Saturday, December 29, 2012
The turn of the calendar tends to make one reflective and I am no exception. Now seems an appropriate time to note some things for which I am thankful at the end of 2012.
I’m glad Little Richard is still going strong at age 80 and still taking credit (with more than a little justification) for inventing rock and roll.
I’m glad that Keith Richards made it to 69 although as ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser noted, Keith has “looked 69 for the past thirty years.”
I’m amused that my local big box discount store was offering books for Christmas titled, “Bruce,” “Rod,” “Mick Jagger” and “Who Am I?” by Pete Townshend.
Over at Barnes & Noble there was “Kenny Rogers,” “Love is the Cure” by Elton John, “Duran, Duran," coffee table books from The Stones and Led Zeppellin and yet another life story from Willie Nelson: “Roll Me Up & Smoke Me When I’m Gone.”
Just when I think I’ll be spending more on books than on music all sorts of sixty somethings come out with new and interesting work...from Bonnie Raitt to the Beach Boys to Joe Walsh (“Analog Man”), Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the new co-pilot of Air Force One, Senator Springsteen.
I was thankful to find an actual record store alive and well and living in Indianapolis. I happened across Luna (www.lunamusic.net) which has been in business since 1994 and at its present location (52nd and College) for six years. I could not do its collection of vinyl albums or CDs justice before being summoned to dinner but I did purchase an album to suport the cause: Big Star’s “#1 Record.” I loved the fact they recorded my sale in a spiral notebook in pencil (how High Fidelity is that?) and promised myself a return trip.
I came across Big Star and Alex Chilton in the Oxford American’s annual Southern Music Issue a few years ago. I am thankful they have survived embezzlements, bankruptcies and office scandals to deliver their fourteenth music collection on CD. This year’s compilation celebrates the music of Lousiana from Louis Armstrong to Nathan and The Zydeco Cha Chas (www.oxfordamerican.org)
Finally I really want to thank the people who have read my musings over the past two years and commented or encouraged me to continue. You have motivated me to keep listening and learning. Happy New Year!
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Those of you who live outside the Washington Beltway may have missed how all-a-twitter the city's poobahs were on a recent weekend. In this case it had nothing to do with the dalliances of four-star generals or those begging for alms at the base of the fiscal cliff.
No the big event was The Kennedy Center Honors, a made for television event that somehow manages to assemble media stars and politicians to bestow life achievement medals, raise some money for the KenCen and often put on a good show because it is edited down for the broadcast on CBS.
If you thought politics makes for strange bedfellows, this year's list of honorees gives new meaning to how opening the door to musicians and comics makes the term bizarre seem inadequate.
Just listing the designees this year was enough to get the President a laugh at a White House reception. Here they are: Ballerina Natalia Makarova, actor Dustin Hoffman and blues great Buddy Guy, plus late night host David Letterman and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
Mr. Obama couldn't resist noting this motley crew "had no business being on the same stage together." When he took note of Zeppelin's history of trashing hotel rooms on tour, he concluded, "So it is good we are meeting in a place where the window glass is three inches thick."
What redeems the selection process (and the show) is the artists who show up to do the honors. Morgan Freeman introduced Guy and performers Tracy Chapman, Jeff Beck, Beth Hart and Bonnie Raitt.
For Letterman, it was Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Jimmy Kimmel. Hoffman's career was presented by Robert DeNiro and for the big finish, Jack Black came on to praise the Zeppelin. Musical tributes followed from the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock and, finally, Heart, doing the classic, "Stairway to Heaven" (backed, according to The Washington Post,by "a giant choir wearing bowler hats.")
The Post also reported the Guy tribute ended with an audience sing-a-long of the Prez'go-to theme song, "Sweet Home Chicago."
Set your DVRs for CBS on December 26 so you can check out whose rubbing elbows on the red carpet in D.C. (Meryl Streep & Hillary Clinton?)
A couple of other programming notes. We caught an edition of Austin City Limits the other night featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples. Talk about music history! When the announcer said this was ACL's 38th season, I realized how much we music lovers owe to public television.
And for those (HBO) paying customers, they got their monthly subscription's worth in November with "Crossfire Hurricane." This combination of Rolling Stones' history and concert performances was, as they say in the UK, "brilliant." It did not rotate as most HBO films do but I suspect it will resurface again. If not, drop on by because I am looking for an excuse to watch it again.
Saturday, December 1, 2012
Last month marked the 90th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s birth in Indianapolis. On a recent trip I discovered that Kurt’s spirit and legacy were alive and well and being celebrated in a small building that resembled the hardware stores that bore his family name and where he worked summers.
Although I never met him, we shared some common experiences and family friends. He wrote for The Shortridge Daily Echo (our high school’s classic building was designed by his family firm of architects…he was there with my aunt) where I was the sports editor my senior year.
He had such respect for my father’s infantry service that he wrote a wonderful blurb for Wendell Phillippi’s military history, Dear Ike: "It is the best, authoritative, personalized book on World War II I have read." This from the man who brought you Slaughterhouse Five. In a sense that was typical of Vonnegut, playing down his accomplishments and playing up the life and work of his fellow Hoosiers.
Watching videos of his friends in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library you get a sense of what growing up Indiana meant to him. Morley Safer talks about a New Yorker who never lost a sense of where his roots were. My family friend Maije Alford Failey whose new memoir recalls her days at Shortridge High with Kurt, We Never Danced Check to Cheek, tells how he loved the irony of visiting Crown Hill Cemetery, not to visit his family burial plots, but to note the proximity of Hoosiers John Dillinger and James Whitcomb Riley (the children’s poet). The subtitle of Slaughterhouse Five was “The Children’s Crusade.” Indeed, my skinny father in 1940 looked like a teenager.
The point of this post (without a musical connection except Vonnegut was a bard of the boomer-rock generation) is to encourage your support of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (www.vonnegutlibrary.org.)and his ongoing campaigns against war, book banning and hypocrisy.
