Monday, December 22, 2014

Dave Grohl's Musical History Tour

If Dave Grohl is not the hardest-working man in rock music, he is certainly in the top tier. He recently headlined the Concert for Valor in Washington, D.C. shortly after doing a pop-up show at the District’s 9:30 Club for fans who heard about it through the grapevine. He seems to be a fixture on every music awards show as presenter, performer or honoree. And in January he kicks off a year-long tour with The Foo Fighters that starts in South America, swings over to Australia, circles Europe and criss-crosses the U.S. all summer long.

Although never much of a fan of punk rock and its offspring, Grohl’s work has been sneaking up on me as he pays tribute to some of his musical influences. It really hooked me when I watched an episode of his Sonic Highways series on HBO. It is a fascinating multi-media concept that he deserves credit for conceiving and the cable network for backing.

Here’s the pitch: The Foo Fighters want to make a new album that captures the flavor of cities known for their distinctive music styles by visiting each place and recording a track that has been written on the spot based on their interviews and experiences.

For the Nashville episode the journey began by reuniting with Zac Brown and moving into his Southern Ground Studios, an old church where Monument Studios once recorded Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson and Neil Young. Monument was founded by Fred Foster who is credited with discovering Roy Orbison, Ray Price and the Dixie Chicks.

The extended interviews for this segment, called Congregation, include Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earle, Tony Joe White and Dolly Parton.

The clips of those performers as they arrived on the music scene are priceless, especially Dolly’s first song on the Porter Waggoner Show in 1967, “This Dumb Blonde Ain’t Nobody’s Fool.”  Just as eye-popping are the clips of early Willie Nelson with short, slick hair in sweaters and turtlenecks doing what seems like an Andy Williams/Perry Como impression.

The production values are on a level that us former documentary makers can only dream about. A forty-five playing on a jukebox resolves into a concert poster and then a live performance. Whitney Houston’s mega hit of “I Will Always Love You” is followed by Dolly’s story about how Elvis wanted the song but she would not give up the publishing rights to Col. Tom Parker so it never happened.

The theme of rebellion is also part of Grohl’s attraction to Zac Brown who forced Sony Records to withdraw The Lost Trailers version of his debut single, “Chicken Fried.”
“I’m drawn to outsiders,” Grohl adds.

Grohl is a low-profile interviewer, letting his subjects have the air-time although he can’t resist joining the Zac Brown Band in a live performance at the Country Music Awards. His reverence for the roots of American music has led to a major contribution to preserving its history.  And his ability to synthesize each week’s experience into a fresh and memorable song is a real kicker.

The “Sonic Highways” CD is in stores. The video series is available on demand for HBO subscribers on HBOgo.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob Dylan Redux (Again!)

Before there were music phenomenons like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, there was Bob Dylan. But wait. He is still here. Most likely he’ll be going your way and then mine real soon. Tuesday he is coming to Washington, DC, his 29th visit to the area in the last 26 years, in what many call the Never Ending Tour.

Dylan’s on stage visibility today is in sharp contrast to the disappearing act  he did in the late 60’s after his motorcycle accident. That period, when he holed up with The Band in Woodstock, NY, is back in the news with the release of yet another version of The Basement Tapes. This six-CD set comes with a title like a PBS documentary: “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11” and a $93 price tag. The 139 songs were recorded back in 1967, released as a double album in 1975 and have been bootlegged for years as the “secret” sessions have been analyzed by critics and fans for years. Greil Marcus devoted a 2011 book to the recording sessions, Old Weird America.

The questions raised about the sessions have often overshadowed the music. Was Dylan hiding out to lick his wounds after the turbulence created by the switch from acoustic to electric in 1966? Were they designed as a ploy in a battle with record labels? Was he trying to reinvent himself? Or return to his roots? Or just goofing around with the boys?

As always with Dylan (and with other great bodies of work like The Talmud or The Bible) there are more questions than answers and an army of interpreters ready to jump on the train and ride it as far as possible.

John Howells writing his dissertation for called this Dylan’s “greatest body of work.” Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker (Nov. 3), wrote, “Better to approach it as a toolbox than as a serial listening experience…For every moment of revelation there are five throwaways.” He noted that the 1975 album showed that Robbie Robertson (who produced it), “with some exceptions knew which the good songs were.”

