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.