His public legacy is housed in a small brick building in the shadow of the Indiana State Capitol and memorials to the Civil War (the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Circle is now the world’s largest Christmas tree), World War I & II and the national headquarters of the American Legion. Of these memorials, his is the smallest and most underfunded but (with no disrespect to those have served their country in uniform), the one with passionate followers and perhaps the most important message.
On a Friday after Thanksgiving, it was heartening to find people from around the country comparing favorite Vonnegut novels…he was amazingly prolific…and watching others enjoy his artwork, Army insignia and a manual typewriter in the two-room tribute to him.
It seemed inadequate (his papers are at the Lilly Library at Indiana University) and unassuming...which he would appreciate...a footnote to history and a portal to his amazing work and insights.
Vonnegut fans come in many genres…science fiction, politics and Indiana characters in the middle of the twentieth century. While I enjoy all his work my favorites are the stories he based in my hometown, my high school, my friends’ lives. In those he displayed his journalistic skills, his empathy and his ability to capture reality that Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain and others have used to preserve the American way of life.
Paul Simon hit a nerve when he wrote: “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”
Kurt Vonnegut told their stories.
Morley Safer's Farewell Sketch: "And so he went."
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
The Rolling Stones, along with some feedback from friends, got me thinking about the way rock and roll has become interwoven into the fabric of our lives. The Stones’ started things off Sunday morning at Starbucks (where The Who was piped over the sound system). There was Mick staring at me from The New York Times Arts section in a vintage 70’s costume. When I got home, he and Keith and Ron and Charlie were smiling at me (sort of) from the cover of The Post’s TV guide. They had been dialing up folks from Paris to promote their documentary, “Crossfire Hurricane,” opening on HBO November 15 (as well as their book, new CD and arena concerts). Fiftieth anniversaries are golden and the “boys” in the band are still raking it in.
The anecdotes from friends included stories of a summer job in California and nights on the beach listening to Dick Dale and The Del-Tones and of breaking an embargo to play the latest single from the Young Rascals at WERK radio in Muncie, Indiana. Both stories had been prompted by an email or post and I realized how often old friends and I used music to reconnect, share old times and participate (again) in a common experience. This seems more prominent this year as we mark the half century point for the Beatles and Beach Boys as well as the Stones and others (The Who is in town this week on its Quadraphenia Tour, Pete Townshend has his autobiography on bookshelves and Roger Daltrey spoke at the National Press Club.)
Music fans love to debate cosmic questions (is it art?) and make endless lists (desert island discs) but seldom do we step back to see how large the forest has become from all the music trees that have developed since the early 1960’s. For our parents, the common cultural experience was World War II. For the post-war baby boomers, the predominant cultural experience was the influence of rock and roll music. Far more than television or individual historical events, it has been the common thread that so many of us now share.
How else to explain the longevity of the super groups? Or a governor who prides himself on the number of Springsteen concerts he’s been to? Madison Avenue figured this out years ago which is why rock anthems drive television commercials (“Like a rock!”), why movies have used CD collections to replace dialogue, and why you can’t go to a Home Depot or a Safeway without listening to a string of favorite oldies.
In Jon Pareles’ excellent NYT story, Keith sums up the phenomenon of the band in what could be an explanation of the impact of rock and roll on our lives.
“Once we get behind our instruments, there’s something bigger. The sum is greater than the parts. There’s just a feeling that we were meant to do this, we have to do this, and we’re just following the trail.”
So the next time you are debating whether to buy the boxed set of Paul Simon’s 25th anniversary of "Graceland" or the boxed set of 14 classic Beatles albums on vinyl (with 252-page hardbound book) ask yourself this question: What would Margaret Mead do?
Saturday, November 3, 2012
A brief mention of a Young Rascals reunion concert on an XM radio program sent me deep into my archives and back down memory lane. As a summer intern for The Hartford Times, I got a backstage pass for their concert August 24, 1967 and a byline for one of my first music reviews:
Young Rascals Thrill Fans
All they see are lights—red, blue, green, yellow—changing constantly. Their fortune producing magic runs through a wire. They are the Young Rascals.
Twenty-four hundred people could see them, under the flashing lights, and twenty-four hundred people were turned on by their electronic New Jersey soul music Wednesday night in the Bushnell.
With girls shouting their names whenever the din diminished slightly, the four cats from New Jersey kept Hartford girls in 42 minutes of ecstasy with a medley of their hits.
Sustained by the driving Hammond organ which Felix Cavaliere dances across with both hands and feet, they opened with their first hit “Good Lovin” and followed it with “Grovin” and their current hit, “Girl Like You.”
(On the “lilting, dreamy Grovin”) Felix …leaned over the organ and sang gently into the mike. At several points he raised his arms over his head in a mannerism that looks like a cross between a signal and a religious ritual.
The review goes onto to describe how a groupie had thrown herself at Eddie Brigati backstage, how much drummer Dino Danelli was a dead ringer for Paul McCartney and how Gene Cornish demonstrated his guitar “virtuosity” on the group’s finale, “Kooks.”
This…opened with Felix’s organ at ear-splitting levels and went up from there. The 30-minute piece moved quickly into a jazz form (with each taking solo runs)…The long and beautiful improvisation proved tedious to much of the audience but its originality demonstrated while their singing was at times weak, they will be around for a long time as musicians. The crowd applauded wildly, however, when it was over. The Rascals are still theirs.
The callow reviewer, clearly infatuated by his chance to be backstage, was only partly correct in his forecast. The Rascals broke up in 1970, but their music does live on via classic rock radio. "Groovin" still evokes a wistful, warm summer of ’67 vibe, as does their hit from the next year, “A Beautiful Morning.” And their role in bringing a form of “blue-eyed soul” into the mainstream earned them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
A couple of interesting trivia notes: The original foursome first played together as members of Joey Dee & The Starliters of Peppermint Twist fame. In 1982 Dino Danelli joined Steve Van Zandt’s Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.