Football has its fantasy leagues, baseball has the hot stove league and Dylan keeps dishing out old audio recordings for us to dissect and debate. For holiday shoppers, it is a perfect marketing tool. For music mavens it is the gift that keeps on giving as they chart the tributaries of the Americana music catalog.

And finally, this revival gives well-deserved credit to the boys from Canada who represented the power behind the throne. Robbie Robertson co-wrote “Tears of Rage” and Rick Danko co-wrote “This Wheel’s On Fire.” They went into these sessions as “The Hawks” and after Levon Helm joined them, emerged with “Music From Big Pink” and the start of a Hall of Fame career.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

James Brown: Super(music)man

One of my favorite uses of faint praise to damn a mediocre performance is “He don’t stop no show.”  That could never be used against James Brown as the new documentary, “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” demonstrates on HBO.

From the first time he slides onto the stage by wiggling one patent leather shoe back and forth, you are reminded that this is the man who created it all. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear how the threads of the blues, R & B, soul, jazz, funk and rock are all tied together by the cord connected to his microphone and by the life he led.

Director Alex Gibney does a masterful job of using Brown’s performances and hit songs as a soundtrack to his life and our times.  Brown croons “Georgia” as the narration reveals his hardscrabble early life  when both parents abandoned him and he was sent to live with an aunt who ran a whorehouse.

Later “It’s A Man’s World” underpins the story of how Brown flew to Jackson, Mississippi to perform after James Meredith was shot. He sings “If I Ruled The World,” as the film tells how his show in Boston after Martin Luther King was assassinated was broadcast live on public television and kept the city calm. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is credited with changing the consciousness of an entire generation of young people.

While Brown is the star, the rich anecdotes from Bobby Byrd and the backing musicians (Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Melvin Parker, John Jabo Stark) and his Cape Man, Danny Ray, offer insights into the man and his music.

Ellis talks about how Brown came in with a song idea but all he did was grunt. “My job was to take those grunts and make music.”  The result was “Cold Sweat.”  Melvin Parker talks about pulling a gun on Brown to keep him from hitting Maceo in the mouth. They all talk about how tightfisted he was but recalled fondly how his ruthless discipline (he would flash fines for missed notes live on stage) made them into the amazing band they became.

The historic footage from “The Tammy Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Soul Train” is worth the price of admission (or the monthly HBO fee).  As is the duet he does with Hubert Humphrey at a campaign rally in 1968 or the performance at the Nixon inaugural ball.

At one point, Brown talked about shining shoes as a kid for pennies in front of a radio station in Augusta, Georgia. “Now I own it.” For Brown it was about the show and the business.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Neil Young By The Book


News of Farm Aid’s annual concert this weekend prompted another look at Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace,  and its collection of musical insights, shout outs to his friends and progress reports on his various causes. It’s got a wealth of anecdotes about his collaborations, his family and friends.

Young’s musical Mt. Rushmore status gives him literary license to write (and ramble) all he wants. It’s also given him the wealth to own ranches, yachts, model trains and vintage Cadillacs and to support causes from The Bridge School to electric cars.

All of which led me back to an old Kris Kristofferson song, "The Pilgrim—Chapter 33:"

He’s a walking contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction

Then sometimes it is best to stop trying to figure out what makes very creative people tick and just enjoy their insights (and music).

For example, in talking about his friendship with Bruce and Bob, he notes that they don’t talk very often, but notes, “It is a silent fraternity of sorts, occupying this space in people’s souls with our music.”

“Dylan’s words are part of the landscape, like country names on a map.”

On musicians writing memoirs: “Writing is very convenient, has a low expense and is a
great way to pass the time. I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”

On saving the album as an art form: “I think it has a future and a past. The album cover and liner notes reached out to the music lover, filling them with images and helping to illuminate the story behind the music, the feeling from the artist.”

“Rock and roll is no cakewalk. It was and is a shrewd and unforgiving business if you made some bad decisions about our representation when you were young.”

For the most part, Neil has avoided most of those traps although his creative control battles have become their own legends. The stories of how his best and worst albums were created will send you deep into your vinyl archives.

