Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dylan, Elvis, Otis & Sam's Stories

If I am finally too old to rock and roll (at least without risking major joint replacement), I can still celebrate the glories of musical yester-years thanks to the printed word. If 2015 is not the year of the book in music, it comes close. It might be easier to list the aging rocker who has not had a biography published than it is to itemize the new ones.

Recent arrivals have come from Tom Jones, Carrie Brownstein, Chrissie Hynde, Carly Simon, Tom Petty, Kim Gordon and Elvis Costello. Patti Smith has three volumes in rotation: Her award-winning memoir, “Just Kids,” a book of collected lyrics and a new personal history, “M Train.”

Dylan gets this year’s prize for the biggest volume. “Bob Dylan: All The Songs” by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guersdon may be the definitive encyclopedia (the story behind every song) but you will need to build a bigger coffee table to support it.
 It follows others this year, “Dylan goes Electric,” “61 Highways Revisited” (the albums), “Dylan Disc by Disc” and “Time Out of Mind.”

 If you are a fan, there is a book for you that adds some history and certainly extends the brand, if not the musical repertoire. I have a couple on my to-read list for the New Year. One is Mark Ribowsky’s biography of Otis Redding, “Dreams To Remember” with a chewy subtitle: Otis Redding, Stax Records and the Transformation of Southern Soul . Next is a holdover from last year, the strange saga of “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” by Rick Bragg.

Topping the list is Peter Guarlnick’s latest with what may be the most presumptuous title ever. “Sam Philips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.” But wait, there is more: “And how he discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and how his tiny label, Sun Records of Memphis, revolutionized the world.” Not many besides Guarlnick can make that stick but from what I have heard (NPR’s Fresh Air) and read (The New Yorker), he has the interviews and anecdotes to back it up. What’s even better is the book comes with a companion CD so he’s put his spin on which of these classic songs were lighting the fires of music revolution.

Finally the other eminent historian of this genre, Greil Marcus, issued a two-pack this year: On the 40th anniversary of the classic “Mystery Train,” he has a new edition. That was followed by the paperback release of “The History of Rock & Roll in Ten Songs.”

It’s nice to have a New Year’s Dilemma: Do I read?  Or listen?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ricky Skaggs' & Ry Cooder's Master Class

On their current tour these virtuosos have taken on new roles: Master Gardeners charged with preserving and protecting American Roots Music.  All their years of laboring in the  vineyards of country, bluegrass, and gospel have produced a vintage sound that was on display at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA this week.

A set list that began with the Louvin Brothers’ The Family Who Prays  and ended with the Stanley Brothers’ Over in Gloryland might have foreshadowed a fire and brimstone tent revival. And at one point Ricky looked across the stage and asked “Ry, when you were growing up in Santa Monica did you think you’d end up playing bass in a gospel quartet?”  “Yes I did,” Cooder deadpanned.

But there was too much fun to be had on this trip down memory lane for anyone to feel pressured into baptism.  As they played and sang, it became clear that the longing for love and the need for spiritual sustenance are only separated by a few chords and a chorus.

They moved from Merle Travis (Sweet Temptation) to Hank Williams (Mansion on the Hill) to Stanley Brothers (Cold Jordan) effortlessly as changing guitars.

At one point, Cooder picked up what he called “a 100 lb guitar” that he had never played on stage before. The result was a rollicking duet with Skaggs’ mandolin on  Hold Whatcha Got with the audience singing along to the chorus:

Don’t sell the house, don’t wreck the car
Stay there, honey, right where you are
Hold whatcha got, I’m coming home to stay.

Cooder was similarly self-effacing when he strapped on a banjo that he said once belonged to Mike Seger and that he learned how to play it by watching You Tube videos.
Skaggs, his wife Sharon White, and Ry often suggested the audience turn to You Tube to hear the originals of the songwriters they were highlighting.

The legacies of Hank Snow (Now and Then There’s a Fool Such as I) and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs (Gone Home) are in good hands as these ‘young’ legends add their own lustrous versions to the country-gospel canon.

