was memorable and we thought it could change the world.  Maybe global warming is making everyone mellow and able to get along with other large creative egos.
In some cases, musicians are going back to their roots and American music roots for inspiration and new takes on old standards. Dylan has been doing this off and on for years. Willie Nelson relaunched his career with tunes from my parents youth. (I recently heard Jeff Beck's version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and realized that since I knew all the words, it was a perfect instrumental. When I came across Jerry Lee Lewis doing it, I was blown in another direction.)
In other cases, the musicians do indeed have something new to say. Booker T. Jones (minus the MGs) has a great new album out, The Road From Memphis, but then he's only 66 (and he studied music at Indiana University).

Speaking of music and higher education, a belated tribute to the late Bob Flanigan, one of the founding members of the Four Freshmen, a group he helped create while an undergrad at Butler University(and you thought it was just a basketball factory). The group produced some 50 albums and 70 singles and was cited as an early influence on Brian Wilson (see our post of April14).  Flanigan  retired after nearly forty years of touring but the group continues. It's hard to quantify the impact the Four Freshman must have had on other harmony groups as well as individual singers who came of age during the 1950s.  Here's a link to the AP/IndyStar obituary:

In closing, a couple of memorable quotes. From Cyril Neville, performing with Tab Benoit and Anders Osborne in The Voice of the Wetlands All Stars on their new CD, Box of Pictures. Admitting he has drawn fire in the past from criticizing government action that has destroyed Louisiana wetlands, he allowed:  "I can't bite my tongue cause my soul will bleed."

Finally this quote goes out to all the race fans (from Indiana and elsewhere) on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. Marco Andretti, who started his final qualifying run just 50 seconds before the closing gun went off, said after he  finished:  "I was either going to put it in the show or in the wall."

Some good advice for aspiring musicians and the rest of us. Happy Memorial Day.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Randy Newman on The River: From The Kingfish to "Treme"

News and video about the  flooding of the Mighty Mississip sent me to the vault for my favorite Randy Newman songs and I came away with several thoughts:  How prescient he was back in the early 1970s; how many of his themes still resonate today.

It begins with "Louisiana 1927" (the year of the record flood that prompted fifty years of levee building).

What has happened down here is the winds have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it starts to rain
Rained real hard and for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline. 

No one blamed Global Warming then but that was about the time, Henry Ford was putting a car in every garage.
How about this from "Kingfish:"

Who took on the Standard Oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised to do?

Does that remind you of any recent Congressional hearings?

Randy's  biting classic, "Rednecks" begins with seeing Lester Maddox (ax handles for sale at the front door and former Georgia governor) and ends with the rousing chorus:
We' re Rednecks, We're Rednecks
And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're Rednecks, We're Rednecks
And we're keeping the niggers down.

I'll leave it to your imagination as to which part of the political spectrum would fit that label today. In between this anti-hymn to southerners is Newman's scathing indictment of the plight of the Northern "Negro" who is free to be put in a cage in Harlem, south Chicago, east St. Louis, Hough, Fillmore and Roxbury.

The writers on HBO's Treme gave a nod to this song by referring to the local boys:
(We got) college men from LSU. Went in dumb. Come out dumb too! Well at least they can play football.

The tunes of the seventies about the times of the thirties bear a scary resemblance to the prospects of the twenty-teens.
I know it may sound funny
But people here are running out of money
We just can't make it by ourself
It is cold and the wind is blowing
We need something to keep us going
Mr. President have pity on the working man.

Some liner notes on this album:  Ry Cooder plays electric guitar, Russ Titelman electric bass and Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Bernie Leadon provide background vocals.

Randy Newman was born with a musical silver spoon in his mouth (his uncles included Hollywood film-score composers, Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman) but few in tinsel town have done as much with their musical genes as Randy has.  Not only has he won five Grammys, three Emmys and two Oscars (while being nominated 20 times!) he is an official Disney Legend.  While you probably won't find his albums on sale in The Magic Kingdom gift shops, they should be required listening for every poly sci 101 course.  As the election season heats up and the rivers keep rising, take a listen to some Randy Newman. The lyrics may make you gnash your teeth or make you laugh or make you wonder why but the music will soothe your soul.