And back to the words of the Pilgrim:
He’s a poet…He’s a prophet…He’s a pilgrim…He’s a preacher…
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

For a good time: Call The Neverly Brothers

Eric Brace, singer, songwriter and founder of Last Train Home came to his old stomping grounds this month during an acoustic tour with partner Peter Cooper and  guitarist Thomm Jutz.
Their sound might be called New Nashville: a little bit country, a little bit bluegrass, a rocking beat and head-snapping lyrics. Whether they are mourning the loss of love, the twist of bad fortune or mocking stuffed shirts, they are sharing intimate moments. The tiny Jammin Java café in Vienna, Virginia was the perfect place to share that kind of music.

Mostly they were just having a good time poking fun at each other, their years of laboring in relative obscurity in Nashville (hence the nickname of “Neverly Brothers”)  and about making music, especially with the old masters.

Here are some excerpts from The Comeback Album:

(Ponzi Scheme)
Lost my sunbeam in a ponzi scheme
Don’t ask me how that works
Should have read the fine print
Devil’s in the details
I’m really not a fine print guy

She’s the one in the wrong here
I got the run around
Took my love and everything that wasn’t bolted down
Rust and rubber, hard concrete, that ‘s the view from under the bus.

(She Can’t Be Herself)
She’s unabashed and unconcerned and needing to be free
And she can’t be herself when she’s with me

(Nobody Knows)
The best laid plans are a stick in the craw
You pledge allegiance to whatever you allege
I pledge allegiance to the luck of the draw…

All I know is nobody knows
Nobody, nobody knows.

Throughout the evening, as I listened to their ditties about mundane events and ordinary people (who offered big lessons in life) on songs like Grandma’s Batman Tattoo or Big Steve, I was reminded of Steve Goodman and Arlo Guthrie.

As Cooper and Brace carve their own musical paths, they pay tribute to their influences, doing strong covers of Tom T. Hall’s I Flew Over Our House, The Seldom Scene’s signature take on Herb Pedersen’s Wait A Minute and Johnny Cash’s Lay Me Down.

Cooper’s tenor and Brace’s baritone match beautifully and Jutz’s guitar mastery, amplified through an exterior mike, completed the effect of having a studio full of musicians.

On the CD itself, Jutz is joined by pedal steel legend, Lloyd Green, session man supreme who has played on 115 number one hits.  Green’s magical music is also showcased on Brace & Cooper’s “Master Sessions” CD which also features the late dobro virtuoso Mike Auldridge.

Red Beet Records is Brace and Cooper’s label in East Nashville and one hopes it will help grow their music business to the point of a new nickname: Foreverly Brothers.

Every dream is a boxcar
I’ve got a freight train
Every wish is an open road
And I’ll drive forever.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Crosby, Stills & Nash: Still Teaching

The Marrakesh Express stopped in Northern Virginia last night and a sold-out crowd at Wolf Trap got on board for a ride back to the sweet music spots of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Graham Nash established a tone of intimacy with his anecdotes about Joni Mitchell and the lyrics from I Used To Be A King:

It’s all right. I’m okay now. How are you?...
Someone is going to take my heart
But no one’s going to break my heart again.

Nash was the master of ceremonies, presiding in bare feet on an oriental carpet, introducing songs, extolling his band mates and announcing that his son had twin boys earlier that day.
Stephen Stills was the jokester, noting how the song, Tree Top Flyer, about the brave men who delivered medical supplies from Mexico to California, had been dated by the changes in Colorado law. “There are probably so many lobbyists in this audience,” he added, “We should set a lobster trap.”
And the silver-maned David Crosby said that while many people thought the group at this stage, “should be creeping off to die, we just didn’t feel like it.”

Despite the passage of time, CSN, can still deliver their timeless lyrics and mesmerizing harmonies. Graham and David had the crowd holding its breath as they performed Guinevere and Helplessly Hoping.  Stephen Stills brought it to its feet with some whip-cracking guitar solos on Southern Cross and Bluebird.

There were a couple of pleasant surprises. Nash’s new songs that paid tribute to Levon Helm (Back Home) and a protest rant against China’s oppression in Tibet (Burning for the Buddha) were as good as his classics. And they have not lost a step when it comes to political passion with I Don’t Want Lies, and Military Madness.