It was Little Steven who brought about the reunion concert with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $123,000. Once Upon A Dream, described as combination rock concert and Broadway show, is scheduled for December 13, 14 and 15 at the historic Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. It will be their first appearance together in 40 years.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
The moments of fame for my alma mater, Wesleyan University, have been fleeting and often for accomplishments outside academia. Dana Delany and Bradley Whitford (a newly elected trustee), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Joss Whedon (Buffy) have cast some Hollywood luster.
Then there is the sports trivia department. “Which college has produced two NFL head coaches?” Answer: Wesleyan University for Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini.
And you may recall this scene from an episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” last season. The subject was Liz Lemon’s new boyfriend who is trying to raise money for a gourmet hot dog wagon in New York City.
Jack: You know, he probably went to Wesleyan.
Liz: You mean the Harvard of Central Connecticut?
Now Wesleyan (the first of some 37 similarly named schools founded by the Methodists in this country) is getting a newly burnished reputation for its graduates making big names and solid careers in the music business.
This current wave probably began in the mid 1990’s with the success of folk and alt-country recording artist, Dar Williams who has toured with Joan Baez and Patti Griffin and whose work prompted The New Yorker to describe her as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters.” She was followed by Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls who created a performing style described as punk cabaret and pop-new wave singer Santi White whose stage name is Santigold.
Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser began playing guitar and keyboard in a dormitory courtyard for their classmates. Five years later, as MGMT, they were named a Top Ten Artist to Watch by Rolling Stone. Two Grammy nominations followed and in today’s measure of success, You Tube Views, their catchy tunes and psychedelic videos are monster hits. One video for “Kids” shows nearly 40 million views and “Time to Pretend” lists 27 million views.
Their classmates at Wes, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez chose the route of rap and performing as the group Das Racist had similar success via the internet with their first hit, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”
The other newcomers, including Bear Hands and Francis and the Lights have combined to give Wesleyan newfound clout in the pop music world. In 2009, The Village Voice headlined an article: “The Wesleyan Mafia: How a Connecticut liberal arts school became the epicenter of surrealist Brooklyn pop.” (If you have heard of someone by the name of Rihanna, it is because Wes alum Carl Sturken discovered her for his company SRP Music.)
Among those who have helped put Wesleyan on the map of American music was John Cage who did two stints as an artist in residence. The sixties also produced John Perry Barlow, co-author of many Grateful Dead hits, and Darius Brubeck, one of the legend’s sons. That decade began with four Wesleyan folk singers who, as The Highwaymen, rowed that boat Michael was in all the way to #1 on the Billboard Charts.
That decade also produced a garage band with perhaps the best moniker of all time. Uranus and the Five Moons was what today we would call a great cover band, able to knock out the hits of the Stones, Chuck Berry, and the Rascals along with blues riffs from BB King and Paul Butterfield. It was music you could dance to and they would play as long as there was beer left in the keg. I am sure that much of my hearing loss was inflicted while listening to them in fraternity living rooms but mere mention of their name brings back some fond memories. To travel to campuses across New England, they bought a 1955 Cadillac hearse, a real measure of rock and roll success.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
There are a lot of things I will not miss about the end of summer: 50 days of temperatures at 90-plus, power outages, mosquitos or a case of poison ivy. But I will miss the free summer concerts in the park. As a kid, I used to go with my grandparens to Lions Club Park in Zionsville, Indiana. Now they are just down the street and the best music deal around.
Mason District Park (named for George Mason, the Virginian who came up with the idea of a Bill of Rights) is only about ten miles from the White House and two miles from where Lincoln reviewed troops during the Civil War. In those days it was a farm. Today, about 120 acres has been preserved for nature trails, athletic fields, sports courts and playgrounds and a small ampitheater with benches for about 150 people and room to picnic.
Saturday mornings it is home to music and puppet shows for the kids but three nights a week in summer, the venue hosts music from jazz and swing bands to zydeco and blues, folk and rock.
Many of the groups are local which brings out their loyal fans and prompts a lot chatting from the stage. When some of those like Last Train Home have gone on to national stages, the return to Mason Park is a homecoming. Other performers who live near here, like Tom Paxton and Robin and Linda Williams, make it part of their regular circuit, perhaps as a payback to fans who pay good money to see them at local club and in larger venues. Or maybe they just like the intimacy of a small place under the stars where a Tom Paxton can talk about his grandkids and then sing “The Marvelous Toy” for the one millionth time. Or because the band members can dress like the audience in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals. Or the comfort knowing that the aging boomers in the audience will get their historical references and joking asides.
It’s also a place to showcase new material as Robin and Linda did with tunes from “These Old Dark Hills,” including a beautiful break-up ballad, “Arizona” that grabs you with this simple chorus:
We don't hear much news from Arizona
She said she'd be back in the fall
But it's warm and sunny in Sedona
And I don't think she'll be coming back at all
Everyone likes to perform with Robin and Linda (especially Garrison Keillor) and on this evening, they had two amazing musicans. Jim Watson, a veteran of the Red Clay Ramblers was on bass and the fiddle player down from Vermont was Dr. Chris Bashear, a full time veterinarian. (During one long guitar tuning break, he cracked, “Don’t make me start talking about heartworm diseases!”). That segued to their song about a favorite pet, “ Tessie Mae,” which ends on this tribute to The Band’s Levon Helm.
That Bessie girl he once knew
Tessie she sure sounds like you
But Levon had you pegged it seems
Cause Tessie, you're a drunkards dream
You mend me when I spring a leak
You defend me I don't have to speak
Like too many people with good things next door, we are guilty of not taking enough advantage of these concerts but we got to more this year and finished off by discovering another local group that specializes in Celtic music, The Ocean Orchestra. Led by composer and arranger Jennifer Cutting on keyboards and accordions, the group came came dressed as pirates for the evening. That led to Steve Winick’s hilarious sendup of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” as a “A Buccaneer Piratical.”
Our neighborhood music is one of nine summer series sponsored by Fairfax County Parks (plus one drive-in movie site). The concerts are supported by private funds, local businesses and donations at the door. But our taxpayers dollars bought,built and preserve the parks where we get to play in.
