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September 19, 2016

Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?


American singer and pianist Nina Simone blazed across the sky of popular music for what seems like an incredibly brief period. Her meteoric rise to eminence in the early part of the 1960s was matched by her all too sudden disappearance from public life in 1968. The documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? produced by Netflix and now available on Blu-ray from Universal Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment, not only fills in details of Simone's life before her period in the spotlight, but tells us exactly what happened to her.
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The movie follows Simone from her earliest beginnings playing piano in church and growing up in segregated America. As a child she was taken under the wing of two white women piano teachers who recognized her talent. Like any other child learning piano she had aspirations to become a classical pianist and even attended the Juilliard School of Music. It was her ambition to become the first woman African American classical pianist. However, when that opportunity was denied her through what she believed was racism, she turned to playing in jazz and blues clubs to help support her family.

It was from those inauspicious beginnings her career was born. Her fame was assured with the release of her first record and the public's reception to her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess. There's some wonderful footage of her playing the song taken from an old Playboy TV show. The sight of a young black woman playing for an all white audience of smug wealthy hipsters says more about the state of America in the late 1950s than any political slogans or protests.

For the next five or so years Simone would do everything from play a sell out concert at Carnegie Hall to sing onstage at Civil Rights rallies. Her famous song, "Mississippi Goddam", summed up African American anger at those obstructing their civil rights in the 1960s. As her career took off she also became friends with the African American intellectual and artistic communities. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Langston Hughes were among those she counted among her friends, while her neighbours were the family of the late Malcolm X.

However, while on the surface things looked great, her life was far from easy. Using excepts from her diaries to let Simone tell her own story, the movie shows us a life filled with domestic violence (she was beaten by her husband), loneliness, and repressed violent urges. These written passages reveal a deeply troubled mind.

All of a sudden, in 1968, Simone left America and took herself into self-imposed exile. First to Liberia in Africa, then Switzerland, and eventually France. It was while she was in France in the 1980s her mental illness was finally diagnosed - bi-polar. Her violent mood swings, bouts of depression and even her sometimes extreme behaviour were all rooted in this disease.

Director Liz Garbus has done a masterful job of telling Simone's story. She weaves together archive footage and still photos with contemporary interviews to allow a complete picture of the woman and her times to unfold in front of us. The co-operation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, was obviously key in helping her gain access to things like the diaries and other fascinating archival material.

Of course you can't do a movie about Simone without her music. From start to finish we are regaled with the splendour and majesty of her performances. While some of the quality isn't the greatest - we're talking about footage that dates back almost sixty years in some cases - the black and white footage from the old TV shows is wonderful.

Even better is the CD included in this package, as it contains lovely produced versions of many of the songs which feature in the movie. Some highlights include "Mississippi Goddamn", "Sinnerman", and her covers of "I Put A Spell On You", "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair", and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The latter is particularly poignant in light of the information we found out about Simone in the movie.

The Blu-ray/CD package of What Happened Miss Simone? is a wonderful record of an amazing and unique voice in American popular culture. Simone was more than just a wonderful performer, she was also an articulate and passionate voice in the fight for civil rights. As Dick Gregory says in the movie; "She said things with "Mississippi Goddamn" no one else would have dared say". A great movie about an amazing woman that comes with a bonus CD containing some of her greatest songs.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?/a>)

November 29, 2015

Music Review: Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf


Tinariwen.jpgGiven the recent events in both Paris and Mali there's something very timely about the release of Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf from the Tamashek band Tinariwen on the Anti- label.

Forced into exile from their home in Northern Mali by extremists targeting of musicians in 2013, the band recorded their last studio album, Emmaar, in California. This Paris concert on December 13 2014 was the final stop on their world tour of over a 130 performances. Given Mali was a former French colony, and the band is fluent in French, this was as close to a home coming as they'll have for a while.

The title of the album, Oukis N'Asuf, to take away, forget, or get over heartache and longing, is only fitting for a band in exile - especially a band like this whose music is so tied in with their culture and their native desert environment. Making this title even more poignant is the fact they were joined on stage for this concert by one of the matriarchs of Tamashek music and culture, Lalla Badi. Not only is Badi a singer of traditional tinde, a type of song named for the drum used to accompany it and sung by women, she provided the band with a home base when they were just starting out.

Fittingly the recording opens with a song featuring Badi, "Tinde Tinariwen". Traditionally these songs were performed by women accompanied only by percussion - both drums and hand claps. Here the band's electric bass lays down the initial rhythm and is joined by a chorus of male voices. This is joined by youyous, cries and handclaps, and then, rising over top as rough and ancient sounding as the desert itself, Badi's voice soars into song. For over seven minutes the steady sound of the bass, drum, handclaps and male voices maintain their mesmerizing backdrop as she chants/sings her words.


In this opening we hear the inspiration for Tinariwen's style of desert blues - the steady, almost trance-inducing rhythms overlaid by biting electric guitar and lyrics alternatively sung and chanted. While Badi only joins them twice more during the course of the CD, on tracks six,"Tinde Part 1" and the 12th and final track, "Tinde Final Tinariwen", her influence is felt throughout the whole album.

As Tinariwen are not your not typical rock and roll band, this is not your typical live album from a concert tour promoting a new release. The set list isn't stacked to feature new material, rather the concert feels more like a celebration honouring their music and their culture. From the opening notes there's an intimacy you feel even on the recording which you don't often associate with the modern concert experience.

While the music and the performances are tight and professional as befits a band of their experience and and talent, there's also a spontaneity to the performance which makes it feel as if we've wandered into an impromptu jam session. With founding members - Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and Alhassane Ag Touhami - having played together since the 1980s, and the newer members, - Eyadou Ay Leche, Elaga Ag Hamid and Said Ag Ayad - having grown up listening to them before joining in the 90s, the band operates as a seamless unit.

Tinariwen have long been repositories of Tamashek culture and their people's ambassadors to the rest of the world. On this night in Paris, the combination of their music and the traditional sounds of Badi, not only showed how capable they are of playing both roles, it also made it an electrifying and captivating experience at the same time. Tinariwen are living proof traditions don't have to be hide bound or museum pieces. They can evolve and grow to meet the challenges of new times. Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf is an album of great music by an exciting band and as good a concert disc as any you'll ever hear.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf)

April 10, 2015

Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffian's Misfortune


Neither so called "Southern Rock" nor what passes for electric blues have ever been my favourite types of music. Too many people lack the subtlety to give either of those genres the distinct personality required for them to be interesting. All you need do is listen to a master of the style like Ray Wylie Hubbard to appreciate the difference. His latest album, The Ruffian's Misfortune on his own Bordello label, is as fine an example of the wonderful gumbo this music can be.

As Hubbard is from Texas it would be easy just to lump him in with either one of the genres most people associate with the state: Texas Blues or country music. However, even though he plays a mean slide guitar and counts Willie Nelson among his friends, dumping him in with either of those camps would be doing him a disservice. Sure he plays both equally well, either separately or in his own hybrid style, but it's what he brings to them personally which make his sound unique. Call it charisma or character, but whatever you call it, there's something about Hubbard which almost makes him a genre onto himself.

Sure he's got the low down dirty groove of a great rock and roll song and a way with lyrics that combines irony and empathy that would make most poets cry. But he can reach back even further into the lexicon of American music and come up with a country sound which puts you in mind of greats like Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt. Not that he sounds like them, but he plays with a purity of intent which harkens back to the honesty and integrity of their type of music.
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The first thing you'll notice about Hubbard is his voice is as rough hewn, weathered and full of character and flavour as the wood of a cask housing hundred year old bourbon. At times he sounds like a wise elder passing on words of wisdom. Other times he sounds as if he knows most of the world's dirty laundry, but it just makes him laugh and laugh. In fact that seems like his default position on most things, laughing at the foibles of a world which takes itself too seriously.

For while his lyrics may not come right out and laugh at the world, they take far too much pleasure in describing things most "decent folk" might not find very comfortable listening too. I don't just mean those who might find sexual allusions upsetting, but also those on the, oh so politically correct side of the aisle. In fact, there's pretty much something on this disc guaranteed to either offend or piss off anybody who thinks too highly of their own opinions and has no sense of humour.

I don't think I've heard a more evocative description of blues music than Hubbard's on the second track of the disc, "Hey Mama, My Time Ain't Long": "I'll tell 'em the tale about the songs a bluesman sings/Comes from a woman's moans and the squeaks of guitar strings/Some say it's the devil jingling the coins in his pocket/I'd say it sounds more like a pistol when you cock it." Listening to him pull those words out of his soul over the moaning and groaning of electric guitar is to hear all that's terrifies and appeals to people about real blues music. It's down, dirty, and real - born out of the sweat and tears of people's lives and stirs those places in your soul that supposedly only the devil knows about.
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If "Hey Mama" is going to get under the skin of those who find blues music just a little sexual for their taste, "Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'" is going to make those a little more politicly correct cringe. "Midnight gig, cheap trucker speed/"Sticky Fingers, Let It Bleed"/A telecaster, bottleneck slide, sings like a drunk Chrisie Hyde/Says rock and roll is flat out lawless and Joan Jett is a goddess./Short dress, torn stockings, that chick singer is badass rockin'." I know plenty of people who won't like the word chick being used to describe a woman, but you've got to put these things in their proper context; the world of seedy taverns and late night rock and roll.

Rock and roll is still primarily dominated by men, and the Joan Jetts and Chrisie Hydes on stage are few and far between. It's not an easy road for any woman determined to make a life as a rock and roller, especially one wants to hold onto who they are and not play the game of being a sex toy or "one of the boys". In just under three minutes Hubbard not only captures all of this, but also manages to convey the passion that drives them. You don't play rock and roll in sleazy bars for the money, you do it for love. If it's a hard life for a man, you can only imagine how difficult it must be for a woman, and this song gives you a glimpse of what it must be like for them.

Hubbard's music crawls like a king snake through long grass. His blues weaves and slides in sinuous motions up your spine and then suddenly strikes in a burst of electric guitar that goes straight for your juggler. While the slower acoustic numbers aren't as dangerous sounding, they manage to worm their way into your system thanks to his lyrics and vocal delivery.

Hubbard might have a rather jaundiced view of the human race, but he's also having a lot of fun singing about it. Like a mythical trickster figure or court jester he sings about things in the hopes we learn something from them. He's not telling us how to live, but by turning stuff on its head he's letting us see how ridiculous we can be when we take ourselves too seriously.

Ray Wylie Hubbard is one of those rare musical talents who defies easy classification into any genre. You could call him country, blues, rock and roll or even gospel, because he does his own variations of them all equally well. However, it's easier to say he plays what he wants, how he wants, when he wants and we should all just get over ourselves and let him get on with it. In a world of ever increasing compartmentalized sound, he's a breath of fresh air blowing in every direction at once.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffian's Misfortune - A Texas Original)

July 2, 2014

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body


New Orleans holds a grip on most North American's imaginations. Little wonder when you consider the fact the city is a meeting place for so many cultures. French, Spanish and African all come together in an incredible mixture making it an hot bed for the arts and other slightly more esoteric ventures. For New Orleans is also known for its mixture of the sacred and the profane. Voodoo and Catholic beliefs intermingle and share equal billing on the streets and in places of worship and spills over into the music which forms the heartbeat of the city. For you can find everything from down and dirty funk to gospel on its streets, in its bars and even in its churches.

Yet for all the famous musicians the city has produced, it's the brass bands who parade through its streets accompanying everything from funerals to Mardi Gras celebrations which have made the strongest impression on people's imaginations. Lost amid the drunken revelry of the latter is the fact the festival marks the final celebration before the beginning of the Catholic period of repentance leading up to Easter, Lent. It may be a huge party for the tourists replete with sex and uninhibited behaviour, but its also shows the depth of the city's religious and Catholic roots. The music of the bands not only reflects this history, it also helps to perpetuate it.
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Listening to the latest release from Rebirth Brass Band on Basin Street Records, Move Your Body, provides a perfect example of the city's dual nature. For they move between the bawdy and the sacred lyrically without any apparent effort or change in their approach to the music. Musically their influences are as diverse as their subject matter, drawing upon jazz, big band, funk, blues and gospel to create their sound.

The album's opening track, "Lord, Lord, Lord, You've Sure Been Good To Me", is a traditional gospel number which has been given a Rebirth makeover. The lyrics, sung by guest vocalist Glen David Andrews, give thanks to God for providing the essentials of life. "Woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/God woke me up this morning, sure been good to me/Put food on my table, sure been good to me/And I know it was the hands of the lord". Musically, the song is a rollicking, funk influenced tune which would bring the dead to their feet. What's amazing is in spite of the secular sound of the tune, you don't doubt the sincerity of the feelings behind the lyrics.

Andrews does a great job of convincing us of the sincerity of his beliefs while at the same time singing a rollicking, funky tune. As for the band, they make us feel like they're marching us straight into salvation with a beat and tempo that can't be resisted. You can have no problems visualizing people dancing through the streets on their way to or from church listening to this tune. Some might not approve of this approach to religion, but to me it's an example of how when influenced by the divine an artist will create something that will move the human spirit even if you don't share their beliefs.
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However, Rebirth are equally at home with the more earthy pleasures of New Orleans. While it's a celebratory song in its own right, "HBNS", is about as far removed from gospel as you can get. "I need hot butt naked sex/I love it when you make me sweat/I need hot butt naked sex/Baby did you get my text". Sung as a duet by Erica Falls and Quinten "Q" Spears the song celebrates the joy of sex in both the female and male voices. Like the city itself this song is all about sensual pleasures and finding joy in them. Unlike some people would have us believe, this song lets us know you can be religious and still enjoy sex.

Musically the disc rocks and rolls through a mixture of instrumentals (including a great cover of the old Loggins and Messina hit "You're Momma Don't Dance") and vocal accompanied songs without almost a pause for breath. While normally this could be rather overwhelming, Rebirth change up the pace enough from song to song to ensure the listener's interest never fades. They effortlessly move from funk to gospel to blues to marching band without missing a beat and carry us right along with them all the way.

Like the city they hail from Rebirth Brass Band are fun, sexy, sleek and have just enough edginess to their sound to hint at the feeling of underlying darkness which is so much a part of New Orleans' make up. Hurricane Katrina may have destroyed many of the buildings and neighbourhoods in the city, but as long as there are bands like this one, its soul will live on. While it's not like being there, Move Your Body brings a little taste of New Orleans into your home and heart.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Move Your Body)

May 7, 2014

Music Review: Willie Watson - Folk Singer Volume 0ne


When immigrants from the British Isles came over to North America they brought the songs of Ireland, Scotland and England with them. As these people came into contact with other cultural influences (Spanish, African, French and the continent's indigenous population) the music evolved to reflect a region's population diversity. Today you can hear traces of this meeting of cultures in most North American popular music. However, it's in the music's most basic form, one man and one instrument, we hear the purest and most direct link back to its origins.

Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) are probably two of the names most of us associate with the popularization of what we call folk music today. Between the two of them they wrote and popularized some of the most well known songs in the folk music catalogue. Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is probably one of the best known songs in North America while Lead Belly's "House Of The Rising Sun" and "Rock Island Line" are staples for almost every folk, blues and country singer around. However, if you've ever heard recordings of either man you'll know neither sounded anything like the polished and well produced folk singers of recent eras, but more like what we'd call country singers along the lines of the Carter Family or Hank Williams.

While many have tried to emulate these old style folk singers, few have been able to capture both the sound and feeling of the music with any sort of credibility. One who has is the former member of The Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Watson. His new solo release, Folk Singer Volume 1 on Acony Records is a collection of nine covers of traditional folk songs, and one original, that not only captures the sound, but the spirit of folk music as few have done in this generation.
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The songs on this disc are like an oral history of American life over the last hundred and fifty odd years. Written by musicians from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries the songs create a picture of life and beliefs that few history books deliver. For they aren't concerned with what so-called movers and shakers had for breakfast, rather they are about the lives of those on whose backs their empires were amassed. However, these aren't what you'd call political songs in the way we understand them today. Instead they remind us of the social conditions people lived under and the things which gave them reasons for hope.

It's only fitting Watson has included two songs associated with Lead Belly and opens the album with arguably his most famous song, "Midnight Special". While considered a traditional song, meaning it's not known who wrote it, the song was attributed to Lead Belly when he was recorded performing it while serving time in Angola Prison in Texas in 1934.
The version of the song Watson has recorded doesn't sound much like the one made popular by Credence Clearwater Revival most of us are familiar with as he's playing it solo and on acoustic guitar. However, it sounds far more like the song might have sounded when it was recorded by Lead Belly. The slow pace give emphasis to the song's plaintive lyrics and reminds you the song is about the hardships experienced by African Americans, or anyone, doing a hard labour prison sentence in the early part of the 20th century.

Another song recorded by Watson on this disc attributed to Lead Belly, "Stewball", is actually an adaptation of a British folk song from the 18th century about a racehorse named Skewball. Credit for the American version of the song is shared between Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie who adapted their version from one sung by American slaves in the 19th century. It was the slaves who changed the geography of the song from Ireland and England to America with the horse being born in California and its most famous race taking place in Dallas Texas instead of Kildare Ireland.

This is a perfect example of not only how the folk songs of Great Britain migrated to and evolved in, North America, but of how they came to reflect the passions of their new home. In the 1930s and 40s, when Guthrie and Lead Belly released their versions of the song, horse racing and the thoroughbreds who ran in them held the same iconic status among the general public as baseball players and boxers. Not only did the chance of winning big at the track offer people the hope they could break out of the cycle of poverty which gripped North America during the depression, there was always the hope the long shot, or the little guy, could triumph over the favourite Something any number of people could easily identify with, and dreamt about, at the time.
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Aside from the covers, which also include the very familiar "James Alley Blues" by Richard "Rabbit" Brown (famously covered by some guy named Bob Dylan) and the less well known "Rock Salt & Nails" by Utah Phillips, Watson has also included an original tune, "Mother Earth". Probably the most overtly political song on the disc, with its lyrics reminding us no matter who we are or how much wealth we accumulate during our life time we're all going to end up in Mother Earth's embrace, it sounds like it could have been written by any of his famous predecessors.

Authenticity isn't just about the lyrical content of the songs, it's about the way they are sung. By that I don't mean how polished they sound, I've heard some truly great folk songs ruined by people singing them like slick pop songs, but how well whoever is singing is able to make you believe in the song. Call it heart, call it soul, but whatever word you want to use there's no denying Watson has the almost indefinable quality to his performing which makes everything he sings on this recording ring true. His voice isn't the prettiest, and his adaptations of the songs aren't ornate or fancy, but there is a purity and clarity which gives them a potency you don't often find in solo performances.

With Folk Singer Volume 1 Watson has not only breathed new life into classic folk songs, he reminds us of their cultural and historical value. Not only are they are a passionate and intelligent oral history of North America, they are a reminder of the deepest roots of our popular music. We may have heard plenty of versions of these songs before, but I'll wager you've not heard them sung like this too often. Watson is like the missing link which ties the music of the past to the present. For while he has an obvious reverence for the songs' origins, he's not afraid to put his own stamp on them. Folk music has found a new champion, and it couldn't be in better hands.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Watson - Folk Singer Volume One)

April 9, 2014

Music Review: Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home


The early 1960s saw the rise of an incredible number of blues based rock and roll bands in of all places the British Isles. The Animals, Led Zepplin, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones (yes they started off as a blues band - listen to their early albums) were just a few of those whose careers were shaped by the blues. While most of them went on to become part of the music establishment, at the time their music was considered rebellious and dangerous by the establishment. They also entrenched their style of music into British pop culture.

No matter what was being played on the popular music stations or rising high in the charts, the blues seemed to always be hanging around the fringes ready to raise its head when people wanted to hear something a little more rebellious than what was normally available. So when four guys from Canvey Island, about thirty mile east of London up the Thames River in England, decided to formed Dr Feelgood the band who impressed everyone from Johnny Rotten to Richard Hell with their rawness and intensity they looked to the blues and R&B for their inspiration. The creative force behind Dr. Feelgood for their formative years was guitarist and primary songwriter Wilko Johnson. While Johnson left the band soon after their fourth album, he's never left the style of music he played with them behind. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, he's been grabbing at as many opportunities as possible to make and record the music he loves while he can. (His doctors told him he was only going to make it until October 2013 - but he's defied all their predictions and is still performing)
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One of the projects he's undertaken was teaming up with Who frontman Roger Daltrey to record an album of ten Johnson penned, and one cover, R&B/blues/rock and roll songs called Going Back Home. Released on the Chess record label in the UK the disc is being issued in North America by Universal Music Enterprises. While it might appear the two are a generation apart as Daltrey and The Who were part of the early 1960s British rock scene, and Johnson the early 70s, they both share a love for what they call British R&B.

Lyrically speaking none of Johnson's songs are going to change the world or even probably change your life. However, that's not the point of this music. The songs on this disc are about things we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. While it might be a bit odd to hear these two veterans of the rock wars singing songs about being young and irresponsible, when it comes down to it, isn't that what rock and roll should be about? A celebration of everything the supposed adult world looks down upon.

The disc's opening and title track is a perfect example. The music is rollicking, I defy anyone with any soul in their body to resist the urge to dance while listening to it, while the lyrics are a celebration of the ups and downs of a irresponsible life. "I wanna live the way I like,/Sleep all the morning, go out and get my fun at night./Things ain't like that here,/Working just to keep my payments clear." Bemoaning having to actually work to do the things you want to do might not seem overly rebellious to some, but considering the fact Britain is the home of the Protestant Work Ethic, this type of attitude would make Margret Thatcher spin in her grave.
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For those of you who are wondering how Daltrey sounds after all these years, as far as I'm concerned his voice sounds better then it ever has. Of course that could be my own personal bias as I've never been one for the rock and roll vocal pyrotechnics he used to engage in during his younger years. However, on this recording his voice is a wonderful growl full of expressive twists and turns which is perfect for the material. Listening to this disc you swear he was born to sing this music as he not only sounds great he has the right attitude to express the sentiments behind the words. The tough kid from the streets who once sang "I hope I die before I get old" is still alive and well and giving the establishment a two finger salute.

The band accompanying the two front men are the perfect match to the music as well. They are the perfect combination of sounding like they could go off the rails at any moment while at the same time being incredibly tight. It helps that Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums) are Johnson's regular rhythm section, but Mick Talbot on piano and Hammond Organ and Steve Weston on harmonica are equally at ease with the music and the rest of the band. Weston especially is incredible. His harmonica playing is the perfect accompaniment to Daltrey's voice, providing an amazing counterpoint to his growls without ever overwhelming him.

Of course Johnson is Johnson. His guitar is the motor driving each and every song. Whether he's chugging along in the background playing rhythm or delivering short choppy leads, his playing is a lesson in the old adage of less is more. He gets more out of what he does in a few seconds than most rock gods can get out of a ten minute solo. There's an intensity to his playing (and his stage presence) that few to this day can match. The ten original songs he's penned for this album, match his playing style, as at first listen they seem to be simplicity in themselves, but you gradually realize there's a lot more to them they you first thought.

Going Back Home is a wonderful and imaginative collaboration from two men who've never lost their love for rock and roll. Even their choice of a cover, Bob Dylan's "Won't You Please Crawl Out Your Window" from his Highway 61 Revisited album, is inspired. They've turned it into a wonderful, rollicking R&B song which fits the mood of the track perfectly. In some ways you can almost imagine Dylan recording it this way, as that could easily be Al Kooper on the organ or members of The Band providing the bass, drums and guitar. However, just because the disc looks to the past occasionally, there's no way you can call this an exercise in nostalgia. This album is a timely reminder of how the soul of rock and roll is still rebellion.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home)

March 13, 2014

Music Review: Tinariwen - Emmaar


In the early 1960s the creation of artificial borders in the trackless wastes of the Sahara desert might have been cause for celebration among the inhabitants of the newly created countries. However, the throwing off of colonial masters in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and others, also resulted in turmoil for the nomadic people who had called the region home for close to a thousand years. Attempts at fighting to retain their lands resulted in them being forcibly removed from their territories and sent into exile. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was a young child when he and his extended family were forced to pack up their goods and lives and leave their homes.

Like many others of his generation Alhabib witnessed the death of family members, his grandfather, as they made their way to who knew what. So it's no surprise he and other young Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) men ended up in Libya receiving military training. In the 1980s these expatriates were the nucleus behind the revolts in Mali attempting to reclaim their traditional lands. However they weren't just receiving military training in Libya, they were also being exposed to music from all over the world. It was in the training camps Alhabib first starting learning how to play guitar and met the men he would eventually form the band who would have since become synonymous with the music of the Kel Tamashek, Tinariwen.
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Putting down their weapons and picking up musical instruments hasn't stopped the members of Tinariwen from continuing their fight for their people. It's simply meant a change of tactics. Initially their intent was to create songs and music celebrating their culture and their traditional lives. While this might sound innocuous enough, they along with other "guitar bands" were soon being targeted by the same governments they had fought against. In the 1990s many musicians were forced to flee both Niger and Mali because of threats against their lives by the armed forces of the two countries. However this didn't stop Tinariwen from continuing to make music and eventually making their way onto the world's stages to spread their tribal inspired desert blues around the world.

When terrorist groups usurped the Kel Tamashek uprising in Northern Mali - one of the nomadic people's traditional homelands - and imposed their own version of Islam upon the area's population, including banning all music, in early 2013, Tinariwen were once again forced into exile. Which meant their latest release, Emmaar (Deluxe Edition) available in North America on the Anti label, was not recorded in their home desert, but Joshua Tree California. Even there reminders of the troubles at home couldn't have been far from their minds as band member Abdallah Ag Lamida was unable to make the trip having been kidnapped by the terrorists. (He has since been released)

Previously when I've reviewed albums by Tinariwen and other bands from the Sahara region I've received a hard copy which has contained translations of the song's lyrics. The digital download I received this time didn't contain any liner notes, so I'm flying blind when it comes to understanding what the band is saying. While that might be a problem with some other bands, when it comes to Tinariwen, the music is as integral to their message as the lyrics.

What's interesting to note about this album is how they have continued the process of evolving their sound which had begun on their previous release, Tassili, by incorporating new sounds into their mix. The number of guest musicians has increased to include the talents of Fats Kaplan, who plays fiddle on "Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamamone" and pedal steel on the opening track "Toumast Tincha", current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (also on the opening track) percussionist Amar Chaoui on six tracks, guest guitarist Matt Sweeny on the song "Emajer" and poet/musician/ Saul Williams providing a spoken word English language introduction to the album's opening track.
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However, for fans of Tinariwen's particular brand of desert blues featuring hypnotic percussion overlaid by the interplay of droning guitars and sparse vocals, there's no need to worry they have done anything as crass as give in to commercial considerations or been so called corrupted by being in America. What they have done is augment their sound with these additional players to give it more depth and a wider range of expression. Listen and watch the video below of "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim" and you'll hear how little they've strayed from their original roots.

Utilizing these Western musicians is not an attempt to make their sound more accessible to a wider market, this is the band which won the Grammy for best "World Album" in 2012 after all so they don't need to attract a new audience. What it does do is broaden the scope of their musical palate. This allows them to create even more vivid musical pictures of the desert landscape they call home. For while the lyrics are still sparse and sung in Tamashek, after all the songs are for their own people not us, the music evokes the landscape of their homeland. The new musical elements, such as pedal steel guitar and fiddle, which add a certain South Western American feel to some songs, only serve to make the picture more complete.

Tinariwen have been part of the struggle for preserving their people's traditional homelands and culture since the days of armed rebellion in the 1980s. Picking up musical instruments in exchange for the guns of their youth as an attempt to encourage their own people to take pride in their traditions and culture has turned them into cultural ambassadors for the Kel Tamashek on stages around the world. Yet in spite of the international attention, no matter which part of the world they are forced to record their music, or who joins them, their sound remains firmly rooted in the shifting sands of the Sahara desert.

