Friday, March 30, 2018

Turnpike Troubadours In The Fast Lane


Very rarely do you come across a band whose lyrics play with your head and whose music kicks your butt.  That happened to me when I caught the Turnpike Troubadours on a recent “Austin City Limits” on PBS.

They ran me down with rollicking rockabilly music and then resuscitated me with some of the most ear catching lyrics I have heard in a long time.

The set began with with an upbeat ode to “Every Girl”  who evolved after breaks for fiddle, pedal steel and guitar solos from best girl to best friend. It begins with
She says she don’t believe in marriage
But she still believes in fate

And ends with
She’s a flighty good time buddy at the corner of the bar
But she’d fight the devil for you just for being who you are

Human emotions are the subtext of a weather report on “Tornado Warning,”
Kerosene to feed the flame
Your effect is quite the same
Shadows dancing on the wall
Waiting for the sky to fall

What hooked me for good was a moving-on love song, “Diamonds and Gasoline.”
And I would buy for you a diamond
Or myself some gasoline
If I can’t afford you darling
Then I can’t afford to dream

The small town love triangles and family dramas reminded me of the stories that John Mellencamp could whip up in three minute songs. But the Turnpike Troubadours give the tales of teenage angst the kind of sage ironic view of fortune’s ups and downs that John Prine can recall. They capture the feelings of the players while at the same time observing the chessboard they are playing on.

The band is presided over by lead singer (and song writer) Evan Felker who has movie star looks, a clear voice and stolid demeanor. He seems to be the axle around whom the rest of the band spins. In an interview after the show, he and bassist R.C. Edwards talked about how their use of recurring characters was influenced by William Faulkner and Stephen King. As Edwards put it, “they create their own little universes.”

Felker, mentioned the Red Headed Stranger as an example, “Essentially what I’m after is not having to create a concept record because I just like to mess around with these stories.”

Willie Nelson has obviously been a role model for their music style, a dance hall and cowboy bar sound that is reminiscent of “Willie and Family Live.”

Their backstory is as colorful as their lyrics. They began a dozen years ago in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and have been barnstorming at the rate of 100 dates a year since then, with five studio albums to date. They are criss crossing the country this summer from Johnny’s BBQ in Salado, TX to the House of Blues in Anaheim and Zoo Montana in Billings.

It promises to be fun.

We’ll raise another round boys and have another glass
Be thankful for today, knowing it will never last
Still let’s leave the world laughing when our eulogies are read
May we all get to heaven ‘fore the devil knows we’re dead.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Johnny Cash, Moody Blues & Spike Lee

It's been an interesting musical week. It started with an impromptu Moody Blues retrospective, ended with a listen back to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and included a great story from Spike Lee about his father, bassist Bill Lee.

The Moody Blues concert was prompted by the passing of founder, Ray Thomas. The Moodies always seemed a little out of step with the musical trends of their day. Too smooth for rock and roll or even traditional blues, too much orchestration for purists and too cerebral for Top 40 radio. Still they had the chops and the talent to create their own sub genre and their own following that grew into a trend.
Their first big hit, "Go Now" in 1967 is a distant echo of their later orchestral symphonies and complicated rhetoric. But regardless of  the production values they added, they never lost the knack for a good hook. My personal favorite is from The Question,

It's not the way that you say it
When you do those things to me
It's more the way that you mean it
When you tell me what will be.

When it comes to interpreting lyrics, no one could do it better than Johnny Cash, especially in live shows.  (Of course he could pen some memorable ones as well.) So it's always good to hear him get his due as he has this week with stories about the 50th anniversary of his live album, "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison." He took a big gamble to force Columbia Records to record and release it at a time when his career had fallen into one of its periodic eclipses. Boy did it pay off.

It's been a regular on my turntable several times a year since I found it a discount department store in the sixties for the nice price of $3.67. Listening to it again is like opening The American Songbook and realizing how the country-rock and alt-country got started and dozens of singer/songwriters owe him huge debts.

It's with some embarrassment that I admit that I never realized that Spike Lee's dad was a legendary bass player who wrote folk-jazz operas, scored Spikes' films and performed with Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. In a recent radio interview, Spike shared a story about what happened when Bob Dylan went electric. At the time Bill Lee was making a good living backing Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Theodore Bikel and Dylan. It was his bass line on Puff The Magic Dragon, according to Spike.