So as the day get shorter and colder, I will remember singing under the starts along with my neighbors and Tom Paxton,
And here's to you my ramblin' boy
May all your ramblin' bring you joy
And here's to you my ramblin' boy
May all your ramblin' bring you joy.
Saturday, September 1, 2012
On a dusty pew in a vestibule
Sits the Devil playing pocket pool
He’s waiting for the next poor fool
Who forgot that it was Sunday
Whenever I hear a John Prine couplet I never know whether to laugh or cry. Usually I can do both because he is the Zen Master of musical irony. John’s abillity to tug at your heart strings and tickle your funny bones was on full display during the recent evening when he shared the concert bill with Emmy Lou Harris.
Prine doesn’t so much re-invent himself for a tour as he re-tools his sound. This year it is a spare acoustic take provided by David Jacques on bass and Jason Wilber on guitar and mandolin. Looking a bit like nineteenth century undertakers in dark suits, they played serious sounds to accompany’s John’s repertoire of classics.
Here’s a lyric sampling from the evening:
Humidity built the snowman
Sunshine brought him down.
He voted for Eisenhower
Cause Lincoln won the war
Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us we'll forgive you
We'll forgive each other till we both turn blue
Then we'll whistle and go fishing in heaven
Prine can move from sublime to ridiculous faster than he can change guitars and that was highlighted in his duets with Emmy Lou. After they did the raunchy, rocking “In Spite of Ourselves” (She gets it on like the Easter Bunny/ He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays), they crooned the classic, “Angel from Montgomery.”
Prine completely brought the house down as he battled his way through the hysterical, “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian,”
The steel guitars are playin’
While she’s talking with her hands
Gimme gimme oaka doaka
Make a wish and wanta poka
Just reading this song (www.cowboylyrics.com) will crack you up.
Then as he wrapped up with a solo version of the haunting, “Sam Stone,” I was reminded how many of those protest songs of the sixties and seventies (Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven any more) are still relevant today.
Prine brought everyone back on stage to send us home on an upbeat note with “Paradise” and the satisfaction that once again The Singing Mailman had delivered.
Saturday, August 25, 2012
When Emmy Lou Harris comes to town, she brings all the traditional keys to a happy wedding…something old, something new, something borrowed and something bluesy.
On a recent summer night at Wolftrap Farm Park, Emmy Lou and John Prine filled the ampitheatre and lawns with fans who had grown up with the country music they helped define and popularize.
For Harris, the Washington area is a true homecoming as her father was stationed here while in the military and it is where she got her start in clubs and bars.
She told how her break came when some guy was looking for a singer to help him recreate the sound of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
After hearing her sing at Clyde’s in Georgetown, he offered her a bus ticket and a spot playing rhythm guitar. That was how she met, “my dear friend Graham Parsons.”
The evening was a perfect blend of her own songs—both old and new—and country standards. Introducing “Making Believe,” she paid tribute to Kitty Wells who made it a hit two decades before that torch was passed to Harris. And she gave a nod to Billy Joe Shaver for “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” As she has done before with friends from The Seldom Scene, she brought out John Starling (“my favorite singer in the whole world”) to join her on “If I Could Only Win Your Love.”
What was new and impressive were Harris’ own compositions, from the mournful “Red Dirt Girl” (But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues/ When you got em/ You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom) to the moving “Ballad of Emmett Till” (I was just a black boy and never hurt no one) on her latest album, “Hard Bargain.” Unlike some of her contemporaries, Harris’ voice has lost none of its richness and when she soloes a chorus of “Aaaaahhh Aaaahhh Aaaahhh,” the sound in the night air is worth the price of admission.
Unlike the days when she traveled with Buddy Miller or had Daniel Lanois’ pulsating drumbeat sound, this year’s group of musicians is truly a backing band. For most of the evening, the spotlight was on Emmy Lou and her singing. One wonderful exception was when the Red Dirt Boys and the lady in charge put down their instruments and did an acapella version of “My Precious Children.” It gave you goose bumps.
The Queen can still bring it after all these years. Whether it was toasting “Two More Bottles of Wine,” rolling home on “Wheels” or steering “Luxury Liner” at warp speed, she proved she can rock whatever part of the country she’s playing.
Monday, August 13, 2012
Maybe it is the continuing heat wave in the dog days of August but there seem to more than the usual number of musical happenings that strike me as slightly off kiilter.
For starters, the elder statesman of American Rap, M.C. Hammer, is giving a free concert tonight at the Indiana State Fair. One hopes his drawing power will attract some paying customers who might have stayed home for fear of contact with flu-infected barrows and gilts. Still, it’s difficult to imagine young men and women skipping 4-H meetings to watch reruns of “Hammertime” on A&E. While his music has become what many would consider mainstream, my request tonight is “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em!”
Then of course there was the second musical spectacle of the summer from England. Last night’s closing ceremony was like an endless of loop of Super Bowl halftime shows that had the last day of the Olympics as an excuse for another orgy of dancers, waltzing extras, light shows, fireworks and even some singing. As a tribute to Britain’s musical heritage, it was a cavalcade of stars. As an Olympic event, it seemed comical every time there was an obligatory cutaway to participants dancing in the dark holding medals up to the camera. The disconnect from sports to spectacle reminded me of Robert Sherill’s great book title: “Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music.”
I suppose it was Britain’s turn to strut its stuff but it sure lacked the restraint and taste of the Queen’s Jubilee concert (where you could actually hear the lyrics) and seemed more like the Disneyfication of England’s Charttoppers. Annie Lennox in a gigantic ghost ship? Giant holograms of Freddie Mercury? The Spice Girls reuniting via London Cabs coated in electronic sequins? Fat Boy Slim spinning discs atop a huge inflatable octopus? Giant truck billboards of super models? What comes after “wretched excess?”
I guess Eric Idle, who can still poke holes in the pomposity by becoming a dud falling out of a cannon and leading a sing-a-long of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
And whenever anyone revived a Beatles song, it gave the set list some class.
I confess I gave up before The Who made it onstage, only to find out today from the internet that NBC delayed them until midnight so they could air a new sitcom and let local stations do the news. What can you expect from a network that missed chunks of live competitions (volleyball and the men’s basketball final) to air commercials?
