Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Beach Boys Still Get Around

It’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies
And everyone goes, ‘cause everyone knows
Brother Love’s show

The only group on the Kennedy Center stage that has played longer than the Beach Boys was the National Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1931; but they were more than willing to share the stage with the kids from California.

At least this version of the band was still acting like teenagers (and making the audience feel the same)  while they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pet Sounds album.

That tribute was to come later. First it was a greatest hits fest which included too many to list, including Surfin, Catch a Wave, Surfer Girl, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, California Girls, Little Deuce Coupe and I Get Around.

While some groups acknowledge their past, this one reveled in it with a video and light show that had film of Bruce Johnston actually surfing, Mike Love doing the Watusi, clips from every music show broadcast in the 60’s and enough bikini clad girls to fill several Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. But the home movies (some of which matched the live singers with lip-synch from the original songs) contained enough self-deprecating humor and shared nostalgia that they seemed just another ride on the Beach Boys Roller Coaster.

The program called Love the “Captain” of this cruise which seemed appropriate as he led the band, sang harmony (he lets Jeffrey Foskett carry the lead vocals along with Brian Eichenburger) and joked with the audience and narrated the historical transitions.

The second set paid tribute to the Pet Sounds era with film of Carl Wilson singing on the screen above the live bands and Dennis Wilson also getting a solo bit.  Missing from the show was any tribute to Brian Wilson who travels with his own singers (and orchestra) in support of Smile. It was a subtle reminder of the Big Breakup that derailed the band just as they were doing their best work.

Caroline No, Sloop John B and Wouldn’t it Be Nice were done well and pleased the crowd. The show hit a speed bump when Mike brought out daughter Ambha for Warmth of the Sun and Bruce Johnston stumbled on Disney Girls, apparently unable to get his mic and earpiece working properly.

The Symphony was often drowned out by the band (playing in front of them) but their two marvelous overtures (Warmth of the Sun and In My Room) made me wish for an entire evening of the NSO’s take on the rich music that under girds the pop lyrics.

Love’s tribute to George Harrison, Pisces Brothers, was a wonderful surprise and showed he can still create new songs after all these years.

Music and memories are all that’s lost
Your songs are what go on and on.

The big finish had the crowd on its feet singing along with Kokomo, Help Me Rhonda (we didn’t need lyrics on the big screen for that, Mike) Good Vibrations,  and  Barbara Ann.  At the end we were having so much Fun, Fun, Fun, I had to break out my air guitar.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Boring Bob and Magic Mavis

It seems a shame you have to buy a ticket to Bob Dylan this summer to see Mavis
Staples but at least she is worth it.

Dylan’s never ending tour stopped at our nearby national park, Wolftrap, to show us  he is still up to his old tricks. Despite his opening number, “Things Have Changed,” he is still doing what he’s done for the couple of decades since I last saw him live. 

His band is tight and provides a wall of sound to which he adds his idea of barely intelligible narration.  It is as if he has become such a towering figure that all he needs to do is show up on set and read his lines, sounding more like Marlon Brando than the Frank Sinatra he is currently showcasing. One of the five Sinatra covers he essayed pretty much sums it up:

So let people wonder, let ‘em laugh, let ‘em frown
You know I’ll love you till the  moon’s upside down
Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
Why try to change me now.

It was Dylan’s old girlfriend, Mavis Staples who stole the show and our hearts with her smokey singing, her family anecdotes and wise-cracking with the audience. She began with a Staples Singers' call out, “If You’re Ready (Come and Go With Me).” We were and we did. After a cover of Talking Heads' “Slippery People,” she offered a brief mission statement:

 “I’m here to bring you some joy, some happiness, some inspiration and some positive vibrations.”  To do that she started with “Love and Trust,” which seemed painfully relevant to the week’s news.

The judge and the criminal, the sinner and the priest
Got something in common, bring ‘em all to their knees
Do what you can, do what you must
Everybody’s trying to find some love and trust.

Mopping her brow with a towel, she told us the next song was written by her father, Pop Staples for Selma in 1962.  Then she  had the audience side by side with her marching up Freedom’s Highway as she declared herself  “a soldier in this army of love marching for peace.” Her topical series wrapped with a richly nostalgic take on Buffalo Springfield’s  “For What It’s Worth.”