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The President say, "Little fat man isn't it a shame
what the river has done to this poor cracker's land.
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're trying to wash us away
They're trying to wash us away

Lyrics copyright Warner Brothers Records 1974

Friday, May 6, 2011

Col. Pickering Rescues the Music Room

What's this? It's available on vinyl?  Ask your parents.

----John Stewart plugging the Foo Fighters new "album"

You never realize how old your audio equipment is until you try to replace part of it or get something fixed. Take the turntable pictured above. I can't remember when I got this Technics (D303) but at the time it was state of the art and Richard Nixon was President.  Its virtue was reliability (no belts to break) and it runs as smoothly today as it did when I bought it. So the other day when I heard static instead of the opening song on Surf's Up, I  began checking all the connections, thinking a cable had come loose or the receiver was developing a bad channel.  After tightening everything I could, I dropped the tone arm again, only to watch it slide across the record.  Lifting up the tone arm to check the needle for dust, I was surprised to see there was no needle left, just the cartridge. (Industrial diamonds are not for ever.)

I knew this was not going to be an easy fix. The last time there was a needle problem, I drove to the mall and a store called Needle in the Haystack, picked out what I could afford and stuck it into the cartridge. Of course today you can buy cartridges on the internet or you can ship a turntable to a repair shop. (Click here for instructions on packing your turntable.) But I no longer trust myself to wire a cartridge properly and had no idea what to replace my ancient Ortofon with (its model number no longer shows up). Maybe it would be cheaper just to buy another turntable but who buys a turntable today and how do you know what your getting if you pick up something used on Ebay?

The internet turned up no local repair shops (one place I called thought I wanted to replace the turntable in my microwave); the yellow pages showed nothing. My neighborhood list-serve  yielded one suggestion (phone no longer in service) and one offer of their vinyl collection. Finally the nearby Appliance Fix-it shop gave me the number of AAA Electronics. Voila! They worked on turntables.

Turns out this was the same little shop where I had taken my VCR  several years ago. It is  stacked floor to ceiling with TVs, flat screens, speakers, cables, and a lot of dust.  George had bad news: no needles. But he did have a cartridge. So for $85 plus labor I was back in business with a Pickering in the tone arm.

A funny thing happened last night when I decided to test it out with some well worn favorite albums. I heard new music. Turns out I had not milled the grooves into muddiness and filled them up with dirt and grit over the years. I just needed a better quality pickup. Pickering! By George, you have got it!

I have never been one who gets all syrupy over audio quality the way reviewers like to wax eloquent about the fruits and nuts they taste in wine. But I have heard the light. At the risk of sounding silly, it was like hearing the different instruments stacked one on top of another. I imagined that each recording track had its own geologic level in the groove. It was sound quality that I had not heard in my Bose systems or on XM radio.  Oh, this is what deejays hear in their headphones! But I was listening through the same ancient KLH 17 speakers.

Until now, I had relegated vinyl recordings to the nostalgia category. Now I see why musicians want to record their new work on this old format. And I fear that I will once again start buying music on those big black discs.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Did Picasso Invent Rock and Roll?

This question popped into my mind during a recent tour of the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond while listening to commentary from art historians and jazz musicians and noting how often he portrayed musical instruments and musicians.  "Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso in Paris" tracks the legendary artist through more than eight decades of work with nearly two hundred paintings and sculptures as well as black and white photos (silver gelatin prints) and printed materials.

Piccasso (and Georges Braque) explored what became known as cubism, confounding fellow artists and the larger world of popular culture at the turn of the 20th century.  As one commentator said, "Just when you think you know what follows, he fools you." Another noted that Picasso moved  from one personal artistic period to the next and from one medium to the next because he was always fighting convention, always seeking to reinvent himself and his art.  The exhibit included "Man with a Guitar" (1911) and a three-dimensional wall hanging (part sculpture, part painting) in which Picasso bent and folded sheet metal and then painted it.