The backing musicians could deliver a wall of sound on cue and second guitarist (and co-lyricist) Shane Fontayne was a standout.  But the charm of this evening was the feel of a living room concert in (Our House), thumbing through the music sheets in guitar cases to find songs everyone knew and liked.

And we shook the windows as we sang word-for-word on For What It’s Worth and Love the One You’re With.

The third surprise was how many young people were on hand (much more than for the usual favorite boomer bands) and how many were with parents.  Then it dawned on me: This was the Teach Your Children Tour, which was why they saved that for the encore.

Four decades later, Crosby Stills and Nash still get it: The past is just a good bye.
And they continue to feed us on their dreams.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2014

Finally found a few hours to watch the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction show on HBO and saw the usual mix of moments we expect from high end awards shows: touching tributes, reminders of history and some controversy. Of course the icing on the cake is a lot of great music.

One of the surprises of the night was the high quality of the presenters. Each of them had insightful and heartfelt remembrances of how the performers had influenced them, the music world and our lives. Glenn Frey on how Linda Ronstadt created “country rock” and gave The Eagles their start.  Tom Morello on how KISS was more than just theatrics. Art Garfunkel on how Cat Stevens’ songs were “a fascinating creation of an evolving identity.”  Quest Love on how if you owned a radio in the 1970s and 80s “you got a full dose of Hall & Oates.” Bruce Springsteen offering chapter and verse about how The E Street Band was created: “The real bands are made from the neighborhoods, from a real time and a real place.” Michael Stipe on how Nirvana captured lightning in a bottle and set off a “howl” of protest for all the outsiders. Each one of these is worth reading or watching.

The music highlights began with the opening tribute for Linda Ronstadt which required a five-female salute to do her justice. As good as Carrie Underwood, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks covering Blue Bayou, It’s So Easy and When Will  I Be Loved, you were reminded that Linda made that magic all by herself.

Cat Stevens had the audience in the palm of his hand as he reprised his sweet ballads and one of the all-time break-up songs, “Wild World.”  At the other end of that love-sick spectrum came the still rocking Daryl Hall and John Oates, whose “She’s Gone” may be the most played song ever to hit top 40 radio.

Bruce, inducted 16 years ago, was pleased to even things up for the E-Streeters, “who told a story that was and is bigger than I ever could have told on my own.” They went  way back to perform Tenth Ave Freeze Out, E Street Shuffle and Kitty’s Back in Town.

David Grohl and Krist Novoselic were joined by Joan Jett for Smells Like Teen Spirit as part of the Nirvana set.

The controversy for the Cleveland-based Hall is over who gets in and who doesn’t (and when it happens). KISS has been the poster child for this unfairness after 40 years, 100 million albums and 28 gold records in the U.S. Linda was long overdue and Daryl Hall asked why they are the first and only Philly musicians to be inducted. “Why not Chubby Checker?” he asked, “The Twist is the biggest selling record of all time.” Novoselic asked why Jett was still not in.

Beside the In Memoriam segment, the sad notes came when family members were there to accept the awards for Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici and Curt Cobain.

The overstuffed telecast had its rewarding moments. Linda Ronstadt on Johnny Carson saying if she weren’t singing she would be milking cows or selling hot dogs because “I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Steve Van Zandt’s acceptance speech: “For those of us whose religion is rock and roll, this is the one day a year we get to say Thanks.”

And finally the irony of the line that Cat Stevens wrote back in the early 70’s:
“Look at me. I am old. But I am happy.”

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fresh Breath of Bluegrass: Rebecca Frazier

We started the summer concert season with bit of history. The venue was a Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill built during the Civil War (and now restored as a community arts  facility called The Hill Center). The performer was a southern belle from Richmond who had just arrived from the bluegrass festival at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the result was an exhilarating afternoon of roots and bluegrass music.

Rebecca Frazier is back on the road to support a CD released last year, When We Fall, which marked a return to performing after a break for child rearing and a personal tragedy, the loss of a son.  While that dark period inspired many of the  new songs including the title track, there is nothing mournful about her live show.