Rounding out the troupe was Sharon’s sister Cheryl on vocals, her father, 84-year-old Buck, on piano, Mark Fain on bass and Ry’s son, Joaquin Cooder, on drums.
When the road is called up yonder this band will be ready.

As for me, I heard the spirit listening to Ry Cooder’s solo intro to Tennessee Waltz. It is still ringing in my ears.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Beatles, Stones & Dylan in 1965

There are many ways to slice and dice music history. Andrew Grant Jackson does it by zeroing in on one year in his new book, 1965 The Most Revolutionary Year in Music. While some might counter that the Summer of Love or the first wave of Beatlemania were bigger, Brown lays out a convincing case.

The year began with Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, The Temptations’ My Girl and The Beach Boys Pet Sounds. It ended with the Beatles Rubber Soul.  Along the way, The Stones came up with Satisfaction, Otis Redding asked for Respect, James Brown announced Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag,  and the Mommas and Poppas beguiled us with California Dreaming.  And that’s just for starters.

Throw in The Byrds, The Kinks, The Who, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Animals, The Velvet Underground, Wilson Pickett, Barry McGuire,  Simon and Garfunkel and even a Sinatra comeback.

Fueling the creativity was the roller coaster of politics and violence of 1965: The assassination of Malcom X, Selma, the swelling tide of American troops going to Vietnam, Watts, Medicare and the Voting Rights Act.

Jackson has done his research (he has written two books about the Beatles) and has footnotes for every anecdote in this tapestry of exquisite rock and roll trivia. Here are a few examples.

--Stephen Stills flunked his audition for The Monkees TV show but recommended his friend, Peter Tork.

--Roger McGuinn discovered the Byrds’ signature 12-string sound after seeing George Harrison playing a Rickenbacker in Hard Days Night.

--Animals manager Mickie Most flew to New York to buy Brill Building songs from Don Kirshner, including “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” and “It’s My Life.” He passed on “Kicks,” which went to Paul Revere and The Raiders.

--Dylan road manager Bobby Neuwirth to Carole King: “You’re the chick who writes songs for bubblegum wrappers, right?”

There are also funny scenes such as Dylan turning the Beatles on to pot in a New York Hotel room  and how Johnny Cash started a 500 acre forest fire in California that cost him $82,000 fines for scattering 44 Condors.

Best of all is the way Jackson traces the creative process of the song writers and their times.  He devotes a chapter to how Satisfaction started with Keith Richards’ midnight guitar riff, evolved by a pool in Florida, went from folk song to rock during sessions in Chicago and LA and was completed when a roadie offered a fuzz distortion box to the band.

The result in Jackson’s words was how “…the Stones found their golden formula, mixing the beat of Motown, the lyrics of Dylan and Berry and the novelty of new technology to synthesize their own style of R&B/pop/rock.”

Jackson also documents how the sting of being booed at the Newport Folk Festival and the subsequent harassment drove Dylan into the studio where in three days he created Highway 61 Revisited. That escalated the music competition toward year’s end when Brian Wilson declared (after first hearing Norwegian Wood on his car radio), “We gotta beat the Beatles.”  Many people think he did, with his next album, “Pet Sounds.”

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jackson Browne Quiet Superstar

Jackson Browne cuts a wide swath when he walks into town.  He plants one foot on the neck of today’s politicians and the other firmly in the romantic nostalgia of the 1970’s. He wears his progressive anti-war, eco-progressivism on one sleeve and his St. Augustine introspection on the other. Tying all this together is his timeless gift for melding music and lyrics in ways that beguile and provoke and strike emotional nerves.

Whether it is now (why so many live in poverty and others live as kings ) or then (longing for the legal tender), Browne moved seamlessly from his latest work on Standing In The Breach to his classic The Pretender throughout the evening.

The upscale audience was sitting on their hands until he moved to the piano and went to the first greatest hits segment. He woke them up with These Days and For Everyman  and after a dash back to the present with You Know The Night, it was into the vault with For  A Dancer and Fountain of Sorrow.

At the midpoint of a US tour, Browne’s band was tight as a tick and the lighting cues were faster than I could move my binoculars: Bob Glaub on bass, Mauricio Lewak on Drums. Jeff Young on Hammond organ and piano, Greg Leisz on lap/pedal steels and guitar (a 12-string for a Byrds tribute song) and Val McCallum,whose riffs on any one of his eight guitars would have been worth the price of admission.