The Violin, among other pieces, helped me see the process of disassembling the components of an object then reassembling them to create a new reality with ties to the original image or object.
From the program guide: Rather than representations of reality, these works offered alternative realities where the perceptions of the world  were presented as an assembly of simplified volumes, shifting planes and transparent  surfaces.
Offering alternative realities seem to me to be the essence of art, whether it is writing words or interpreting music.

The cubist instruments like Man with Clarinette also showed the inherent playfulness in most of Picasso's work (the war images are something else). It's easy to picture him offering his latest guitar painting and laughing at the visitor's surprise when it is unveiled.

At times during the audio tour, musicians compared Picasso's evolution to the improvising of Jazz and there were pictures of the artist in Paris cafes surrounded by musicians. I haven't discovered if Picasso played an instrument but it is clear from his many paintings of guitars, banjos, violins and pianos  that he loved and revered music and the ability to play it...his instruments seem like modern religious icons (or a protest against the sacred icons that dominated the history of western art?).

Picasso was always pushing boundaries and fighting against limits (and oppressive regimes). He fancied himself as a matador (in a marvelous self-portrait in the collection) and  a rebel who was determined to do things his own way and wait for the world to accept it as the next big thing in art.

The sleepy music and culture of the post war fifties needed  a creative spark to get the fires of the sixties burning.  It is perhaps too big a leap to prove but I have a feeling if you asked Picasso if he caused the modern revolution in art and music, his response would be "Mai Oui!"

The Picasso exhibit in Richmond runs through May 15  (  The Museum of Modern Art (NYC) is currently offering its own show, Picasso Guitars 1912-1914 through June 6, 2011 (www.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Brian Wilson, Smile and The Sandbox

 Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for most people is seeing nature at its finest, but I saw it as the chance to see the sites that the Beach Boys immortalized in their surfing anthems of the sixties. For me and a lot of other land-locked teenagers, this was the promised land: sun, surf, sand and California Girls.
I was reminded of my infatuation with surf music while recently watching a documentary on Showtime, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. Although initially wary of having to slog through all of Brian's emotional troubles again and be reminded of how we all have aged so much since the days of writing Surfers Rule on school blackboards, I found a heartwarming comeback story about a man whose peers revere him still as a musical genius.

The film opens with a quote from Bob Dylan, "Brian Wilson...that ear...Jesus, he's got to will that to the Smithsonian." On camera, Elvis Costello compares him to Gerswhin, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers.
By 1963 the Beach Boys had 28 Top 40 hits and nine consecutive gold albums in three years. The next year, Brian's nerves forced him to stop touring and he stayed home to experiment with his music and drugs.

One theme of his career (and the film) was the continuing competition with The Beatles and others. "I wanna do something Rubber Soul, " Brian announces. The result, Pet Sounds, knocked the music industry on its ear.  Jimmy Webb: " of the most significant albums of our generation."
Andrew Loog Oldham:  "How did he do that?"

In 1966 he teamed up Van Dyke Parks to start work on the various elements that would be part of his "teenage symphony to God," a musical journey that would touch people in basic ways and make them smile. The concept album was no secret and Capitol had a publicity campaign and cover art ready to roll out in early 1967.
Nor were the antics of Brian a secret as people read how he built a tent to work in and filled his living room with sand so he could enjoy playing the piano barefoot. (Reminded that he wrote Heroes and Villains and Surf's Up there, Brian admits, "yeah it was a great sandbox.")

While the world waited and was teased by pieces like Good Vibrations, things fell apart slowly. To record an song celebrating the element of fire, Brian made everyone wear toy fire hats (a delightful bit of vintage footage and stills) but when a nearby warehouse burned to the ground that night, it spooked him. Worse still, when the touring Beach Boys returned from London,  they balked at providing the voices to the symphony. "Mike (Love) hated it,"  Brian recalls. After months of bickering, Van Dyke Parks, tired of trying to explain his lyrics, quit. A number of other close friends and musicians did Brian's nervous breakdown. It was The Beatles turn to blow people's minds as Sgt. Pepper became the new standard of musical excellence.