She closed with a rousing, extended version of the Staples Singers # l hit, “I’ll Take You There” which brought us to our feet clapping for the woman who proclaimed: “My Family has been “taking” you there for sixty-six years and I am not tired yet.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Paul Simon's Dangling Conversations

These are the days of miracle and wonder

I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day

All my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity

Some people say a lie’s a lie a lie but I say why
Why deny the obvious child

The fact is most obits are mixed reviews,
Life’s a lottery, a lot of people lose

I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers

The nearer your destination the more you’re slip slidin’ away

As each drum rap or guitar riff  moved into a familiar tune, spreading another smile across my face, I said in recognition, “Oh just another classic.”  In fact the entire concert at Wolftrap Farm Park was a showcase of Rhymin’s Simon’s lasting imprint on American music.

Even the three new songs from his Stranger to Stranger album captivated the audience and Wrist Band might put him back on Top Forty Radio.  But the fans came to hear their favorites and Simon did not disappoint thanks to his limitless energy, still-strong voice and a tour band that threatened to blow the roof off the amphitheater. 

 These ten guys displayed some eye-catching versatility. At one point there were five people playing  guitars along with Paul. At another there were five people playing different drums.  And during one song alone the lead guitarist played a recorder and a saxophone between riffs. The result was a freshness and energy that made each song seem like it had just been released for the first time.

From The Boy in The Bubble to The Boxer, Simon led the musical parade down memory lane reminding us all that not only are his lyrics timeless but his music is always inventive and enthralling.

Homeward Bound was done as a little countrified waltz,  Spirit Voices was a mashup of Charles Ives and Aztec rhythms and You Can Call Me Al was an old fashioned barn burner that had the audience signing and dancing in the aisles.

Throughout the evening, I kept asking, “How can he top this?” and of course, he simply changed guitars and broke into yet another hit from his musical vault. By the time the saxophone solo punctuated Still Crazy After All These Years, the only response was more applause.

Simon has been bending our minds and mending our hearts with his special blend of ironic commentary, political anger and personal philosophy for at least half a century.  As he demonstrated on the stage and with his newest album there seems to be no stopping him. He is A Rock looking down on the sands of our times.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Joan Baez's Birthday Bash

Joan Baez cannot hit the high notes any more but she can still pluck your heart strings.
This contradiction made for a sometimes awkward, sometimes touching 75th birthday concert which aired on PBS’ Great Performances last week. The show (also airing online at www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/joan-baez) featured what we used to call a Cavalcade of Stars (who could say no to Joanie?) and they performed the songbook of our lives as well as hers.

It featured everyone from Stephen Foster (Hard Times with Emmy Lou Harris) to Lennon-McCartney (Black Bird with David Crosby).  The casting was impeccable (Mary Chapin Carpenter on Donovan’s Catch The Wind and  Mavis Staples on Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around)) but the execution showed more rust than diamonds.

It was hard telling what made this into a somber, funereal procession rather than a music party. She wore a black tuxedo and everyone seemed to have gotten a costume memo to wear black also. Song selections didn’t help. From God is God by Steve Earle, it was the mournful Phil Ochs’ There But For Fortune and even Freight Train seemed downbeat.

Mary and Emmy Lou, who are still in full voice, seemed to hesitate to take lead roles in their duets so they, along with Judy Collins, often struggled to find sync with Joan. 

After reminding people how she once sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot to awaken Dr. Martin Luther King from a nap (and performed it again at Woodstock) Joan chose to render it as a lullabye that must have caused some people in the Beacon Theater to nod off. You were hoping the stage curtains would part to reveal The Rebirth Brass Band to kick the song into high gear.

Mavis Staples tried to pick up the tempo but The Indigo Girls stayed in the background.
Richard Thompson was the next to genuflect on She Never Could Resist a Winding Road.

Queen Joan has certainly earned her title to folk-rock royalty with her voice and her undying devotion to political causes. No one has more battle stripes from singing on behalf of the poor and oppressed around the globe. Was there a civil rights or anti-war rally in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and most subsequent decades) that she did not headline?
Would there even be a Bob Dylan without her?