This group gave Browne’s songs a distinctly country sound compared to his earlier studio albums and that reinforced the everyman images that his writing evokes.

Browne looks (and sounds) as if he stepped out of the 70s although his voice is deeper.  But he remains unaffected by fame (and 18 million albums sold), chatting with the audience about how he came to write songs like Winslow or how much he liked the venue: ‘This is a very special place to hear music, you can hear a pin drop.” It felt like he dropped into your living room to play a few songs.

His wry new take on life in Long Way Round (from “Breach”) echoed much of his more familiar work:
Now I’m a long way gone
Down this wild road I’m on
It’s going to take me where I’m bound
But it’s the long way around.

The segue to These Days defied the passage of so many decades
These days I sit on corner stones
And count my time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don’t confront me with my failures
I have not forgotten them.

The second set was just as strong a mix of the old and the new. The audience was on its feet for The Pretender and then drowning him out on the chorus of Running on Empty.

It is reassuring to see that Jackson Browne still has a tank full of high test emotions and that his songs still hold up a mirror up to our generation.

I’ve been aware of the time going by
They say in the end, it’s the blink of an eye
And when the morning light comes streaming in
You’ll get up and do it again

Saturday, August 1, 2015

First Aid Kit's Heavenly Harmonies

How I found myself watching two Swedish sisters, backed by a pedal steel guitar and drums, performing at a National Park just outside the DC beltway is an interesting story.
But the better one is about the music created and performed by First Aid Kit.

Karla Soderberg looks like Central Casting’s version of a singer songwriter from the 1960’s; her acoustic guitar and lead voice drive the band. Her older sister, Johanna, with long strawberry blonde hair and a sylph-like resemblance to a young Mia Farrow, plays keyboards and sings harmony. Their voices are strong individually but when they harmonize, you realize why ancient sailors would steer their ships toward the rocks.

The comparisons that come to mind (Everly Brothers, Parton-Harris-Ronstadt) do not seem adequate. When they chime in, the audience seemed to do a collective jaw drop and listen in amazement.

Although their voices could sustain them as a cover band, their song writing kicks up their work to a memorable experience. Here are some examples from their latest CD, “Stay Gold.”

What if our hard work ends in despair
What if the road won’t take me there
Oh I wish for once, we could stay gold.
What if to love and be loved’s not enough
What if I fall and can’t bear to get up
Oh I wish for once, we could stay gold.

Their ability to make sharp musical turns is showcased on “Heaven Knows” which starts with this melancholy opening reverie,

You’ve spent a year staring into a mirror
Another one trying to figure out what you saw
Paid so much attention to what you’re not
You have no idea who you are.

Then they flip the switch and out bursts a rocking dance-pop song with the chorus:
Heaven knows, Heaven knows, Heaven knows you’re lying. It will stick in your head for days.

They closed their set at Wolftrap Farm Park with an earlier song, Emmylou, a tribute to country music giants:
I ‘ll be your Emmylou/ And I’ll be your June
If you’ll be my Graham and my Johnny too.
I’m not asking much of you
Just sing a little darling, sing with me.

Their show-stopper came a few moments earlier when they sang Paul Simon’s “America.”  For two young women who describe themselves as coming from the land of snow, polar bears, Ikea and Volvo, they captured the spirit of going to look for America in a sound that was haunting and beautiful.

Two footnotes: The rest of the traveling band is drummer Scott Simpson from Edinburgh and pedal steel and guitar player Melvin “The Tiger” Duffy from Brighton, England.   Stay Gold was recorded in Omaha, Nebraska, which is what happens when you get
“discovered” in Austin, Texas.

This is one of my daughter’s favorite groups and when I persisted in referring to them as The Band Aid Girls, she got me the CD and that’s how I ended up at the concert.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Brian Wilson vs. The Beach Boys

The other day I went to a music movie and found myself trapped in a Hitchcock horror melodrama. There were heroes and villains, sounds from pets and God only knows how Brian Wilson survived the last half of the twentieth century.  The twists and turns of his mind’s games and musical career are the stuff that Hollywood scriptwriters dreams are made of. 