Considering Tinariwen's refusal to to give up in the face of odds most of us would consider insurmountable, is it any wonder the armies of Islam gave their ancestors the name Tuareg - rebels against Islam - when they first invaded North Africa over a thousand years ago? It's this indomitable spirit pervading their music that gives it the presence which makes them one of the most compelling bands playing anywhere. No matter who they choose to accompany them when recording or performing, their music and spirit continue to shine through as an example for the rest of the world. Starting March 14 2014 Tinariwen is beginning a tour of the American South, South West, Mid West and West Coast. If you get the opportunity check them out - you won't regret it.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Music of the Sahara: Tinariwen's new album Emmaar)

November 20, 2013

Television Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana


Once upon a time there was pop music. You either liked what you heard or you didn't, and you didn't particularly care about anything else. There were other types of music other people listened to, but that wasn't pop music. There was country and western music which was played by people who dressed funny and whose audience seemed to made up of senior citizens and people with short hair. It was like it was from another world. However as you grew older you discovered something, the rock and roll you listened to had been born out of the strange marriage of country music and blues music.

As you listened to more and more music, the more you realized it was all interrelated. From punk to disco it all could be traced back to the same beginnings. Sure it had split off onto wildly divergent paths, but they all traced their roots back to the same sources; the folk music of the British Isles and African music brought over with slaves. Even with Spain and France having significant impact on certain areas of North America, the African/British influence has remained the dominant force in popular music. You might hear traces of one of the other two, but they are usually laid over the same core everything else is.

As the music industry has sought to target specific markets they've begun pop music was divided up into an ever increasing number of sub-genres. Even though I've been a music critic for eight years now, I still couldn't tell you the difference between half of them. Even more confusing is the way so many people seem to apply different names to what is essentially the same music. One of the more confusing ones that's popped up in recent years has been something called Americana. My initial impression of this genre was it was a catch all category for anything which didn't fit anywhere else as it seemed to include everything from Woody Guthrie style folk/country music to Credence Clearwater Revival rock and roll. Well according to a new television special, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of American, airing on PBS Friday November 22 2013 from 9:00 - 10:00 pm DST (check local listings for air times in your area) as part of its PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, I wasn't too far off.
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While I found the focus of the hour long show a little too Nashville-centric when it came to discussing the history of what it called Americana, and overly concentrated on its country roots, it doesn't stop the points it makes about the music any less valid. As was pointed out by one of the talking heads - it was hard to keep track of who said what with so many voices chipping in over the course of the show - America is still a young country comparatively speaking and is only now beginning to develop its own sound. This sound, coming out of the melting pot of cultures which have met in America, explains why Americana is such a mixed bag of musical types and genres.

The examples of bands considered by the show to qualify for the genre ranged from a Latin tinged country rock outfit from Miami to the new darlings of pop music Mumford and Sons from England. However, most of the bands on the show seemed to be ones with obvious country or Nashville influences. Combined with the show's crediting of Emmylou Harris, via her association with Graham Parsons, as being one of the primary influences on the current Americana scene, gave the impression that country music is the major factor in the development of this music. Aside from the inclusion of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Alabama Shakes, they seem to have forgotten any African American influence there could have been on American music. In fact Carolina Chocolate Drops lead vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sort of sidled up to the point with her comment about it being nice to play gigs where the Alabama Shakes are sharing the bill, as they add a little bit of colour to the proceedings.

Now none of this is meant to disparage any of the people mentioned in the show. I've always loved Emmylou Harris, but I think its a bit of a stretch to credit her with being as great an influence as the show suggests. To do a show about this type of music and never once mention four guys from Southern Ontario and their drummer from Arkansas, The Band, is like talking about Opera and not mentioning a guy named Mozart. Parsons and Harris may have tried to bring country music to the pop music crowd in the early 1970s, but The Band remain one of the first outfits who created a melange representing almost every musical culture imported into North America.

While they call the show, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana the real emphasis is on the first part of the title - Nashville. Here the show excelled showing us how country music and Nashville have diversified so it now represents more of America than just a small segment of the population. It was also interesting to see what young bands like The Avett Brothers and Civil War to name only a few, have done with the country form to create a sound of their own. What was especially nice to see was the care these bands were taking with vocal harmonies, arrangements and the crafting of songs in general. It's a refreshing change from listening to the image conscience, celebrity seeking, so called musicians the air waves are usually littered with these days.

The show isn't hurt either be the people chosen to be front and centre as guides for the hour. Roseanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Billy Bragg, and Jim Lauderdale are not only knowledgable and intelligent, they each have an honest to god love and appreciation for the music which you can't help but get caught up in. Talking heads in shows like these can be boring or dry, but these four aren't shy of showing their excitement about an act or letting their emotions slide through. When Cash talks about how country radio stations refused to play her late father's latter recordings she doesn't attempt to hide her scorn for them and her pride in her father for being true to himself.
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It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He's not trying to undermine its significance but he's letting us know he doesn't take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.

Hearing and seeing the music through the eyes and ears of these two and the others, and feeling the love they all feel, is what makes this show special. You can't help but be caught up their enthusiasm and excitement over the bands. All of them have been around the music industry for a long time, and with the exception of Bragg, most of that time had been spent in Nashville. What has made them all so excited is the genuine change in country music with the resurgence of people being interested in creating music and not just songs.

While I'm not in agreement with all that's expressed on this show, and I think there were some glaring omissions, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana does a good job of explaining the genre's seeming lack of boundaries. It also provides viewers a chance to meet some of the new bands who are performing new versions of country music. It may not be a complete picture of Americana music, but its some of the better music being played today. It's real people, making real music and singing about things they believe in. I don't care what you call it, but that's generally a recipe for great music.

(Photo credits: Deborah Feingold)

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana

November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film


When people talk of the genesis of punk rock they usually refer to bands like Television, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the ones at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes it seems like the music sprung out of nowhere, as if all of a sudden people like Richard Hell, John Lyndon and Joe Strummer came up with the idea our of thin air. While these bands and individuals were vital to the genre's success and their role in its history can't be denied, there were others who laid the groundwork for what would become punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the recently deceased Lou Reed are the names mentioned most frequently as being their inspiration.

However, a new documentary movie by acclaimed director Julien Temple, Oil City Confidential, distributed in North America by MVD Entertainment Group, tells the story of a band whose contributions have largely been forgotten, but who probably had just as much influence on the punk scene as any of those mentioned above, Dr. Feelgood. Temple has made a career out of charting the history of British punk through a series of documentary movies including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols and The Future is Unwritten about Joe Strummer, so he's not someone's who opinion you can dismiss lightly.

While a version of Dr. Feelgood continues to exist and tour today, it was the original line up and the period between 1971 and 1977 which concern us and Temple's movie. However, Temple does more than just focus on the story of a band and rock and roll, he creates the context for both their birth, character, success and failure. Employing the band's original guitarist, Wilko Johnson, as a kind of tour guide and oral historian, Temple sets the stage for their beginnings by taking us back to the land of their birth, Canvey Island. Thirty miles east of London in the county of Essex, Canvey Island is located offshore in the Thames River. While a type of holiday resort for Londoners in the early part of the 20th century, 1936 saw the construction of the first oil terminal in the region and since then refineries and terminals have sprouted up like boils until they now cover the landscape.
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So when the band (Aside from Wilco members included The Big Figure (John Martin) drums, John B Sparks bass and Lee Brilleaux (Lee Collinson) vocals, harmonica and occasionally slide guitar) formed in 1971 the smokestacks of gas refineries and the huge oil storage tanks dominated the landscape. As the oil business loomed large in the life of those from Canvey Island, so Canvey Island loomed large in the development of Dr. Feelgood. In order to establish what the island meant to these four guys and how it figured in the character of the band, Temple spends a portion of the movie telling us the history of the island.

Using archival footage dating back to pre-WW II we learn the island had a wild reputation. It was a place where you went to do things you wouldn't do back home. Loose women, booze, gambling - almost anything went on Canvey Island. In 1953 the below sea level island suffered its worst recorded disaster when it flooded killing 58 people and forcing a great deal of the population to be evacuated. The flood hit the tourists areas, including the amusement parks and holiday camps, hardest as they were closest to the Thames. Following the flood a new concrete flood wall was built. As a result the island now closely resembles pictures you see of fortified beaches in France during WWII as its completely surrounded by concrete.

Interspersed with the history of the Island we learn the history of the four original band members and how they found each other. Brilleaux had formed a jug band when he was a teenager. They would take their instruments around in an old baby pram to various tourist spots and pubs and set up outside and busk for some extra cash. Temple has unearthed some great footage of them wheeling a pram piled high with instruments as they head out to gigs. However, it was the blues and R&B Brilleaux really wanted to play. So he, Sparks, and Martin approached the older Wilco - he'd actually been a teacher in the local school- who'd they heard played guitar to join them.

As Temple reminds us pop music in the early 1970s in the UK was dominated by progressive rock groups playing longwinded synthesizer pieces which had nothing to do with rock and roll. It would seem to have been the worst time in the world to form a band who wanted to play down and dirty blues and R&B based music. However, it was also the time when pubs in London were just starting to book bands. So instead of having to book venues, bands were cramming themselves into whatever corner of a pub they could fit and playing for a crowd who was right in their face.

Dr. Feelgood, dressed in cheap suits, looking a little like low rent gangsters, and playing their raw blues and R&B were very much the antithesis of the progressive rock bands on the radio. They'd climb into their old beat up van after work and drive the 30 odd miles to London to play a gig and at the end of the night make the return journey. When describing this juncture of their career, Temple intercuts current interviews with members of the band with footage from black and white British crime movies. In doing so he creates the atmosphere surrounding them in those early days. They, like the criminals in the movies, were making smash and grab raids on London before retreating to their hide out on Canvey.
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Watching footage of the band playing live there's a definite element of menace to their stage presence. Brilleaux looms over the centre of the stage, a large figure hunched over his microphone while Wilco glides around stage playing his guitar with his eyes boring into the audience like he's sizing them up for his next victim. In a brief clip Richard Hell of Television sums up by saying about Wilco something along the lines of "He had this whole crazy stare which was awesome." Hell wasn't the only one impressed by the band. During their times playing the pubs in London, people like John Lydon and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer were catching their act.

While you might think it hyperbole before you see the movie, Temple's description in his notes accompanying the DVD of Dr. Feelgood being John The Baptist to Johnny Rotton's Anti-Christ, is quite accurate. They were the initial tremor foreshadowing the shockwave of punk in England. Even if they didn't have the same status in New York City, they were treated as fellow travellers and compatriots when they played there in 1976.

Unfortunately, by then Wilco was starting to fall off the rails. He had been the band's primary songwriter on their first two albums and when it was time to go into the studio for the third album, he had nothing. He was isolated from the rest of the band by his use of drugs and not being a drinker. When he was supposed to be writing songs he was merely sitting in a room doing drugs. He's completely candid about his behaviour today, and how it caused him and Brilleaux to fall out. As Wilco says, there's always one guy in the band who falls in love with being a rock star when they first start achieving success, and he was the guy in Dr Feelgood.

Temple has created some of the finest documentaries about punk rock ever made. They don't just do a good job of capturing their subject matter warts and all, they allow audiences to understand the context which created the music and how the various individuals developed. With Oil City Confidential he has not only created a movie which captures the spirit of the times and tells the story of the band, Dr. Feelgood, he has created a movie whose form itself is a tribute to the anarchic nature of punk.

One thing you'll notice during the movie the interviews done in the present never have all four original members of the band together. This isn't because of any lasting acrimony between them, it's because Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994. The interview footage of him has been taken from a BBC interview done in the early 1990s. As well as other clips not included in the movie, one of the bonus features included with the DVD is this interview in its entirety.

Dr. Feelgood's original line up put out three studio albums, Down By The Jetty (January 1975 ) Malpractice (October 1975) and Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) and one live album, Stupidity (1976), which went to the top of the UK Charts. Their hay-day may have only lasted three years and four recordings, but their place in the history of rock and roll and pop music can not be underestimated. Would punk rock in England have happened without them? Of course it would have. However, without them there wouldn't have been an audience ready and waiting for the bands who came after. As the film shows they set the table for others to reap the rewards of fame. Hopefully Oil City Confidential will help ensure the names Lee Brilleaux, Wilco Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure will now be remembered and given their due place in the annals of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film)

November 7, 2013

Music Review: Bob Dylan - The Complete Album Collection Vol. One


How do you write about an icon? What are you supposed to say about somebody whose life and work have already been picked over with a fine tooth comb for the past fifty years? You could probably hurt yourself trying to write something original, and at the end of day discover it was still something somebody had already written. Even if you tried chipping away at his iconic status you'd find others had beaten you to it. While you could try and fall back on being as objective as possible, with people of this stature it's almost impossible not to let your personal opinions affect what you write. They've been such a part a of our culture's fabric for so long there's not going to be many out there who don't have an opinion about them one way or another.

I figure the only way I'm going to be able to get through this review of Legacy Recordings' Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is, aside from describing what it includes, to try and explain how Bob Dylan merits such a breathtaking career spanning retrospective. The only way I'm going to be able to do the latter is by relating my own experiences with his music. Hopefully this will give you some idea of how and what he has meant to the world of popular music since his first album in 1962.

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One contains 43 CDs including all of his studio albums ever released on the Columbia and Sony labels from 1962's Bob Dylan to his 2012 release Tempest. The set also includes six live CDs; Before the Flood (with The Band), Hard Rain, Bob Dylan Live at Budokan, Real Live (the last three newly remastered for this collection) Dylan and the Dead and MTV Unplugged. The final two discs in the box, Sidetracks, are made up of material originally intended for release as bonus features on one of Dylan's greatest hits packages; Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Masterpieces, Biograph, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 or The Best Of Bob Dylan Vol.2, but never released before. If you don't want to buy the 43 CD set, you have the option of purchasing the entire package as a limited, numbered edition harmonica shaped USB stick containing all the music in both MP3 and FLAC formats and a digital version of the hardcover booklet included in the box set. The booklet includes liner notes for each CD written especially for this package.
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With the CDs listing for over $200.00 and the USB stick more than $300.00, it seems like a lot of money to be asking people to shell out. However, even simple math will tell you the sticker price is still cheaper than the cost of even downloading each title separately let alone buying the CDs one at a time. So, if you're looking to pick up the entire Dylan catalogue in one fell swoop, plus some extra's thrown in, this is quite the bargain. However, what is it about Dylan that would make you want to own all of his CDs? What did he do that merits this type of attention?

I'm sure most of you have at least heard the quotes calling him the voice of a generation or the conscience of the people. But how is that relevant to those who weren't born in the post World War ll years, known to most in pop culture as the Baby Boomer or "Boomers" for short? The thing is, others might have slapped those titles on Dylan, but he was never one to really pay attention to what anybody said about him and always carved his own path. Unlike some who have been content to continuously plough the same furrow over and over again Dylan has constantly looked for new ways of expressing himself.

Even going back to his earliest albums you can see he was always more than just your simple folkie. While his earliest albums, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They are a Changin' (1964), owe a debt to his mentor Woody Guthrie, they owe as much to country/blues artists as well. Lyrically he was ranging from the intensity of calling for the death of arms manufacturers and those who sent people of to war in "Masters of War" to being downright silly in "I Shall Be Free". In fact he originally was going to call "Freewheelin'" Bob Dylan's Blues he was so interested in that style of music. Perhaps if he had people might have been less shocked when he showed up with an electric guitar in his hands.

To say the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) was considered a betrayal by his fans is an understatement. They booed their hero offstage. From the Newport Folk Festival (although a teacher I had in school says part of the problem was the sound system was so bad nobody could hear anything if you were sitting more than three rows away from the stage) to the Royal Albert Hall in London England and across the UK his fans acted with derision and outright scorn. Today songs from that record are among the ones you're still most likely to hear played on "Classic Music" stations; "Like A Rolling Stone" and the album's title track "Highway 61". However, while those songs are the most well known, others like "Desolation Row", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Tombstone Blues" are the real heart and soul of the album as they show how far Dylan had wandered lyrically from the days of protest songs. He's started to look at the world through the unique prism of his eyes, creating a refracted and strangely hued world which spoke to people at a gut level instead of being issue oriented.

As you chart Dylan's progress and evolution down through the years based on his musical output you discover he was always changing and progressing. There was the Americana music he started producing in the late 1960s with The Band, which included albums like The Basement Tapes (not released until 1975 but recorded in the late 1960s) John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969). The latter was recorded in Nashville and featured a duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From The North Country". While everyone around him was trying to blow the walls down with electric guitars and psychedelia, Dylan was once again charting his own path. As always he was more concerned with looking for emotional truth in his material than catering to popular taste or giving the people what they wanted.
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While I had first heard Dylan in 1966 at the tender age of five, hating the sound of his voice as I had just discovered The Beatles through the movie Help and thought that's what pop music should sound like, ten years later the combined effect of 1976's Desire and the live Hard Rain made a convert out of me. Those two albums plus 1975's Blood On The Tracks were nothing short of revelations. While the radio was full of mindless dreck here was a guy singing about ideas, weaving stories and standing up for what he thought was right. I still can't listen to "Hurricane", his song in defence of the wrongly convicted Reuben Carter, without getting chills. While some called the song naive and uninformed, Dylan was proven right when years later Carter was exonerated and found innocent of the murders he was said to have committed.

I don't know what would have happened if I had begun listening to him seriously a couple of years later when he went through his Born Again Christian faze. The lyrics are the most simplistic of his career - straight ahead Christian evangelizing. Musically they might have been interesting with Mark Knopfler and other members of Dire Straights playing on the sessions for 1979's Slow Train Coming, but I still can't listen to either this disc, or the two following Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). I'm sure I wasn't the only one who took some solace in Joni Mitchell's words when she said "It's just a phase Bob's going through".

It wasn't until 1985 when he hooked up with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to promote Empire Burlesque and 1986's Knocked Out Loaded I began to take notice of Dylan's work again. Once again he had changed and was going places musically and lyrically challenging. "Brownsville Girl" on the latter, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, was 12 minutes long and marked his return to the beautiful storytelling of the mid-1970s. This is Dylan at his best. The storyteller and poet who can see and describe the world in ways nobody else can. Whether it's his flights of fancy like "Isis" from Desire or, as he's aged, his explorations of his own mortality, his songs are carefully thought out and intelligent.

What makes Dylan so appealing is his ability to speak to things we all have in common no matter what our age or status. (I think this is what I found most unsettling about the Born Again Christian period, the way it excluded so many where his music had always been so inclusive) Sure you have to listen to it to appreciate it (this isn't mindless music you can put on in the background) and he might make you work to understand what he's saying, but this is a small price to pay for the gems you will unearth in his words. You may not always agree with him or even like everything he's put out, but he is without a doubt one of the major artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries and continues to be so to this day.

Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is the most comprehensive retrospective of his career released to date. While others may have been equally prolific in their production or been more commercially successful, this set proves there's no one who can match Dylan when it comes to keeping us intrigued through his abilities as a lyricist and his desire to explore different musical styles. For those of you with the cash to afford this set, it will be worth every penny you spend as you'll have at your disposal the most diverse collection of music recorded by one artist in the history of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One)

November 4, 2013

Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival


History is replete with tales of artists and poets who, after lives of penury and not being recognized for their talent, are revealed as geniuses after their deaths. While some might see this as some sort of posthumous justification for their work, I think they probably would have appreciated it the slightest bit more if they'd been alive to revel in it. There's nothing romantic about being a starving artist and having the money to buy the occasional meal actually makes it easier to paint or write.

One of the significant improvements the world underwent in the 20th century was how it became easier for artists of true talent to achieve recognition. Sure some still get overlooked, that's bound to happen, but innovation and genius are now rewarded far more often then they once were. However, no matter how famous today's popular artists manage to become during their lifetimes, an early death, especially one that occurs under mysterious conditions, is still their best chance at immortality. One only need examine the way people are still obsessed with everyone from Elvis Presley to Sid Visous to see the proof of this. While the former's impact on popular music can't be denied, the only reason for the latter's lasting fame is the sordid and sad manner of his death. (This is nothing against the man personally, as all accounts I've heard say he was a decent enough guy, but he was no musician and didn't even play bass on the one album the Sex Pistols released - Glen Matlock holds that honour)

Of course popular music is littered with tragic deaths from its earliest days. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper dying in a plane crash in 1959 and Sam Cooke shot dead in a motel room in 1964. However it wasn't until the late 1960s the death toll really began to add up; Brian Jones 1969, Janis Joplin 1970, Jim Morrison 1971 and Jimi Hendrix 1970. While Jones' career was on the wan at the time, he'd just been fired/quit The Rolling Stones, the other three were at the zenith's of their talent and popularity. While both Morrison and Joplin were undoubtedly talented individuals, with their own unique abilities as vocalists and lyricists, it's Hendrix's body of work which has stood the test of time; continuing to be appreciated and grow in stature.
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In the years immediately following Hendrix's death large numbers of poorly recorded and mastered records were sold by unscrupulous people looking to cash in on his popularity. While they might have resulted in some quick cash for a few people, they didn't do Hendrix's reputation any favours. Thankfully recent years have seen a concentrated effort from the people at Legacy Recordings and Hendrix's family to correct this problem through a series of remastered re-issues and previously unreleased recordings. The latest of these to come down the pipe is ,Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival. To be honest I'd never heard of the Miami Pop Festival, but it was to have been a weekend long pop music festival put on by the same guys who staged the Woodstock festival a year later, but the second day was rained out.

While Hendrix and The Experience (Mitch Mitchell drums and Noel Redding bass were the other two thirds of the band) had only recently started to tour America, they had already graduated from being the opening act for the Monkees (and they say the musician were doing strange drugs - what kind of trip must the guy at Warner Brothers been on who suggested that pairing) which lasted all of three gigs, and had gone on to headlining bigger and bigger venues. By the time they showed up in Miami they were considered one of the top concert draws in America. Hendrix's reputation as a genius on the guitar had spread like wild-fire. In the pre-internet days word of mouth was the most efficient means of communication, and the word has spread, this guy was unreal.

The Experience played a morning and an afternoon set on the Saturday, and were supposed to play another set on the rained out Sunday. The disc contains their complete set list from the opening show plus two tracks from the afternoon show the same day. With only two studio albums under their belts at this time, Are You Experienced and Axis Bold As Love, they didn't have a wealth of material to draw upon, so both sets would have been nearly the same. In fact, a quick glance at what's included on the disc shows a lot of familiar song titles. "Purple Haze", "Hey Joe", "Foxey Lady", "Fire", "I Don't Live Today" and others we've long grown to recognize as staples of Hendrix's live performances.

While Hendrix's reputation is based on his ability to improvise and his intricate and elaborate solos, this gig shows another side of him and his band. Aside from a ten minute version of "Red House", most of the tracks are about the same length as the studio versions of the songs. Yet, as far as I'm concerned, this shows off his abilities just as well as any of his pyrotechnical solos ever did. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe". Yet aside from the studio versions of the song, I've never heard him play either song the same way twice, and this gig was no different. Each time he manages to put some new flourish or twist into his playing which changes the tune's flavour or adds a different texture to a line or a verse.
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Hearing him play the tracks fairly straight also gives you a new appreciation for his ability to integrate his leads into the rhythm of a song. Most guitar players simply let the beat of the song fall by the wayside when they play their leads either leaving it to a second guitarist or his bass and drummer to hold things together. Somehow Hendrix is able to do both at the same time. Sure there are times he does the same types of leads as other guitarists, but listen to him as he's playing the short fills between vocal choruses. He adds ornamentation to almost everything he does yet somehow t without it becoming distracting or detrimental to a song's overall sound. Like the painter who knows when another daub of paint will kill his masterpiece, Hendrix always seemed to know exactly when one more note would have been one too many.

Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival is the latest in a series of remastered re-issues or previously unreleased material to have been released in the past few years. Available as either a CD or a limited edition double LP it offers further proof of why Hendrix's reputation hasn't diminished over the years. In fact, as more and more material is released for public consumption not only does his reputation grow, but his place in history is solidified. You may not be able to tell it from simply listening to this recording, but when added to the rest of his catalogue it grows hard to argue with the statement he was one of the most important guitarist in popular music, and remains so more then 40 years after his death.

A version of this review first appeared at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival)

September 17, 2013

Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab


It's interesting how in a time of crises there can sometimes be an unexpected silver lining. The March 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by terrorist groups intent on creating a fascist religious state based on their perverted version of Islam saw an attempt by the invaders to outlaw music. In a country like Mali where music is one of their most prized natural resources this was not just an attack on people's social life, it was tantamount to cultural genocide. Many of the various ethnic groups, both Berber and African, rely heavily on music for preserving their traditions and heritage. If the attempt to kill music had been successful people would have been cut off from their histories and thousands of years worth of culture would have been obliterated.

While Malians of all types were forced to flee, it has been reported over 400,000 refugees from Northern Mali sought shelter in neighbouring countries and the southern regions of Mali, musicians were specifically targeted by the invaders. Houses were raided, instruments and equipment destroyed and lives threatened. The annual Festival au Desert, ironically started to celebrate peace in the region, which attracts musicians and audiences from all over the world to Timbuktu in Northern Mali in a celebration of music and cultural exchange, was cancelled due to the danger of travel and worries of fundamentalist attacks on both international and local artists.

However, even before the cessation of hostilities in Northern Mali was finalized, the musicians of Mali were showing their commitment to both their art and their country. The past six or seven months has seen the release of a number of recordings by various members of the community which have not only celebrated the role of music in their society, but have been replete with messages of tolerance and respect for diversity. Even more exciting is the effort being made by those outside the country to increase awareness of the region's music beyond its borders. While the Kel Tamashek bands like Tinariwen and various other individuals are known outside the country, there remains thousands of equally talented groups and individuals waiting to be discovered. Khaira Arby has long been acclaimed as the Nightingale of Northern Mali, but probably very few outside her native country have ever heard of her. A new release, Timbuktu Tarab, on the independent American based Clermont Music label, will give audiences in North America the opportunity to discover this amazing talent.
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When listening to Ms. Arby's music those familiar with the various styles from the region will almost immediately notice how she incorporates many of them into her sound. The trance electric guitar of the Kel Tamashek (commonly known as the Touareg), the traditional instruments of the African people (the ngoni and traditional violin) and the blues of the great Ali Farke Toure- her cousin and the person she credits as her biggest influence. The other thing you'll notice is she doesn't sing in just one language. As a mixed blood Berber and Sonrhai she draws upon both cultural traditions for not only her music, but her lyrics as well.

A praise song about the bravery, the values and the grandeur of the Kel Tamashek, "Sourgou" is sung in both their Tamashek language and the language of the Sonrhai. However, she not only sings in local dialects, she also sings in what many consider the language of Islam, Arabic. Interestingly enough the two songs on the disc she sings in this language are "Salou", a prayer to Allah, and "Tarab", basically a prayer for Mali. In it she pleads for unity and patience among all the peoples of the country and cites the name of a warrior hero from neighbouring Mauritian as inspiration for them to keep on fighting for their future.

Now I don't speak any of the languages she sings in, but the good people behind this disc's release have offered capsule summaries of each song's content and subject matter so we can at least know what she's singing about. While it won't help you understand the lyrics, it will give you some insight into Ms. Arby's significance to the region and how she attempts to reach as many people as possible. It will also give you an indication of her fearlessness and compassion as she'll sing about topics you don't often hear mentioned in songs from Africa.