Jackson Browne got the party going with a touching, After The Deluge and Nano Stern surprised everyone with a rollicking, Gracias a la Vida.

Then Joan hit her stride when Paul Simon arrived (“We are talking serious legends department now, “ she quipped).  Their voices blended smoothly on “The Boxer,” and the crowd came alive as they sang:

And I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
But that’s not unusual
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Guy Clark's Golden Hooks

Guy Clark was the songwriter who could whip out three words and leave you in a cloud of dust. You could also taste that west Texas dust in almost every song and there never seemed enough whiskey or wine to clear your throat.

It was Ohio State's Woody Hayes who famously extolled football's winning formula: three yards and a cloud of dust. Sometimes it took Guy more three words but he always won you over. The best way to pay tribute to him is to simply replay some of those phrases. He pretty much defined the "Outlaw" in modern roots music:

Desperadoes waiting for a train...

If I can get off of this LA freeway without gettin killed or caught.

And all that I learned from a Colt 45
Was to curse the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Then of course there were those fascinating, mesmerizing women

And the blues had a way with her smile
And she had a way of her own
Like prisoners have a way with a file

He always said that heaven 
Was just a Dallas whore

Hill Country, Honky Tonkin'  Rita Ballou
Every beer joint in town has played the fool for you
Backsliding, barrel riding Rita Ballou
Ain't a cowboy in Texas would not a ride a bull for you

Oh me, oh my how she makes that bow hair fly
How she hangs that music in the air

Then there was the company he kept. Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill and Jerry Jeff Walker and Rickey Skaggs among others. They are among many who would say to Guy Clark: Thanks for the songs.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

VINYL The Book

One of the best parts of the HBO series “Vinyl” is the opening credits in which the mechanical cutting of grooves and the pressing of wax records are presented in slow motion close-ups worthy of Stanley Kubrick. No matter how often I have watched that or read about the process, I could never quite fathom how sound goes from electronic recording to wax grooves and back to sound waves created by a stylus and a turntable.

Then again I never appreciated how that process had driven the art of making music until I found the coffee table history, VINYL The Art of Making Records by Mike Evans (Sterling  Publishing). It is both a labor of love and a thing of beauty created by Evans, who started in Liverpool’s Cavern Club as a musician and has produced more than sixty books on music, movies and fashion.

If this were only a collection of album covers, it would be illuminating.  David Bowie’s foreshadowing of his sexual persona on Diamond Dogs.  Frank Zappa’s send up of Sgt. Pepper on We’re Only It For The Money.  Alice Cooper’s School’s Out as a wooden school desk (with the disc wrapped in panties). Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers (they had to unzip the fly because it was scratching the vinyl during shipment).

Evans starts with Marconi and takes us to the gold plated “Sounds of Earth” attached to the Voyager space craft (Mozart and Chuck Berry on the A-side) and into the current vinyl revival symbolized by Jack White.  The book is organized by decades with sidebars that include eye-popping Turntable Treasures, segments on live albums and features on major music events.

It is fascinating to learn how the push for long playing discs (33 1/3 with some 40 minutes of playing time) was driven by record companies who wanted to release classical performances on something more convenient than a stack of 78s (about four minutes to a side).
The first concept album? In Evans' view it was from 1955: Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours.
The first double album? Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.  The idea of four different canvases ignited a revolution in cover art while giving the musicians twice as much recording time.
Motown’s first chart topping LP?  The 12-Year-Old Genius, the first of many hits for Stevie Wonder.

Mixed in with the rich history of blues, rock, rap and punk is an endless supply of trivia. LL Cool J is short for Ladies Love Cool James. Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, which Decca released in 1954, sold an estimated 25 million copies. Sgt. Pepper took 129 days to make and was one of the first albums to print all the song lyrics.

Opening this volume is like uncorking a bottle of Chateau Margaux. You can’t decide whether to devour it all once or savor it sip by sip.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bonnie Raitt: Gypsy in Me

Bonnie Raitt’s audience is aging but she isn’t. Between songs before a sold out Kennedy Center Concert Hall this weekend, she joked about her past and expressed amazement at still having fun making music.

“When I started doing this at 21, I never thought I would still being doing it at 66. But then I never thought Donald Trump would be running for President.” To that, a fan shouted: “Bonnie for President.” It would have been a landslide.