Every great musician has troubles with his manager (Brian’s father), with his band-mates (Mike Love) and a fanatical public that wants more of the same old music (cars, girls and surfing) year after year. And the demons that drive them to achieve greatness seem to come packaged with addictive behavior that threatens friends, family and careers.

Brian’s story, as retold in “Love and Mercy,” comes with an extra ingredient that makes for an explosive and sometimes painful to watch film: Dr. Eugene Landy, a therapist who takes control of Brian’s life and his music. Although Landy and the woman who became Brian’s second wife merit only a couple of lines in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, their struggle over Wilson provides the tension that director Bill Pohlad needed to build a drama. Landy’s the dividing line between the young Brian (played by Paul Dano) and the current version (John Cusack).

Most of the Beach Boys/Wilson saga is well documented so Pohlad moves deftly through the early success and focuses on the days in the L.A. studio when Brian tries to break from the past and articulate the vast array of sounds he hears.  Wilson meshes smoothly with the famed session players of The Wrecking Crew (whose casting is so eerily accurate you think you might be watching documentary footage) and the result is the music released on the “Pet Sounds” album in 1966.  

Record execs blew it off in favor of another hits collection but Paul McCartney said in a 1990 interview “It blew me out of the water…it is a totally classic record.” He and George Martin credit its production techniques as a major inspiration for Sgt. Pepper, released the next year.

Another music highlight is watching how Good Vibrations went from a piano chord to the Beach Boys biggest selling single and arguably one of the best rock anthems of all time.  The film also depicts the first chapter of the almost 50-year song cycle of  “Smile.”

“Love and Mercy” packs a lot of history into two hours and is in the first rank of those films trying to depict the magic of genius (“Amadeus” and “A Beautiful Mind”) but it is a
film about Brian Wilson.  The other guys get reduced to minor status, which slights the significant contributions from Carl Wilson as lead vocalist, guitarist and producer and Mike Love as lyricist along with Al Jardine (California Saga) and Bruce Johnston (Disney Girls).

Like any good Beach Boys song, the movie jabs you with teenage angst, wraps it in some soothing nostalgia and leaves you standing in the California sunshine.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Who's Super Fan

When The Who’s 50th anniversary concert tour hits the states next fall, my neighbor Seth will be front and center as usual (he’s already got the tickets) and Pete Townshend might even give him a shout-out from the stage. That’s because Seth’s loyalty and friendship go way back and he’s got the autographed photos to prove it.

His ties to the legendary super group are a result of  his connections as an entertainment  lawyer,  successful bids  at charity auctions and a lot of persistence. Seth doesn’t wear his loyalty on his sleeve but he does display it on his cars and on the walls of his house. His collection includes lots of posters and photos as well as a cymbal, a guitar and Roger Daltrey’s microphone.

It takes two rooms to hold this super fan’s collection. Upstairs there are LP’s, books and CDs…all from the Who.

Downstairs is the wall of fame and the piece de resistance: a genuine working pinball machine, just the way Tommy would have played it.

I may not make it to the concerts but I am trying to catch the new documentary, “Lambert and Stamp,” about the two guys who helped take the Who from rock band to household names. Roger Daltrey describes Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp as the fifth and sixth members of the group. It includes some great footage from the early days (I’ve seen the trailer) in part because the two protagonists were film makers who started out to do a documentary on a typical 60’s group and follow it on the road to fame. When they saw the band (known then as High Numbers), they decided to switch from filming to managing. The rest is another chapter of our music history.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Wrecking Crew's Mark on History

Listening to rock songs from the 1960’s will never be the same after you have seen the new film about The Wrecking Crew, the legendary LA session players. Whether it is the Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mommas and Poppas or the Fifth Dimension, you will be asking who provided that great guitar lick or the catchy melody: Was it the artist on the album cover or the uncredited musicians and producers in the studio.