"Fereine" is a song condemning the practice of female excision (the female version of circumcision or as its medically known Female Genital Mutilation) which is still commonly practiced through out the world. For a female singer to bring this up in song takes an incredible amount of bravery as its not something normally talked about let alone sung about publicly. But this isn't the only social issue she addresses. In "Youba" she addresses the conditions facing those working in salt mines. The song talks about how they return from the mines hungry, thirsty and exhausted and the general hardships facing the miners.
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While other musicians from the region might sing about conditions facing their own people, or sing songs which pass on their cultural traditions, few who I've come across up to now address the broader social and cultural issues facing Malians as a whole. Ms. Arby is able to look past individual tribal aspirations and realize that for the country to succeed as a whole everybody has to respect each other and work together. She understands how the various people of the region take pride in their history and culture and the need for them to be respected and honoured, but she also believes there is room for all of them under the umbrella of Mali.

As I said earlier musically Ms. Arby's music draws upon the various traditions of the region. However, like others she's been influenced by Western pop music as well. Blues and rock and roll from America are the biggest influences one can hear in her music. However, it's her voice which will stay with you the most. Not only is she able to communicate the depth of her feelings for whatever subject she is singing about, she has amazing vocal control. How many vocalists do you know who are equally comfortable singing up tempo rock and roll, gospel, folk and jazz? If you can imagine a mixture of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Annie Lenox you'll have an indication of her vocal prowess.

The past year and a half has seen the country of Mali go through some of the most brutal fighting imaginable and its people deal with truly horrible conditions. With nearly half a million people made refugees and the continued threat of terrorist attacks from the groups who staged the uprising, it may take years for the country to completely recover. However, the attempt to stamp out music in Northern Mali not only failed, but has resulted in what looks to be a renewed effort to bring the artists of the region to the rest of the world. This is giving us the opportunity to hear wonderful artists like Khaira Arby. She's one of the great singers of her country and an amazing talent. For anyone with an appreciation for great vocals and great music, this is a record not to be missed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab)

September 16, 2013

Music Review: The Band - Live At The Academy of Music 1971


Does anyone else find it odd a band with four members from Southern Ontario Canada is considered by so many the inspiration for what's known as the Americana genre of popular music? Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson all hail from north of the 49th parallel, so how did they end up being the group Mumford & Sons refer to as "an incredible influence on so many musicians, not the lease on the four of us"? The answer lies in part with who they all were as musicians and in part with the path their career took.

First there was Ronnie Hawkins, who came up to Toronto Canada from his native Arkansas to spread the gospel of rockabilly and ended up relocating permanently. The band he brought up with him included a young drummer, Levon Helm, and while the rest of Hawkins' Hawks were gradually replaced by the above mentioned quartet from Ontario, Helm continued to anchor the band's rhythm section. They toured up and down North America playing Hawkins' country influenced rockabilly from 1960 to 1962 and then struck out on their own as Levon and the Hawks - Helm being the senior member of the group. However, a guy named Bob Dylan happened to catch their show one night and wondered if they'd be interested in backing him up on stage for his upcoming tour of England. While Helm ending leaving the tour, the others continued with Bob to be booed off stages across Great Britain.

When the tour ended the all retreated to upstate New York where Dylan had a house in Woodstock to lick their wounds and prepare for the second stage of what was supposed to be a world tour. However, Dylan wiped out on his motorcycle and used that as an excuse to retire from performing for a while. Finding themselves at loose ends the group settled into a house of their own, invited Helm to come join them, and began writing and creating their own music. Music From Big Pink, their first release as The Band, came out in 1968, and was the complete antitheses to what the rest of popular music was doing. It drew upon everything that had influenced rock and roll in the first place, blues, country and gospel, and put them through the grist of their mill of experience as a hard playing, hard living, bar band and touring ensemble. It was as a rough gem of a record destined to be a classic.
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Three years, and three albums later, The Band booked The Academy of Music in New York City for four nights of concerts, December 28, 29, 30, 31 1971. In 1972, the double album, Rock Of Ages was released as a record of those four nights. In 2001 Capital Records reissued it on CD with a bonus disc including tracks featuring Bob Dylan accompanying The Band on four songs and six other tracks not on the original album. Now for the first time ever, Capitol/Universal Music, is releasing the definitive recording of that concert as a four CD one DVD set co-produced by lead guitarist Robertson, Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.

The first two discs contain copies of every song played over the four nights of the concert specially re-mixed for this release, while discs three and four contain the soundboard mix of the entire New Years Eve concert. The DVD are the songs from the first two discs remastered in 5.1 surround sound, plus copies of two songs from the concerts filmed by Howard Alk and Murray Lerner. The entire set come in a 48 page hard cover book containing previously unseen photos, an essay by Robertson about the concert, appreciations of the The Band and the the set's recordings from Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Mumford & Sons (where the quote earlier is taken from). (Note: as a reviewer I was only sent a digital copy of the above and the four CDs but not the DVD so I can't comment on the 5.1 remix or the video clips)

While studio albums of The Band give you an idea as to the quality of their music, it's only by listening to them perform live you come to appreciate them for what they were. For it's here you realize what it was made them so special. The raw chaotic power held together by years of performing with each other allowing them to play with complete abandon secure in the knowledge that even if one of them made a mistake, the others would be right there to smooth things over. At times you are literally holding your breath for it can be like watching a train careen down the tracks on the verge of running off the rail, but which somehow or other miraculously doesn't crash and comes safely into the station.
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Listening to the New Years Eve concert through the sound board, with it's raw unfiltered mix picking up the chatter on the stage, including them and Dylan deciding at the last minute which songs to play during the encore (prior to plunging into "Like A Rolling Stone" you hear Dylan say "haven't played this one together in 16 years") puts you into the centre of that ride. You can almost feel the energy bursting from your speakers as they put everything they have into each song. The soundboard mix is not what is played back through the Public Address (PA) system for the audience. Instead you hear each instrument and vocal track as a distinct stream, balanced with everything else, but not mixed down into one overall sound. (As an experiment listen to the recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" on Disc 4 from the soundboard mix then listen to the version of Disc 2 from the same concert through the regular mix and you'll hear what sounds like almost two different versions of the song, with the former being a lot rougher but infinitely more exciting.)

I've heard many other collections of musicians sing their versions of songs The Band performed. While they might be gifted performers there always seems to be something missing. It's an indescribable and undefinable quality which I've never been able to put my finger on. The closest I've come to it is when trying to describe their vocal harmonies on their classic gospel tune "The Weight" as saying they sound like shouldn't work, but they end up sounding perfect. The Band weren't just playing a style of music, they were the living embodiment of all that makes the music so vital and intense. Something you can only achiever from living and breathing the music together in every situation imaginable.

The Band started out touring with Ronnie Hawkins on the bar circuit, graduated to concert stages with Bob Dylan and only after eight years of playing together under those circumstances started producing their own music. On this four disc set you'll hear versions of what most consider their best material, "Across The Great Divide", "Stage Fright", "The Weight", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "The Shape I'm In" "Life Is A Carnival", "Up On Cripple Creek" and some songs you'll have never heard them play before like old 1950s number "(I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" and Stevie Wonder's "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever". Any band would be happy to have written a couple of those songs over the course of a career, and The Band had written them all in their first three years of existence.

The four nights of concerts performed at the end of 1971 at New York City's Academy of Music showed was The Band's coming out party as a force to be reckoned with in rock and roll. They had shared the bill with others at festivals and shows, but this was their event. This four CD, one DVD collection is a wonderful reminder of just how amazing a group they were. A celebration of rock and roll and music like you've never heard before performed by the band who personified the music as few others ever have.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Band -Live At The Academy of Music 1971 [4-CD/1-DVD])


August 28, 2013

Music Review: The Rides - Can't Get Enough


There's a saying, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away". If old rockers keep putting out albums it seems we're going to have come up with something similar to say about old musicians. While some of them probably should have hung up their gear ages ago, others seem to epitomize Dylan Thomas' famous line of refusing to go gentle into that good night. While they may not have the vocal range they once did or be quite as quick moving up and down the fret board of their guitars, they still play with passion and soul. These are the type of guys you could visualize spontaneously combusting on stage rather than their lights slowly dimming.

Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg are veterans of the pop music wars with both of them first coming to public attention in the1960s. Goldberg is probably not as well known, he was part of the Chicago electric blues scene of the 1960s and was keyboardist with Electric Flag and Bob Dylan when he was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Stills is of course internationally known for both his solo work and the bands he was part of, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to name two. Either one of them has been probably playing music for more years then Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been alive. However, that hasn't stopped them from teaming up with the younger man to form the new blues/rock band The Rides whose new recording, Can't Get Enough, is being released on 429 Records August 27 2013.

There aren't many older musicians who would willingly share the stage with a young blood like Shepherd who could easily leave them in the dust. Conversely there aren't many up and coming guitar heroes who would think playing with a couple of old guys wasn't just a waste of time. So just the fact the three of them have joined forces on what seems to be a semi-permanent fashion says a lot about their commitment to music. It's that dedication to their art which takes the fairly standard blues rock numbers on this disc and makes them something a little extraordinary.
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You hear the type of music found on this disc played in venues all around the world by musicians of all calibers. Ninety per cent of the time this type of blues/rock isn't going to sound much different no matter who plays it. It takes a lot of work to make it sound bad, but at the same time it takes some pretty special musicians to made it sound special. While the first song on this disc, "Mississippi Road House", is a fairly typical number of the type, the lyrics about the life of a bar band musician have a certain poignancy which elevates it beyond just another blues based rock song, Anybody who's ever been in a large roadhouse watching a band sweat on stage as they try and compete with large screen TVs for an audience's attention will appreciate what its expressing.

One of things you'll notice about the recording is the immediacy of the sound. This is because the band made the wise decision to record themselves live. Rather than each of them laying down their parts separately in little glass booths while listening to everybody else on headphones, they played together in the studio, only laying down the vocal tracks later. This allows Still and Shepherd as the guitar players to feed off each other's work. It gives their songs the spontaneous quality this type of music needs to be at its best. Goldberg's keyboard complimenting what their doing only works as well as it does because he's in the room anticipating what the two guitars are going to do next. There's a sense of unity in their playing you don't often find in studio recordings.

Of the ten tracks on the disc four are originals Goldberg, Shepherd and Stills wrote for the disc, five are covers and one, the albums closing track "Word Game" Stills wrote in the late 1960s for Buffalo Springfield but never recorded. The covers are an interesting mix of classic blues numbers, "Talk To Me Baby" by Elmore James and "Honey Bee" by Muddy Waters, and rockers, "Search And Destroy" by Iggy and The Stooges and "Rockin' In The Free World" by Still's old buddy Neil Young. Hearing Still's sing the latter is an interesting experience, especially if you're familiar with any of the work he and Young did together in the past. For, although it sounds substantially different Young's version, it stills sounds right. It's like Stills has an affinity for Young's material based on their years of friendship which allows him to make the song effortlessly his own, while still honouring its original intent.
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Stills and Shepherd split the vocal duties on the disc. While Shepherd's voice, by dint of age and not having seen quite as much hard living, is stronger and has more of a range, Stills' ability to find the emotional honesty at a song's core remains undamaged. His raw passion on "Rockin" In The Free World" and "Word Game" give both songs the fire needed to make them work. Maybe somebody else could have made them sound better, but he's able to bring them alive and get their meaning across in a way few can.

Normally on an album of this type the spotlight shine brightest on the guitar players. While in this case the playing of Stills and Shepherd would actually justify them being the centre of attention for the entire album, it is a trio and Goldberg's keyboard is given its rightful place in the mix. While that doesn't mean songs are tagged with unnecessary piano or organ solos. his presence is felt on almost every song. Whether playing the role of lead rhythm instrument as the two guitars exchange leads or giving the songs an extra layer of texture, Goldberg's playing is integral to every song. He gives the more traditional blues songs that extra bit of melancholy needed by smoothing out the rough edges of the guitar laden sound while at the same time adding an urgency to harder numbers. There's only so much guitars, bass and drums can do on their own without becoming somewhat predictable and Goldberg adds the extra element required to ensure the sound never falls into a rut.

It would be easy for older players like Stills and Goldberg to rest on their laurels and quietly fade away as guys who were famous once upon a time. Instead here they are putting themselves out on the front lines again playing with somebody who could very easily make them look old and tired. Instead, they prove, at least in their case, old rockers don't fade away, they just find new ways of keeping themselves inspired. The combination of Shepherd, Stills and Goldberg, the old and the new, could be seen as the torch being passed from one generation to the next. However in this case it represents a meeting of equals who aren't out to prove anything except how much they love what they do.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Rides - Can't Get Enough)

July 13, 2013

Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn


When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty's advise and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired on local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group travelled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.

While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn't actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm's presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200 seat performance space in Woodstock New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death April 19 2012.

Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello. Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and a host of others. When it was discovered the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two DVD, two CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
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With Helm's long time guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all star band assembled by Was for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you're not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.

One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing "Anna Lee". Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what's being created.

I've never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I'm not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining the band My Morning Jacket for a rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn't familiar with, "Wide River To Cross". It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn't able to complete his personal journey. "I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on/To where I'll find, find the things I have lost/I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go/I've got a wide, a wide river to cross".

Water's voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song's lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
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Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing "Move Along Train" showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of "Long Black Veil". John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up "Don't Do It". However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn't sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of "The Weight", they weren't able to capture the sound which made the song so great.

That wasn't the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn't write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn't exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn't Hawkins there? He's still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.

Technically speaking you can't find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sound's great in 5.1 Surround Sound. There's a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there's been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn't wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well produced recording of a concert given October 3 2012 in honour of Levon Helm and to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn where the Midnight Ramble performances take place is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform and learn. It was Helm's attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism the rough hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn't the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn)

June 28, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride


The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac's On The Road to quasi philosophical works like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America's love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover its a country whose identity changes from region to region.

While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces singer song writer Willie Nile's latest release, American Ride, on Loud and Proud Records not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile's personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he's made during the course of his journey.

Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, "This Is Our Time", exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn't exactly original. However, as with all of Nile's songs intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
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Yet Nile isn't blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn't sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. "Holy War" is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because it's God's will his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, "God's holy, your not". It's not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.

Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, "God Laughs". In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. "God laughs, God cries, God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes, God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he's God". Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they do they're missing the point. Nile's God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we're created in his image, doesn't that mean we and He reflect each other?

While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, "American Ride", has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his "American Ride". Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there's also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. "Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as any where to make our stand/Some might say it's all a dream/Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/You're untamed beauty got me on my knees".

His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he's not blind to the country's less than noble past or the problems it still hasn't been able to solve. However, that doesn't mean he can't see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country's people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile's ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says "my country right or wrong".

Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what's basically a traditional folk song, "The Crossing". As you journey through this album you'll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.

Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it's easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you'll realize there's more to his material then what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful as at first listen they sound rather straight forward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song's theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn't try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what's being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
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Like the great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straight forward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight from the heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers.Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they're always going to be truthful.

American Ride is the latest instalment in Nile's recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It's been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there's still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride)

(Photo Credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)

June 12, 2013

Interview: Willie Nile - The Best Musician You've Never Heard Of - Yet


The BBC called his last album The Innocent Ones "stunning...The rock and roll album of the year", Rolling Stone Magazine included it in their"Top Ten Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011" list, and USA Today called the album's "One Guitar" the number one song in the nation. Yet most of you have probably never heard of him nor recognize the title of the album they're each raving about. Hopefully that's all about to change. For after more then 20 years since his last contract with a major label, Willie Nile's next release,American Ride, will be coming out June 25 2013 on Loud and Proud Records and will be the first artist released under the label's new deal with RED Distribution, a division of Sony Music.

I had interviewed Nile back in 2008, but we had conducted it via email so I hadn't had the opportunity to actually talk with him. While an email question and answer exchange ensures accuracy, it's impersonal and doesn't give you much of a chance to get to know the person you're interviewing. To be honest most of the time you don't get to know a person even when you interview them over the phone. You're usually one of many people they're talking to over the course of a day which means you're usually limited to something like fifteen minutes for the interview. Barely long enough to ask them a couple of questions about their new album/tour/book/movie and them to dole out the same pat answers they've given everyone.

Thankfully that wasn't the case with Nile when we talked. Not only were there no time constraints, it was far less an interview and much more a conversation. Sure we talked about his new record, signing with a label and all the sort of stuff you're supposed to on one of these interviews, but I found out more about him from the way he talked about these things than I did from the answers he gave. Nile is one of those rare people who are exactly like you think he'll be after listening to his songs. Compassionate, intelligent, aware and a genuinely considerate and caring individual.
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Most of us, when you ask us how we're doing, will answer with the expected and safe, fine. When Willie asked me "How you doing? as we started our interview he was really asking. So I told him. When I reciprocated with the same question he started by telling me it was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, in New York City and how "It was a great day to be alive". But, there was something else and it soon came out. He was in mourning as a close friend, Rob Morsberger, who had done the string arrangements for Willie's last release, The Innocent Ones had just died from brain cancer.

Instead of talking about himself or his own work, Nile spent the first few minutes of our interview telling me about his friend and what a great singer/songwriter he had been. He then proceeded to tell me a story which from another person would have sounded like, look what I did, aren't I special? But in Nile's case it was an opportunity to tell me about somebody else's generosity. He told me how he had gone to one of the final concerts Morsberger had given and how it made him think Randy Newman should really hear his music.

So he had gone home and spent a couple of hours trying to compose an email to Newman's publicist which would be intriguing enough to be passed along to Newman. Nile doesn't know Newman, and even felt like he had to include his CV thinking Newman might not have heard of him. However, it didn't prevent him from trying to help his friend gain some recognition for his work. When he told me how Newman had left two messages on Morsberger's voice mail the next day, it was with awe and respect in his voice for Newman. There wasn't a hint of pride or self promotion. He told me this story because he had been genuinely touched by Newman's generosity.

Of course we did finally get around to talking about his new album. Initially he had raised the money to record the disc through crowd source funding, using PledgeMusic. He had been making plans for distributing the disc on his own when Loud & Proud had approached him. I asked him whether or not he had used crowd source funding before, what he thought of it. He had used Kickstarter to help fund The Innocent Ones, but basically he'd been paying for all his previous recordings out of his own pocket. However over the years, his fan base has been growing and he has a very passionate following everywhere he goes.

"It feels like a big family when I tour" he said."Not only does everybody have a good time at the gigs, everybody also seems to connect to the music and it affects them personally. After each show I hang around and sign copies of CDs and say hi to people. They come up to me and tell me how the music is special to them or what it means to them. I had one guy, a young guy, come up to me after a gig and ask me to sign a copy of the CD to a friend of his who had died about six months ago. His friend, Ramon, had been a big fan and this young man told me it would have meant the world to him to have a CD signed by me." He paused, and when he continued I could tell he was still moved by the awe I heard in his voice as he said, "If you can help somebody it's a nobel thing to do. When music touches people it's wonderful. If its real it can be either as a party or something better - a source of joy and salvation. If its real it will be something meaningful to everybody who listens"

Well his music must touch a lot of people from all over the world, because he reached his goal at PledgeMusic in four days. Following the successful campaign to raise money for its recording Nile had originally planned on releasing the disc in April. However all that changed when Tom Lipsky, president of Loud & Proud approached him.

"The president of the label approached me about signing with them. He really believed in the music which convinced me to sign. The music has always sold itself and was doing well, but a partner will make it work even better. I believe they can take it to another level. When I went into the studio I knew what I had - I always have all my songs ready before I record, in fact I've already got the material for my next album written. Another one to add to the collection."

The sense I got from Nile was being with the label means he's able to breath a little easier. He can focus on his art a little more and not have to worry quite as much about money as he has in the past. Talking to him you would never know this guy has been in the business for what must be close to 40 years now. He sounds so enthusiastic and excited. He was fairly bursting to tell me about a quote Bono had written about the new album. It wasn't because he was boasting or showing off, but because he was so excited about his music and the fact people were enjoying it. "Its a ride alright...on foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few America's here to discover. The mythic, the magic, the very real. One of the great guides to unravelling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America." He read the quote out carefully and slowly to make sure I copied it down accurately, all the while sounding like a kid who's been given the best present in the world.

All of which brought us to the album itself. I asked him whether or not there was a theme tying the CD together saying the title track, "American Ride", reminded me somewhat of Jack Keourac's cross country, road trip odyssey,On The Road, and was he perhaps inspired by the Beats. He was delighted with the comparison.

"The Beat poets continue to inspire me today, Bob Kaufman, Alan Ginsberg - great poets. I knew Alan. I did a reading at St. Marks Church with a group of them upon the republication of Keourac's American Haiku. I don't usually do that sort of thing, but I found out Ed Sanders of The Fugs was going to be there and I had loved the Fugs so I thought it would be great. But it was the Beat strain of poetry and music, American music - big band jazz, blues, be bop, Chuck Berry, Woody Guthrie - all the music which inspired the British invasion - can be traced back to the Beats. It was the music my generation grew up with. All the music and places in the song "American Ride" are American music - Motown, New Orleans, Memphis - all these sounds have gone into my music and so many other people's music.
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The connection really came home to me when I was touring in London and we played the 100 Club. The place back in the 1970s where The Sex Pistols and The Clash played. There we were on stage with pictures of the Sex Pistols and The Clash on the walls playing and we were joined by Graham Matlock, original bassist for the Pistols, to play "People Who Died" (a Jim Carroll song covered by Nile on American Ride). They we were playing a song by one of the great modern American poets/musicians in a London club with a British musician surrounded by images of great British rock and roll bands."

He then turned back to the idea of there being a theme to the album. "I didn't put American Ride together as a concept album. It looked like there was a theme after the fact, but that's just the way it turned out." He paused for a second, "I'm all about giving - my mother always used to say it's better to give than receive - and I wouldn't walk into the recording studio if it wasn't going to be something special - if there wasn't going to be something to give to people. When I was making the album I was mindful there was different types of music on it. Songs about war, songs about love, dance songs - but any collection of songs needs to fit together somehow. It's more about the journeys we're all on and celebrating them. We need to be doing the best we can for each other. Bobby Kennedy said, "We're a compassionate people - we can do better".

There were a few songs in particular on American Ride I wanted to ask Nile about, and I brought them up now. The first one, "God Laughs", has the potential for being controversial with lines like "God fornicates". I wondered about his intent with this song.

"It's not meant to offend, I wrote it with a sense of humour - didn't censor myself and tried to make it real and evocative, but it came from a place of love. I was playing this song in Spain, the audience was having a great time and after the gig a guy comes up to me and asks me to sign a copy of the CD. (Nile obviously was selling early copies of the disc at shows in Europe before signing with Loud & Proud). It turns out he was a Catholic priest and he said the song really inspired him. It meant the world to me that this man who had devoted his life to spirituality and God appreciated it. So no, I hope people aren't offended by it, but I hope it makes them think about things."

Before talking to Nile I hadn't realized "People Who Died" was a cover of a Jim Carroll song. To me it sounded awfully aggressive and angry for what is basically a listing of people the singer knows who died.

"It was Carroll celebrating his friends. I wanted to bring what I thought was a masterpiece back to life. I talked to bunch of Jim's buddies who had known everybody in the song and they got what I was doing. The band really kicked butt on it and we made it a celebration of the people who are mentioned. Its defiant all right - a party song looking into the abyss and shaking your fist and dancing at the same time. I also wanted to do something for my brother who passed so I changed a couple of lines to add the bit about Johnny my brother and dedicated it to him. I'm sure Jim wouldn't have minded."

Another song which I saw having the potential for being misunderstood was "Holy War". I asked him if he was worried the song might make people think he has issues with religions and how they can be used to manipulate people

"I'm at peace and centred with all religions and accepting of them all and the different sides of faith. This is more of an angry prayer for peace than anything else. From the Crusades to the present lots of wrongs and lots of people have been killed in the name of different faiths. It's a taking to task of anyone who hides behind the cloak of religion. People need to understand we can all do better and we need to hope we can do better." He paused for a second, and then repeated, "It's an angry prayer for peace".

While the majority of the tracks on the disc are uptempo, if not out and out rockers, the second last song on the disc, "The Crossing" catches your attention for its simple folk sound. It's a reminder of Nile's Irish roots and why I once referred to him as the troubadour of New York City. It sounds like it could the story of his family's immigration to North America.

"I wrote it thinking about my ancestors, but its also about everybody and anybody. All those who came here to make a better life for themselves and their families and a tip of the hat to those earlier generations who made that journey. Its also about the personal bridges we all have to cross to make a better life for ourselves as individuals. Its about taking the risk of journeying into the unknown just as much as its about the risk of trying to create a new life in a new world."

By this time we had been talking for quite some time so I figured I should wrap it up. So I asked him what was next for Willie Nile as a way of bringing things to a close. Typical of the way our conversation had gone, he told me a couple of stories, both of which tied in with how he feels about his career and his life to this point.

"The songs are coming to me and the stuff I'm doing now I think is as good as anything I've ever done. You know my journey has been up and down and I've learned from it. I think I'm finally fulfilling what I hoped to when I started out. There have been some great moments along the way." He laughed, "Back in 1992 I was opening for Ringo Starr and his All Star band. When the last night of my section of the tour came around, Ringo found me back stage and gave me a big hug and thanked me for opening for him. I was covered with Beatle sweat (laughs) I'll never wash again...He then invited me out on stage to join everybody in the encore - "With A Little Help From My Friends". I got out on stage and there was Rink Danko (bass player from the Band) and we sort of looked at each other and grinned - as if saying look where we are.

My albums are what they are because of the journey I've taken. I'm not bitter because I'm not rich and famous, I never wanted to be famous. (laughs again) Rich maybe, but only because what I could do with the money. The fact that there are people out there who have championed my work (Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townshead have expressed their admiration for Nile's work) makes me feel great. Music is to be shared just as life is to be shared and I've had the opportunity to do both with a great many people. The material is already ready for the next album and I feel like I'm doing some of the best work of my career now. As long as things keep feeling like this, I'm not about to stop anytime soon."

We said goodbye then, wishing each other well. While we talked about a lot of different things over the course of our conversation, the impression which stays with me most is of having talked to somebody who loves what he's doing and is genuinely grateful for being given the opportunity to do what he loves. When he talks about the famous people he knows or has met, it's not because he's trying to impress you, but because he wants to talk about how wonderful they are and how he's been lucky enough to know them.

Willie Nile is one of those rare people who makes you feel better about the world just by talking to them. His music is a celebration of life in all its diversity and is able to strike a chord with people from all over the world. His new release, American Ride, will be available on June 25 2013 and after listening to it you'll understand why so many people appreciate him. What you may not understand is why you haven't heard his music before.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Willie Nile, The Best Musician You've Never Heard Of - Yet)

May 31, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt


Something I've never understood is why people romanticize alcoholics. Even worse is why they see somebody dying a sad and lonely death as a result of their addiction proof of their authenticity as an artist. Why can't they understand the drugs and booze which resulted in these people's death also prevented many of these artists from achieving their potential. Yet people like Graham Parsons have obtained near mythical status more because of the way he lived and died than through his body of work.

I mention Parson specifically because of his associations with country music and early attempts at marrying it with pop music. For while he has achieved a great deal of notoriety after his death one who was far more prolific and influential has until recently been largely ignored. For some reason, while his talent was always recognized by his peers, Townes Van Zandt, never managed to capture the public's imagination in the same way as people like Parson.