A happier note was the music used during the equestrian dressage grand prix. One contestant used the music from Elton John’s Lion King. The gold medalists, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro performed to a wonderful British collection. It began with the theme from the “Great Escape,” followed by “Live and Let Die” and then segued into Edward Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory,” which we commoners would recognize as the “Pomp and Circumstance” march from countless commencements. In between Elgar selections, there were bells rung from Big Ben and the fanfare that has become an Olympics theme.
Their winning “dance” may not have rocked you but it was hauntingly beautiful.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
As someone who can’t sing or play a lick, I have always identified with songwriters because I do like to do the occasional scribble-scribble and can empathize with the difficulties of the process. Thus it was a real treat to come across this mini-seminar on writing following an Austin City Limits acoustic concert from last fall. The performers were a dream team of singer/songwriters that included: Guy Clark, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett. Here’s a rough transcript of the group interview in the dressing room.
How do you write? Do you have a method?
Guy Clark: I get a big eraser
Joe Ely: I chain my leg to a tree
Does it take a certain time, does it run in hot and cold spells?
What kind of inspiration do you need? Do you write about yourself? Do you write about anything?
Guy: You don’t believe you’re gonna get up and do it again
John Hiatt: Yeah
GC: It’s never gonna happen
JH: You can’t believe you ever did it before and the next one’s never gonna come.
GC: Yeah. It’s hard work
JH: And you have no…you’ve learned nothing from the last one
GC: All of that
JH: You don’t really know how to do it…
Joe Ely: And then you’re driving you know on Interstate 10 in Houston and this great song comes into your head and you don’t have a pencil or a pen and then by the time you get to the next exit you can’t remember the chorus.
Lyle Lovett: Writing songs is a mysterious, mysterious process and, you know, certainly listening to great songwriters, listening to their songs is …I think you have to have that feeling of wanting to try to say something and listening to great song writers’ songs always gives me that feeling.
GC: Course there’s a real tradiiton of storytelling in Texas, you know, bullshit.
(laughter). Its always been that way.
JH: And even just the guys…the campfire songs and all that rich tradition of cowboy songs and campfire tales and cowboy tales, that’s pretty deep too.
LL: And for me that story telling tradition in Texas music --Guy Clark is the embodiment of that. Listening to Guy Clark and listening to Townes Van Zandt that’s what made me want to write songs. (To Guy) Your sense of imagery and your use of metaphor…your songs are often described as literary but where, I mean your approach where do you get it?
GC: Well my parents were literate to say the least. As a yong person I grew up in a pre- television household and after dinner we would sit around and read poetry out loud or a book, prose, out loud. We’d just pass the book around and just read, the family.
And we were always encouraged in the direction of the arts and good literature.
I guess that’s where Guy came up with lines like these:
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.
Friday, July 27, 2012
When in comes to rock and roll legends, the business of making books has overtaken the business of making music. Fan books have been around for years, some of them like Dave Marsh’s Born To Run have more depth and readability than a fanzine. But as the megastars reach the mid-century point in their careers, they feel a need to tell all in their own words. This summer’s crop includes:
Elton John’s Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the end of Aids
Greg Allman’s My Cross to Bear
Buddy Guy’s When I Left Home: My Story (with David Ritz)
Rodney Crowell’s Chinaberry Sidewalk ( out in paperback)
Other notables include Patti Smith, who made the list of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in part because of her memoir, Just Kids, about growing up with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
Perhaps the most presumptuous title goes to Mitch Ryder, whose book is titled
Devils and Blue Dresses, My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend.
Often these books are released in conjunction with new CD’s (Patti Smith’s "Banga" got some good reviews) or a concert tour. The publicity tours make for good radio and television interviews because there are plenty of tunes to play and then discuss. Elton John talks about how the first lyrics from Bernie Taupin came by mail, then fax and now email.
And they make for some interesting moments on the air. When Bob Edwards asked Mitch Ryder what happened at a live concert in Detroit when he tried to tell Bruce Sprinsteen how to play “Devil with the Blue Dress,” Mitch pleaded, “But it’s my song!” Edwards: “But he’s The Boss!”
Ryder also had a few choice words for the big business establishment that rock and roll has become: “I’m a fan of rebellion that doesn’t need rules, let alone a museum.”
Some might attribute this spate of memoirs to the success of Keith Richards' Life. The rest of the Rolling Stones will try to play catch up with a coffee table book, The Rolling Stones 50. It is not due out until the early Christmas shopping season starts in October but the band announced it with a splash in London on July 12, the 50th anniversary of their first gig.
Neil Young’s memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, also has an October publication date, and is the third leg of a media trifecta that includes, his latest CD, “Americana” (he covers “This Land is Your Land”), and a new concert movie of his 2011 solo tour directed by Jonathan Demme, “Neil Young’s Journeys.”
Even though I seldom do my Christmas shopping until the week before, you’ve been given a chance to beat the rush.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
How much is that guitar in the window?
Guitars are in the news in a couple of distant but connected ways that seem to shed light on the myth making that keeps music and history so interesting. The Washington Post used a picture of Woody Guthrie playing on the New York Subway to illustrate a review of a new book from Smithsonian Folkways on the 100th anniversary of his birth this week.
The photo captures Woody’s lifelong commitment to social issues with the hand lettered message on his guitar: This machine kills fascists. It also seems to imbue the guitar as a symbol of freedom…freedom to sing what you want to in protest or in celebration.
Woody also demonstrated how the guitar was the means to hit the road…strap it on your back and stick out your thumb…in search of fame and fortune, a personal dream, or changing the world. Anyone who loves music should take a moment this week and say thanks to Woody for his songs (more than 3,000 so far but still being mined in the family archives) and his commitment to the causes of the downtrodden and oppressed.