In the halls of the Capitol Records Tower and in the clubs along the Hollywood strip, the answer has been an open secret for years. It was the musicians who molded, enhanced and interpreted the notes in Brian Wilson’s head and the manic ideas of Phil Spector and took songs to the top of the charts. Although they had made lots of money, these music makers had little recognition until recently when a book by Kent Hartman (2012) and a documentary directed by Denny Tedesco got a theatrical release in March.

The film, which focuses heavily on Denny’s father, master guitarist Tommy Tedesco and drummer Hal Blaine, began as a labor of love and ended up as a major contribution to rock and roll history.  Tedesco began filming interviews and raising money more than fifteen years ago when his father was still alive and older crew members were still around.

Others featured in a reunion interview along with Tedesco and Blaine, are guitar and bass player Carol Kaye and saxophonist Plas Johnson. Each of them contributes live, impromptu solos that often segue into the fully produced versions of the songs. Johnson does the intro to the Pink Panther Theme and Blaine offers the drum solo that made Taste of Honey a gold record for Herb Alpert. (Others talk about how they played on Alpert’s first album for scab rates of $25 a session but when Alpert hit it big, he tracked them all down and paid them a share of the profits.)

Among those swapping tales of the good ole days are Cher (who started as a backup singer at age 16), Leon Russell (playing piano for Spector) and Glen Campbell, recalling how the group made Wichita Lineman come alive.

The TWC got its name from an offhand comment by one of the old school musicians they gradually replaced as rock and roll took hold. “You guys are going to wreck the music business.” While the core group of six to ten regulars was pretty stable, the actual number of those on the roster is anybody’s guess. The Wikipedia entry has about 50 names.

It is even harder to count all the songs they played on. They kept score in terms of  #1 singles and “Album of the Year” awards as well as the checks that came with playing morning, noon and night.

If there was an end point to this magical run, it came with the arrival of  the singer-songwriters like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young who wanted to play their own material. But it was not an easy transition. As Roger McGuinn tells it, “We did Mr. Tambourine Man in three hours (with TWC). When we came back on our own to do Turn, Turn, Turn, it took 77 takes.”

The success of  The Monkees TV show and album sales also marked a turning point because many people disliked the idea of a synthetic rock and roll band that knocked off The Beatles.  Not drummer Mickey Dolenz. “I knew I was a pretend drummer, playing in a pretend band in a pretend TV show, living in a Malibu Beach House.”

If there is a flaw in the film, it is the way that actual songs are cut short after a terrific buildup about how they were crafted. Just as you start tapping your toe and singing along, they fade down and a new segment begins.  This is no doubt a result of how expensive the rights have become, but the solution is in sight.  The website says there is a three-CD soundtrack album in the works. The film itself is only in limited release but it is available on demand from Amazon.

Denny Tedesco deserves a Grammy for getting these wonderful stories on film. His closing dedication sums up our debt to The Wrecking Crew: “This film is dedicated to those whose work is the back beat to the sound track of our lives.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Blue Grass Gold

There is nothing better to crack the ice dam of a nagging winter than a few hours of live music so the DC Bluegrass Festival arrived this weekend in the nick of time. My afternoon of musical delights began with a band from Carbondale, Illinois. The Bankesters are a family affair led by three sisters, ,Melissa on bass, Alysha on Mandolin, and  Emily on fiddle, father Phil on guitar and Melissa's husband, Kyle Triplett on banjo. They moved effortlessly from swinging romps to ballads like Carolina Rain and Guardian Angel to the spiritual, The Master’s Garden.

The Winner of the Mid-Atlantic Band Contest, Grande Ole Ditch did their best to bring the house down (not easy in a Sheraton ball room) with their irreverent foot stomping blue grass band.  “If loving you is killing me, what a way to go,” was for openers.
Even  lead singer Jody Mosser had to admit their closer, Pigeon Eatin’ Catfish, was a little weird:
When the preacher, told me son, “You need some Jesus in your life,
I turned and left the chapel and went lookin’ for my wife,
I said “that pigeon-eating catfish, well he needs a drink or two
Get on that moonshine, a swig or three ‘ll do.”