Maybe it was because he was genuinely unwell, suffering from severe depression all his life and diagnosed by the medical profession as everything from bipolar to manic depressive. Turning to alcohol to combat his depression only made matters worse and he spent a great deal of his life living in isolation.
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Most of his income came from other musicians covering his material as his albums didn't sell that well. However, listening to Van Zandt perform his own material makes you appreciate he was more than just a gifted songwriter and his influence extends far beyond people covering his material. Earlier this year a two disc set of studio out takes and demos, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, was released. The recording sessions were made during what is considered Van Zandt's most productive time as an artist. Now, the label who released that collection, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with the Van Zandt estate, have released remastered editions of the two albums on which the bulk of the material from those sessions appeared, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

While you might think there's something eerily prescient about the title of the latter, it was more of an example of Van Zandt's sense of irony than any foreknowledge he might have had about his death. It was on this album he recorded "Pancho and Lefty", later a hit for first, Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Ironically, after his death it was revealed during the last few years of his life Van Zandt had earned around $100,000.00 per year from royalties.

Musically Van Zandt was the place where country, blues, folk and gospel hung out together. While some songs, like "Two Hands" and "When He Offers His Hand" on High, Low And In Between are specifically gospel, the most memorable tracks are the ones which defy any specific classification. "You Are Not Needed Now" and "To Live Is To Fly" from the same disc and "Sad Cinderella" and "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You" from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt resonate with a sound and a quality distinct to Van Zandt.
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It's like he had the ability to reach into the places we hide our innermost fears and desires and find a way of turning them into song. Yet, he doesn't try to manipulate our emotions or reactions through sentiment or any of the other ploys other songwriters employ. His lyrics reflect an uncanny ability to empathize with people's feelings. Listening to some of his songs you may wonder how he managed to read your mind because of the way he was able to articulate the secrete hopes, dreams and fears most of us keep buried in the deeper recesses of our souls. While his songs are always about something in specific, he managed to make it feel like he was singing about something you'd experienced. "When the bandits have stolen your jewelry and gone/And your crippled young gypsy, he's grown tall and strong/And your dread misconceptions have proven you wrong/Well then princess,where you plannin' to turn to?" ("Sad Cinderella" Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

When you hear him sing your first impression is of a rather thin voice whose twang reveals his Texas roots. Yet there's something about it which draws you into a song quicker and deeper than most singers. Maybe because his voice sounds so regular there's less of a barrier between him and his audience than if he had a more melodic voice or polished singing style. The raw simplicity of his delivery gives it an honesty and sincerity we aren't used to hearing. By eschewing the flourishes and decorative elements so many singers employ, material, which in other's hands would risk sounding mawkish, remains emotionally honest.

One of the oddest experiences of listening to both of these Van Zandt discs is hearing a song which reminds you of some other performer. The natural reaction to this is to automatically think, wow he sounds just like so and so. It's only then you remember the song was released more then a decade before the one it sounded like. That's when you begin to appreciate just how much of an influence he was on those who came after him.
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Like the human condition Van Zand't songs are funny, sad, emotional and sometimes just matter of fact. The dryness of his humour and his delivery make it easy to miss some of the subtler moments in his songs. One of my favourites is the chorus of "Pancho and Lefty", "All the federales say/They could have had him any day/They only let him hang around/Out of kindness I suppose". Who ever heard of a cop letting an outlaw "hang around" out of kindness? It's these little touches which distinguished Van Zandt from most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him.

Steve Earle was once quoted as saying he thought Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world and "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that". Whether you agree with that sentiment or not after listening to Van Zandt's music is up to you. However one thing you won't be able to deny is this man was an amazing talent whose artistry has been overlooked for far too long.
When lessor lights are held up as examples of great talents because of our fascination with their untimely deaths due to substance abuse isn't it about time we start to recognize those among the troubled who were the truly talented? While his fellow musicians have always known the gift Van Zandt was to popular music it's about time for the rest of the world to catch up. You won't believe what you've been missing for all these years.

(Article first published at Blogcitics.org as Music Review - Townes Van Zandt High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

May 14, 2013

Music Review: I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House - Mayberry


The idea punk rock and country music could find common ground must seem pretty unlikely to most fans of popular music. However, it shouldn't really be too much of a surprise. If you think back to the early days of rock and roll when the music was still a hybrid of country and blues. Rockabilly was simple three chord music which captured the imagination of young people because it was different from anything that had come before. It was music stripped down to the basics usually played by three to four musicians. It was fast and furious, full of energy and didn't sound like anything anybody's parents were listening to.

The 1970s saw rock and roll becoming a big business. Its rebellious nature had long since been tamed and neutered and the music was now safe for mass consumption. So when punk came along with its whiff of anarchy and revolution all wrapped up in three minute three chord songs, a new generation of rebellious teenagers had something they could call their own. It definitely wasn't the music their parent's listened to. It was raw, powerful and in your face in a way music hadn't been in years. However, you didn't need to look very closely to see the similarities between it and what had come out of Sun Records in the 1950s. Three or four musicians playing stripped down music at speed.

While the folks in Nashville might not like it, but Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Elvis have more in common with Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer than any of the rhinestone set who appear on stage at the Grand Ole Opry these days. Thankfully there are still some bands out there who understand this connection and one who I've just come across now are the in your face named I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House. While the band's name might lead you to believe they're a bunch of good ole boy red necks who sing about the joys of bar fights and moonshine, listening to their soon to be released new CD, Mayberry, quickly dispels that impression.
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Musically they're a hard driving rock and roll band who mix the earthiness of country with the anger and danger of punk. Their line up might resemble your average blues based rock and roll bar band; lead singer/guitarist (Michael Dean Damron) harmonica (David Lipkind) drums (Flapjack Texas) bass (Mole Harris) and second guitar (Jon Burbank), but you only have to hear one song to know they are not your average anything. In fact, it's pretty safe to say average would take one look at these guys and run away screaming with its tail between its legs.

It's not that their music is abrasive or they look particularly odd - no noticeable piercings, strange clothes or any of the so called badges of punk to be seen among them - but their lyrics will make quite a number of people uncomfortable. Starting with the opening and title track of the disc, "Mayberry", and with a only a couple of exceptions, each of them has something to say about the state of life in the United States, and the world, which doesn't jibe with the vision espoused by the family values/ National Rifle Association crowd.

The title of "Mayberry" is a reference to the name of the town in the old Andy Griffith Show but it's sure not a song of praise for small town rural America. Contrasting the idealized world of the television show with reality depicts the breadth of the gap between fact and fiction. "I saw my mama get beat again/he put her head right through the door/daddy always cleaned his guns in front of me/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/so I shut down my heart and I turned on my TV/They don't make men like Andy Griffith any more/Mayberry is dead and gone"

If "Mayberry" doesn't raise people's hackles, and maybe it could be construed as wishing for a gentler, kinder America, which only ever existed in the minds of television executives and conservative politicians, there's no mistaking what's being said in "Bones", the disc's sixth track. "Go on now tell me about religion/why we all choose a side/got our flags and our weapons/tell me why so many die in your name/in your name.../we're all just bones in the end/all just bones". Of course some people may not be able to get past the first verse of the song where Damron address God directly without having an apoplectic fit, "If I'm made in your image/don't want to be a bit like you anymore/anymore".
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The thing is, unlike other bands Damron and company aren't trying to shock people. No there's something far more powerful at work here. These are songs about disillusionment with the bullshit we're all fed about country, god and whatever way of life is espoused by the politicians in your neighbourhood. Sure he's singing about America, because that's where he lives, but the lyrics could apply to any country, any religion and any political system on the face of the earth. However, what makes them so potent is you come away from listening to their songs left with no doubt as to their sincerity.

Even a song like "My Guitar", a basic praise song to those musicians who influenced Damron, escapes being the sentimental tripe these types of things normally turn out to be. In part this is due to the style of music the band plays. Rough hewn rock and roll with its country and blues roots showing and not an overdub or electronic sound to be heard. While there are plenty of bands who do the same thing, these guys bring something extra to the table which elevates their sound into something special. It's hard to describe in words, but maybe its how the music works in concert with the lyrics and Damron's voice and delivery which takes them out of the realm of merely being another bar band.

Damron has one of those voices which can only be described as raw passion. There's nothing refined or pretty about it. He strains and pushes to reach notes and his voice sometimes cracks with the effort involved in getting the words out. However, this is no artfully constructed artifice nor some sort of affectation. Each word sounds like its being dragged out of his heart and spat out with all the passion of his soul. He's one of those rare singers who sound truly possessed by the spirit of his music and the need to sing his songs. It wouldn't matter if there were ten people or 10,000 in his audience, you just know he would sound exactly the same.

Punk rock isn't necessarily a few people on stage playing as fast as they can and screaming incoherently into their microphones. It's about the willingness to do things your own way and express thoughts others might not be willing to say. Rock and roll in the 1950s was something threatening because it challenged the established notions of what constituted popular music and encouraged its audience to express themselves in ways their parents didn't approve. In the 1970s punk did much the same thing and tossed the social/political content of folk music into the mix.

I Can Lick Any Son Of A Bitch In The House might not sound like we've been told punk is supposed to sound like. Yet the spirit, verve and sincerity they bring to their music makes it just as dangerous and frightening to those who value conformity as anything Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Sex Pistols or The Clash gave us. If that ain't punk, I don't know what is. While Mayberry won't be officially released until early June 2013 the band is selling copies of the disc at gigs from now until then. For details about upcoming shows where the disc will be for sale check the band's web site.

Photo Credit: Band photo by Jocelyn Dean

(Article first published as Music Review: I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House - Mayberry on Blogcritics.)

April 9, 2013

Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere


When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you've heard zydeco and klezmer music you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I'd heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.

While the disc has been out in Europe since March, its just being released in North America on Tuesday April 9 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant display of virtuosity as I've ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to South East Asia probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you'll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"), 10 ("Rural Ghost") and 16("Kashmir"), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Alexksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on "Lemi Evke", track 12, and "Kashmir", Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to "Lemi Evke" and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on "Just Cliches", track 15.

While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar to only have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
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On paper that might sound weird but believe me it's bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite's sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although its not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.

While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she's also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, "Why Don't You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?", Mor Karbasi's vocals on "Lemi Evke" take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn't sound like any blues song you've heard before, there's no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi's voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.

It's at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi's voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi's voice rising higher and higher on the scale you all of sudden realize she's no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
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While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, "Johnny Has No Cash No More", a burst of Cash sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to "Peckham Rai", a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.

According to genre classifications world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.

Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it's our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song - but that's a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere on Blogcritics.)

April 2, 2013

Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Jama ko


It is sometimes said music gives voice to the concerns of a people. While this may not be as true in North American popular music as it once was in countries with a history of an oral tradition music is a key element in the telling of the people's stories. In West Africa griots are historians, storytellers, poets and musicians rolled into one. However, not only do they learn and recount the history of their tribe and its important people, they are also expected to be able to create songs about the state of the of the world around them in the present day.

While not all popular musicians in the region are griots, its a hereditary post passed from father to son involving years of study and preparation, it doesn't stop them from sharing many of the same attributes. So when the Tuareg uprising in Northern Mali turned into something that was far more insidious with repercussions effecting the entire country, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone if a response shows up on an album of popular music.

Bassekou Kouyate was in the recording studio in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. With tensions mounting between the various ethnic groups in the country due to fear and anger and the very real danger real danger of reprisals and crackdowns on musicians, Kouyate wrote and recorded Jama ko, now available in North America on Out here records.
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With Islamic extremists in the North rounding up musicians and destroying and confiscating musical equipment and the Malian army's history of targeting musicians who make waves, making the record was an act of extraordinary courage. Yet not only did Kouyate make this record, he recorded songs meant to inspire hope and defiance among the people of Mali. The disc's title song, "Jama ko", translates literally as "a big gathering of people", and is a celebration of the country's diversity. It is a call for unity and tolerance and encourages people, no matter who they are, to come together, enjoy life and celebrate the true spirit of Mali.

While the country's population is more than 90% Muslim, Kouyate explains in a statement about the disc, their version of Islam has nothing in common with the strict imposition of Sharia law the forces in the North were trying to force upon people. Music has not only played a role in the recounting of their histories, it has also been a major part of their worship as praise songs for the prophet Mohammad have been written and sung for hundreds of years. He concludes with the simple yet telling statement. "If the Islamists stop people music-making they will rip the heart out of Mali".

Well in spite of frequent power outages, a curfew and fuel shortages Kouyate makes some fine music on Jama ko. He plays the West African string instrument known as the ngoni. This is basically a hollowed out gourd covered by a piece of raw-hide, usually goat skin, with a piece of doweling stuck in one end strung with anywhere from 4 to 7 strings depending on the tone the player wishes to create. The strings are plucked in the same manner someone would pluck a banjo, an instrument which in all probability was inspired by the ngoni. However it has a much more flexible sound than its modern descendant. In the hands of an accomplished player like Kouyate, for all its simplicity of construction, a ngoni can produce leads as ornate as any guitar.

Aside from being accompanied by his two sons Madou and Moustafa and fellow ngoni player Sissoko, special guest vocalists are dotted through out the recording. Two of the songs aside from the title track which relate directly to the situation in Mali at the time the recording was made are "Sinaly", featuring Kasse Mady Diabate on lead vocals and "Kele magni". The first song is about Sialy Diarra a king of the Bamara people who was famous for resisting an attempt in the 19th century of the imposition of Sharia law. While to audiences outside of Mali the significance of this might be lost, those within the country would be familiar with the history and be inspired by its message of standing up for their own culture.
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On this song we also hear how Kouyate has absorbed a variety of musical influences from around the world as there is a decided "Latin" feel to the track in spite of its very Afrocentric subject matter. Sacko and Arby are from Timbuktu in Northern Mali in the heart of the area where the uprising was taking place. In fact Timbuktu was captured by the rebel forces at about the time the recording was made, "Kele magni", which is a direct call for peace in the country, features a beautiful duet between the two guest vocalists. As the two singers would obviously be persecuted for being musicians if they had returned home while Timbuktu was occupied, the song and its message become all the more powerful.

One of the more compelling pieces on the disc is the track "Wagadou", It's one of those occasions where not being able to speak the language of those singing doesn't make a bit of difference to the emotional impact of a song. The rather pensive and moody atmosphere Kouyate manages to create with just his ngoni and some keyboards added in the mixing process by producer Howard Bilerman offers us a glimpse at Kouyate's diversity as a musician and his willingness to experiment with sound.

Among the special guests to appear on this recording the one who will be most familiar to North American audiences is the great Taj Mahal. He and Kouyate perform a great blues duet on the track "Poye 2", in French.They trade leads back and forth on guitar and ngoni and exchange duties on lead vocals. The mix of African French and what sounds like Mahal's creole French is wonderful and their instrumental duets are a brilliant melding of the old world with the new. If you ever needed proof of the old saying music knows no language and doesn't recognize borders, this song is it.

It's not often we think of the act of recording music in terms of bravery. In the case of the latest disc from Kouyate and his fellow musicians their recording was both an act of defiance in the face of those who would ban music and an act of celebration honouring their traditions and their culture. What's even more amazing is even in the best of circumstances this would be an excellent collection of music featuring great musicians. Considering the conditions under which it was recorded it's astounding the disc was ever made, let alone is of such a high quality both artistically and technically. It takes a real devotion and love for your art to overcome these kinds of obstacles and produce work of such quality. Listen to this album and hear what love sounds like.

(Article first published as Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko on Blogcritics.)


March 5, 2013

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell & Angels


In her autobiography about being a young artist in New York City, Just Kids, Patti Smith described attending the opening night party for a new recording studio. Being shy and easily overwhelmed by crowds she spent a great deal of time outside on the fire escape with the equally shy musician responsible for the studio's existence. Jimi Hendrix didn't have too much longer to live when he sat on the fire escape outside his newly opened Electric Ladyland studios with a young poet. The studio was to have been the place where he would have been able to experiment and play music away from the demands of the world.

Today, more then 40 years after Hendrix's death, the studio is one part of his legacy to the world of music. Smith is only one of many artists who record there taking advantage of what Hendrix created. However Hendrix's legacy stretches far beyond the walls of Electric Ladyland. In the 1980s when Tuareg rebels in North Africa picked up guitars to begin making music as a way of preserving their culture their biggest influence was Hendrix's style of blues guitar. While still famous for his pyrotechnics on guitar as the years pass more and more are discovering what the Tuareg appreciated - Hendrix's ability as a blues musician. Unlike other lead guitar players, both then and now, Hendrix understood there was more to being a guitarist than just being able to rip leads.

Listening to the new CD, People, Hell & Angels, released by Legacy Recordings, of previously unreleased Hendrix studio sessions is to be reminded once again how complete a musician he was. Some might wonder why bother releasing the music of somebody dead four decades, especially tracks which are essentially unfinished? The answer would be for the same reason we publish, and read, the letters and diaries of famous writers. Hendrix was a musician, so these tracks are his diaries, his letters to the world. They represent a chance to gain some insight into the directions he was wanting to take his music, what his interest were and maybe get to know him a little better.
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The majority of music released under his name since his death have been of not only dubious quality, but dubious origins as well. It's only been recently his family have been able to gain control of his music and try and redress the damage done to his legacy by a legion of unscrupulous people trying to make a fast buck off the name of Hendrix. In the years following his death a number of poorly recorded and badly mixed albums were dumped on the market. Tracks appearing on this disc had previously been released in either truncated versions or with studio musicians overdubbing those who had originally been in the studio with Hendrix leaving only his solos intact.

This would be equivalent to rewriting an unpublished story by James Joyce leaving monologues intact while having some hack ghostwriter fill in the blanks. Whatever magic was originally present in the studio when Hendrix was there with those he chose to create with in the moment was lost. Taking his solos out of their original context is akin to planting a palm tree in the Arctic Circle. Not only will it look out of place, it will wither and die. Here, lovingly restored by Eddie Kramer, the man who engineered all his studio albums and recorded his most famous concerts, and co-producers Janie Hendrix (Hendrix's sister) and John McDermott the songs can be heard in all their rough uncut glory.

I remember having semi-serious discussions with high school buddies in the 1970s about the possibility of Hendrix playing disco if he had lived. Who knows, he might have. If he had I'm sure whatever he did would have been far superior to the emasculated swill flooding the airwaves at the time or what Prince churned out in latter years. Of course there's no way of knowing what he might have done, but judging by what we hear on People, Hell & Angles his heart was still firmly rooted deeply in the blues. You'll also hear that while our dire predictions of disco might have been unfounded, he retained a fondness for both funk and R&B.

The first track, featuring him accompanied by his old army buddies Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, "Earth Blues" is a bare bones funk tune. No horns or keyboards like we're used to, just the three of them driving the beat and playing something dark, dirty and dangerous. Recorded in December of 1969 it might have just been three old friends jamming together and having fun it could also have been an indication of his vision for the song. The version released on the posthumous Rainbow Bridge in 1971 was a far different, more mainstream radio acceptable tune.
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Two other songs on the disc which go a long towards suggesting Hendrix had no desire to be pigeon holed as just another rock guitar god are "Let Me Move You" and "Mojo Man". Both of them show him reaching back too his early days as a sideman in R&B bands. Whether trading leads with saxophone player Lonnie Youngblood on the former or taking a master vocal track created by Albert and Arthur Allen (the vocal duo known as the Ghetto Fighters - Read the interview at the other end of the link to the Ghetto Fighters, now known as TaharQa and Tunde Ra Aleem, to find out more about their relationship with Hendrix) on the latter both show Hendrix pushing the R&B genre much further then anybody today would even dream of trying.

However, no matter what the song, no matter what the style, running like a constant thread through every song in the ever changing pattern of a complex tapestry tying multiple images together are the blues. They are the solid bedrock which all the tunes on the disc are rooted in. In some ways it seems like he was stripping his music down to its bare bones and finding new ways to clothe them. Unlike others Hendrix wasn't going to be satisfied with merely rehashing the same old format. Instead he was reinventing what was possible and pushing the blues and its associated genres in directions no one else was or has considered.

Hendrix will always be remembered for his incandescent guitar work and the wild abandon he brought to music. However lost amid the sound of the pale imitations trying to copy the original was the inventive and innovative soul constantly seeking to find new modes of expression. Listening to People, Hell & Angels is an opportunity to peek into the mind of an artist at work as he explores his media and the possibilities it offers for expression. These might not be finished songs or even the most polished of efforts, but they are invaluable and worth listening to none the less. We have no way of knowing what Hendrix would have accomplished had he lived. However, if this release is anything to go by he would have always been two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell and Angels on Blogcritics.)



February 12, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972


Popular music is littered with the corpses of performers who died before their time. Some of them burned out on drugs and alcohol, others went by accident and a few were killed by somebody else's hand. With many of them dying during what should have been the prime of their careers, their musical legacies are often clouded. A kind of cult of the dead seems to have sprung up around many of them distorting their true significance and preventing any clear eyed assessment of their music. Yet, while some have been elevated to near iconic status for apparently no other reason than their untimely deaths, others of real talent are barely remembered.

Of those who slipped through the cracks of popular music history not making the kind of impression on the public at large his music merited, singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt's story is probably the most poignant. Born to a well off Texas family in 1944 Van Zandt stood out even as a kid when he was recognized as having a genius IQ. However a diagnosis of manic depression (bipolar disorder) in 1962 led him to being institutionalized and receiving three months of insulin shock therapy which erased most of his long term memory. After flirting with a few other options; university (he was accepted into pre-law), the Air Force (rejected on the basis of being a severe manic depressive) he began to pursue a career as a singer songwriter in 1967.

During his life most of his success came from other people's recordings of his music. Emmlou Harris had a hit in 1981 with his "If I Needed You" and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took "Pancho and Lefty" to number one on the country charts in 1983. Musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who claims to have every album Van Zandt recorded) to Norah Jones have cited Van Zandt as an influence and Steve Earle recorded an album of Van Zandt covers in 2009 simply entitled Townes. After his death in 1997, and the legal bother of figuring out who owned the rights to his music was resolved, his recordings started to show up in movie and television show soundtracks. Probably the most famous of these is his cover of the Rolling Stone's song "Dead Flowers" which plays over the closing credits of the Coen brother's movie, The Big Lebowski.
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Unfortunately a great many of the recordings he made during his lifetime, especially those when he was at his most prolific during the early 1970s, ended up being overproduced. Even the producer of those albums, "Cowboy" Jack Clement admits he went somewhat over the top. In the same review of a reissue of Van Zandt's 1968 For The Sake Of The Song which quotes Clement, the album is described as being so overproduced it would make a Southern Gospel album hang its head in shame. Thankfully it turns out there were recordings made of Van Zandt's material prior to Clement adding all his bells and whistles. With the approval of his estate Omnivore Recordings has put together a two disc set, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971 - 1972 featuring some of Van Zandt's best work.

The first thing you'll notice about Van Zandt is his voice. Initially it may strike you as being almost thin, lacking the timber or body we're used to in our pop singers. However, there's hardly anybody quite as mesmerizing. Something about his delivery or his expression leaves you hanging onto every word. You'll quickly realize what he's saying and how he says are of equal importance. The first song on disc one, the "Unreleased Studio Sessions", is a cover of the Jimmie Rodgers standard "T For Texas". While Van Zandt is faithful down to including the yodel refrain, his somewhat ironic delivery makes you question the sentimental nature of the lyrics. Yet at the same time, you know he's not making fun of the song. There might have been a girl called Thelma, but we can also tell by the way he sings the line, "T is for Thelma/that girl who made a mess outa me", she's not the one responsible for the mess he's in.

Then there's "Blue Ridge Mountains", the fifth song on this disc. Musically it sounds like your typical 'mountain music' song. One about the joys of life back home and how the singer yearns for what was the simpler days of his youth. Until you get to the last line of the refrain which opens the song, "I ain't comin' back here anymore". This prepares you for what's to come. For while he sings the song with a yearning quality we've come to associate with the "wish I were back home in the country" type of song, the lyrics tell you how he really feels. "I've seen this whole wide country over/from New York City down to Mexico/and I've seen the joyful and the sorrow/and I ain't comin' back here anymore".

Normally this type of song would have the singer saying just the opposite of the sentiments expressed in the previous verse. No matter what charms big cities and foreign locales have to offer, nothing compares to my old home. Well Van Zandt has no illusions. The wide world has plenty to offer and why in the world would anybody want to go back to living in the back woods after having experienced it? As this song makes obvious, false sentimentality had no place in Van Zandt's world. Others might pretend they would trade civilization for a dirt floor cabin with no running water or electricity, but not him.
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However Van Zandt was more than just irony, he could write and sing songs that would break your heart. "Sad Cinderella", track 11 on disc one, is about facing up to reality after having been treated as something special for no real reason. Whether through beauty, wealth or popularity individuals are elevated to the status of royalty and then just as suddenly have it all taken away. "When your magazine memory has spun you around/and you realize your lovers were just painted clowns/and outside the window you start hearing the sounds/where they're building a cross for to burn you".

Sung with no adornment save for his empathy and compassion, Van Zandt made this song into one of the most beautiful condemnations of what we do to people in our desire for celebrities. What's even more amazing is he wrote this in the early 1970s when celebrity worship was nothing compared to what exists today. It's a bittersweet reminder there're human beings behind the gossip and the headlines. It also shows off Van Zandt's uncanny ability as a songwriter to find those words which cut to the heart of a subject emotionally and intellectually without beating a point into the ground.

While many of the songs on disc two ("The Demos") duplicate those on the first disc, hearing Van Zandt sing them almost unaccompanied save for his guitar (a couple have a second guitar or other basic accompaniment) allows us even more of a chance to appreciate his voice. There's a rawness to his singing that's kind of like an exposed nerve. In fact some feel so personal it's almost as if your overhearing a private conversation between Van Zandt and the subject of the song. However, it's not all heartbreak and sorrow as he had a keen eye for the absurd and a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

For those of you who have never heard Van Zandt, and those who have always loved his music, the two disc collection Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 is a treasure to be savoured. Not only does it contain a great mix of his material and covers, his version of "Who Do You Love" will knock you on your ass, its him as he was meant to be heard. No strings, no horns or any of the other bells and whistles his producer piled on the songs after they were recorded. Just him and a band playing music unlike just about anything you've heard. You might think you recognize elements of others in some of these songs, but then you'll remember when he recorded them. He might not have gained the popularity or acclaim he deserved while alive, but his legacy is assured through those he influenced.

( Article first published as Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 on Blogcritics.)



January 16, 2013

Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown's new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I'd heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn't be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agit-prop folk music and dark humour making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.

While there had been mention on her web site about a band, it didn't click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, "The Politician", saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she's much more than just another singer/songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world's injustices.
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Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don't see very often in pop music. Politics aren't limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers McKeown's songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What's done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.

"The nature of the jailer is/to do just what he pleases/but when we hang another man/part of us dies with him/lock up your soul piece by piece/then tell me just what love is", McKeown sings in "The Jailer". When it comes to arguments about capital punishment most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state's right to take a person's life and others play on people's fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what's being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person it's a horrendous crime against love and yet it's not when the state does it? Doesn't anyone else find that confusing?

Even the more overtly political song, "Baghdad to the Bayou", isn't what I'd call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something it expresses the hope generated by the people's revolts that have been occurring around the world. "Street by street we will repeat/ the revolutions of the spring/you can't stop a people/when a people start to sing". Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren't as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, "We want accountability", capture what's been at the heart of each of those movements.
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In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn't mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. "Baghdad to the Bayou" is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what's been accomplished over the past few years.

Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc.In fact there's no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. "The Jailer" is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.

I've chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there's no denying the potency of McKeown's lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased ten-fold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it's like looking at an artist's preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they've nothing of the full impact of the finished product.

There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don't pay much attention to the music. There're far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can't ask for a better combination.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012


I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2012

Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection


The majority of the CDs I review are either new releases or recordings that reflect the current trends in popular music. These trends had their genesis in the amalgamation of African American music and country music which took place in the 1950s. However, that doesn't mean there was no popular music prior to those days. Every so often the opportunity arises to review music from this earlier period and its hard not to be struck by the contrast between the two eras. The most glaring of these is how the artists of this earlier era are, for the main part, far more musically sophisticated.