Frazier’s band, Hit & Run Bluegrass had been a fixture on the summer festival circuit, winning awards and fans, and earning her the distinction of being the first woman featured on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. The current version of Hit & Run dresses like bank tellers but is as tight a bluegrass band as you can find. This is despite the addition of a mandolin player (Jared Walker) who graduated from college a week ago and fiddle player Christian Porter. Bass player Royal Masat and banjo player Kyle Tuttle were with the original band along with John Frazier, her husband, who is now off touring with his own group.

They could bring it with gusto on traditional songs, like “Mule Skinner Blues” or Rebecca’s hot rag, “40 Blues” and they handed the solos back and forth seamlessly. If there was a fault to be found, she often subsumed rather showcased her guitar work.

She can’t hide her song writing gifts behind the band, however, and her lyrics can move from thought provoking to haunting.

In my time I ain’t seen much
Try to walk soft but my feet still touch
God gave gravity to keep me down
Put an apple on the tree to turn my head around

Can you look past your sins
Can you win back your friends
Mirror, mirror on the wall, does it break when we fall

Her poignant ballads about loss and moving on (“I won’t darken your doorway any longer”) were leavened with up beat tunes that would have made Doc Watson and Earl and Bill take notice. Her publicity photos convey a mysterious, almost ghostly look. In person, she was more the friendly girl next door, looking for some folks to jam with.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Jesse Winchester

An old friend and I have been exchanging newspaper articles and notes about the passing of Jesse Winchester, whose career had mostly escaped me but whose songs have been deeply imprinted in my memory for years. Now that he is gone, at such a relatively young age, I regret not having gone looking for his albums and concert dates more assiduously. And it frustrates me that his life was altered, like so many of the Vietnam era generation, because of that tragic misadventure. Although he had said that fleeing to Canada in 1967 was what created him as a musician, it must have been difficult not to be able to return to his native South or perform and record with peers in the United States until President Carter’s pardon in 1977.

Like so many others, I knew his music long before I knew him.  It was Joan Baez who introduced me to "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" on her 1971 double-album classic, Blessed Are. It is hard to believe (as Elvis Costello said on the Sundance channel) that this was his first song.

I’ve a sadness too sad to be true
But I left Tennessee in a hurry dear
The same way that I’m leaving you.

Then it was Ian Matthews who covered "Biloxi" on his 1974 album, Some Days You Eat The Bear, which I heard long before Jimmy Buffet’s hit version.

Stars can see Biloxi
Stars can find their faces in the sea
We are walking down beside the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water
And the sky is red from off toward New Orleans

Four years later, Emmy Lou Harris got me with "Defying Gravity" on Quarter Moon in Ten Cent Town.

I live on a big round ball
I never do dream that I’ll fall
But even the day that I do
I jump off and smile back at you

While it is tempting to think that Jesse was more song writer than singer, how many people would have done this gospel number a capella with Bonnie Raitt and Emmy Lou singing backup? Bonnie posted on it her Facebook page as a tribute.

I am sure there are more covers to be found in my collection and I am off to the record store in search of Jesse’s albums to hear his take on his songs.  It seems as if he wrote his epitaph at the beginning.

At the brand new Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air;
At the brand new Tennessee Waltz
There ain’t no telling who will be there.

Friday, March 7, 2014

New Takes on Old Songs

I waited to watch the Showtime special Another Time, Another Day until after I had seen the movie that motivated the concert, Inside Llewin Davis so I would not be disappointed (as in reading a book after seeing the movie). I should not have waited. The movie pales compared to the concert put together in New York City to promote the film
and showcase the era.

The concert was fresh and uplifting with energetic performances. The movie was dour and plodding seemed an endless loop of struggling young artists in the early 1960s. The concert showcased the timeless virtue of classic songs like, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Midnight Special,” and “Which Side Are You On?” The movie used a cat and couch hopping for a plot. It’s hard to believe both were produced by the Coen brothers.  Maybe the difference was T Bone Burnett who clearly ran the music show.

As in the old stock broker commercial, when T Bone talks, everybody listens (and shows up for the gig). When one of The Milk Carton Kids explains that if Burnett calls, it’s a no-brainer to come quickly, the other pipes up, “Yeah and I am going over to mow his lawn next week.”