 Bill Lee refused to make the switch to electric, on principle, and his work dried up to the point that his wife had to go back to teaching school to support the family. When Terry Gross asked Spike if he had any regrets about his dad's choice, Spike replied: "Never."

And finally, as long as we are remembering music legends, here's a story from Wayne Cochran, the legendary front man for The C.C. Riders with the eye-popping blonde pompadour. In the early 1980's, David Letterman asked him where he got the raspy voice needed to sing the blues.

"You gotta sound like you're hurting a little. I used to tell people, 'Just tie yourself to a donkey, let him drag you for about six months across a desert. When you stand up, you can sing the blues.'"

Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Mellencamp: Sprinting to the Finish

When John Mellencamp strikes the opening licks of a song, you know he's got you. He hits a musical nerve, opens a vein of nostalgia and salts it with irony, sarcasm and social commentary.
It is all on display during this summer's tour and on his exquisite new album with Carlene Carter, "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies."

He's put together a Show Band that is tighter than a tick and he marches it through his impressive hit parade with a precision that would make James Brown proud.  He begins in a bluesy country style with Lawless Times that showcases his aged-to-mellow gravel road voice. The musical path wanders smoothly from Small Town to Robert Johnson's Stones in My Passway.

But the crowd goes crazy when he turns the bend into Check it Out (all we've learned about living) and Jack and Diane(oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone), the latter as an acoustic take with an audience singalong.

From there, it was onto another dreamer's tale off the new album. Grandview is Jack's story plus forty as he woos his girl with promises of a brand new double-wide trailer:
We could slide it on in there, honey
We can chock those wheels real good
I want it sittin' nice and level

He showcased two other new songs, My Soul's Got Wings and Easy Target, both arranged with more of a rock tempo than the country sound on the CD, lest the fans get fidgety while waiting for their favorites.

They came next,  after a beautiful piano and violin overture to Scarecrow: Paper in Fire, Crumbling Down, The Authority Song and Pink Houses (ain't that America... Cause the simple man, baby, pays the thrills, the bills and the pills that kill).

Mellencamp recently chain smoked his way through an interview with Jane Pauley on CBS in which he talked about reaching 65.
"I can see the finish line from here," he said. "I only have so many summers left and I intend not to waste them being old."

On stage he talked about how he and a long time band mate have decided to rest by only taking a lot of naps during the day. "I don't want the newspapers to say John Mellencamp died in his sleep."

Then he took us all back to those days

When a smoke was a smoke
And groovin' was groovin'
And dancin' meant everything
We we're young and we were improvin'

John Mellencamp, for one, still is--and still lighting musical fuses.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Frightened Rabbit Wins The Race

We started the usual summer concert season in an unusual venue (DC's 9:30 Club) with an unusual audience (millennials) watching a band with an unusual name.
Frightened Rabbit may be the best up and coming rock band  you never heard of. Rest assured that many fans on the other side of the generation gap have, as the band has been selling out concerts from Boston to DC, and been on festival bills in Sonoma, Houston and Hyde Park, London.

Their U.S. swing in May was in support of their fifth album, Painting of a Panic Attack, whose title captures the complex psychological pathways of their songs. Those pathways are filled with twists and turns and a musical surprise around every hedgerow.
Rabbit's lyrics are introspective questions about how to cope with life and love but at this point, their teenage angst and fatalism have given way to a knowing world weariness, tinged by optimism. Founder and front man, Scott Hutchison, weaves some dark and torturous stories that somehow find a ray of hope at the end of the musical road.

Blood Under the Bridge
It's just blood under the bridge, and it's alright, it's alright...
I found the way to make the best of a flaw
And realize it's not the end,
It's just an uncomfortable pause.

Die Like A Rich Boy
I'll be Shakespeare's moonstruck king
We can lose our minds at the top of the hill
We burn cash and carry a decadent flame
Way into the night and beyond the grave.

Juxtaposed with these serious essays are rocket bursts of music from four guitars, drums and keyboards that have been playing together long enough to be polished without losing the fun of performing live. Hutchison keeps the audience entertained between songs with wisecracks about forgetting mates birthdays and how they're glad they did not move to California (from Glasgow, Scotland) because their songs would be "all happy and full of vitamins."