This was driven home to me again when listening to a recent release from Legacy Recordings featuring the works of the late great jazz/blues vocalist Sarah Vaughan. While the majority of her recordings were with other labels Vaughan released four LPs on the old Columbia label which have now been packaged as the four CD set Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. What's wonderful about this collection is that it not only shows off the depth of her talent and versatility as a vocalist it gives listeners the opportunity to hear her at both the beginning and near the end of her career.
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The first two discs in the collection, After Hours With Sarah Vaughan and Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi were both originally released in 1955. We then jump forward in time nearly 30 years for her 1982 release Michael Tilson Thomas/Sarah Vaughan: Gershwin Live recorded at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles with Tilson Thomas conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The fourth disc in the set, and the last she released under her own name, Brazilian Romance, was released in 1987 and produced by Sergio Mendes.

Each disc gives us the chance to hear her singing a different type of music. Big band and swing influenced popular tunes, sophisticated jazz, the classical blues of the Gershwin brothers and finally Latin music. Yet no matter what she's singing you can't help but notice her amazing control and range. She's able to float effortlessly from the lowest end of the scale to the highest without effort. Her singing is as much second nature as breathing is to most of us.

I don't know if you've ever heard the term phrasing applied to singing, it's not something you hear often anymore. To be honest its not something I'm sure I can define. The closest I can come to is it refers to a singer's ability to associate the lyrics of a song with the music. However, it means more than just being able to carry a tune. It's how you sing the words and music together. It's the ability to turn your voice into a lead instrument in a band and take one word and extend it over a whole series of notes. However it doesn't just mean the ability to sustain a note, it's continuing to sing the melody but with only one or a few words without them losing meaning or throwing the continuity of the song out of whack.

Listen to Vaughan wrap her voice around a word and you begin to understand what is meant by the term. You also realize why you don't hear the term used very often anymore as very few modern singers have this ability. To be fair the music of today doesn't really lend itself to that style of singing either. However hearing a singer of the quality of Vaughan you begin to regret its passing. I'm sure there are jazz singers around who have the ability, but we don't hear them on a regular basis.

Of course it's this ability which allowed her to be equally comfortable with any style of music she wished to sing. On After Hours we hear her sail through a series of smoothly orchestrated pop tunes. Even the version of Gershwin's "Summertime" on this disc is given the uptempo treatment. This might have been a collection of rather commercial standards, but she gives them a soulfulness that raises them above the level of just another pop song. She might not be as emotionally raw as Billie Holliday, but that doesn't stop her from being able to imbue even the simplest of songs with the heart necessary to make them soar.

On the second disc in the set, Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi, eight of the original twelve songs were with a jazz combo headed by a young Miles Davis. Listen to what she does with songs like Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the way her voice dips and soars throughout. The lyrics and music come together in her voice in a way that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Each note is cherished so each word is clearly enunciated both musically and lyrically. Listening to Vaughan stretch a word over a sequence of notes without sounding artificial or forced is one of the wonders of the word. If you could hear the different notes taffy makes when its pulled I'm sure it would sound something like her singing.
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The highlight of the set for me was the third disc, Gershwin Live. The fact she opens proceedings with a medley of songs from Porgy and Bess doesn't hurt as it contains some of my favourite Gershwin tunes. "Summertime", "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Loves You Porgy" are the three she blends together here. Now this concert was recorded almost three decades after the first two discs, but her voice and delivery are every bit as polished and believable as they were on the earlier records. In fact I much prefer the rendition of "Summertime" included here than on the After Hours.

Instead of worrying so much about making it an uptempo offering that will appeal to popular audiences, they offer a slower, bluesier version. We're not talking Janis Joplin slow, but we're talking slow and drawn out enough to make you feel the heat of the Georgian sun beating down on those picking cotton. You can really hear the similarities between her voice and Billy Holliday's. There's that catch in her voice which sounds like its holding back years of sadness. Instead of showing any effects of aging, Vaughan's voice on this recording seems to have grown in its ability to transmit emotions. While she was always technically gifted, at this point in her career there seems to be a new depth to her sound.

As for the fourth disc in this set, Brazilian Romance, to be honest I've never been a big fan of this type of Latin influenced jazz. Vaughan makes it sound better than most people are able to, but it still sounds like Latin music that's been toned down to make it acceptable for all audiences. Something you'd hear performed by a country club orchestra in the 1950s. It might sound sort of Latin but the heart's taken out of it. However, that doesn't stop it from being well played and sung as Vaughan does her best to give the arrangements life.

For those who aren't familiar with Sarah Vaughan Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a great way to be introduced to this extraordinary vocalist. Not only does each disc contain all songs from the original recordings, both After Hours and In Hi-Fi contain bonus material that's never been included on an album before. These include eight alternate takes on the latter and four tracks previously released as 78rpm singles on the former. The set also comes with a booklet supplying the history of each album and detailed credits for each track.

Sarah Vaughan may not have had the same romantic appeal of Billie Holliday or achieved the fame of other singers, but this package proves she deserves to be remembered as one of the great jazz and blues singers of the 20th century. So put these CDs on your stereo and sit back and let yourself be transported back to the days of night clubs and joints that jumped.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - The Complete Columbia Albums Collection on Blogcritics.)

October 26, 2012

Music Review: Colin Linden - Still Live


I'm really beginning to dislike the word revival. I've nothing against the word itself, merely the way its being employed in the context of music. Press release after press release heralds some musician or other as being in the vanguard of some sort of revival.The word revive has its origins in the Latin word revivere which literally translates as back live but has come to mean bring back to life. So when its used in reference to a particular genre of music the inference is the style had died and is now being resurrected by somebody. The problem I have with this is the music its usually used in context with never went anywhere. The blues, folk and the other music people seem to think needed reviving, never died. It just wasn't in the popular eye because some other music was the flavour of the month. Thousands of people the world over may have been enjoying a a musical genre, but it's only when it shows up on MTV people remember its existence and it miraculously undergoes a revival.

All you have to do is sit down and listen to a disc by the likes of an artist of the calibre of Colin Linden and you'll appreciate how alive the folk/blues/roots tradition has been and continues to be. Linden has been performing and recording since the 1980s and tours throughout Europe and North America to appreciative audiences playing what most people would now refer to as either roots or Americana. Listening to the new release of a concert he gave in 2010, File Under: Music label, you'll hear as diverse a collection of material from this one performer as you'd normally expect to hear from five or six different groups. Blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll and country all make their presence felt in Linden's music, and he sounds equally at home with each.
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Linden interest in the blues started young. His mother took him to see Howlin' Wolf when he was 11 and he's been hooked ever since. You can hear his affinity for the blues in his slide guitar playing and his use of rhythm in all his music. But, blues is the foundation upon which he builds his music not the only place he resides. They are Linden's jumping off point. However, no matter how far he leaps he never looses track of his first love. Yet he's not content with being a traditionalist either and merely recreating the sounds others have made before him. Even better is what's true musically is also true lyrically. Don't expect to hear your typical "my baby done left me broken hearted" blues songs or blue eyed soul moaning from Linden. While he might have gained his reputation for being a guitar player and sideman (playing with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Robert Plant) his lyrics have an intelligent introspection you don't often hear in popular music.

The soulful, R&B influenced "Between The Darkness And The Light Of Day" stands out as a great example of this. "Just a soldier on the road between the darkness and the light of day/I did everything I was told but I still haven't found my way/Now my feet are weary but my heart is strong/Somehow or other I will carry on/And I lift my spirit and sing my song between the darkness and the light of day". It's not often you hear anybody singing about the difficulties of finding balance in a world where it's so easy to fall into negativity and cynicism. Things don't always work out the way we're told they do. Go to school, get an education and a job and family are sure to follow is the myth a great many of us were raised on. However reality turned out to be a different story.

In this song Linden talks about all those who are still struggling with finding they're way. However he doesn't do it with negativity or by trying to find someone to blame. Instead the song is about the bravery of those who make the effort to find themselves and create space for a descent life in a confusing world. These people are truly soldiers, but they don't go to war in order to conquer. They're fighting to be true to themselves and what they believe in. In a world replete with songs about broken hearts it's a joy to hear somebody sing about something real, and in such an intelligent and soulful manner.
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This tune also shows off the band playing with him on this occasion. John Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums effortless carry the rhythms of this song and the rest of the album. Soul and R&B have to be some of the trickiest musics to play. Neither fast nor slow the music has to have an almost effortless swing to it in order to be effective. Of the soul I've heard recently this is one of the few that haven't felt deliberately slowed down in an effort to make it sound more heartfelt. Instead Craig and Dymond have set a pace which carries Linden's guitar and vocals with a kind of effortlessness that is wonderful to hear. Of course it doesn't hurt that Spooner Oldham is providing organ accompaniment on this and other tunes. His fills on keyboard provide texture and body to songs without making them overblown. It's like he smooths out the rough edges of the sound without taking away the rawness needed to keep the songs real.

Of course Linden is the focal point of every song. His guitar playing is probably one of the best kept secrets in music. There's nothing showy or flamboyant about it, but careful listening reveals him to be as skilled as anybody out there. There's a style and grace to his playing that only comes from years of playing and a devotion to his music. At the same time there's nothing of the playing it by rote you might hear from others who have been playing for ages. Everything, from his finger picking to his slide guitar leads sound like he's still playing with the joy that comes with the first flush of discovery. Polish and refinement do not have to translate into slickness, and Linden performs with heart and passion.

While no one's going to write odes in praise of his vocals, his voice is ideally suited to what he chooses to sing about and the style of music he plays. There's a roughness around the edges of his voice that gives it an integrity which more than compensates for any lack of polish. When he sings you have no trouble believing he means every word of every song. While the same can be said about other singers, what makes Linden a little more special is it holds true across the various genres he ventures into. From the straight ahead rockers, acoustic blues to the more soulful R&B numbers he never hits a false note.

Still Live is a unique opportunity to hear an artist who plays for the love of his music. Linden plays what he plays not because its what is popular today, but because its the music that allows him to speak clearest. What's really nice about this live recording is how it manages to both capture the feel of a concert and have studio quality sound. Not only does that mean you're able to fully appreciate his talents as a musician you hear that little bit extra of himself that all artists seem to allow to show in concert. For those of you familiar with Linden this disc will be a treat as it will give you a chance to appreciate his talents in a live setting and be reminded of just how versatile a musician he is. For those new to him it will make a great introduction to a man whose life long love affair with the blues and its offspring shows in every note he plays and every lyric he sings.

(Article first published as Music Review: Colin Linden - Still Live on Blogcritics.)

October 12, 2012

Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq


Where ever you find indigenous peoples you find they are known by the name their conquerors gave them. From North America where we refer to nations by the names we gave them instead of how they refer to themselves in their own language, to the Northern Sahara where the people are known by the name given them by the armies of Islam - rebel against Islam - Touareg. (The written language of these people was originally symbols which do not correspond directly with the letters of our alphabet. So they are written out in the various languages of those who have come into contact with them to sound correctly. So Touareg can be spelt Tuareg and Tamasheq can be spelt Tamashek.) That of course isn't the name they have for themselves, they call themselves Kel Tamasheq - those who speak Tamasheq.

So when the group Terakaft called their latest CD, Kel Tamasheq, released on the World Village label October 9 2012, you know they don't do it lightly. The title is a bold statement of self identification and the CD is an assertion of who they are as a people. With recent uprisings in Northern Mali being blamed on a force supposedly made up a combination of Tamasheq rebels and Islamic fundamentalists it's important the world is reminded who the Tamasheq really are and what they've been fighting for since the 1960s. As musicians like Terakaft and others have served as cultural historians for their people since the 1980s, they are the best prepared to act as cultural ambassadors to the rest of the world.
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They have assumed this role in the past, but upon reading the translations of the lyrics that come with this CD there's a sense of urgency absent on previous recordings. While earlier CDs have focused on extolling the virtues of the nomadic life or lamenting the loss of traditional territories, Kel Tamasheq talks specifically about the reasons their people have rebelled in the past. It's as if the band is asking the rest of the world compare what they felt was worth dying for in the past to what's happening in Northern Mali right now and to see the differences. While maybe they'll regret not pointing out the bleeding obvious, as in, hey what fundamentalist would have anything to do with a people Muslims still call rebels against Islam, taking the high ground by stressing their own positives rather than calling attention to another's negatives has always been a hall mark of Terakaft's material.

Thus the majority of the songs on the disc have lyrics which extoll one or more aspects of life among the Kel Tamasheq. However there are the occasional references to the nature of rebellion that seem to be questioning the validity of the recent uprisings in Northern Mali. In "Imad Halan" ("The Volunteers") the band sings, "I am stunned at your involvement/Which does not support those who work./If this is the revolution you want to provoke/I can see it coming from afar". While here they are expressing their shock that any of their people would be involved with an uprising involves outsiders which doesn't help their own people in "Bas Tela Takaraket" ("There Are No More Morals") they offer a more direct commentary on the revolt. "Our culture has escaped us/Those who were warriors before, armed with sabres/Those from whom we have inherited our ancestors/We continue in their path/We will not submit/Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy".

Here they are expressing their worry over the loss of their culture as demonstrated by people picking up weapons for the wrong reasons. Previous generations, those who fought to preserve the culture, are the ones that should be emulated. The last line, "Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy" serves notice they know the people supposedly fighting in the name of the Kel Tamasheq in Northern Mali are doing nothing of the sort. It goes against everything previous generations of warriors fought for to join with those whose goals don't include restoring the rights of their people. The title of the song suggests fighting for any other reason is wrong and is a sign people have forgotten key elements of their culture.

Of all the songs on the disc the title track, "Kel Tamasheq", is the one which exemplifies the band's attempts remind their own people to let the world know who they are. "Kel Tamasheq, you must know/It is the time to proclaim to the world/And to no longer be hidden/The one you love purely and sincerely/Whether it is in life or death/No matter the connection, separation will come/In this world or the next." The first three lines are fairly straight forward - it's time to stand up and let the world know we exist. However, the last four lines seem a bit of a puzzle at a first glance as they don't appear to have anything to do with opening. At first I thought there might be a problem with the translation (the lyrics are translated from Tamasheq into French and then French into English). Yet if you look at other songs on the disc you'll see how this type of abrupt change is common and a number are written in the same sort of elliptical and allegorical manner.
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Thinking about what little I know of the Kel Tamasheq culture and their oral traditions of story telling and what I also know about traditions in Islamic poetry, where personal expressions of love are used to express one's love of god or country, these lines make a little more sense. What I came up with was their love of their land and way of life will endure even unto death. One way or another this love will let them be distinguished from everyone else, even if it's only after they are dead. Unfortunately I'm not steeped enough in the legends of these people to be able to delve any deeper. But it does fit into what I know of their fierce love of independence and their long struggles to preserve their traditional way of life. We will be free, even if it's only after we die

One thing you will notice about the band's songs is how the lyrics are usually only one or two statements in length. These are sung to the accompaniment of music that is almost trance like in its nature. A hypnotic drum beat underscores everything and acoustic guitar and bass emphasize the rhythm over which they are sung/chanted. Electric guitar adds both another layer to the beat, as well as rising out of it for short bursts of lead work. These are like flashes of lightening cutting across a desert sky creating stark silhouettes making specific objects stand out from the rest of the landscape. While the guitar offers one kind of punctuation to the songs Naida and Yamina Nid El Mourid's background vocalizations bring the sound of the desert to life.

While some of their vocal harmonies to Liya Ag Abil's (guitar vocals), Sanou Ag Ahmen's (guitar, bass and vocials) and Abdalah Ag Ahmed's (guitar,bass and vocals) leads are what were used to, they also periodically interject the high pitched sound women traditionally make to send men off, or to welcome them home, from any type of trip and from battle. Raw and emotional, the sound seems to emit somewhere deep in their souls. and can make you break out in goose bumps. The overall result is an amazing combination of the traditional and modern. However, even the modern element of electric guitar is played in such a manner as to accent the traditional rhythms of the music as it accents the percussion.

Some of the members of Terakaft had first hand experience with fighting for the independence of their people before they put down their guns and picked up guitars to continue the fight in a different way. Their songs remind their own people about their culture and traditions and attempt to educate the world at large about them as well. It's a role that has recently taken on new importance as it's become vital to ensure Kel Tamasheq are not lumped in with those who are using their people's name in an attempt to give credibility to the recent armed rebellion in Northern Mali. By telling the world this is what we believe in and what we have fought for in the past Terakaft makes it very clear this was not a Kel Tamasheq rebellion. Let's just hope the world listens.

Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq on Blogcritics)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

September 12, 2012

Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering


A couple of years ago when I man admired and respected was dying I was asked to prepare an article to be published when he died. Basically an obituary, but also an appreciation for a talented man who through fate, bad luck and his own demons never really received the recognition he deserved. While I was able to supply the nuts and bolts of his career and give my opinion I knew if I wanted to people notice I'd need to have a quote from a not only a familiar name but one whose opinion would carry some weight. While there was an obvious choice I didn't hold out much hope of hearing back from him as he didn't know me from a whole in the ground. However, to my delight and heartfelt appreciation, it was only about a week after I sent out the email request I heard back from Mark Knopfler.

He hadn't worked with Willy DeVille since the late 1980s when they had made the Miracle album, which included the theme song for the movie The Princess Bride, "Storybook Love", which had garnered DeVille an Academy Award nomination. Yet in spite of that he wrote a beautiful and gracious letter saying what he had appreciated about DeVille's singing and the pleasure he had making his minor contributions to the album (his words not mine). Listening to his new release, Privateering, on Universal Music September 11 2012, I'm reminded once again not only of Knopfler's talent, but the simple elegance of spirit that infuses both his music and everything about the man. It's not a thing you can point your finger at and say look there's an example, there's just something his music exudes which cocoons you with its warmth of heart. Like a magic cloak you can wrap around yourself to protect you from the privations of the world.
Cover Privateering Mark Knopfler.jpg
This latest release, in its basic form, is a two disc set containing 20 tracks ranging from electric blues to traditional sounding folk from the British Isles all performed with his usual understated excellence. You also have a choice to buy the release as double LP; a deluxe set including an additional CD of rehearsals for his last tour packaged in hard back book format or you can go the whole hog and purchase a box set which includes the two CDs, the two LPs, an additional bonus CD of three songs, a documentary DVD called A Life In Song, a card with code allowing you to download a concert and a numbered art print. However, no matter which version of the release you choose to buy you can count on hearing superbly played music and a guitar which sings like no other.

In one of the books in his The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy the late British author Douglas Adams spent a couple of paragraphs rhapsodizing about the way Knopfler played his Fender Stratocaster. He called it the most beautiful sound in the known universe, even more beautiful than the sounds made by some sort of love dragons. In fact, Adams went on to say, if these love dragons happened to hear Knopfler play, they would just pack it in, weeping in frustration over their inability to match the quality of his playing. Now Adams was known for his hyperbole, and of course he was a science fiction writer, so its doubtful the love dragons in question really exist. However, his point about the sensuous beauty Knopfler is able to create with his Stratocaster wasn't exaggerated.

In his typical understated fashion though Knopfler flashes his talent only rarely. Unlike others who seem to feel the need to be constantly saying look at me, he is quite content with sharing the spotlight with those he plays with. Oh sure he'll take his solos, and be it slide, acoustic or electric guitar they are all things of beauty, but they're only one part of a song, not the song's reason for being. (Note: For some reason the order of songs on the download I received for review purposes seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the order they appear on the actual release. So in order to avoid any potential confusion I'll only refer to tracks by name.)

Listen to a song like "After The Bean Stalk", a delta blues type ode to Jack's life after successfully pilfering from the giant in the sky three times, and you'll hear what I mean. Both Kim Wilson, harp (which I have to assume is harmonica since there's nobody credited with playing harmonica) and Tim O'Brien on mandolin, have their instruments featured far more prominently than anything Knopfler does on this song. You'll also notice as you listen to the disc how this track is emblematic of the release's theme of there's no easy ride in this life. There aren't any magic beans that will magically make your troubles all vanish: "Oh, Mama what's the matter now/Oh Mama what's the matter now/I'm still up in the morning to get behind the plough." Even after three trips up the bean stalk you still have to get up and work the fields if you want to eat.
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Even on a song which lends itself to uncorking a guitar lead, the rollicking honky tonk "I Used To Could", Knopfler holds back to allow his long time keyboard associate Guy Fletcher to share the spotlight with Wilson's harp on the solo breaks. At the same time though, both the piano and the harp make the most sense in this song about driving 18 wheelers. The harmonica catches both the loneliness of the road and, along with the piano, brings the rhythm of the wheels eating up miles of highway to life. This combination works perfectly with the lyrics. They not only manage to capture the difficulties of life as a long distance trucker but the appeal it can have to a certain type of person, all without sentimentalizing the experience or making the driver into some sort of hero: "GMC Cannonball going like a train/All down the 40 in the driving rain/All those horses underneath the hood/I don't do it no more but I used to could".

What I really appreciated about this disc is how easily Knopfler is able to cross the ocean musically from his adopted land of blues and country music back to his homeland's folk traditions. "You Two Crows" sees him swing back from the rainy highways of America to the rainswept moors of the British Isles. The uilleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick are enough to bring a shiver to anyone's spine, and they set the tone for this tale of a shepherd and his dog out in the rain contemplating life. Taking shelter from the rain and drinking from his flask he questions his career choice; "And once again I ask/What made you think/There'd be a living in sheep/Eat,work,eat,work and sleep." However, the two crows of the title, looking for carrion to eat, but most of all survivors, seem to give him the strength to continue; "And I raise my flask/To the clearing skies/To you sweepers/You carrion spies/To scavenge and survive/If you can do it so can I."

Its a beautiful and haunting sounding song, but like the other tracks its firmly rooted in reality. The farmer has chosen a hard life for himself and knows damn well he's going to have be as tough and ornery as any crow in order to survive. There's nothing romantic about this rainswept heath, no brooding heroes or beautiful heroines wandering looking for lost loves, only mud, dirt and the hard work of making a living from a herd of sheep. Yet, even here, in this tough and dirty song, you can feel the love Knopfler has for his subject. The respect he holds for the people who have to get their hands dirty, in one way or another, in order to get by. As he says in another song, "Corned Beef City"; "You don't ask questions/When there's nothing in the bank/Got to feed the kids/And put diesel in the tank." Sometimes people don't have much choice and they do what is necessary in order to survive.

Like the gentleman he is Knopfler doesn't judge any of the people he sings or writes about. There's not many people who can sing about the realities of having to make a living with compassion and understanding without pontificating. Not only does Knopfler avoid those traps, he doesn't make the mistake of romanticizing these people either. These aren't odes to the salt of the earth, these are songs about people. Of course these are songs, not essays on the plight of the working man, so they also sound wonderful and are played with the seemingly effortless skill of all Knopfler's creations. To make this combination work successfully it takes a person with equal amounts compassion, understanding of human nature and musical ability. Mark Knopfler is such a person.

Photo Credit: Artist photo by Fabio Lovino

(Article first published as Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering on Blogcritics.)

September 1, 2012

DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax


In the early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students. people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets on September 11 2012.
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The disc is divided into two parts, thirty-five minutes of footage from those two evenings they were able to salvage and interviews with one of the founders of F.O.T.M., John Cohen and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance we find out from Pickow that the event wasn't as spontaneous as some might have been believed as the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn't have a very promising start as the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you'd expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it's remarkable how clean it is. Cohen's bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication as to how amazing a time it must have been for these young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax's living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It's no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic "Coo-coo Bird" and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What's really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.
Ramblin' Jack Elliot From Ballads Blues & Bluegrass.jpg
Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin' Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie's song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie's tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There's something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he's dead in anticipation of a day when he's gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song "Ira Hayes", made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that's not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can't be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we're used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that's coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax's apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it's a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you've seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax's living room.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax on Blogcritics)

August 21, 2012

Music Review: Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That


There was a time when nearly every second CD I reviewed was a blues recording. While I never tired of listening to the wide variety of sound the genre encompasses, I noticed my writing on the subject was all beginning to sound the same. Whatever the reason for it, I decided it wasn't fair to the people sending me discs to review to continue on in this vain so I took a break from writing about the blues. So it seems appropriate the first blues disc I've reviewed in a while is a release from Chicago based Delmark Records, the oldest independent record label in North America, if not the world. Not only have they brought the world recordings by some of the biggest names in blues over the years, but they also go into the neighbourhood bars and clubs which are the life blood of the genre to find and record artists who play the blues for the love of the music.

These are the people who will probably never be household names or even known beyond the boundaries of Chicago. However it's people like Linsey Alexander pouring their hearts and souls into the music who ensure the blues not only survive but grow. Listening to his newest release, Been There Done That, you not only hear the passion which has always been the strength of this type of music, you get a sense of how music in Chicago has cross pollenated. For on this disc Alexander not only plays the straight ahead electric blues the city is famous for, you'll also hear how soul, R&B and funk have exerted their influences on his sound.
Cover Been There Done That Lindsey Alexander.jpg
Like many other blues musicians Alexander is a transplanted Southerner. He moved up to Chicago in the early 1950s and has been playing the blues since1959 sharing stages with the likes of B.B King, Bobby Rush and Buddy Guy. At the same time he's also carved out a solo career for himself which has seen him not only playing Chicago, but beginning to get recognition in Europe as well. For this disc he's put together a hot band of local blues players including the ubiquitous and immensely talented Billy Branch on harmonica and the LA Horns (Ryan Nyther trumpet and Bryan Fritz tenor saxophone) to fill out the sound on those occasions he ventures into more soulful territory.

No matter what he's playing the first thing you're going to notice about Alexander is his voice. It's like it was made to sing the blues. Raw, raspy and powerful (you don't want some smooth as silk balladeer singing the blues) he is able to effortlessly project over his accompanying band without ever sounding like he's straining. On tracks like the disc's opener, "Raffle Ticket", and the other straight ahead blues numbers, his voice takes on a world weary, seen it all and had it all done to me tone that suits the music perfectly. Yet at the same time he's also gives the impression he's dropping you a wink, letting you know it's all in fun and preventing him from sounding like he's feeling sorry for himself. It also helps to take the edge off the "girl done treat me wrong" type of songs by making them sound playful rather than hateful. For while there's nothing wrong with a blues song celebrating a love gone bad, I get sick of songs about the bad things women do to men.

Something else setting Alexander apart from quite a few other blues players is his sense of humour. The second song on the disc, "Bad Man", with a funky groove propelled by Roosevelt Puifoy's driving organ and the aforementioned horn section, has him listing all the reasons why he's such a bad man. Lyrics like "My hair is nappy/I never got along with my pappy/drugs and crime only make me happy/I'm a bad man/I'm a real bad man" show you he's not taking himself too seriously. While "drugs and crime only make me happy" might sound serious, you have to wonder how "bad" he really is when how he wears his hair is given equal importance. The fact the song is a lively, almost cheery, funk number, makes it even less likely that he wants us to take him seriously. Just to top it off, the song fades out to the sound of Alexander doing a really funny evil laugh, the type you equate with people sending up the villain in a melodrama.
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However, just because he knows how to have fun doesn't mean he doesn't take the music seriously. Listening to his elegant cover of the late Willie Kent's "Looks Like It's Going To Rain", the fifth song of the disc, gives you an indication of how much he cares about what he's doing. Maybe it's because Kent was a friend of his, Alexander starts off by dedicating the song to him, but this is as good a version of this song as I've heard from anyone. The arrangement of the horns, guitar and keyboard is perfect in how it conveys the emotions of the song without being overwrought or manipulative. Instead of the horns being used to try and milk a little extra emotion out of the song, they serve as accents to the beat helping to prevent the tune from bogging down.