The television show was taped over several days in a knotty pine recording studio, before an audience  at New York’s Town Hall and in the basement of the concert hall where the artists warmed up in the tunnels or did on camera interviews. Burnett wandered around the rehearsals like an eminence grise, saying little and carrying what looks like a fat stick of burning incense. Like the Archbishop from Avignon, he occasionally blesses a group’s choice of song or instrument.

The behind the scenes takes offer some fun and insights and evoke the early sixties sense of community.  As Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers put it, “we wanted to create an experience that could be found around a campfire and for the folk movement in the 60s,  downtown New York was America’s campfire.”

Some minor moments are memorable. Jack Ashford doing an all-too-short riff on his tambourine.  Marcus Mumford taping a Kleenex box to a wooden stool, which he played with drum brushes for a song with Joan Baez. (“I had never heard of the song when she asked but she’s f---- Joan Baez).  It seems every group had a member playing upright bass, including a chrome-plated one in Jack White’s group.

Of course there were flaws. Lots of big names did not make the final cut for Showtime, perhaps to give more time to younger, more bankable groups like Mumford & Sons, Punch Brothers and the Avets. And although it was fun to see the songs segue seamlessly from rehearsal to stage, often the rougher practice sessions got more airtime than the polished show.

Still there were plenty of nice suprises...David Rawlings, Willie Watson and Gillian Welch on “Midnight Special.”  A Boston pop group called Lake Street Dive. Oscar Isaac (without the long hair) doing a very sharp solo of “Green, Green Rocky Road.” And the Punch Brothers (with Marcus Mumford) doing some great a capella songs, including a version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” that sent me to the basement in search of my Sons of the Pioneers album.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hear Americana Singing

Just before Beatles fatigue set in, I happened across a PBS special aimed at trying to describe how the latest trends in music are evolving into a style known as “Americana.”  While not a rigorous study in ethnomusicology, Nashville 2.0/ The Rise of Americana is a fun showcase of some old legends, new stars and rising newcomers. No one is sure what Americana is exactly but they know it has traces, influences and sounds from country, blues, folk, rock, roots, Cajun, gospel, bluegrass, rockabilly, etc. In other words, a lot of bands, as one observer says, “have no misplaced loyalty to one genre.”

Regardless of definitions and categories, the idea of a big music tent, pitched on the banks of the Cumberland River makes for interesting musical comparisons. The old guard is represented by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash and Billy Bragg who are often talking about new kids they like.  For Buddy it means inviting Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires into his home studio for a recording session.

Some of the bands are already known and honored including The Mavericks, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and The Civil Wars. Others were new to me. The Honorable South plays what it calls, “electronic soul rock and roll.” Shovels & Rope are a more traditional folk duo. The Lone Bellow has a wonderful three-part harmony. The Milk Carton Kids are described by Billy Bragg as if “somebody crossed the Louvin Brothers with Simon and Garfunkel.” Two groups demonstrate the melting pot of American music with their personnel alone: The Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Alabama Shakes.

The program pays tribute to Emmylou as the “Godmother” of Americana music, starting with Gram Parsons and tracking her evolution up to her newest collaboration with Rodney Crowell,  on Old Yellow Moon. Richard Thompson gets a similar kudo and his live performance of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is a highlight.

Like any survey course in college, the show is frustrating because it tries to cover so much in an hour. The performances seem too short and the experts seem a little pontifical with their history lessons that are pretty obvious to those who follow popular music. You want an entire hour with more than a dozen of the groups as they perform at the Ryman Auditorium or the SXSW festival in Austin. But a sampler broadens your horizons.

What’s in a name?  On another music show on PBS stations, The Sun Studio Sessions, I ran across a band from New Albany, Indiana called Houndmouth. They were asked about the name and explained that when they were recording at home, the barking dogs next door caused them problems. The audio engineer kept saying, “I think we’ll have to do another take, we got a little hound mouth on that one.”

Check your local TV listings for these shows or stream them on

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bob Dylan's Movie History

Oscar season got me thinking about music and the movies and that led to my  favorite atypical Bob Dylan album, the soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, for some easy listening.
When it was first released in 1973, Dylan made news for his debut as an actor along with another singer-songwriter, Kris Kristofferson. Dylan didn’t turn any heads with his performance but Kris was propelled into Hollywood orbit as the reluctant hero/heartthrob. The critics panned the movie as less than stellar Sam Peckinpah.