While their live show was a raucous, bouncing bar band romp, their studio CD comes across as a smooth, sophisticated production with an intensity that often delivers a wall of sound.

It's the words surfing in behind that sound which give Frightened Rabbit a lasting musical impact.  They capture the emotional push-pull of their generation and do it with a great back beat.

Get Out
I'm a worshiper, a zealot king, cursed, a devotee
Of the heady golden dance she does
She's an uncut drug...
I saw a glimmer in the dark and now I know
She won't get out of my heart, she won't.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bee Gees: 50 Years of Great Hooks

The BeeGees First album has a place of honor in my collection because it is still fun to listen to and it confirms a couple of my personal theories. One is that first albums from a group are always the best. And second, that 1967 was the greatest year ever for rock and roll.

Perhaps I was smitten by the haunting lyrics of New York Mining Disaster 1941 (In the event of something happening to me...) or the anthemic sounds of To Love Somebody (You don't know what it's like...) that led to the powerful hook of the title phrase. Or maybe it was that their lyrics seemed more cerebral than their competitors in the British Invasion. Like Chad and Jeremy the word pictures made me feel as if I lived just around the corner from Carnaby Street and it was nearly tea time with Uncle Albert.

Those thoughts seem quaint in light of the super stardom that followed twelve years when Robert Stigwood asked them to write some songs for a John Travolta movie. That later period of history was served up in spades last Sunday on the CBS Grammy special honoring Barry, Robin, Maurice and in a backhanded way, little brother, Andy.

Even the Waring Blender processing that Grammy and CBS have taken to excess (glitz, celebrities, dancers, light shows) could not overwhelm the song writing genius of the Brothers Gibb. Unfortunately the show gave short shrift to the historic footage of The Rattlesnakes as teeny boppers in matching outfits in order to showcase people once nominated for a Grammy trying to imitate the sibling harmonies and showmanship of the originals.

Keith Urban did a creditable solo only to be let down by the sound mix on the crescendo line of To Love Somebody.  John Legend pulled off How Can You Mend a Broken Heart thanks in part to a sweet harmonica from Stevie Wonder. (How can you keep the rain from falling? How can you stop the sun from shining? What makes the world go round?). And the surprising a capella version of
Too Much Heaven from the Pentatonix was a treat.

As for the rest of hit parade, I preferred the real BeeGees who were captured for PBS cameras during the Las Vegas special in 1997, "One Night Only," which is on DVD and will no doubt be resurrected for future fund-raising weeks.

Travolta looked ageless on stage in his white sport coat and his anecdote about how the BeeGees came up with five songs during a weekend at a French chalet was charming. Each of those songs became a number one hit off the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack that was the biggest seller of all-time until Thriller bumped it off.

The mega single of the album, Staying Alive, has usually had a brassy, disco production and overdubbed chorus that all but drowned out the words. Now that the song has become a two word philosophy it is worth hearing the lyrics:

Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin'
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive...
Life goin' nowhere. Somebody help me, yeah
Stayin alive

That epic hook seems to have its origins in the mine shaft first envisioned in 1967.

Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?
Do you know what's like on the outside
Don't go talking too loud, you'll cause a landslide, Mr. Jones.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Patsy Cline: A Pioneer Voice

While the national media attention was focused on the passing of Chuck Berry, PBS was showcasing another music legend who changed the way we listen. "When Patsy Cline Was Crazy" is a combination of a traditional rags to riches story and some amazing video footage reminding us who paved the way for a generation of female performers.

Most of all, it brings back a voice that was powerful enough to cut through the static of AM radio, tinny jukeboxes and grainy television. If she had today's technology delivering her songs, the Sirens of Homer's Odyssey would have wilted with envy.

As Rhiannon Giddons reminds us, you always know that's a Patsy song.  Most of us know of her and her music but few know about her. This documentary from The American Masters series ( narrated by Roseanne Cash, goes a long way to fill in the picture.

She started singing in bars and clubs while in high school, endured jobs washing Greyhound buses and drug store clerking before she got gigs with Roy Clark and Jimmy Dean. Her first record contract paid a pittance and stuck her recording the lousy songs the boss had the rights for.