"Finish Smile? You might as well try to raise the Titanic."
                                             ---Brian Wilson
Although we know how this story ends, its retelling is both dramatic and touching as the cameras trace how Brian put his own band together, how they gradually drew him into rehearsals for a live concert in London (which he announced before the pieces were finished, let alone sequenced), how Darien Shanaja put all the old tapes onto his laptop so Brian could mix and match at will, how Van Dyke returned to help with new lyrics, how people from around the world flew in for the premiere, how Sir Paul McCartney hugged and kissed him backstage and then joined in the standing ovation at the conclusion of Good Vibrations.

The film has plenty of faults, it is too long and some of the shooting and staging is gimmicky and it uses live concert footage from recent shows to illustrate the music Brian was writing back in the '60s which can be confusing.  But as a story about a musical work with a 37-year gestation period and to hear Brian say, about finishing Smile, "I felt like the demons had left me...It healed my soul very much," it moves you as the music intended.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hipping the kids to Arcade Fire

After some youthful attempts to spot music trends and display enough hipness to avoid being tabbed as square, I have reconciled myself to a life behind the curve, content to listen to the old stuff because I like it and not worry about catching the latest wave. I guess I realized the ultimate truth  of Judith Viorst's classic poetry collection: It's Hard To Be Hip Over 30 and Other Tragedies of Married Life.
My daughter, with whom I have much in common musically, did her best to fight this fossilization by peppering me with this question as we listened to the car radio: "Who's playing now?" Eventually, she returned to the sanctity of her earbuds and the music of her day.

So it was with some pleasure that during this past year, I was able to spot a trend (or a group) that I thought stood out from the crowd and thus could win a lap in the ongoing hipness race, at least with her.  While channel surfing, I came across a motley band playing this loud, exuberant yet very lyrical music in concert on HD Net.

 Attracted by the music, I stayed glued to the set in an effort to figure out what the hell instruments they were playing and who they were. In additon to two drums, two (and often three) violins, they had a hurdy-gurdy and  a siren,  which if done properly is a great way to pump up the energy of the crowd and the music.

Shortly thereafter, friend Elizabeth (my daughter's age) was visiting from Montreal and when I asked if she had heard of them, she said "Of course, they are great."  That made my day coming from a young woman who plays violin in symphonies and swing bands on several continents.  She immediately brought me a copy of Arcade Fire's Neon Bible which cemented my affection for their music (even if I did have trouble deciphering some lyrics) because they were having fun and it was fun listening to them having fun.

But, here's the rub. My daughter had never heard of them when I told her the story about Elizabeth. One for me. Turns out, things got better because Arcade Fire was headed to Glasgow and she wanted to know if she should pluck down  her precious pounds for a ticket. I said go for it, she ended up on the concert floor within cellphone camera range and quickly jumped on the bandwagon.  Thus another music note was added to the family folklore. (And Arcade Fire went on to greater glory at the Grammys.)

Jessica, who took these photos in Glasgow, was the subject of an earlier post (January 24, The Dream Question) about her rendezvous with the crew of the Mountain Stage radio show when they arrived in Glasgow for the Celtic Connections Music Festival and she got to hang out backstage.  The concert they recorded with Mavis Staples and others is airing this week on Mountain Stage stations around the country. They don't appear to stream it live from their site but I found excerpts through

And finally:
 First Nixon, Now Dylan
The Washington Post has a story today about the peripatetic troubadour who was apparently willing to omit songs from his playlist in order to get his passport stamped in Mandarin. For an old guy, he has an amazing knack for staying in the spotlight. Here's the link

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From The Rolling Stones to Tree Farming

Rock and Roll History is built on some interesting musical pillars and I met another one yesterday. Chuck Leavell was here during cherry blossom season to talk about his new book, The Rolling Stones, the blues and to tickle the ivories at the National Press Club for  a handful of reporters.

Leavell, in a grey suit and black sweater, sporting curly white hair and trim white beard,  seemed to be a figure more from an Atlanta country club than the world of rock bands. Perhaps that’s because between sessions and tours, he’s a gentleman tree farmer in Georgia,  an environmental advocate, author and entrepreneur--as comfortable with Mick Jagger as with Sen. John Kerry.