Too often performers take soul songs like this and slow them down far too much in order to make themselves sound more emotional. What they don't realize is the careful interrelation of lyrics, melody and rhythm are what make them powerful. Slowing them down might make the singer the centre of attention, but it also saps the tune of its energy and emotional impact. Alexander has too much respect for both the man who wrote the song and music in general, to make himself more important than the needs of the tune. So his vocals are just one of the instruments working together to communicate the song's message to listeners.

It's not just in his vocals you see his respect for the music, it's in everything Alexander does with a song. Even with the material on this disc being primarily written by him ( tracks 2, "Bad Man", and 9, "Big Woman", were co-written by Sharon Pomaville) he doesn't indulge in any extravagances, like over elaborate guitar solos, which might detract from a number's overall impact. His solos, as well as those by fellow guitarists Breezy Rodio and Mike Wheeler, elaborate on a melody's theme to accent a song instead of being excuses to show off anyone's expertise. Each song is carefully arranged to take best advantage of the entire band without any one of them taking precedence. From the rhythm section of Greg McDaniel on bass and James Wilson on drums out, the band plays so well together there are times when it feels like you're listening to a single instrument instead of the up to nine that could be playing at anyone time.

Recordings like Been There Done That show how the blues have survived both the ups and downs of popular interest. It's because of the love and passion the music inspires in musicians the quality of Linsey Alexander. Not only does he respect the music he plays, he also remembers playing implies having fun. When it's appropriate he can be as serious as the next musician, but he also knows there's enough troubles in the world that sometimes even the blues has to have some laughs. This is a wonderful album of music from a musician who deserves far more attention then he has received up to this point in his career.

(Article first published as Music Review: Linsey Alexander - Been There Done That on Blogcritics.

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line


I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley


When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2012

Music Review: Kiya Heartwood - Bold Swimmer


I don't know about anyone else but I've always resented people telling me I should listen to, or even worse like, a certain performer because of who they are or what they sing about. Just because somebody agrees with me politically has no bearing on their abilities as a musician or the quality of the songs they write. Some of the worst tripe I've ever heard being passed off as music has issued from some of these so-called important singer-songwriters. Giving someone a good review just because of their politics, gender or skin colour is as biased and unethical as giving them a bad review for the same reason.

I might take things like the conditions under which a recording was made into account when reviewing a disc, but making what a person is more important than what they can do is not somewhere I'm ever going to go. In the 1980s and 1990s I knew people who would tell me it was my duty to like certain, more often than not women, performers because it was a way of showing solidarity with the people you supported politically. There were a couple of them who I actually liked, Ferron and Holly Near are still names I remember fondly (That doesn't mean either of these women are dead or stopped performing, just means I've not heard anything they've done recently). The rest of them were all so busy competing for the "more earnest than thou" prize they forgot that music should be an expression of the soul first and foremost and everything else is secondary. Your content can be as politically progressive as Che, but if you don't sound like you're putting your heart into it, who cares.

Six years ago I reviewed a disc by the folk duo Wishing Chair and was impressed by both their musical abilities and songwriting skills. So when somebody contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing a solo recording by one of the two women in the group I said yes. It turns out Kiya Heartwood is just as good a solo performer as she is when working as a duo. Her new release, Bold Swimmer, is a great collection of material that ranges stylistically from rocking blues to what I'd call country, but most would probably call folk.
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In spite of the success of people like Bonnie Raitt there's still a lot of macho bullshit attached to the playing of electric blues and rock and roll. I'd long ago become sick and tired of guitar players obviously in serious need of therapy regarding issues of inadequacy, and never bought into the "chicks are only good for two types of banging - tambourines and me" that still seems to predominate rock and roll. Unfortunately that attitude is so ingrained that even today the majority of woman performers in the mainstream of music aren't going to be laying down hot guitar leads while fronting a band. All of which means releases like this one aren't going to get the attention they deserve. If it were only the consumers who were losing out I'd just say your loss suckers, but unfortunately it also means Heartwood, and probably countless other women performers, aren't receiving the attention they deserve.

One of the first things you'll notice about this disc that distinguishes it from most other recordings of this kind is there aren't any songs about a lover treating the singer badly on it. I don't know what it is about blues based rock that people think they have to write about being cheated on all the time. If I never hear another he/she broke my heart tune it will be too soon. Can it be so hard for people to think of anything else to sing about? There's eleven tracks on Bold Swimmer and not one of them qualifies as a he/she done me wrong song. Even the love song on this disc, "I Love You" is just a nice and simple tune speaking directly to the subject of why the singer loves her partner without undue sentimentality or any of the histrionics one normally associates with love songs by both male and female singers.

I don't know if "Cross The Line" is quite what others would call a love song, as its a raunchy blues number singing the praises of going that one step further than PG relationships normally go, but it and the song right after it,"Take Me", are the only other songs on the disc that come close to qualifying. The other thing separating these two tracks from the type of love song you normally hear from women singers is there's not a single note of pleading with some guy for acceptance. No promises to love somebody faults and all, or any, of the other conciliatory statements women are expected to make in order to obtain true love in popular culture.
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While these tracks are good, and in fact there's not really a weak number on the disc, two tracks that really stood out were "Change (is gonna come)" and "Lights Of Austin". In the case of the former the lyrics were the primary attraction while in the latter it was the overall sound that captured my attention. Too many political songs are nothing more than self-righteous rants by people feeling guilty for making a killing in record sales and box office receipts. It's rare to hear someone take the time and effort to analyze their own reactions to events in the world.

In "Change" Heartwood sings about how anger and frustration aren't the answer and are self defeating if we want change. Sure there are lots of reasons to be angry, and she lists quite a few of them, but in the long run we only hurt ourselves and those who need our help with anger. Real change can only be accomplished with hope for something better. This doesn't mean we should just sit back and hope things get better, but we need to find a way to effect change without anger being our motivating force. It's a powerful message that needs to be heard more often, one that offers an antidote to the rhetoric of hate you usually hear from political types of all stripes in this day and age.

"Lights Of Austin" shows Heartwood is more than just your typical folk rock performer. Musically it might fall into that catch all category of "Americana" or "roots", but those labels don't seem to do justice to the song's emotional depth. With it's simple acoustic guitar introduction gradually being embellished by the other instruments, she sings about the importance of following your dreams, whatever they maybe, as far as possible. It's a topic that's ripe for being turned into sentimental tripe, but Heartwood avoids any of the musical and lyrical cliches that you'd normally find in this type of material. There are no swelling strings or crescendoes of any sort, just a good simple song about living a life which generates stories that can be told long into the future.

Heartwood's singing voice is ideally suited for the type of material she's chosen to create. Its roughness suits both the bolder rock and roll/blues numbers and the slower country/folk tunes. With the former there's the power needed to sound convincing without having to strain and sound like she's working too hard while with the latter it gives the material the extra little edge of authenticity required to make them credible. Combine this with her abilities as a songwriter and composer you have an album of music that is more than a just a cut above what you'd normally hear these days from a solo female performer. You have something that's good no matter who wrote or performed it.

Don't listen to this disc because its something you feel like you should do, like pretending you enjoy eating something because its good for you, listen to it because its a damn good album. Pleasures don't always have to make you feel guilty, and just because something's good for you doesn't necessarily mean it tastes bad. Kiya Heartwood's latest recording is proof positive that you can be nourished by music and enjoy it too.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kiya Heartwood - Bold Swimmer on Blogcritics.)

May 6, 2012

Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana -Santana's Greatest Hits Live At Montreus 2011


The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock - Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a run down down cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about twenty or thirty people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of home grown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.

It might also be what's responsible for why I can't help but think of his music as dream like and trance inducing. Even in the straightest of atmosphere's the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I've seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I've never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I've missed out on an experience. Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21 2012 they released Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 a two disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly fifty years of his career.

Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people's radars. Occasionally a song like "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways" would make it onto the radio but then he'd seemingly vanish again. It wasn't until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like "Maria Maria" and "Back In Black" became hits and propelled him to accolades he hadn't received earlier.
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Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he's a band leader who doesn't necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist, in this case the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don't even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.

Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own egos to the greater good of the music. Periodically Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn't making these announcements to milk the audience for applause, you could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity as if they weren't used to such public expressions of emotion, he was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
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Maybe it's this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don't know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on Trumpet and Jeff Cressman on Trombone they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed so while there wasn't a note out of place there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.

It's not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They're called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme", to classic rock and roll with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well. Of course they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he's considered one of popular music's great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like its been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise, instead they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant - if it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.

If you're a fan of Santana, or if you've just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I've seen filmed at the Montreux Festival the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like your in the middle of the concert and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features these discs give you Carlo Santana as you've never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for.
(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana - Santana: Greatest Hits - Live At Montreux 2011 on Blogcritics)

April 30, 2012

Music Review: Bobby Dirninger - The Book

When we think of France and music we don't usually think of rock and roll or blues. Singers like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Jacque Brel (yes I know he's Belgian) accompanied by accordions and violins are what usually spring to mind. However when you consider the fact that African American jazz and blues musicians have been traveling to Paris France to ply their trade since as far back as the 1920s it really should come as no surprise those genres are just as popular as any other type of music. In fact the blues, especially, is probably more popular in France and other parts of Europe than in its home country of America. Many North American blues musicians seeing their careers drying up on this side of the Atlantic have relocated to Europe, or at least do the bulk of their performing and recording over there.

So it was only a matter of time before France started producing its own body of blues based musicians. The most recent one I've come across is Bobby Dirninger who has just self-released his solo album The Book. I first ran across Dirninger when I reviewed Zora Young's French Connection CD a couple of years ago as he'd been her keyboard player and band leader for some time. In fact he had assembled the musicians for the that albums recording sessions. So it's fair to say Dirninger knows his blues music.
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However, being a band leader and keyboard player for someone else is one thing, fronting your own band and recording your own music is something else altogether. A band leader might have plenty of responsibilities but he or she isn't the one up in the spotlight "selling" the material. It takes a special kind of person to take centre stage. Aside from the givens of musical talent and the ability to sing, to front a band requires the indefinable quality of presence - that certain something that makes a person stand out from the rest of the band even when they aren't doing anything. Presence doesn't require a person to be flamboyant or even necessarily an extrovert, in fact the best ones only have to stand on stage for your eye to be immediately drawn to them. Bruce Springsteen usually dresses in jeans and a work shirt, but when he steps on stage an audience can't help but look at him because he just seems to radiate energy.

The first thing you'll notice about Dirninger is how relaxed he is. There's an almost effortless grace to his singing style that's far more reminiscent of French popular singers like Brel than what were used to in blues and rock singers. Maybe because its not a style we're accustomed to hearing when listening to this type of music it takes a bit of getting used to, however he is able to capture our attention and hold it from the opening song of the disc to the final track. For although at times he appears almost laconic he's so laid back, you can't help but feel like he's a coiled spring waiting to explode.

Every so often he leans into a song and gives us an example of what lies behind that calm exterior and then as effortlessly as exerted energy he slides back into his easy groove. Unlike those who feel they have to be performing at a fever pitch all the time to gain our attention, Dirninger understands the importance of modulation. The first song on the disc, "Like That Music" is a great example. The song starts off with a mid-tempo funky beat and his vocals are a gentle accompaniment, subdued to the point he's almost talking. Then as the music builds in intensity so does his voice, until the chorus when he reaches the peak of his urgency and demands you listen to him.
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One of the things I appreciated most about this disc, and Dirninger, is he doesn't equate intensity of emotion with speed and volume. Too often in blues based music singers and musician will think they have to either make our ears or their fingers bleed to let us know they are feeling some great emotion. Just listen to Dirninger's song "Late At Night" for an object lesson on how the combination of great arrangements and singing can achieve the same goal in far more convincing manner without damaging anyone. Not since Warren Zevon have I heard a musician able to sing a slow song that sounds just as intense as any rock roll barn burner with screamed lyrics. There's a rawness to Dirninger's vocals that speaks of emotional intensity while the guitar and keyboard leads accent the lyrics without drowning them out or overselling the emotion. It's the perfect balance between music and voice that in my mind separates the exceptional song from the ordinary run of the mill number.

Of course Dirninger also knows the key element of good rock and roll. It should be fun to listen to. "Love Is A Feeling" and "You'll Be On Fire" are not only great pieces of music but they are fun to listen to as well. If it can't pull you to your feet and get you up dancing once in a while, what's the point of rock and roll? On these two songs specifically, and sporadically throughout the album, Dirninger and his band show they understand that music shouldn't be just for listening to, it should also make you want to move. What makes both these songs even better is the fact they aren't obviously dance songs. It's not like they've said well we should include a couple of uptempo numbers cause people like to dance, the songs just happen to be ones you can dance to,

In fact that's the truly remarkable thing about this disc. No matter what style of music a song is, blues, rock, funk, R&B or soul, it's all effortless. The band moves easily between styles whether within a number or from track to track and nothing ever feels forced or unnatural. I don't know if any of them have played for North American musicians before, but they could match up with any blues based band I've heard anywhere and are a damn site more interesting than most I hear in North America.

Music needs to be constantly evolving to ensure it doesn't stagnate. In order to evolve it needs to be exposed to different environments and receive transfusions of new blood periodically. The Book shows just how important this is as Bobby Dirninger and his band take blues based music down some familiar paths but also branch off in totally new directions making it one of the more interesting new albums of its kind to come out in a while.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bobby Dirninger - The Book on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933


The history of North America over the past hundred to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history, While whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn't until the last quarter of the twentieth century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.

So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn't being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he'd have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
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Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound - John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you'll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their home lands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master's crops.

It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbeter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples "Good Night Irene", "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got Stripes". While Leadbelly doesn't appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which of course was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like "The Midnight Special", "John Henry" and "Grey Goose" have long since become popular, most of the material is no where near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, "Long Gone", "That's Alright Honey" and "Alabama Bound", but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
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Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

Naturally the sound quality isn't going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn't satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he'd have a chance improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they're still on par with other field recordings I've heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.

The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren't necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other's and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
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In an interview recorded with John Lomax that's included in this collection he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it's hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn't have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.

These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to but because they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, but makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 on Blogcritics)

April 19, 2012

Music Review: The Grifter's Hymnal


The first time I came across the name Ray Wylie Hubbard was on the credits of the Jerry Jeff Walker album Viva Terlingua, recorded live in Luckenbach, Texas. While the whole album is brilliant, it was Hubbard's "Redneck Mother" which had really grabbed my attention. It was the first time I'd ever heard a country song that made fun of all the bullshit that one usually associates with country music. The song is also memorable because it saved me from getting my ass kicked in a redneck bar in Western Canada in the late 1970s.

It's a long story involving me being your atypical long haired hippie teenager wandering into the wrong bar early one evening. I only realized my mistake after ordering a beer and looking around and noticing everybody else in the bar was wearing a cowboy hat and nobody's hair was lower than their collar. The long and the short of it was I ended up picking out "Redneck Mother" on the juke box and being told, "You might have long hair, but you have good taste". To this day I always figured I owed getting out of there intact to Ray Wylie Hubbard. Also to the fact that the good ole boys in the bar didn't know the song was making fun of assholes like them, rather than celebrating their bigotry as they seemed to think.

Now I hadn't heard anything of him in recent years so when I found out he had a new recording, I decided I owed it to him to give it a listen. Hubbard may be a few years older and his hair a lot whiter then it used to be, but after listening to a The Grifter's Hymnal, released March 26, 2012 on Bordello Records, I knew what was essential to his musical soul hadn't changed. He's as irreverent as he ever was when it comes to the bullshit in the world and still able to impart more feeling into songs about stuff that matters to him than folk a lot more famous than he is.
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Of course the question remains whether or not he what he plays is country music. I guess some would consider him country, but you could also describe what he does as good old fashioned chicken scratching. Southern anarchy mixed up with rock and roll and a life time of hard living. I mean, what else would you call a Texan with the balls to sing that Jimmy Perkins was a son of a bitch who stole from other musicians and belongs in the same circle of hell as the "whores from Fox News", as Hubbard does in "New Years Eve At The Gates Of Hell"?

Then there's the voice. Hubbard sounds like he's been aged in the bottom of a whisky barrel, then rubbed raw by life and finally cracked open by the things he's witnessed as he's made his way through this world. Now there's lots of singers out there with voices like sandpaper, but very few of them do more than just rasp out their lyrics hoping that passes for emotion. Hubbard is one of the exceptions in the way he can do so many different things with his voice. He plays with tone, volume and expression, ensuring he never becomes monotonous. You always know his intent with a song. He may not be able to cover much of the scale anymore, but he does more with what he has at his disposal than singers with twice his range.

The opening track of the disc, "Ask God", is probably one of the most powerful pieces of spiritual music I've heard from a pop music performer. The lyrics are simple, just three lines. "When darkness swoops down on you, ask God for some light/When some devil knocks you down ask God to pick you up/When death comes a knocking ask God to open a door". He sings variations on each line a number of times before continuing on to the next one. Half chanted/half sung over what sounds like slide dobro and a beat rapped out on a snare, you're quickly mesmerized by the power of his words and the plea in his voice. It's hard to describe the emotional power of the song, but part of is he's not pleading with his god for anything, he's pleading with his listeners to find a way to believe in something beyond themselves.

As you listen to the CD you realize its title, The Grifter's Hymnal, wasn't just chosen because it sounded cool. With a grifter being a con-man, somebody who makes his living by taking advantage of people's gullibility, and a hymnal being a collection of sacred songs and prayers, the title gives you a pretty good indication of Hubbard's opinion of the state of the world. While the implied irony of the title might lead you to think he's overly cynical, what you soon find out is that he's using it as a tongue in cheek way of describing his own life. Listening to the songs you realize that pretty much all of them can be heard as either prayers or as hymns of thanksgiving. On the surface a tune might not sound like it, but certain key lyrics tell the tale.

"I got everything I ever wanted, I done everything I wanted to do" he sings in the chorus of "Coochy Coochy", while in "Coricidin Bottle" he rattles off advice on how to ensure luck and success ("saying prayers to old black gods") what to do if you ever get scared (" Say the 23rd psalm ") and to make sure you "give thanks if you ever get to heaven". The songs range from the low down dirty blues of "Count My Blessings" to the honkey tonk country of "Henhouse" and everything in between. But no matter what its style there's a type of sly wisdom to each that keeps you on your toes. For every so often lyrics jump out and grab you by the ear, catch your heart and rattle your brain.
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"Mothers Blues" is sort of a talking blues/boogie song that sounds like it could be autobiographical. The title refers to a blues bar in Dallas Texas where people like Lightin' Hopkins played. At the opening of the song Hubbard says when he was twenty-one all he wanted was a stripper girl-friend and gold topped Les Paul. He sold his daddy's car to buy the Les Paul, the first of what he describes as "one of the many mistakes I made over the next twenty years". However, being young and stupid when he hooks up with a stripper he thinks his life is made. Well things didn't go quite as planned. She turned out to have a fondness for tequila and pawned his gold top three of four times. Eventually she ran off to Hollywood where she became a dancer on The Hudson Brothers TV show.

Yet, this ain't no cautionary tale about the evils of drink, loose women and rock and roll. It's about being grateful for the strange twists and turns the world takes. Like how he ended up marrying the girl who ran the door at Mothers Blues and they have an eighteen year old son who has inherited the gold lap top and shares the stage with his dad. "The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, well I have really good days." is the last line of the song, and is one of the best prayers I've ever heard. If you can remember to do that more often then not I'll bet you're going to be a happy person, whether you're a grifter, musician, writer or redneck.

One of the songs on this disc which is most definitely a prayer for someone other than himself is "Red Badge of Courage". It's a song for every young person that's ever been shipped over seas to fight in a war. While this one is specifically set in the Gulf, lines like "To err is human, to forgive is divine/to err is human to forgive is divine/ain't either Marine core policy, neither's crying." and "What I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again/What I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again/We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men/We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men" make it universal to every war ever fought.

With A Grifter's Hymnal Ray Wylie Hubbard has written a collection of songs that might not find its way into most churches but sure works as a prayer book for modern times. He makes it clear that what you do with your life isn't as important as how you do it and the intent behind what you do. It's easy to be holier than thou and sanctimonious, but it's incredibly difficult to look at your self honestly, own up to your faults and still find reasons to be grateful for the blessings that have come into your life. Instead of being world weary and jaded by what he's seen Hubbard is thankful for the opportunities he's been given and the gifts he has. The world would be a lot better off if more people were able to live up to that ideal.

(Article first published as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal on Blogcritics.)

October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb

Those of you whose primary experience with recorded music has either been with CDs or downloads will understandably probably not share previous generations' appreciation of album art. Even the name, album art, hearkens back to an era when music was released on long playing (LP) records made of vinyl. Instead of the 5 inch by 5 inch covers that now adorn CDs, designers would have a canvass of approximately eighteen by eighteen inches when creating the art for an LP. There was nothing quite like the experience of walking into a large record store whose walls were adorned with years and years worth of record covers. Sometimes you'd go into a record store merely to flip through the bins of LPs and revel in the diversity of artwork and design.

While a sizeable percentage of covers were made up of pictures of the bands striking some kind of pose or another, even some of them could be interesting, or at the very least informative. I used to be able to get a pretty fair indication of whether I'd be interested in the music on offer from the way in which a band displayed itself. However, it was albums with artwork on their covers that would have a better chance of capturing my attention. First of all they were a refreshing change from pouting rock stars trying to look dangerous and secondly some of it was genuinely fascinating. There were quite a few occasions where I would buy an album without knowing anything about the band simply because I liked the art work so much. What was amazing was how many of those recordings I ended up liking. While there were a few which didn't live up to the promise of their art work, most of the time if the cover art appealed to me so did the music.

Cover art has also been a pretty accurate reflection of the overall state of the music industry, especially when it comes to popular music. From the early to the late 1960s as the music became freer and more expressive the cover art became wilder and more experimental. From Andy Warhol pop art on Velvet Underground covers to Peter Max's art work for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine it was a period where almost anything went. Of course this explosion of freedom of expression wasn't just limited to popular music, it was in all the art forms.
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Famed American underground cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb said in a recent interview how he had given up being a commercial artist in 1968 and was amazed he could get his crazy comics published in the so called underground press at the time. There might have been little or no money in it at the time, but it was total freedom of expression in his chosen medium. While Crumb is best known for his comic work from that time, it was also when he made his first contribution to the world of record cover art when he was offered the then princely sum of $600.00 to do the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. While he probably could have parlayed that cover into more jobs for record companies, Crumb has never been a particular fan of popular music, except for rock and roll from the mid 1950s to around 1968, and lost interest in it altogether by 1970.

However a new collection of his artwork, The Complete Record Cover Collection, being published by Norton Books in the US on November 7 2011 and Penguin Canada October 25 2011 reveals a side of Crumb that many will not have been familiar with - his passion for recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. Contrary to the book's title, cover art for records is only one component of Crumb's music related art works as the book is replete with everything from illustrations of musicians from various parts of the world to logos and business cards he's designed for a variety of independent record companies and stores. As you look through the book the first thing you'll notice is not only the wide range of projects he's taken on over the years, but how much more incredibly diversified he is as an artist than is commonly realized.
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Crumb is probably best known for the rather flamboyant and exaggerated style of his comics; a style that is highly reminiscent of cartoons of the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at his illustrations, or even many of his comics, you can almost hear that old time cartoon music playing underneath them. You just know the characters would have a bounce in their step as they walk jauntily down the street to the sound of a ragtime band if they are happy and if sad trumpets would roll out long mournful notes echoing their disconsolation as they sob their hearts out. While the cover for the Cheap Thrills album and some of the other art work in the book utilize that style, you'll see how he's able to gradate his style between the over the top cartoon work and realism as requirements and inspiration dictate.

While I've heard any number of people dismiss cartoons or illustrations as something of a lessor cousin to painting when it comes to the visual arts I've never agreed with that assessment. You only have to look at what Crumb is able to communicate with some of the work in this collection to come to appreciate that while what he does may not be framed and on gallery walls, his work has a validity of its own that makes it the equal to much of what is categorized as "serious" art. Even at its most exaggerated and cartoonish his cover art not only captures something of the nature of the artist who is being represented, it also gives you some insights into the time period the music is from.
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However for pure artistry nothing beats the portraits of various musicians scattered throughout the book. Some of them, Frank Zappa, Woody Guthrie, Lighting Hopkins, Merle Haggard and George Jones are of famous folk, others are of obscure country and blues players and a third group are of anonymous musicians from various parts of Europe. Yet no matter who they are each of the pictures captures some intangible quality of the person that stimulates your imagination in such a way you find yourself either remembering what details you know of the person's life or trying to imagine something about them - what their life was like and what playing music meant to them. While for some of them he's used old photographs as his source material, Crumb's illustrations imbue what were obviously posed pictures with far more life then the original portrait could possibly have contained.

While the book appears to be laid out without any discernible order, record covers and logos for vintage record stores share pages and musicians from the 1920s stand shoulder to shoulder with others from the early part of the twenty-first century, that actually adds to the fun of scanning through the book. Not only does it mean that each page contains examples of Crumb's diversity as an artist, but it makes looking through the book that much more interesting because you're never quite sure what to expect as you flip from one page to the next.

This is the time of year when publishers are flooding the shelves with coffee table books of various sorts in anticipation of the upcoming present buying season. The shelves of your local bookstore are going to be filled with collections of photographs of everything from the glamorous to the infamous, buildings and cute animals and of course the obligatory photo album of the Royal Family and the new Royal Couple. In a crowd like this The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb stands out like a speck of gold in a sea of nickel. If you're going to buy one coffee table book this season make it the one with a spark of life and subversive enough to bring some much needed spice to the season. In an age of conformity and homogenization people like Crumb are needed more than ever. His artistry is as unique today as it was when he first started out and its high time for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb on Blogcritics)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
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I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
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3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.


5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
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7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2011

Music Review: Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie - Various Performers

July 14 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody. While September 27 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event, when you stop and consider the impact this one man from Okemah Oklahoma has had on popular culture, specifically popular music, in North America and the rest of the English speaking world, you'll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31 2012 looking through the body of his work we'd only barely begin to scratch the surface of its significance.

Just to begin with there are the musicians around the world who he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2 and punk rockers like the late Joe Srummer of the Clash all have cited Woody as one of their inspirations. Woody had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl either. He could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn't just write about the poor and oppressed, he wrote about everything. He wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, "This Land Is Your Land", a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.

When he died 1967, after spending nearly his last thirteen years of life hospitalized by the Huntington's Disease which killed him, he left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and note books. Woody's son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a house guest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn't find any scraps of paper to write stuff down on you could wake up in the morning and find your walls covered as his inspiration wasn't something that was going to be denied. It's only been recently that his family has begun the labour of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with the American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue a collection of previously unreleased Woody songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
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Now to kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Woody's birth 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie featuring twelve songs inspired by the writings of Woody Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture. From Woody's contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; those who have picked up Woody's torch to become voices of protest today, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne to a real surprise Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either taken previously unrecorded songs by Woody or, like Jackson Browne, were inspired by entries in Woody's journals.