With one exception, Dylan’s role in writing the unusual soundtrack for the film did not make a lot of waves, although it was nominated for a Grammy and a BAFTA award.
The exception was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” which became a hit for him, reaching #12 on the Billboard charts. The song took on a classic life of its own when Eric Clapton covered it, Guns & Roses revived it and then gained a special poignance when Warren Zevon recorded it for his final album released just before his death.

What seems overlooked is the seminal role this soundtrack made in moving the film story along with both its music and the lyrics. Until then, movie music (other than musicals) was either background and theme music or, as in the case of American Grafitti used to provide counterpoint to the plot developments.

But Dylan and Peckinpah saw an opportunity to try something different. Use the music to set the tone and lay the ground work for the back story but also to interpret events and drive the action.  It is some of Dylan’s must entertaining music.

How’s this for a setup that captures the story (we all know by heart) and the dilemma of the outlaw:
There’s guns across the river aiming at you
Lawmen on your trail they’d like to catch ya
Bounty hunters too they’d like to get ya
Billy they don’t like you to be so free

And of course, nothing captures the last moments of consciousness like these lyrics: 
Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is coming down
I feel like I’m knockin on heaven’s door

The movie is the sort of grade B western that I like watch again to see how Peckinpah directs and to enjoy James Coburn along with western actors like Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam and Katy Jurado.

The album sounds great after forty years because Dylan’s voice is young and mellow and he works with the best musicians: Booker T, Russ Kunkel (exquisite bongos on “Cantina Theme”) Jim Keltner and Roger McGuinn.

Today you cannot go to a movie without a soundtrack of rock and pop songs that are used to describe characters' moods or situations while they jog, drive or stare into the distance.
Many of those songs are Dylan’s. IMDB lists 439 audio credits for him and he won an Oscar for "Things Have Changed in 2001 from Wonder Boys. And some movies have created standout albums that capture good musical history (Big Chill, The Blues Brothers, Forest Gump.)  

But as we wade through another awards season, don't forget this turning point in movie music from Dylan.

There’s always one more notch and four more aces
Billy you’re playing all alone

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tributes: From Billy Joel to Phil Everly

One of the pleasures of the holiday season is seeing honors for music legends and going over best of the year lists that open doors to new music and tribute albums. Here’s a brief survey.

HBO’s wonderful tribute to Stephen Sondheim, Six By Sondheim, directed by James Lapine, combines the best of traditional documentary interviews and music clips to take us from “West Side Story” through “Sundays in the Park with George.” The kinescopes from Broadway stage shows contained come vintage performances, like Mandy Patinkin as Georges Seurat. 

The interviews with Sondheim showcased his take on the creative process and his reverence for those who influenced him including personal mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern and Hal Prince. It seemed unusual that such a giant (eight Tonys, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer, an Academy Award) could be so reflective and articulate about music and writing.

At the Kennedy Center (where I first heard “Send in the Clowns”) the musical honors also included some wonderful documentary footage as well as some lushly produced performances by stars paying tribute to legends. On hand to salute Herbie Hancock (“the hippest guy in the room”) was Snoop Dog and his diamond studded mic holder along with combos led by Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter. Harry Belafonte and Buddy Guy were there for Carlos Santana. Tony Bennett set up the biography of Billy Joel and then some big guns weighed in on his classics, including Don Henley, Garth Brooks and Rufus Wainwright. They performed in front of a stage-to-ceiling keyboard and closed the show with “Piano Man” before a standing, singing audience. It’s hard to find a comparable case where a signature song that became a classic anthem also mirrored the life of its creator.

Finally Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone and Bob Edwards of XM radio tipped me to two tribute albums worth purchasing.  The first is Sing Me The Songs: Celebrating the Work of Kate McGarrigle. Performing the songs of the late Canadian artist (“Heart Like A Wheel”) are her children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, her sister, Anna, Emmy Lou Harris and Norah Jones.

Jones is also one half  of the duo in a cover album of songs by the Everly Brothers with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.  Those sibling harmonies that hooked us all as teenagers and influenced a generation of rockers get a much-deserved spotlight on For Everly. It is nice to know Phil got to hear it before he passed away this week.