He began by describing  how he got started in music--listening to his mother play piano and noodling around on his own until at age seven he announced to his mother: “I want to be a musician when I grow up!”  Her response: “Now honey, you know you can’t do both.”

Inspired by Ray Charles and the sounds of Memphis soul, he made his way to Macon, Georgia and Capricorn Records, landing a job in the re-invented Allman Brothers Band in time to record Brothers & Sisters. Next it was his own group, Sea Level for five years and a lot of time as a studio musician. (His current work is with Martina McBride and John Mayer.)

In the early 1980s, he got the call from The Stones and has been touring with them ever since, often serving as “music director” to set up playlists with Mick. He can be heard on Steel Wheels, Voodoo Lounge, Stripped and most other recent Stones' CD's.

Leavell seems almost as passionate about the environment as he is about music. Growing a Better America is his third book about conservation and sustainable growth.  He was on the board of the American Forest Foundation for six years and is co-founder of the eco web site Mother Nature Network (www. which, he proudly noted, has just passed the EPA web site in terms of hits.

He insists he is not anti-growth but says, “The choice is between rapid, rampant and reckless or smart, strong and sustainable…something that is possible only if we all choose to do it.”

Here are some other tidbits on the environment.
On the loss of farm and forest land: "Across the United States we are losing more than 2500 acres of land a day to development…and half is covered in impervious surfaces."
On the value of inventing cellulosic fuels: “If we could make that kudzu into basic fuels, we could save the world."
On global warming: “By 2030 there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.”

Here are some music notes.

His new CD, Back To The Woods, a tribute to pioneering blues piano players, is almost finished (Keith Richards plays on How Long That Evening Train Been Gone) and is set for release in August.

Next year marks the 50th year of the Rolling Stones and while he does not know if there will be a new tour,  “I certainly hope so, I am ready when they are.”

On Keith’s autobiography: “I loved it, read every page. I was there and even I learned some things!”

With that he sat down at the piano and ripped off a rendition of  Down The Road that seemed to channel a little Jerry Lee Lewis.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ace Ventura Meets Bishop Tutu: Documentary Review

One of Hollywood’s most successful film directors returned to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia this week to present his latest work, a documentary exploring, among other issues, the connections between spirituality and science, wealth and happiness, and  how one goes about changing the world. The film, titled simply I AM,  is the best documentary production I have seen since this year’s Academy Award winner, Inside Job.

 Its creator, Tom Shadyac, is one of the more intriguing characters I have ever run across. With long dark hair down to his shoulders, a puckish sense of humor and the self-effacing  style of a monk who has renounced millions in search of the meaning of life, he charmed a crowd of more than 800 high school students, their parents, his classmates and curious neighbors. “Last time I was on this stage, I was playing a toilet,” he began, adding that he later used the talking toilet idea in a Jim Carrey movie. Long before he directed such hits as Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty and The Nutty Professor, he was cracking wise doing the daily PA announcements at Stuart and playing basketball.  From a start as a joke writer for Bob Hope, he became the Hollywood Golden Boy with  huge estates, private planes and limousines. A serious bicycle accident and a severe concussion changed everything for him.

As he describes in the movie, he and a crew set out to try to answer two questions: What is wrong with this world?  What can we do about it?  His interviews with philsophers, theologians, authors and scientists are woven together with a cornucopia of visual images chronicling the history of western civilization and the evolution of modern science along with its influence on popular culture and politics.  Since he is a feature film director, the music for the sound track is lush and a wonderful counterpoint to the images.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn and others offer some fascinating insights about the human character,  the science behind how animals and people are hard wired to relate to each other and how many believe our lives are controlled more by our hearts than our brains.  I don’t pretend to be able to evaluate the science or the religious philosophy (he includes all faiths) but I found it thought provoking and uplifting. I was amazed at what scientists are doing to measure and test the powers of human emotion.

Among the interesting tidbits:  Charles Darwin mentioned “survival of the fittest” only twice in Origin of the Species. He used the word, “love,” 90 times. The film raised powerful questions about how Darwin’s work has been used and distorted to justify many subsequent social models, including the culture of greed that drives Wall Street and the politics of capitalism.