No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Woody's voice. What's particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Pete Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on "There's A Feeling In The Music", while both Ani DiFranco, "Voice", and Studs Terkel, "I Heard A Man Talking", tackle the subject of lyrics. While Terkel's is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, both DiFranco's and Seeger's songs show an introspective side of Woody revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs Guthrie's work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
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Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

The final song of the recording shows us a side of Woody Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don't associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Jackson Browne's fifteen minute song, "You Know The Night", (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15 2011 and can be heard on line at this web page) based on a thirty page entry in Woody's journals talking about the night he met his second wife Marjorie Mazia, it's not because he never gave the subject any thought. The song is an unabashed confession of love combined with a wonderful compiling of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need one person feels for another, from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility, are dealt with as Woody/Jackson run down what it was about her which attracted him. Yet its far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we've met the person we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our life with.

Woody Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don't have a voice in his music. The anti communist witch hunt of the post WW II era followed by the onset of the disease which killed him not only denied him the opportunity of writing and performing, but also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn't until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was "discovered" by a new generation, and even then it was only as the guy who inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure school kids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.

Woody wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about, the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, share croppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren't popular topics in the post war boom days and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding being drafted and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to his songs, any of his songs, you'll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people's stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another, our hearts.

In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear twelve American singers, musicians and writers from across the generations offer us their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been heard before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there was something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you'd thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012 let's hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe by the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie's centenary, he'll be appreciated for the artist he was and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.

(Article first appeared as Music Review: Various Artists - Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie)

September 14, 2011

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - In The West & Winterland (Box Set)

Jimi Hendrix was shy of his twenty-eighth birthday by a couple of months when he died. (November 27 1942 - September 18 1970) and we'll never know how much more he could have accomplished if he had even lived another decade. In her coming of age memoir of life in New York City in the late 1960s early 1970s, Just Kids, Patti Smith describes meeting Hendrix at the opening night party for his Electric Ladyland recording studios. She was hanging around outside, a little shy of a party full of people far more established than herself, and the host/honoured guest was hanging out on the fire escape escaping the noise and confusion of the party. The two struck up a conversation and in the short time they spoke he talked to her about his hopes and dreams for the studio and a little of what he hoped to achieve.

Of course we'll never know what would have happened if he had lived. I remember friends joking in the late seventies that Hendrix would be playing disco if he had lived. They were mostly kidding, as they were all big Hendrix fans, but it was fun to imagine what he might have done. With all the guitar heroes who have come and gone since Hendrix's death, and now that I don't listen to him on a daily basis, it's easy to forget how special he was. One of the key indicators of any artists status is the respect his or her peers hold them in and their influence on others. In 1980 famed British guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson, League Of Gentlemen, and many collaborations with Brian Eno) was touring his solo "Fripatronics" soudnscapes music. On his stop in Toronto he interrupted his evening of electronics to pay tribute to the "one rock and roll guitar player I respected, Jimi Hendrix", and tore through a wild version of "Wild Thing" When the desert warrior/musicians of the Tourag first picked up their electric guitars, it was Hendrix's playing that caught their imaginations. Somehow it seems fitting that a Seattle born mixed blood African/Native American's music would inspire a group of nomadic tribesman looking to preserve their way of life.
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Still all of that is only talk. The only way to truly appreciate Hendrix is to listen to him. While there have been plenty of reissues of his work over the years, most of them have been of dubious quality and haven't really managed to capture his magic. It now finally looks like the record is being set straight as the latest series of releases from Legacy Recordings shows. While his studio work was inspired, it was live that Hendrix really showed what he was made of, and both Hendrix In The West and the four CD Box set Winterland coming out on September 13 2011 are stirring examples of what made him so special.

In The West was originally released posthumously by Polydor Records in 1972 and was intended as a memorial to Hendrix's ability as a performer. The producers gathered together material recorded at concerts during the last two years of his life performing with both the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, and 1970's version with Billy Cox replacing Redding. The venues ranged from the Isle Wight festival of 1970, the San Diego Sports Arena, Berkeley Community Centre and two tracks recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As the last two were used without proper legal permission, (they were listed in the original credits as being taken from the San Diego concert) and have been reissued properly somewhere else, on this version of the disc they've been replaced with a version of "Little Wing" recorded at the Winterland and the actual version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" recorded in San Diego. (On the original the record company even misspelt the latter calling it "Voodoo Chile"). As well as the replacements the new version of the disc included three tracks not on the original recording "Fire", "I Don't Live Today" and "Spanish Castle Magic" taken from the San Diego concert.

The original Polydor recording was one of the first Hendrix albums I listened to, it and Smash Hits,were in my older brother's record collection, and along with the soundtrack to Woodstock, was my first exposure to popular music outside the safety net of AM radio. Most people now a days thing of the Sex Pistols when you mention "God Save The Queen" within a pop music context, but to me it will always evoke memories of Jimi Hendrix exhorting the crowd at the Isle of Wight festival to stand up for their culture and fuck you if you don't - then playing the British national anthem. (To be honest I didn't remember the fuck you part of Hendrix's introduction on the original recording and wonder now if it was only restored for this reissue) Unlike his version of the "Star Spangled Banner" which was a searing indictment of its military implications, the soars and leaps he puts his guitar through for the Queen are more tongue in cheek than bitter. Segueing into the Beatle's hit "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" makes it seem all the more good spirited. It helps to remember Hendrix made his name in England first, and two thirds of his original band were Brits., and it sounds like he's paying tribute to the land which first recognized his talent.
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As a kid the other highlight on the original album had been his renderings of Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good" and Carl Perkin's "Blue Suede Shoes". What I had liked then, and still appreciate today, is how little he did to them. Most guitar heroes would look on these types of tracks as excuses to go to town and stamp themselves all over the songs. Hendrix never did that sort of shit, he had too much respect for other people's work. Sure he threw in some searing solos where appropriate, but he was paying tribute to the music he loved growing up, the music which influenced him, and it shows. He plays them with love and spirit so that even songs everybody knows and has heard countless versions of, sound fresh and invigorated. At the same time he managed to give them back the whiff of danger and excitement that reminds you of why rock and roll was considered the music of rebellion.

While the music on In The West is great, it's not until you listen to the recordings on Winterland, culled from six shows on three days in October 1968 (10,11 and 12) that you begin to get some insight into Hendrix's real genius. The band had been on the road almost non-stop for two years across Europe and the United States playing pretty much the same material over and over again. To some it might appear as if it were a miracle, as Redding says at one point, they "we're still standing", let alone performing. After an intense period of playing like this there are two ways a band can go; they can either get to the point where they are doing their set by the numbers and play each song by rote or they've reached the point where they're so comfortable with each other and their material they use it as a springboard to jump higher each and every night. For these six gigs in 1968 Jimi Hendrix and company were definitely in the latter camp, throwing caution to the winds and finding every single possibility available in each song.

Each time you hear "Purple Haze" it's like the first time again. Even though you can't help but recognize what have to be almost the most familiar opening chords in rock and roll after "Smoke On The Water", you can't help but experience a sensation akin to the shock of hearing something for the first time. Maybe it's the anticipation of wondering what's to come and where is he going to take the song this time? But every time I heard that familiar wavering tremolo as Hendrix holds the opening note for what sometimes seems like an eternity before playing those big chunky chords of the opening, I felt a flutter of excitement coursing up my spine as if it were a new experience each time. At the risk of sounding like some artifact, his music was an experience in all senses of the word. It creates images in your minds eye, you feel it in your body, naturally you hear it and sometimes you feel like you can bloody well reach out and touch it. There's such a tangible presence to what he created it doesn't seem possible that there were only three men on the stage - the music was almost a fourth person brought to life by the other three.
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A couple of times over the three days they were joined by guests. Jack Casady subbed for Redding on bass for a song on the opening night, and instead of playing "Voodoo Child" as planned Hendrix swings into Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor". When the Experience are joined by flautist Virgil Gonsalves from the Buddy Miles Band for "Are You Experienced" they extend the song to twice the length they performed it the previous night as Hendrix feeds off the flute to inspire his solos. Listen closely to what you think is the same set list over and over again during the course of the four CDs and on each song you'll hear something new and exciting inside a familiar framework. Therein lies the true genius of Hendrix; he can repeat something note for note when required but isn't tied to any pattern and created something special every time he picked up a guitar.

If you've ever wondered what all the fuss is about, or have forgotten, listening to either of these releases will enlighten you. Also included on disc four of Winterland is an interview recorded with Hendrix backstage at a concert in Boston. While the sound quality isn't the best it does give you some insight into who he considers inspirations and he makes some interesting comments on the difference between English and American music that make a lot of sense. However, the real story of Hendrix is his music and to experience that is to understand how little everyone else since has explored the guitar's potential. It also makes you wonder what he could have done if he hadn't been so limited by the technology at his disposal. Even if he had ended up playing disco, it wouldn't have been like the disco anyone else played.

(Article first published as Music Reviews: Jimi Hendrix - In The West & Winterland [Box Set] on Blogcritics.)

July 30, 2011

Music Review: Keb Mo - The Reflection

The biggest casualty of the 1970s and disco was after all the Saturday Night Fever had died down finding a good R&B or soul track became next to impossible. In the 1960s and early 1970s Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and others took the passion of blues and gospel music, smoothed over some of their rougher edges, emphasized rhythm slightly more then the blues and sang about subjects not covered in church. While R&B never had the street smarts nor the overt sexuality of funk a la James Brown or Issac Hayes, it wasn't the easy listening shit you hear passing itself off as soul or R&B on so called contemporary adult stations today.

After listening to Areatha Franklin hitting her stride in something like "Respect" the idea of even mentioning non-entities like Hall and Oates in the same sentence as her is as close to sacrilege as you can get in the secular world. In fact only Pat Boone covering Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti stands out as a bigger abomination. So, when I first started listening to the forthcoming release from Keb Mo, The Reflection on the Yolabelle/Ryko label August 2 2011, it took me a couple of songs to even recognize the style of music he was playing. It's been so long since I've heard R&B played and sung like it should be that I spent the first two songs trying to figure out what they reminded me of before the pieces fell into place. From the elegant, almost jazz like, phrases coming from the guitar, the gently compelling rhythms to their smooth, but not too smooth, production values, "The Whole Enchilada" and "Inside Outside" epitomize all that is great about the genre.
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Of course it takes more than two tracks to make a CD, and there are a total of twelve on The Reflection. On each of them Keb Mo gives an object lesson in just what it means to sing and play R&B. What's even more impressive is that in this era of so many singing other people's material, he had a hand in writing ten of the twelve songs he's performing. On top of that, not only does he handle or share lead vocals on every track, he's does double, if not quadruple duty, on the majority of the tracks as he handles lead guitar duties on tracks one through eleven, and plays drums and electric piano on occasion as well. All of which would be enough to distinguish his efforts from those of others with pretences of being R&B singers, but that's just the beginning. For it's not just what he does, it's how he does it that makes him so special.

The hardest thing for a performer to do is to take a song you don't like and not only manage to have you enjoying what they do with it, but are able to make its transformation so complete you don't even realize what they've done. I've never been a particularly big fan of The Eagles and their sentimental version of country/rock music that swamped the air waves in the 70s, and in particular I always despised the song "One Of These Nights". There was a time when it was a damn staple on FM stations and I swore that if I never heard it again it would be too soon. So I don't know what kind of magic Keb Mo wove, but he was about three quarters of the way through his cover of it before I even clued into why I thought the lyrics sounded familiar. Calling it a cover does him a disservice as he's completely reinterpreted the song, turning it into something with infinitely more heart and soul than I could have thought possible. Instead of the facile, oh yeah baby sentiments of the original, he's managed to infuse the lyrics with a sense of yearning and hope that turns the chorus into a kind of prayer.

I doubt Keb Mo had any trouble convincing any of those he worked with on this disc to collaborate with him. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if he has to beat people off with a stick when he puts out the word he's working on a new recording. Listening to him sing and play is an object lesson in how this music is supposed to be, and the chance to be part of that would be impossible for anybody who truly loves music not to be part of. So it's no wonder that Vince Gill not only sings and plays his trademark mandolin on this disc, he co-wrote "My Baby's Tellin' Lies", the song he's featured on, with Keb Mo. Gill isn't the only guest on the album, as India Arie joins him on vocal duties for a wonderful version of the old standard "Crush On You" and while she doesn't sing, Melissa Manchester shares writing credits with Keb on the genuinely soulful "Walk Through Fire".
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One of the distinguishing marks of the great soul and R&B singers was the apparent effortlessness of their delivery. Keb Mo is no exception. There's none of the histrionics you've come to expect from so many of the singers you hear today. However, neither does he have one of those bland, characterless voices with all the spice of processed cheese products either. When you listen to him sing you don't only hear his lyrics, you feel the emotion behind them. For while his delivery might be as smooth as velvet, there's a distinct edge of sandpaper to his voice that gives everything he sings a ring of truth you can't help but feel echo inside of you. While there are moments on the disc where the production values might have overwhelmed a lessor singer, that roughness of tone ensures he's able to cut through anything that might detract from the integrity of his music.

There are still a few performers out there who understand what it means to sing R&B, but far too much of what you hear being passed off as the genre have forgotten that the initials stand for Rhythm and Blues. Well some might remember what the the first initial means, the blues part, the part which gave the music its power in the first place, of the equation might as well not exist anymore. It's only when you hear someone like Keb Mo performing that you realize how much of the heart has been cut out of the music by most people. With a foot planted firmly in each camp, and the ability to open his heart and soul to a listener through his voice, he has created some of the finest R&B you'll have heard in ages.

While The Reflection won't be for sale until August 2 2011 if you pre-order it now through i-Tunes they'll include three bonus tracks for you. Take advantage of the deal, 'cause once you hear his music you'll agree, the mo' Keb Mo you can get, the better.

Article first published as Music Review: Keb' Mo' - The Reflection on Blogcritics.)

June 6, 2011

Music Review: Grayson Capps - The Lost Cause Minstrels

I doubt there's been any geographical area of the United States as romanticized or as vilified as the South. You either have people believing in the ball gowns and splendour of Gone With The Wind or writing the whole area off as being awash with red necked bigots. Of course neither is the truth, but most don't let something as trivial as that get in the way of what they believe. Personally, of the two extremes mentioned above, I do have a tendency to fall into the latter camp, but I justify that by the large number of people I've met who would be equally comfortable flying a swastika as the stars and bars. I know not everybody who thinks the old Rebel flag is cool is a white supremacist, but there are too many out there for my comfort.

Now that you know where I stand - a whole bunch further to the left than most of the left (a good friend of mine from the Kentucky area refers to me as a beady eyed Canadian with my head full of lies) you'll understand why I've never been a big fan of either, what most people refer to as, Southern rock or its country kissing cousin. Personally I don't see why anybody would boast about supporting Richard Nixon and I can't see what it has to do with a part of the world which produced William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of other enlightened people. There's an incredibly rich and diverse musical, and cultural heritage in the South, but you'd never know it by what you hear on the radio or blasting out of speakers at long weekend barbecues.
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The irony of this whole Southern rock thing of course is the fact rock and roll was born in the South. Southern boys named Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny and their Sun Records label mates started combining the music their parents listened to with the stuff they heard leaking out of the black sections of town. Heck you can trace the beginnings of rock and roll back to the early 1950s and the stuff a guy named Hank Williams was recording. It's ironic that most of the so called founders of rock and roll are now considered icons of country music, but that's a whole other sociological phenomenon best left to cultural historians a couple hundred years from now. What all of this is building up to is the latest release from Alabama native son Grayson Capps, The Lost Cause Minstrals, on the Royal Potato Family in early June 2011.

The last time I reviewed one of Grayson's CDs I said something along the lines of you haven't heard Southern rock if you hadn't listened to his music. It was one of those glib lines we reviewers occasionally spout off when we think we're being smart that end up coming back to bite us in the ass. They might look good as a quote on a media page of somebody's web site, but they really don't mean squat. All it means is I now have had to spend the first part of this review rehashing the whole Southern rock thing in order to peel off the label I so carelessly pasted on him last time. Capps can't be relegated to some backwater genre that makes people think of a specific style of music or a limited world view. He might be from the South and write the occasional song about characters and locations from the region, but there's a quality to his music allowing it to cross borders and be accessible to listeners no matter where they reside.

Listening to the opening track, "Highway 42" I was struck anew by the power of his voice, the lyrics which travel places not often found in a pop song, and his continuing ability to take a style of music that has been around for sixty some years and make it sound as fresh as the first day it was recorded in that store front studio in Memphis. Boy leaving girl songs are a dime a dozen in pop music, but introspective boy singing about his biggest problem being how he always blames somebody else for his problems isn't something you hear very often, if ever. Heck if you can even name another song using narcissistic in any context, let alone appropriately like in this one, I'll be surprised.

I was having the hardest time trying to figure out what it was about the vocal harmonies during the chorus of "Highway 42" that sounded so damn familiar. It finally hit me on my second time through listening to the disc that he and his co-producer, and partner, Trina Shoemaker, had taken bluegrass vocal harmonies and worked them into the chorus. By all rights it shouldn't work, who ever heard of a bluegrass vocal break in the middle of what is essentially a rock and roll song? But it does and it sounds great in the way something bitter combined with something sweet will taste far better than either individual flavour would on its own.
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Like those who first developed rock and roll Capps has listened to the music around him and incorporated it into his sound. As he has lived in New Orleans and Tennessee as well as his native Alabama those influences are a little more diverse than is usual for a rock and roller. While tastes of a few of these have shown up in earlier recordings, The Lost Cause Minstrels sees them beginning to coalesce into a sound; the sound of Grayson Capps. Gospel, country, bluegrass, New Orleans brass and blues are all part of that sound and are woven together in intricate patterns underneath his lyrics. You can't always hear them front and centre in every song, but one way or another they've each played a role in the material on this disc.

Whether he's singing about local history with his story of how one man and a group of his buddies revived the Mobile Alabama Mardi Gras after the Civil War in "Ol' Slac"; ruminating on the state of the world in "Chief Seattle" or simply singing about being in "Yes You Are", "Paris France" and "Rock and Roll", he treats his subjects with equal sincerity and respect. His voice still sounds like how you'd imagine the oak cask a twenty year old brandy aged in; rough from the experience of years passing and smooth from the mellowing effects of aging. However its not a single note voice as one moment its full of mischief and fun and the next he's pulling at your heartstrings and brain cells while he contemplates the serious side of life.

Both rock and roll and Grayson Capps were born in the Southern states of America and they both bear the mark of the region's musical influences. However while Capps makes no attempt to hide who he is and where he comes from, his music is no more specific to one region than rock and roll is. Simply put this is some of the best rock and roll in its purest form you'll have heard in a long time. Intelligent without being pretentious and emotional without being sentimental, Grayson Capps is one of the best damn songwriters around today, and this is his best recording to date.

Photo Credits: Photo of Grayson Capps by Adam Smith
(Article first published as Music Review: Grayson Capps - The Lost Cause Minstrels on Blogcritics.)

April 10, 2011

Concert Review: Jackson Browne Live In Kingston Ontario April 8 2011

I'm beginning to understand why some performers stop touring. Aside from the wear and tear it takes on them personally and how it takes them away from family and loved ones, there's having to put up with the array of idiots who show up for concerts. Why is it that people think that attending a concert gives them permission to act with complete disregard for either the performer or those in the audience around them? Perhaps more pertinent is the question why a facility would not only be unequipped to enforce their own policies, but create an environment which fosters this sort of behaviour. We are asked to pay upwards to $100.00 per ticket to attend an event only to be forced to put up with drunken assholes carrying on conversations at the top of their lungs, people talking on their cell phones during the concert (and talking loudly enough to make sure they can hear themselves over the music) and having our eyes continually assaulted by the illegal use of camera flash equipment.

Sure concerts are going to be boisterous events; a large group of excited people brought together to listen to something as stimulating as popular music isn't going to be restrained. However, considering that, is it really a good idea to sell alcohol, and allow people to take cans and bottles back to their seats, during these events? Isn't that just adding gasoline to a fire? When I used to attend concerts back in the dark ages of the late 20th century everybody entering the arena was at least patted down to see if they were carrying anything and bags were opened to make sure no one had camera, recording equipment, or bottles. The latter would be confiscated while in the case of the former the person carrying them would be given the option of either leaving them with security personal and collecting them after the concert or turning around and going home.

Last night, Friday April 8 2011, someone who I've been wanting to see since the late 1970s performed in Kingston Ontario. To be honest I never thought Jackson Browne would show up here, but on Wednesday, April 6 2011, I found out he was going to be playing at the local arena, the K-Rock Centre. After a brief flurry of e-mails I was able to not only arrange for tickets to the event but permission to photograph with Jackson Browne's management/public relations team in California, Jensen Communications. I had originally asked about the chances of interviewing Browne, and they were most apologetic saying that no on site interviews were being conducted, but would I be interested in tickets and a photo pass. Even though I had already purchased tickets on my own, I gave them to a friend for a birthday present, I was thrilled. Not only could we attend the concert, my wife, who has among many careers been a professional photographer, would be able to take photos. Sure there were stipulations, no flash, only during the first three songs and only from the designated area, but since we figured no one else was even going to be allowed to take photos, this was great.
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While I'm enormously pissed off at the facility for not only their inadequate security and lack of staffing in the arena - there was no one in the section I ending up sitting in to show people where their seats were, even after the concert started, which resulted in people trying to find their seats on their own in the dark - I have to say the individual working with the media not only did a fine job, she went above and beyond what was required. She not only did her best to accommodated the needs of each photographer, she made sure my wife who suffers from vertigo was escorted directly to her seat.

Of course by then I was wondering why they had even bothered with requiring us to sign a permission release for taking photos as the whole damned arena exploded with flash eruptions the second Browne took the stage. Not only that, but the press photographers were all forced to cram themselves into a nook beside the stage and shoot sideways across while standing on wires and cables. They were also the only ones who apparently had to surrender their cameras before they were allowed into see the show, as while all around me people were taking pictures my wife's cameras were sitting at a security station.

What about the concert itself? Well it was Jackson Browne on his own, either sitting at a piano or with a guitar, running through his entire repertoire. It should have been an amazing experience, as the man is one of the most heart-felt and gifted singer writers around, and at times it was. When the audience allowed him to sit and play he immersed himself in the music and transported us along with him. Initially he attempted to keep things loose and friendly, allowing the audience to suggest songs and happily agreeing with the requests. Unfortunately, due to the audience, this process gradually became a distraction. As a result, every time he tried to talk to the audience he was shouted down by requests for the same four songs over and over again.

Thankfully Browne's a wonderful enough performer he was able to rise above the circumstances and deliver moments of pure magic. There aren't many people who can sit alone on stage and command one's attention to the extent he was able to on this night when given the chance. "Fountains Of Sorrow" has always been one of my favourite songs of his, and his performance of it was everything I could have wished for. That's not to say there was anything lacking with any of the material as Browne didn't skimp or hold back ever. There were songs I was disappointed not to hear, but some of his material just wouldn't translated from the full band sound to solo that well. Although I would have preferred to hear "Looking East" and "I'm Alive" over crowd favourites "Rosie" and "The Load Out/Stay" any day of the week.
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That being said, he did a remarkable job of taking familiar pieces and transposing them for solo performance. The versions of "Running On Empty", "Taking It Easy", and "The Pretender" he delivered on this night were not only adapted for solo performer, they seemed far more introspective than the studio versions. Slowed down, and without a rock and roll accompaniment propelling them, the first two songs were far more coloured by the patina of memory then ever before, and much more emotionally powerful for it. To be honest I'd never been the biggest fan of either song, as I thought that Browne had been a bit young at the time to write something as retrospective as "Running", and there was always something just a little distasteful about "Taking It Easy", its homage to 1970s California Me Decade hedonism, always rubbed me the wrong way. However, as they were performed on this night, more then thirty years after each were written, there was a certain wistfulness for days gone by - a loss of innocence mourned and life was simpler then - (not better ) that lent them a compelling air neither have had before and far easier to accept and believe as a result.

Quite a number of songs he played over the course of the evening could have easily be called memory songs. Not nostalgia for a better time, but a looking back on the hopes and dreams of a generation. A song I hadn't heard before, and the title escapes me, recounted an encounter he had with a young woman during a concert forty years ago. He introduced it with a rather sheepish laugh about the days of "free love" (which resulted in the disappointing but hardly unexpected reaction from the idiots in the crowd). What could have been an awkward or sentimental song in the hands of another was under Browne's delicate touch a sweetly gentle reminder of what was actually meant by the "free" in free love. It was something individuals could control, not another commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. It was free not in the sense of everybody should take what they want from whomever they wanted, but in it is the one thing that is ours to give as we choose, which makes it all the more precious.

Jackson Browne has shown he has the ability to transcend the usual simplicity associated with the popular music format through the depth of his integrity and his heart centred music. Compassion, humour, intelligence and an acute awareness of the world around him combined have over the years allowed him to write songs that speak truths about subjects as diverse as love, war and the human condition in general without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality, offering simplistic solutions to complex issues or knee-jerk reactions. Seeing him in performance one can't help but be struck by his generosity of spirit and the genuineness of his sincerity..

However that doesn't mean time has not had its effect on him, but like an oak age has merely made him sturdier and increased his substance rather than wearing him down and eroding his message. Proof of this can be found on his most recent release, Love Is Strange, a two disc recording of concerts he gave in Spain with his long time confederate, musician and polyester fashion statement, David Lindley and various friends of theirs. It's only a pity those of us who attended the concert in Kingston Ontario on Friday April 8 2011 were not given the opportunity to appreciate Jackson Browne's abilities to their fullest. It's a shame when such a talented artist's performance is overshadowed by a facility's inability to properly stage an event. Only Browne's extraordinary abilities allowed those in the audience there for his music a chance to enjoy the experience at all as Kingston's K-Rock Centre failed dismally in its responsibilities as host.

(Photo Credits : Jackson Browne in concert Eriana Marcus. Portrait of Jackson Browne Danny Clinch)

(Article first published as Concert Review: Jackson Browne - Kingston, Ontario, April 8, 2011 on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans

Looking at the images that came out of New Orleans in the weeks and months following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina combined with reading about government policy of deliberate neglect when it came to rebuilding the city, I have to admit to feeling pessimistic about the city's chances for recovery. What was especially worrisome was reading about the losses suffered by the city's musical community. Not only were many of the bars they relied on for their livings destroyed, but their homes and musical instruments were washed away as well. Further compounding the loss was the destruction of local recording studios and their precious stores of master tapes representing the musical legacy of so many gifted talents.

Concentrated efforts by musicians and organizations dedicated to the welfare of musicians to raise funds for everything from replacing lost sound systems for clubs whose insurance didn't cover so called acts of God to helping struggling musicians pay the rent and put food on their tables was a sign that some recognized how important New Orleans is to the musical soul of America. Yet would these band-aids be enough? Could the people come back from both the destruction of their homes and the antipathy their government was displaying towards them? Hearing elected officials call the destruction of your home "an opportunity" to revitalize an area is bad enough. But then to watch as they proceeded to tear down public housing that wasn't even damaged by the hurricane in order to make way for expensive convention centres and condominiums would be enough to destroy anyone's spirit.

However, two conversations I had with musicians who had both lived in New Orleans during their careers went a long way to reassuring me that no matter how bleak things might look, the people and the music would be back. Grayson Capps came home from being on tour to find his home gone after Katrina and was forced to relocate after living there since his University days while the late Willy DeVille had lived and recorded in New Orleans for most of the 1990s. When I talked to both of them about the city's chances for recovery, while naturally saddened by what had happened, they were both positive the spirit of the city could weather even this. In his song "And The Band Played On", on his final album Pistola, DeVille calls out as the music fades "New Orleans will rise again" so firm was he in his belief in the city's resilience.
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Any last doubts that may have lingered in my mind after talking to them have now been completely dispelled after listening to the new release from the New Orleans tradition, Rebirth Brass Band. The aptly titled Rebirth Of New Orleans, being released on April 12 2011 by Basin Street Records, gives proof to the truth that the band still plays on. And this ain't no band playing while the Titanic sinks around them either, this is a band playing in celebration of life lived being lived to its fullest as only those who have come close to losing it all seem to be able to do.