One of Woody’s musical progeny is also in the news this week for a mystery about which Fender guitar he played during the paradigm shifting concert at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he went electric. One chapter of the Dylan myth is devoted to what happened that night and this latest round is sure to recharge that episode and prove that the reclusive star now seems to have a Midas touch for publicity (without so much as lifting a finger). Not to worry, the sleuths from the PBS series, History Detectives, are on the case and the full story is part of their season premiere on Tuesday night (check local listings). Here are some details from the Associated Press.
Bob Dylan and historians at PBS are in a dispute over the whereabouts of an electric guitar that the singer plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, quite possibly the most historic single instrument in rock ‘n’ roll.
The New Jersey daughter of a pilot who flew Dylan to appearances in the 1960s says she has the guitar, which has spent much of the past 47 years in a family attic. But a lawyer for Dylan claims the singer still has the Fender Stratocaster with the sunburst design that he used during one of the most memorable performances of his career.
If the authentic “Dylan goes electric” guitar ever went on the open marketplace, experts say it could fetch as much as a half million dollars.
Reading that this Stratocaster, if authentic, could go for $500,000, revives memories of some recent crazy prices that other guitars have brought at auction and conjures up more images of some famous ones. Willie Nelson has been using the same one for decades so you wonder what that could be possibly be worth…or how it has survived all those years on buses and in honky tonks. I guess they made them to last back then (before it became good hype to smash them on stage). Then there is the question of what Woody do with all that money?
As for the guitar pictured above in a store in Carmel by the Sea, California, it sells for $1200 and I have no idea if it can be played. Then again, it might come in handy if you are traveling across country in hot cars rather than hitch hiking.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
I remember when rock was young.
Recently my friend John the guitar man tipped me to the music specials running during the PBS fund-raising specials under the My Music banner. This one was called the British Invasion. The format invovles video clips from the kinescopes made of live concerts back in the day intercut with recorded performances of the bands current incarnations along with some background interviews.
These were clearly most of the players who came off the bench to fill the gaps between singles from The Beatles and The Stones (who bookended segments with snippets from the Ed Sullivan Show) and, in most cases they paled in comparison to the the superstars.
Back then, we thirsted for anything with a British accent or a Carnaby cut suit. And it’s hard not to like the smooth sounds of Gerry and The Pacemakers, Chad and Jeremy or Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits.
Some have aged pretty well and can still belt out the hits, like the Zombies whose “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There” still sound authentic after years of radio overplay. Others, like Eric Burdon don’t have much left and the producers were forced to cut back and forth over a forty-year time warp, making the modern version even more painful to watch.
But it’s interesting how many songs have entered our culture in ways we did not expect. Is there anyone who can watch Manfred Mann reprise “Do Wah Diddy” without seeing Bill Murray leading the troops on a drill field?
And “Wild Thing” occupies space in everyone’s head after it sold five million copies in 1966 with what the RS Encyclopedia called “…a seminal garage-punk hit.” Has there ever been a high school dance without it? I did not remember that among its parodies, according to the RSE, was a version done by two actors: one imitating Everett Dirksen and the other Robert Kennedy.
I also did not know that Chad Stuart and Jeremy Clyde were from upper class backgrounds and attended Eton and the Sorbonne. They performed a forgettable song,
“Yesterday’s Gone” but it reminded me of one my favorite albums, “Of Cabbages and Kings,” their concept album released in 1967.
Denny Laine was there to remind us of what the Moody Blues were before becoming a super group and their hit, “Go Now” seems emblamatic of the British take on blues ballads. As he said, “There’s something about the 60’s music. It’s all coming back, all at once.”
For the most part, that’s a good thing because the music left from the British Invasion has aged better than the performers (with a few exceptions who were on hand to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee.)
John had asked me if watching these old rockers made me feel old. In most cases not, because they bring back youthful memories. What did make me feel old was watching the old duffers in the audiences for the made-for-tv concerts. I guess I just don’t’ like to see graybeards (like myself) waving their hands and clapping for other old graybeards.
That feeling was driven home to me as I watched the wonderful mix of today’s Brits dancing and waving tiny Union Jacks as some giants paid their musical respects to Queen Elizabeth. “Isn’t She Beautiful?” from Stevie Wonder, “Momma Told Me Not To Come” from Tom Jones and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” kept folks of all ages on their feet in a state of nostalgic exuberance.
Was there ever an EP four pack like the one that Paul McCartney delivered? “All My Lovin,’” “Let it Be,” “Live and Let Die” and “Obladi Obladah.” What a desert island disc. Life does go on.
One final note. The Queen didn’t let her hair down during the concert but she did take off her hat (her gloves remained on throughout the evening).
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Bob Dylan comes to Washington a couple of times a year, once to play a concert and once to pick up an award. This latest trip was for a Medal of Freedom award (the nation’s highest civilian honor) and the picture of the occasion stopped me in my tracks when I saw it on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. An African American President of the United States hanging a medal on the quintessential protest singer of the 1960s for his civil rights songs. SPIN magazine called the shot “amazing.” For me, it’s more like: “Never thought I would live to see the day.”
While the peripatetic troubadour continues his victory laps (Did you see the Life Magazine tribute issue in your grocery? Or see this exhibit in Paris? http://www.citedelamusique.fr/minisites/1203_dylan/index.aspx), he is one of many seniors still going strong. Last year was a good one for Paul Simon, Emmy Lou Harris, and Sir Paul McCartney. This year Bonnie Raitt is back with a new CD, as is Neil Young and even Tom Jones looked stellar performing at the Queen’s Jubilee concert.
Someone else going strong after sixty is Grandpa Elliott Small who is a New Orleans street singer catapulted to international fame when Mark Johnson took his cameras and audio recorders to the French Quarter several years ago. “Stand By Me” was first a hit for Ben E. King, then a popular movie and finally this viral video that put You Tube on the map.
The smash hit launched Playing for Change as a music business (CD’s, DVD’s and a film) a philanthropic foundation (music schools and programs in seven countries) and solo careers and group tours. Opening singer Roger Ridley died in 2005 but Small and others have kept the tradition and the music alive. The latest CD, “PFC #2,” is a blend of young and old voices and classic songs from “Try A Little Tenderness” to “Gimme Shelter” and “Imagine.”