As one of the interviewers said, in effect, if we don’t discover new ways to live on the planet, we won’t be around in two hundred years. And from Bishop Tutu: The truth of who we are is  that we belong.

Tom Shadyac is a religious person and he is messianic about his mission to create change. But he is careful not to prescribe a faith, preferring instead to describe his message as “not about saving the world, it’s about personal revolution.”   You can find out more showtimes at his website:
(Note there is a religious film out with a similar title)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

News and Notes

The ways in which traditional rock and roll (that used to be an oxymoron) permeates the mainstreams of our culture continue to intrigue me.  Take for example, the Washington Ballet company which recently presented two works. The first was Trey McIntyre's "High Lonesome," a family portrait using the music of Beck.  In the words of The Washington Post's reviewer Sarah Hazlack, McIntyre  is a hip choreographer "'s clear that the company is comfortable with his uber-contemporary style." The second was Christopher Bruce's "Rooster," which she described as a moody tribute to The Rolling Stones.  She lamented that "Bruce's choreography seemed to call for a lyrical quality that was largely absent.  Mick Jagger's mournful vocals in Ruby Tuesday begged for a more tender, woeful treatment, and the hypnotic "Paint it Black" needed a dash of brooding anguish." The critic reports other major dance companies have presented works using songs by George Harrison, U2 and Radiohead.  Certainly a different take on Dance Music.

Record Producer Joe Boyd (Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, REM) has come up with a new twist on how to give a memoir legs....take it on tour. According to a March 9 profile in The Washington Post, he has teamed up with Robyn Hitchcock  to combine reminisces from his book, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, with reprises of songs from the glory days when he produced and managed London's UFO Club.

Heard an interview on Bob Edwards radio show(XM) from another aging songster who has written a memoir.   Charles Fox, who no doubt made a bundle doing theme music for such TV series as Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football and Happy Days as well as 100 film scores, was also a pretty fair music composer. His book is titled, Killing Me Softly, after the song he co-composed, Killing Me Softly With His Song for Lori Lieberman which became a monster hit for Roberta Flack. He is also credited for the Jim Croce hit, I Got A Name.

Speaking of Roberta Flack, it was touching to see footage of her playing at a bar on Capitol Hill as a young woman during a special that WETA did a few years back on Washington in the 1960's. Another interesting clip was of The Beatles arriving at Union Station in Washington before their first concert in the U.S., the day after the Ed Sullivan show.  When Jimi Hendrix played at the Ambassador Theater in DC,  two British Groups were playing at DAR Constitution Hall.
Herman's Hermits were the headliners so the opening act, The Who, got done early enough for Peter Townshend to catch Jimi's second set.

One other media note. Happened across a radio program about music the other weekend.  Sound Opinons, produced out of  WBEZ in Chicago does a mix of R&R history and new reviews. Our local NPR outlet has buried it on an HD channel but previewed the  show one Sunday night on the regular frequency(they did an interesting history of Elektra Records).
Two former newspaper rock critics, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot have been doing this for some years on commercial and public radio stations. I plan to check them out at

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy 45th

The nameplate pictured here is among the rock and roll detritus that I have inherited, collected, kept over the years. Too valuable to trash (it's cast iron) and not easy to sell (imagine the shipping cost), and  hard to display (did I say it was heavy?) it has hung around like so many collectibles. It embodies Neil Young's age old question: old enough to repaint or young enough to sell?

The comet-like career of Buffalo Springfield came to mind last week when a deejay for for the Fordham radio station ( mentioned  that the group had been founded on March 3, 1966 (surely there's a plaque somewhere) and several of the original members were working on a reunion album. This prompted some nostalgic thoughts about what great music they made and what might have been if Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Jim Messina and Dewey Martin (along with co-founder Bruce Palmer and Doug Hasting) had been able to keep it together for even a handful of years.