Raitt’s nearly two-hour concert was a walk down memory lane with side trips to songs from her new album, “Dig In Deep.” Against a Hotel California set, she rocked, crooned, mourned lost loves, played the blues, celebrated gospel music and kept up a running commentary. Recalling she was last at the Kennedy Center for an honors tribute to Buddy Guy, she noted, “Definitely not a juke joint this place.”

Her greatest hits seemed as fresh as the DC Cherry blossoms (which she had toured earlier): Something To Talk About, Working on a Love Letter, Right Down the Line, and a nearly acoustic version of Angel from Montgomery that sent chills down your spine.
After doing a similar lament from her new album, Undone, written by Bonnie Bishop, she quipped, "It was a lot of pain there. But I have learned after all these years I don’t  have to live every lyric.”

Raitt is one of the few performers who can segue smoothly from Sippie Wallace’s, I’m A Mighty Tight Woman to a Zimbabwean spiritual, Help Me Lord I’ m Feeling Low.  Often her transitions are respectful memories of songwriters and performers. Or she has a statement to make: “Money and politics so pissed me off, I had to do this one: Ain’t Gonna Take It. Then Shake it, Shake it, Shakin, carried its anti-nuclear power plant refrain: “Oh it makes me tremble.”

Her bandmates, including George Marinelli on guitars, Mike Finnigan on Hammond B-3 and piano, James Hutchinson on bass and  Ricky Fataar on drums are so good they distract your eyes from the star. That is, until, you hear this rippling riff and you realize: Whoa, that’s coming from Bonnie’s bottleneck guitar, of which she is a master. After all, she explained,“I did learn from John Hammond.”

This area has become a favorite of hers, thanks to the boost she and groups like Little Feat got from progressive radio station WHFS. “In DC people came to see us whether we had a Grammy or not.”

Her encore set captured the conflict of her music and everyone’s emotional roller coaster. I Can’t Make You Love Me (which of course we did) followed by That’s Just Love Sneaking Up On You.  With that the Gypsy Lady was on back on the luxury bus for the summer tour.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mick Jagger's "Vinyl" Valentine

When I started writing this blog five years ago, I had no idea that listening to music on vinyl was about to be catapulted from a thing of the past to a wave of the future. For me it was chance to wander through my record collection enjoying a few gems that had gathered too much dust while I went from cassettes to CDs. My trips down memory lane were prompted in part by a belief that the sixties and seventies were a golden age for rock and roll and the recent spate of books and movies about musicians and their music would seem to confirm that.

But I never expected that vinyl would become the mega-trend in music that it has. I have a relative who sells albums on the internet from Front Royal, Virginia. My friend John (who lives in Marin County...the Sun City for retired music people) sent me a story this week about the grand opening of a record store in Billings, Montana. The owner figured it was the only way he could clean out his basement with a clear conscience.


Other friends have sent me stories about how the demand for vinyl records has brought the pressing machinery out of mothballs. The New York Times did a story on Luis Vuitton travel bags that included a box built specially for carrying LPs. Its profile of Sir Elton John reports that his vinyl collection has reached 3,000.

The next tidal wave in this trend will break on February 14 when HBO premieres a new series, "Vinyl," co produced by Mick Jagger, who has been working on the concept for more than a decade.

HBO is bringing out the big guns for this one. Martin Scorsese directed the two hour pilot episode and the show runner is Terence Winter who did "Boardwalk Empire" and produced for "The Sopranos." Set in the 1970s in New York City, the show promises, in the best HBO grittiness, to capture all the sex and money and drugs that went into fueling the rock and roll juggernaut.

No doubt there will be extensive analysis about how accurate this portrayal is; but it seems that HBO and its producers have made a major commitment to recreate the music of the era. The Times reports that there is a soundtrack album for each episode.

In other news about those rockers who came up in the '70s, the Indiana General Assembly (not usually known for its good works in recent years) has a bill pending to rename a section of Interstate 65 as "John Cougar Mellencamp Highway." The sixteen miles runs from Austin north to John's hometown of Seymour. The Indianapolis Star is sending a reporter to look for Little Pink Houses along the route.