Grandpa Elliott recently toured for PFC, performing along with Clarence Milton Bekker and Jason Tomba. Bekker’s solo album is called “Old Soul” and Grandpa’s is “Sugar Sweet.” One of their songs, called “Music is My Ammunition,“ includes the following lyrics:
Peace and dignity are not very far out of reach
It just comes down (it just comes down) to what I and I choose to teach
Truth and honesty will free our hearts
And free our minds (and free our minds)
So then our children can live together as one
Until the end of time.
Not a bad anthem for a foundation (playingforchange.com) whose motto is “Connecting the world through music.” That is certainly something to which both Bob and Barack can relate. By the way, the original "Stand By Me" video has recorded some 43 million hits and counting.
Monday, May 28, 2012
This national day of remembrance found me wearing a t-shirt from 1980, promoting a 5K race to raise funds for John Anderson for President in Tucscon, AZ. It was a gift from a friend who died last year. Obituary notices are becoming another phase of our generation whether they are for our high school chums or our musical heroes. There seems to have been a rash of what The Washington Post called, “the boomer icon death flood of recent weeks,” roiling the tweetisphere with expressions of sympathy for Robin Gibb, Donna Summer, Adam Yauch, Chuck Brown and Davey Jones, among others. Each fallen star produces a round of tributes made possible by the visual and audio recordings left from their hey days. The mass media can’t resist jumping on the bandwagon and despite the predictability of the tributes, it is still nice to see remembrances of stars, like Etta James, who struggled for and then with fame while alive. And it is endearing to hear musicians pay tribute to those, like Levon Helm, who influenced their careers and the evolution of rock and roll.
A couple of lesser but influential lights may have passed unnoticed during this recent media flood.
One is bluegrass banjo player Doug Dillard whose family group began as the house band on The Andy Griffith Show. He went on to play with many members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and the Eagles and became one of the key movers in the Southern California rock scene, touching the work of everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Rickey Skaggs.
And one of the early members of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Ethridge died last month of pancreatic cancer. His collaborations with Gram Parsons began in the International Submarine Band and he is credited with co-writing “Hot Burrito # 1 and #2” and “She." He toured for eight years with Willie Nelson and his bass guitar playing is on “Whiskey River” and “Stardust.” Ethridge became one of those quintessential California session men, playing with Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Leon Russell and Jackson Browne.
In future posts some more upbeat stories about aging rockers still going strong. Today seems a time for nostalgia.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Reporter: It’s a story about the son of a sharecropper who grows up to play in a zydeco band.
Editor: Same old tale, what else you got?
Reporter: How about the guy gets a football scholarship, earns a degree in marine biology, has a stint playing pro football, becomes a U.S. Park Ranger, learns to play accordion and ends up as the poster boy for French Quarter Fest 2012.
Editor: Now you have my attention. What’s his name?
Reporter: Bruce Barnes, better known as Sunpie.
That was the conversation running through my mind as we sat in the performance studio on Saturday where we ended up during our tour of the U.S. Mint. We had seen the interview with a guy in a dark green National Park Service uniform being broadcast on screens in the hallway and followed the sound to the third floor.
On stage, a man was talking about his father (“Why you want to go play in a juke joint and get killed?”), his uncle who was a mule skinner along the Mississippi River and his Aunt Fannie who dipped snuff and like to give the kids a big sloppy kiss before expectorating.
Between stories, he played some of the seven instruments he has mastered, including piano and acccordion, and recreated the story of his hound dog hunting all kinds of game with his harmonica. Over the course of an hour, he regaled about fifty of us festival goers with stories and music that revealed a southern tale worthy of Faulkner.
One of ten kids (his father was 55 when he was born), he grew up on a truck farm in Arkansas and what free time they had they spent hunting and fishing. He ran track in school but switched to football in hopes of getting a college scholarship ( “Basically I was just trying to figure out how not to pick so many peas.”) Success on the gridiron at Henderson State led to a shot as linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and he jumped to the USFL when Donald Trump dangled the big bucks. After the league folded, he returned to his first love: the oceans and their habitats. As an NPS Ranger, he ended up back in New Orleans, still playing music with friends and bandmates from college days.
In 1989, he went into serious debt ($1250) to buy his first accordion. The next day, a friend told him about open auditions for a TV Commercial and said, “Bring your accordion.” One problem: Bruce didn’t know how to play an accordion. “I stayed up all night with that thing, until at last I could play one little song.” As luck would have it, the casting director asked him to play, he did, and beat out hundreds of others to star in a Sprite commercial. The fee for that paid off the accordion.
Several months later, frustrated with his progress, he went to see a music teacher in hopes of lessons. The teacher’s response was, “You are playing that upside down and backwards!” Bruce, who is left handed, had been able to pull it off; but he turned things around (unlike Rockin Doopsie who always played it in reverse, according to Bruce).
Sunpie got his nickname from Aunt Fannie because he used to follow his Uncle (the original Sunpie, a Crow Indian name) around as a little tyke. He became Little Sunpie.
Nothing little about Sunpie now, who stands about six feet four inches tall. Nothing small about his musical sound either as the group revved up the dancers at the Cajun Zydeco stage on Sunday afternoon. He and The Louisiana Sunspots (guitar, bass, two rubboard players who double on trumpets, drums and saxophone) can cover the musical waterfront: Domini, Money Bread, Choo Choo The Boogie, Luanne, Going Back to Big Mamou and more. They kept the dance floor full and brought the rest of us to our feet with some hot jams that went from blues to jazz to rockabilly. Sunpie's show was every bit as good as his back story.
Monday, April 23, 2012
Saturday morning we decided to do some museum exhibits which led us to the old U.S. Mint on the east end of the Quarter. It houses an exhibit on the early days of ore smelting/coin making and a jazz museum. We did a quick spin through a photo exhibit commemorating 50 years of Preservation Hall (Traditional Requests $1, Others, $2, The Saints $5) and then wandered into a third floor performance studio for a musical bit of lagniappe (something extra) that deserves its own post.