There was nothing weird about the way Mosser attacks his dobro, at one point it reminded me of Jerry Lee Lewis. Grand Ole Ditch is named after the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a pet project of George Washington that runs along the Potomac up to the Band’s hometown of Cumberland, Maryland. They describe themselves as a band that “utilizes nickel-wound vibrations emanating from historically pigeon-holed boxes composed of wires and wood.” My description is more succinct: They are hot.

The group that really knocked me out was another family band from nearby Winchester, Virginia. Gold Heart is the Gold sisters: Tori (mandolin), Jocey (guitar) and Shelby (fiddle) with dad Trent on bass. They showcased their own songs with Aint That Crazy and  O.K. Corral. But it wasn’t until they lowered their instruments and sang a cappella that these ladies transported the audience with the magic of their sibling harmony. During their rendition of Vince Gill’s Go Rest High on That Mountain, you could have heard a pin drop. Ten years of singing and playing together demonstrated that practice does make it sound perfect.

Later I dropped by a workshop where mandolin player Sierra Hull was answering questions and demonstrating techniques to a rapt audience of pickers and fans. When she finished playing one request, a silver haired gentleman shook his head and announced, “It doesn’t sound like that when I play it.”

Although I didn’t get a chance to hear some of the headline acts like The Seldom Scene and Blue Highway, I got a look at some of  tomorrow’s stars and the DC Bluegrass Union’s message: Uncle Sam wants you to make more music.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Graham Nash's Wild Tales

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yester year when the only thing better than the sex and drugs was the rock and roll. Graham Nash was present for the creation of much of it and he survived to tell all in a fascinating memoir, Wild Tales.

He opens with a turning point scene in Los Angeles in 1968 at Joni Mitchell’s house with David Crosby and Stephen Stills singing, “In the morning, when you rise/ do you think of me and how you left me crying.” After getting them to run through “You Don’t Have to Cry” again, he joined them, adding a third harmony part that cemented their futures together.

Creating CSN was not easy for him because it meant leaving behind Allan Clarke and their chart topping group famous for its own harmonizing, The Hollies. Nash and Clarke met in the sixth grade in a poor suburb of Manchester, skipped school to buy tickets for Bill Haley and The Comets and waited in the rain outside a hotel to meet The Everly Brothers.

But Nash knew it was time to move (as Crosby did when he left The Byrds and Stills, The Buffalo Springfield) because he wanted to do his own songs and tackle bigger challenges than the Hollies, who were planning an album of Dylan covers.

What follows is an endless series of recording sessions, tours, song writing, benefit concerts, breakups and reunions all told with remarkable insights at a brisk pace in a self-effacing style.

Nash wrestles with a lot of demons from his past (leaving his first wife for Joni, leaving her, a brief fling with Rita Coolidge) and that of his band mates.  David Crosby’s now legendary drug taking starts as comic relief and relentlessly spirals into an abyss that is marked by a jail term and liver failure. Nash’s grim tale is relieved only by his unflagging friendship for the man he calls “my partner and great friend.”

He describes the arrival of Neil Young,  at Ahmet Ertegun’s suggestion, as “tossing a live grenade into a vacuum.” And Crosby notes, “Juggling four bottles of nitroglycerine is fine until you drop one.”  The bottles got dropped more than once but there was usually someone one around to clean up the debris and CSNY’s unusual legal structure that allowed solo work  at any time provided a safety valve.

And when one guy called to say “I’ve got some new songs,” the others jumped on the next plane to hear them. As Nash’s first and last lines of the book read: “It always comes down to the music.”

There are lots of rich details here that put you on board the helicopter going to Woodstock or sailing the Caribbean aboard Crosby’s yacht, The Mayan  and there is a who’s who of rock stars that Nash sang with or shared concert bills.  He offers insights into his song writing process and demonstrates his passion for liberal causes from The No Nukes Concert to a spontaneous trip to Berlin where he sang “Chippin’ Away” as the wall came down.

Nash’s narrative captures the history of his musical era (one that fortunately is still going strong) but his lyrics have always given us the spirit of our times.  Like this from “Wasted on the Way.”

And there’s so much time to make up everywhere you turn
Time we have wasted on the way
So much water moving underneath the bridge
Let the water come and carry us away