Her big break came in 1957 when she appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts debuting "Walking After Midnight." As Arthur drawled, "Don't go away Patsy done won this."
That earned her $10,000 and forced the company to rush the song into stores where it became her first hit.

By then, Patsy had given up the Dale Evans cowgirl outfits with lots of fringe (made by her mother) for the kind of cocktail dresses seen on television variety shows. She was Nashville's response to Elvis and rock and roll and the shift paid off.

Before videotape the only way to preserve live television was by filming the monitors to make kinescopes and these are the highlights of the documentary. "A Church, A Courtroom, Then Goodbye," "Three Cigarettes and an Ashtray," and "I Fall To Pieces" are priceless performances that still sound heart-wrenching half a century later. As Reba McIntire admits, no matter how hard others try, "you just can't do it like Patsy."

There are other interviews paying tribute to Patsy as a scrapper, a trailblazer and someone who could do six shows a day for weeks at time in Vegas. Everyone from Willie Nelson ("Crazy" was named the #1 jukebox hit of all time) to Leann Rimes and Kacey Musgraves acknowledges their debt to Patsy.

Just as she hit it big, it all ended tragically in a plane crash in Tennessee in 1963, a month before "Sweet Dreams (of you)" was released. Twenty-five thousand fans lined the streets of Winchester, Va., during her funeral. They have been buying her music ever since.

The "Greatest Hits" album is  the longest charting record of all-time and has sold more than 10 million copies.  Each song has become a standard. Patsy Cline set the musical bar very high.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John Lennon's Legal Legacy

It is hard to imagine anything more valuable than John Lennon's musical achievements but to thousands of immigrants currently ensnared in the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol nets, it may be a court case he pursued and won more than four decades ago.

As our memories of how John and Yoko battled against the Nixon Administration have dimmed, a new book has arrived to remind us how corrupt politicians can threaten the Constitution, how individuals can fight back and how the legal system can actually deliver justice.

The story of John Lennon vs. The USA has been covered before on film and in print but there is nothing as riveting and cogent as the inside story told by his attorney, Leon Wildes, in a new memoir from the publishing imprint of the American Bar Association.

It is full of delicious historical ironies, scary parallels and inside gossip. It began in 1971 when Lennon agreed to attend a rally and concert in Ann Arbor on behalf of a radical writer and musician John Sinclair. Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis and Bobby Seale were on the bill. Also attending were FBI agents who produced a 26-page report that got immediate circulation in field offices and the Justice Department. With a nudge from Sen. Strom Thurmond, John and Yoko became prime targets in the conspiracy against the anti-war movement. The plan to keep them from attending protests at the Republican National Convention in Miami in 1972 was simple and arbitrary: deny an extension of their temporary visas.

The Lennons wanted to stay, not to protest, but to continue their search for Yoko's daughter whose father had violated repeated custody orders and absconded with Kyoko. John, of course, was still making music and managing other Apple Records projects. His visa's Achilles Heel was a guilty plea on a cannabis oil charge in England (which has its own backstory).

They turned for help to Leon Wildes, a man who says he did not know who John Lennon was but he knew a helluva lot about immigration laws. They couldn't have picked a better guide down the rabbit hole of a parallel quasi-legal system (under the sole discretion of the U.S. Attorney General !) which has its own set of rules, its own system of appointed "judges" and its own arcane appeals process.

The trail winds through a fascinating Freedom of Information lawsuit, oral arguments at the U.S. Courtof Appeals, a clever public relations campaign, the birth of Sean Lennon  and some enduring legal precedents.

Wildes' breakthrough came when he discovered the Immigration Service had created an unofficial category to handle visa violators whom the agency did not want to deport for humanitarian reasons, in some cases despite felony records. These were called "non-priority cases," because the agency was willing to let them be ignored. Wildes found and analyzed more than 1,800 of these shadowy cases.
They became the basis for his arguments that the Lennons had been denied this status for political reasons, yet another Watergate tentacle.

In addition to describing how new legal protections were created, Wildes reveals how whip-smart Yoko was in anticipating the government's strategy against them, what a devoted family man John was and how his family has coped without him. It is a profile in courage worth remembering.