In the afternoon, we rendezvoused with friends on Bourbon Street for traditional New Orleans music with Jimmy LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It merits the “original” title because it was founded in 1917 by Jimmy’s father Nick LaRocca, the tumpeter and composer of “Tiger Rag.” The original ODJB is reputed to have made the first jazz recording in 1917 and its version of “Darktown Strutters Ball” earned a slot in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
On this afternoon, they were as hot as sun on a sidewalk with “Momma’s In The Kitchen” and “War Cloud” then slowed down for a take on “It’s A Wonderful World.”
Around the corner in the courtyard of the Historic New Orleans Collection we came across another find: Andrew Duhon and The Lonesome Crows. He writes like a young Jackson Browne and has a voice reminiscent of Jim Croce. His ballads are about endless decisions on leaving or staying (I think it’s time to fit my life in my backseat/Got a girl I know that I can’t take with me) and the cover of his new CD has an open suitcase with a rope made of clothes with two hands hanging on.
His canvas is New Orleans but his characters are universal. “Coming Down Over Here”
captures the weather and a lover’s dilemma. (Babe, it’s been storming, at least it has so far. I seen the clouds forming but I didn’t think it'd be this hard.)
We stayed around for a set by Kristin Diable, a dead ringer for a young Joni Mitchell, but our group gave her mixed reviews; interesting songwriter but not much variety in her singing and playing.
After refueling at the Gumbo Shop, we caught the tail end of the Battle of the Bands on the steps of the old Courthouse, three traditional jazz bands who combined for a rousing version of “The Saints Go Marching In.” Among those dancing in front were two of the stars of FX’s Justified, Joelle Carter and Walter Goggins…two of those Crowders.
Then it was back to the waterfront for a final round of Zydeco with Donna Agnelle & the Zydeco Posse (“Aint no party like a Donna Party”) and Roddie Romero & The Hub City All Stars with a hot cover of a Fats Domino tune.
French Quarter Fest bills itself as the “ World’s Biggest Jazz Brunch,” with164 menu options from the Quarter's finest restaurants. We tried crawfish pies, shrimp cakes, lamb sliders, fish tacos seafood crepes and sweet potato fries, washed down with Abita Amber and Abita Jocamo (didn't try Purple Haze). We avoided Hurricanes and those college-kid drinks from Tropical Isle: The Hand Grenade, Skinny Hand Grenade, Tropical Itch and Happy Gator. Our restaurant tips include Acme Oyster House (barbecued oysters), Upperline (fried green oysters with shrimp remoulade), Mena’s Palace (best grits) Broussards (grilled red fish) and the Stage Door Canteen at the WWII museum (gumbo).
Next: The Sunpie Story
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Walking down Canal Street to the Mississippi riverfront, the thought crossed my mind on the first day of the French Quarter Festival: How much music is too much? To diehard festivists, this might seem like aimless speculation. But for an aging fan, issues of stamina, decibel levels, sun exposure and sore leg muscles are lurking in the back of the mind.
Put another way, when faced with four days of shows…. 276 musical performances on 22 stages on a round trip circuit stretching almost two miles…how do you decide where to go? Unlike the larger Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has grown to Olympic proportions featuring national draws, FQF features local talent, most of whom were new to me. A lot of the venue/band selections would be rolling the dice. Did I mention that everything is free? Suffice it to say there are worse problems for music lovers than too many choices.
Day One. When in New Orleans start with Zydeco, which is what I did. After sampling the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band (for a Les Bontemps Roulez waltz), I checked in next door with Grayson Capps and Lost Cause Minstrels (“Take Some Poison Before You Die” and “Love Song of Bobby Long”). With a tie-dyed shirt, straw sombrero and a full mane of blond hair, he delivered pulsating blues-rock.
By the time I reached the Jackson Square stage, Luther Kent, a New Orleans fixture who once toured with Blood, Sweat and Tears was cranking up his blues: “If I could find just one good woman, I could get rid of the other 99,” and asking, “Can I get a beer up here?”(It was delivered in a few seconds from the front row.)
Then I retraced my steps back to the waterfront. Along the way I paused for a street (urchin) band…guitar, washboard and gutbucket base…calling themselves the Royal Street Gum Scrapers. At the Zydeco stage Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys (not very but they could play some) had everyone up and dancing. As a fiddle player (red gloves and black and white stripe pants), she may not make you forget Charlie Daniels but will sure make him seem old. She first preformed at FQF at age 8.
For a grand finale, I let the Rebirth Brass Band play me out, or perhaps blow me away. They typify the modern style of these traditional bands, doubling up on the horns and with a microphone in the tuba shell they will vibrate your breastbone. Their merger of hip-hop and gospel call and response drew a huge crowd. I listened to them for almost five blocks walking back to the Quarter on Iberville.
Drawing a smaller crowd but just as much fun was the pickup group, I dubbed the Foot Locker Brass Band because they played outside the shoe store at night on Bourbon Street. They got my two bucks.
Day Two. Armed with camp chairs and sunscreens we again began at the Zydeco stage with Jomo and Bayou Deville and got rocking with The Soul Project covering James Brown, “I Can’t Stand Still,” At Jackson Square it was another New Orleans institution, Banu Gibson, doing songs from Bessie Smith to George Gershwin. Her trombone player in The New Orleans Hot Jazz, who is 81, offered these words of advice he picked up while playing with Lawrence Welk: “Act like your having fun but don’t have any.”
It was traditional jazz at the Farmers’ Market Stage with The New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings doing Driving Miss Daisy (She’s Driving Me Crazy) and getting everyone to sing along with My Blue Heaven.
Back along the river at the Louis Louis Absolut Stage we made our first real find. Not sure if it was the large crowd of locals or the sound of his lap slide guitar but we were hooked on a blues player named Colin Lake.
Whether it was doing traditional songs like “I’ll Fly Away” or his own compositions, “Where Did We Go Wrong,” and “In On Time,” the crowd loved it and so did we. His new CD is “The Ones I Love."
With some regrets we cut our stop with the Pine Leaf Boys short because in New Orleans, you do not want to miss dinner.