At the start they had the makings (and talent) of a supergroup. Their (modest) hits with Buffalo like "For What's It Worth," "Sit Down I Think I Love You" and "Kind Woman" are still played today and often get used in films and documentaries about the1960's and '70's. The late Lillian Roxon in her Rock Encyclopedia said one song on the first LP was "a milestone." ""Go and Say Goodbye," written by Stills in 1965, was the first country-folk song and a prophetic look ahead to the later emergence of country rock."

I would have  loved to have been a fly on the wall (or a roadie) when they toured with the Byrds and the Beach Boys; talk about the boys on the bus! Before a third album could be released, they disbanded with most of them carving out future Hall of Fame careers. Stills and Young joined Crosby and Nash before going on to solo careers (and several reunion gigs). Jim Messina and Richie Furay founded  Poco which, among other things, blazed a trail the Eagles later rode in on.

Besides the persistent question about what might have been (Bruce Springsteen says: "The trick in keeping bands together is always the same: Hey asshole, the guy standing next you is more important that you think he is."  RS 2/5/09), is  how they got their name.

Legend has it that the Canadians (Young and Palmer) met the Americans (Stills and Furay) during a traffic jam in Los Angeles.  Some accounts talk about an asphalt steam roller at the scene made by Buffalo Springfield. The company came about at the turn of the century when the Buffalo Pitts company merged with Kelley Springfield and the steam engines that once worked in the farm fields went to work building roads.

As someone who painted a steam engine one summer, I guess I'll keep my Buffalo Springfield nameplate awhile longer to remind me of simpler times and better music....because nowadays Clancy can't even sing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Aging Rockers--Part 1

Picked up a Rolling Stone the other day and was struck by graying of its content. This is in sync with the aging of the Baby Boomers who made it a success back in the 1960's and '70's when it was a counter-culture music mag that made Hunter Thompson and gonzo journalism part of our history.  Once a subscriber, I lost interest as it moved into the eighties, hip-hop, rap and Hollywood celebritology. Lately, I have been returning for the gutsy reporting of Matt Taibbi and others.

RS 1122 (Jan. 22, 2011) had an uncanny respect for the elders of the music business in both large and small ways...some surprising and some part of the routine music biz news.

First off was a  feature on Robert Plant out on tour with Band of Joy, putting Led Zeppelin reunion gigs behind him and prowling music shops across the South for real roots music on vinyl and cassettes. Of course his reinvention produced last year's award winning duet with Allison Krauss, Raising Sand.

Elsewhere was a brief book review about the Zeppelin's '75 tour and a story about how Warner Records is opening up a recently discovered archive of 70's memorabilia that includes old photos of Zep and Cream and a Dylan contract from 1974 and a Ray Charles contract from 1952 (Wouldn't you like to read the residual clauses from those?).

Then there was a nice column about John Mellencamp's "new" tour of "old" classics and rarities, plus a plug for his movie in the works.

The 2011 R & R Hall of Fame Class might make the cover of the AARP magazine: Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, Tom Waits, Darlene Love and Dr. John. A full-page obituary was a nice tribute to Captain Beefheart  and his creative quirkiness.
Short snippets and photos highlighted the Kennedy Center Honors for Sir Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson; and how Crosby, Stills and Nash have split from producer Rick Rubin after two years of work recording cover songs. Aretha Franklin sadly is battling cancer.

Are the editors pandering to boomers who have the money to buy the magazine or watch the premium cable shows that dominated the advertising pages? Or is it a tribute to the fact that the music of the good ole days is aging well and its creators are still productive?

Speaking of good ole days, a couple of interesting music specials are airing this week on PBS (check local listings).  Tonight at 8 pm (EDT) it is a tribute to Motown at an "In Performance at The White House" taped last week. John Legend and Jamie Foxx led the parade of cover artists and Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy join in music and commentary (as does the Pres).

Tomorrow night at 9 (EDT) "American Masters" looks back at singer songwriters who got their start at the legendary "Troubadour" club in Los Angeles. Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and Carole King are among those who swap tales (and we hope) play some music.

Remember these and other music shows, such as "Austin City Limits" and "Soundstage," as Congress contines to cut budgets for the arts  and other so-called discretionary funding.