The first time I saw the Rebirth Brass Band play was on a DVD (From The Big Apple To The Big Easy) of a benefit concert given to raise money, and awareness of the plight facing them, for the musicians of New Orleans. Musicians from all over the world converged to honour the debt they felt to the music of the city. The event in New York City opened with the Rebirth marching in through the audience playing a funeral dirge that segued into a celebratory stomp when they reached the stage. Most of them had been made homeless, and as fellow performer Aaron Neville's baseball cap so eloquently put it, "evacuees", by the Hurricane and had lost most of their belongings. So instead of what they might normally wear in concert they were dressed in whatever street clothes they were able to scrounge and white T-shirts with individual messages of hope, and in some cases anger, printed on them. (Although none quite matched the message on Cyril Neville's shirt: "Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans)

Even then, at a concert only a few months removed from the hurricane, it was impossible not to be impressed by the power of their music and the strength of spirit it revealed in the individual musicians. Now here we are five years later and these guys are not only going strong, they're blowing the doors off the world to let us know that New Orleans is alive and well and just as wild and unpredictable as ever. The disc kicks off with bang as the opening track, "Exactly Like You" opens with a snare drum solo letting you know Rebirth Brass Band are revving their engines. When the horns kick in, in full flight, you can see them in your mind's eye marching down Bourbon Street pulling bystanders from the sidewalks to dance in their wake as they parade by.
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These guys are a street party celebrating New Orleans waiting to happen in every song. Saucy and reverential by turn their lyrics range from the fairly blatantly sexual on "I Like It Like That", introspective on "The Dilemma" to the just plain fun of "Why Your Feet Hurt" where they question why somebody's feet should hurt if they haven't got any moves. Musically they move effortless from Dixieland, jazz laced funk, hip hop, to their own version of a horn driven afro-Cuban sound. Sometimes their music sounds like its seeped out of an old soundtrack from a movie like Shaft, with the horns lashing out the urgent clarion call of a big city. At other times they pull back from their all out assault and let each instrument speak its piece. Yet unlike other bands where sometimes solos seem to have nothing to do with each other, here it sounds like they are having a conversation with each other about the song's content.

When dealing with a brass band it would be easy to lose certain instruments in the mix, but that's not the case with Rebirth. For not only can you hear each individual horn distinctly when they are playing en masse, even the percussion comes through loud and clear. Not only does that help contribute to the fullness of their sound it helps prevent the multiple horns from becoming too overwhelming. Horns and nothing but horns can occasionally be harsh on the ears, so to have the earthier sound of congas and other percussion permeating the sound makes sure this isn't the case with this disc.

You hear a lot about how some band's are better in concert than they are in a recording because of the energy they create when on stage with their performance. Somehow or other a fair number of bands just don't seem capable of recreating it in the studio. Well, you don't need to worry about Rebirth Brass Band's recordings lacking anything when it comes to energy or exuberance. Heck, you should worry about whether or not your stereo system or music player will be able to contain the energy they are producing, I don't know if I've worried about whether or not the CD I was listening to could actually manage to contain the band's sound before, but so potent and alive are Rebirth Brass Band, you can't believe they can stay trapped forever in that small disc and sooner or latter you're going to end up with them hanging out in your living room.

If you can't get to New Orleans in the near future and you have any doubts about whether or not the spirit of the place is still alive and well in spite of what's happened down there over the past six years, one playing of Rebirth Of New Orleans and you'll doubt no longer. Neither acts of God, oil companies or idiot government officials can stamp out the spirit of this city that easily and we all should eternally grateful for that fact. The world is becoming more and more homogenized as it is, and we need as many unique places as we can get. The Rebirth Brass Band is one of the reasons why New Orleans is what it is, and this disc lets you bring that into your home.
(Article first published as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans on Blogcritics.)

March 24, 2011

Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down

Musical styles come in and out of fashion as often, if not more frequently, than clothing styles. However, unlike trends in clothing or other transitory fads, many of the musical genres which become flavours of the month had their small pool of adherents who both played it before it became popular and continue to play it long after its popularity has waned. Ironically it's not even those who have been playing and keeping the genre alive who are usually the ones who enjoy the benefits of their style's fifteen minutes in the spotlight as they aren't usually the types a record company feels comfortable with as star material.

Once the brief flurry of interest in the genre has died down most go back to being played and appreciated by those who had all along, while everybody else has moved on to the next "new" discovery. Sometimes the only record to mark a genre's passing is if a commercially viable form of the music is created which allows for the creation of a new top one hundred chart in its name. Aside from that, for most of the world it's as if the music ceased to exist as miraculously as it appeared. Thankfully, that's not usually the case, it's just that the music is out of the public eye again, but it's still being played and recorded if you know who to look for.

Ever since the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was released about a decade ago there have been periodic revivals of interest in what's called everything from roots music to Americana. Now most of the songs used in the soundtrack were familiar to people already, but what made them so fresh was they were performed in the style they would have been during the time the movie took place. Instead of the overblown production that's been associated with country music for the last thirty or forty years, the songs were stripped down to their basics and sounded amazing. Somehow or other though, that point got lost, and it's become harder and harder to hear the music played as it was originally.
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Thankfully, for those who want to hear this music played as it should be, there remain select groups of musicians scattered around the country dedicated to keeping the legacy of this music alive. One of the finest examples of this are Eden & John's East River String Band. Eden and John are Eden Brower (ukulele, kazoo and vocals) and John Heneghan (guitar and vocals), and on their latest disc, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, the band is rounded out by Robert Crumb (mandolin), Pat Conte (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar). (For those wondering, Robert Crumb is indeed the illustrator of underground comics from the 1970s. Not only does he play with the band on occasion, he has created all their album artwork).

On this disc the band has focused on traditional songs and adapted and arranged them to suit their needs. One of the first things you'll notice when looking at the album credits is the lack of any mention as to who has written the material. These songs have obtained the status of being so ingrained into the social and artistic fabric of American culture who wrote them no longer matters; they are a part of the country's cultural heritage in the same way songs like "John Barley Corn" are part of the heritage of the British Isles. In fact two of the titles on the disc are most likely ones that a high percentage of Americans will hear at least once in their lives and whose names will be recognized by nearly as many: "Oh Suzanna" and "Swanee River".

Both songs were written by the first great composer of American popular music, Stephen Foster, in 1848 and 1851 respectively. A product of their times, their original lyrics aren't what anybody would call racially sensitive as they were written in faux slave dialect, and in the case of "Swanee", have the narrator yearning for life on the plantation and by implication life as a slave. Both songs gained their initial popularity through being performed in "Minstral Shows", white performers appearing in black face singing and playing Dixieland jazz style music. While this may sound offensive to us, the songs were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and in no way diminishes their quality musically.
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While these two songs are well known, others of the fourteen included on the disc have a slightly more obscure provenance. Take "On The Banks Of The Kaney", it was originally recorded in 1929 by Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, a Choctaw Indian string band from Oklahoma. From what little I was able to find out about this group they wrote and recorded songs for Choctaw audiences and were discovered playing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Just like the fact there were African American string, or country/bluegrass type bands, back in the 1920s and 1930s has almost been forgotten, probably very few people are aware there were Native American bands as well. That alone would make contemporary recordings of this song and the others on the disc worthwhile, but these are more than just dusty pieces of history of interest only to musicologists.

For, as performed by Eden and John and friends they sound as fresh and alive as if they were written today. The combination of their enthusiasm, energy, skill and the sense that all of them are having the time of their lives playing the songs on the disc make it far more enjoyable to listen to than the majority of contemporary music. There's something irrepressible about Eden's vocals which makes her sound like she's tapped into the secret of knowing how to have the best time in the world. She and the rest of the band might take their playing seriously and are as good a group of instrumentalists as you'll find anywhere, but they don't take themselves seriously and always remember to have fun with what they're doing. Maybe it's the fact that a kazoo features predominately in the mix on quite a number of tunes (I've always had a soft sport for a well played kazoo), but listening to this disc was the most fun I've had listening to music in a long while.

With all the the talk of Americana and roots music, the irony is how much of the real roots of American popular music is still being ignored today. Or even worse, far too many people forget that it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed. They forget that it was performed at county fairs under tents so people could try and forget about the troubles of the world for a little while. Sure its important culturally as it integrated African and European music in ways that had never happened before, but it was also the dance and good time music of the day.

The music on Be Kind To A Man When He's Down comes from another age - spanning the years from just before the American Civil War to just before WWII - but it can bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step far more readily than most of what passes for popular music today. In these days of war, famine, pollution and other horrors it's hard to remember there was a less cynical time when music could make you feel glad to alive. This album is not only a collection of timeless treasures, it's a reminder that popular music can be fun. Be Kind To Be A Man When He's Down is available in both CD and 180 gram yellow vinyl. If you have a turntable buy the LP as that way you can not only enjoy a full sized piece of Robert Crumb's art, but I have a feeling this is the type of music that will be best appreciated listened to on a turntable.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down on Blogcritics.)

March 10, 2011

Music Review: Bombino - Agadez

I've been sitting with a CD for a couple of weeks now, listening to it, thinking about it and sort of letting it percolate inside of me. It's not often I have the luxury of doing this with a recording that I've been asked to review, but the company sent this one out to me well in advance of its release date hoping I could give them some quotes to help promote the performer. All of which is very cool, but the problem is that I'm sitting here and I don't really know what to tell anybody who reads this about the music. It's not that I don't like it, because I do, I think the music and the performer are bloody amazing, and what he's doing with his music is important.

You see there's the rub, there's a lot of history that comes with this recording, not just of the person whose made the recording, but something like 1400 years of a people's, and a place's, history. Writing about the music on this CD without touching upon any of that would be ignoring at least half of what has gone into the music's creation. So, while people don't read a critique of a CD for a social/political history lesson, the specifics of this man, this music, these people and this land are as important to talk about as the music. As you'll see, in some ways, that's the point of the music in the first place.

The land is some of the harshest in the world, the Sahara desert, specifically the parts of it which fall within the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The people are the Kel Tamasheq, more commonly referred to by the name given them by the Arabs who invaded these lands, Tuareg, or rebels, for their refusal to accept Islam without a fight. Nomads and herdsmen, they have guided caravans from Algeria to Niger and raised their flocks throughout the Sahara for centuries. Steadfastly refusing any outside influence they have fought to remain independent against any and all who have tried to control them. The music has roots that can be traced back through the history of the people, to the electric guitars of modern rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and the armed rebellions against the Niger and Malian governments during the 1980s by the Kel Tamasheq. For it was veterans of those uprisings who put down their machine guns, picked up guitars and changed the nature of their rebellion.
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Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose given name is Goumar Almoctar, was born in 1980 in a desert encampment adjacent to Agadez in western Niger. When the Niger government lashed out against Kel Tamasheq people living in their territory in retaliation for the rebellion in the 1980s, Bombino's family fled to stay with family in Algeria. In the early part of the 1990s his family returned to Agadez when it appeared there was a chance for a settlement of the conflict with the Niger government. While he had started learning guitar while in exile, upon his return to Agadez Bombino was taken under the wing of a more experienced musician. He was the youngest and smallest member of the band and they gave him his nickname, "Bombino", as a play on the Italian word, bambino, baby.

For as long as the peace lasted in the 1990s and into the new century Bombino's musical career grew steadily. However in 2007 the uprising began again and the Niger government began targeting "guitar players", naming them enemies of the state. When two of the musicians he played with were killed by the army, Bombino went back into exile again, this time to the west and Burkina Faso.

It was here, after a year of searching, he was tracked down by a documentary film maker named Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his music while making a movie about the Kel Tamasheq (Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion) Wyman was so impressed with Bombino's music that he took him back to America where they began to record Agadez, which will be released on April 19 2011 on the Cumbancha label. Then in 2010 the army in Niger overthrew the government and signed a peace treaty with the Kel Tamasheq rebels and exiles were able to return home. So Wyman and Bombino returned to Agadez where they completed recording the CD and finished the movie at the same time.

Like the first generation of musicians who play what they call "Ishoumar", a derivative of the French word for unemployed, chomeurs, and which is now synonymous with rebel music, Bombino's sound is a mixture of the modern and the traditional. Electric guitars overlay the steady beat of the drum to create an almost hypnotic effect which wraps the listener in a cocoon of sound. Periodically Bombino's guitar will take flight into a solo, weaving in and around the rhythm like an expression of his people's desire for freedom. Unlike far too many rock and roll guitar solos which always seem to interrupt a song, Bombino's feel like emotional extensions of the material. At times they capture his excitement and enthusiasm for the promise of the better future he obviously hopes lies in store for his people, and at others they express a yearning that can make the heart ache.
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In interviews quoted in the press materials accompanying the CD he talks about his relationship with the desert and how it serves as his inspiration and how, like for the rest of his people, its his home. While I can't understand the lyrics he sings, nor are translations included with the CD, reading the English translations of individual song titles, and listening to his guitar and his voice when he performs them, you begin to understand just how deeply these people and where they live are interconnected. Of the three traditional songs on the disc he has adapted, two, "Ahoulaguine Akaline" (I Greet My Country) and "Tenere" (The Desert My Home), by their titles alone, tell you all you need to know about the depth of that bond. Listening to them, and maybe this is because I've seen footage of the Sahara, I couldn't help but visualize the stark beauty of the land and experience the same feelings that pictures of it evoke.

During the uprisings the Niger government first banned the music of, then targeted the "guitar players" because their songs spread the message of the rebellion. They weren't calls to arms, rather they were reminders to the people to take pride in who they were and to hold onto their traditions. With so many of the Kel Tamsheq displaced into the cities because of drought and loss of their territories to uranium mining, those messages have become even more important as a means of helping them retain their identity and instil within them a sense of pride in who they are. Of his original material, two of Bombino's songs, "Tigrawahi Tikma" (Bring Us Together) and "Azamane" (Mr Brothers United), on this disc are obviously meant to encourage his people to stand firm against anything that would take away their freedom or force them to change how they live their lives.

The Kel Tamsheq have survived this long by being able to live in one of the harshest environments on the planet and by learning how to adapt to the changing realities of the world around them. While they have fought fiercely over the centuries to preserve their independence, they also know there are many different ways to fight and win a war. The music of Omara "Bombino" Moctar and the message his songs have for his people, are one of the strongest weapons they have in their arsenal right now. A passionate voice, a guitar that sings and the ability to communicate through sound alone will bring tears to your eye and a send a shiver running up and down your spine. Agadez is being released on April 19 2011, and it will take your breath away.

Photo of Bombino and band members Ibrahim and Kawissan by Ron Wyman.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bombino - Agadez on Blogcritics)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Various Performers - Louisiana Swamp Stomp

After the American Revolutionary War in the 1700s, those soldiers and civilians who had either fought on the side of, or remained loyal to, the British were rewarded for their actions with tracts of land in the nearest crown colony. In order to accommodate this sudden influx of people looking for space the former subjects of New France, themselves only recently conquered by the British, in the Maritimes region of what would become Canada eventually, were displaced from their farms and cast adrift. With nowhere else to go these Acadians headed south to the last remaining French colony in North America, Louisiana. Here they not only joined other Francophones, but the closest thing to a multicultural community to be found in the New World at the time. For not only did they find Spaniards left over from its time as a Spanish colony, but ex-slaves from all over the Caribbean, settlers from the British Isles and sailors and pirates from home ports scattered around the globe.

When Jefferson purchased the territory from the French government, and its important access to the Mississippi River from the Gulf, the social order was shaken up as the majority non-anglo/non-white population became second class citizens in keeping with the laws and conventions of its rulers. Of course having laws and enforcing them are two entirely different matters, so life in places like New Orleans probably continued on much the same as it did before the purchase. In fact, if the new American government had harboured any hopes of subduing and assimilating the polyglot population of its newest territory they were sorely mistaken. For not only have the distinct cultures stayed around with only minor variations - Acadians have become Cajuns - they have cross pollinated and created a culture unique to the region.
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While it's doubtful few will remember its true significance as the last big blow out before Lent, Mardis-Gras is a reminder of the area's Catholic heritage, and the sounds of France, Spain and Africa can still be heard in the languages people speak and the words that come out of their mouths. However, where the glorious multicultural nature of the region really blooms is in its music. Where else are you going to find a place where music with origins in so many different cultures not only happily co-exists, but has merged and mingled with such ease and wonderful results? While its probably impossible to ever come up with a compilation that would include samples of all the musical influences present in the region, a new disc out on the Honeybee Entertainment label, Louisiana Swamp Stomp, provides listeners with a good indication of the diversity at play.

Aside from being an amazing collection of music, which I'll get to in a second, the other reason for picking up a copy of this disc is all the proceeds from its sale goes to the Northern Louisiana Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Foundation (NLBSCIF) to help fund their programs, including research into finding cures for the various neurological disorders that effect the brain and the spine. The inspiration for this disc comes from the remarkable story of Louisiana musician Buddy Flett's recovery from encephalitis. Upon waking from the medically induced coma required to save his life Flett was not only unable to play guitar, he had also lost the ability to walk and talk. Amazingly, only a few months later he was well enough to play at his own benefit, and because of the support of his family, and the music community at large in Louisiana, he was able to make a full recovery. Now that same community, plus visual artists who have donated their work for the CDs cover and accompanying booklet, are hoping to help others by raising money to help neuroscience research in Louisiana.
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Unlike other benefit discs of this type which often feature big names parachuted in for an event, this is a true local community effort. Only one song isn't by a Louisiana native, and the only "name" on the disc is Percy Sledge, and his contribution is a live recording he made of Buddy's song, "First You Cry", at a concert in Baton Rouge. While the rest of the names on the disc may either be only slightly familiar or not ring any bells at all for people outside of the Gulf Coast area, once you listen to them, not only will you not forget them in a hurry, you're going to want to search out more of their music.

Omar Coleman kicks off the disc with a rollicking blues number, "Scratch My Back", and although both it and his other contribution to the disc, "Mojo Hand", were recorded in Chicago with local musicians, there's just as much bayou in his music as there is the concrete of the South Side. The connection between Chicago and New Orleans can't be measured by the miles that separate the two cities when it comes to the blues as the influences have run both ways. Eighty-five year old Henry Grey only reinforces the connection with his two contributions, "Times Are Getting Hard" and "How Could You Do It". Born in Louisiana, Grey played with Howlin' Wolf from 1956 - 68 in Chicago and a variety of others across the country including Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Billy Boy Arnold, showing just how much Louisiana gets around.
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While the men make some great contributions, including Buddy Flett playing all the instruments on his own aptly titled "Livin' Ain't Easy", the women of Louisiana, and in particular Carol Fran, are present and accounted for as well. Ms. Fran has had to overcome many of the same problem Flett did after she suffered a stroke, but listening to her sing on this disc you'd never know she'd been sick a day in her life. She starts off with "Tou' Les Jours C'est Pas La Meme" (Everyday Is Not The Same) a bilingual blues/cajun tune that will blow you away. While she does a great job of performing both it and her second tune, "I Needs To Be Be'd With", I was just as impressed by the fact they are both her own tunes. Why this woman has not achieved international, let alone national fame is beyond me. Just listening to her you can feel the amount of presence she possesses and I can only try and imagine how amazing she must be in person.

Of course the same goes for everybody on the disc. Each of them: Little Freddie King, Paul "Lil Buck" Sinegal, Sonny Landreth, Dwayne Dopsie, Larry Garner and Charlene Howard, whether we've heard their names before or not, have distinct personalities that shine through during their performances. Unlike so much of our cookie cutter world today where everything sounds the same, looks the same and tastes the same in order to make sure nobody is offended, and nobody is ever satisfied, Louisiana is full of a variety of tastes, sounds and sights. The musicians on this disc, and the colourful, flamboyant art included as part of the CD's packaging, might only be a small sampling of that wonderful diversity, but compared to what you'll normally hear or see around you it will be like a cornucopia of delights.

There must be some sort of magic down in Louisiana that helps them survive with their spirit intact. For in spite of the American government allowing oil companies to rape her; destroying her natural protection against the post Katrina floods and spilling massive amounts of oil off her shores with impunity, they haven't attempted to violently secede from the US. In fact, instead of telling the rest of us to piss off, they keep sending us their wonderful music and inviting us to enjoy what they have to offer. Listening to the music on the disc Louisiana Swamp Stomp is to be given a little bit of that magic to carry around with you and you might just find yourself smiling a little bit more because of it.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Louisiana Swamp Stomp on Blogcritics)

December 20, 2010

Top Ten Listens Of 2010

Another year is drawing to a close and now is the time for all those with pretences of critical prowess to pontificate on what they thought of as the best music of the past twelve months. We all take pride in our taste and discernment; we all wish to show how unique we are in our judgements and impress you, our readers, with our worldliness through the obscurity of our choices. To be honest, after five plus years of receiving at least a CD a day in the mail I've been finding it harder and harder to find anything original to say about what I hear. While this has probably more to do with my inability as a writer rather than any lack of talent in the musical world, it doesn't change the fact its taking more to excite me enough to sit down and review a piece of music.

Whatever the reason, I've reviewed far fewer CDs this year then in the past, and its from that much reduced pool that I've selected the following ten discs (plus two honourable mentions) as the ones that impressed me most. There's no real rhyme or reason to my choices, they just all happen to be ones which distinguished themselves sufficiently they stuck out when I surveyed my past year's worth of reviews.. If you wish to read the full review for any of the following their titles serve as a link to its location. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here then are the ten music CDs which stood out the most for me in 2010.

Sin Rumba no hay Son Septato Nacional. Formed in Havana Cuba in the 1920s this is the fourth generation of musicians to perform under the banner of Septato Nacional. While true to their roots as one of the originators of the Afro/Cuban sound, their ebullience and skill keep the music as fresh as if it were only just being discovered today instead of eighty years ago. You'll have difficulty believing there are only seven people performing so full is their sound. So infectious is their enthusiasm, not only will you find yourself swaying to the beat of their music, don't be surprised if you find yourself on your feet dancing. Truly a Cuban national treasure for all to enjoy.


Koonyum Sun Xavier Rudd & Izintaba. Hailing from Australia Rudd has long been associated with surfers, a laid back reggae influenced sound and the Aboriginal influences in his music. Originally a one man band, playing guitar, kick drums and yirdaki (commonly known as digeridoo) his sound has evolved over the course of his career to the point where he now is accompanied on this album by the South African drummer and bassist duo known as Izintaba. Even more impressive is the growth he has undergone as a lyricist and the emotional commitment to his music he now displays. While he has previously penned songs about conditions among Australia's Aboriginal population, the environment and his personal connection to both subjects, on Koonyum Sun he has taken the next step in his development. He has taken his personal feelings on the dissolution of his marriage and translated them into universal expressions on the nature of love, freedom and individuality. This is the work of a mature artist who can write about personal experiences in such a way that all can identify with them.


Homeland Laurie Anderson. Not many people have hit records by accident, but one has the feeling that's what happened to Anderson back in the late 1970s when her song "O Superman" brought her to popular attention. Even referring to her simply as a musician fails to do justice to the complexities of her creations as they have far more in common with stories than they do with songs. Homeland has her focusing her unique talents on the state of the world, specifically the United States, today. While she is well known for her use of technology in her work, vocoders to alter her voice and effects for her violin, there is something infinitely human and intimate about it. While definitely intelligent, Anderson also possesses a wonderful sense of the absurd which when combined with her apparently innate appreciation for the beauty in the world makes her material as close to sublime as possible for a secular artist.

Elephant: An African Tale Francis Jocky. Hailing from the Cameroon Francis Jocky has had to deal with other's expectations that he play "African" music when his interests have stretched far beyond his home continent's borders. So there is almost something tongue in cheek about his sub-title "An African Tale" in this instance. For while the story he recounts over the course of this song cycle is firmly rooted in his birth nation, it is not blinkered to the fact there is a huge world out there waiting for all of us. His recounting of one family's struggles expresses the hopes and fears of people all over the world. It may be based in Africa, but this is a truly international recording.

Woman In Sin Fishtank Ensemble. Every once in a while a band comes along who manage to convey a wildness of spirit with their music that no matter what they play your can't help envisioning people dancing with reckless abandon around a bon fire in a forest glade. There's something about Fishtank Ensemble, no matter if they are covering a torch song or playing a crazy reel, which makes you remember what it is about music that can upset the status quo. It frees the spirit and releases you from your inhibitions just as easily as booze and drugs, but without the nasty side effects. This group of extremely talented musicians are the perfect antidote to the deadening effects of the mundane. If you ever feel the need to remember what it means to be alive in body, mind and spirit again - this is the band for you.

Oooh La La Crash Test Dummies. Brad Roberts' voice, intelligent lyrics filled with wry humour and emotional insights combined with weird and obscure musical toys from the 1970s; what more could one ask for? Heck I could sit and listen to Brad Roberts sing pretty much anything and be content, but thankfully the main creative engine behind Crash Test Dummies has never given into the temptation to just get by on his voice. Oooh La La is no exception as he and co-producer Stewart Lerman used a stock of musical toys as inspiration for the musical accompaniment to Roberts' lyrics and created something truly distinct. The result was a delightful mishmash of styles tinged with that slightly mechanical feel one identifies with the sound of electronically produced music from before the age of digital recordings. The contrast between his rich baritone and the undertone of cheap circus music the old toys give the music might disconcert initially, but, in the end, made this one of the more original and invigorating releases of the year.

Sub City 2064 Erdem Helvacioglu & Per Boysen. Erdem Helvacioglu changed my perspective on electronically enhanced music forever the first time I heard one of his recordings. Unlike others who rely on machines to create their music, for him they are another instrument to be used in the creative process. On Sub City 2064 he and collaborator Per Boysen have created a series of atmospheric creations that bring to life an imagined future where we live beneath the waves. In turn beautiful and frightening the two men have created a recording which should serve as the benchmark for composers of electro-acoustic music in terms of emotional honesty. A work of intense beauty, it will remind you its the artist behind the instrument who matters, and artistry and creativity will shine through no matter what the circumstances.


Leva-me Aos Fado (Take Me To The Fado House) Ana Moura. Fado music is said to have been borne out of the songs Portuguese sailors sung when missing their loved ones while sailing the oceans. That will give you some idea as to the nature of the music and how, in the wrong hands, there is the potential for it to be tiresome. However, in the hands of Ana Moura, Fado becomes more than the sum of its parts. These aren't merely love songs bemoaning missing sweethearts or broken hearts as the ache expressed by their yearning could be caused by the loss of freedom to tyranny, worry for one's loved ones in a time of war or any of the numerous ways in which the world can break one's heart and spirit. It's no wonder the former military dictatorship of Portugal closed the Fado Houses upon taking power; the last thing they would have wanted were such vivid reminders of the emotional costs of their reign. Don't listen for overtly political lyrics in Moura's words, but if you can't hear the crying of a mother who has lost her child to an act of violence in her voice, you need a hearing test.


Metal Machine MusicLou Reed. In 1975 Lou Reed set records for the number of returns generated by a newly released popular musical album when he first released Metal Machine Music. Ironically if it had been released as a work of contemporary composition it probably wouldn't have raised any complaints. Reed's experimentation with sound, electronics and electricity was very much in keeping with work being done by composers John Cage and others in the avant-garde. His mistake was in hoping people would be able to forget that he was a pop musician and listen to his music in its proper context. Now, finally, Metal Machine Music has been released as it should have been it done thirty-five years ago. Taking advantage of digital technology he has re-mastered the original quadraphonic sound to accommodate modern audio equipment and offered both CD and DVD versions of the recording in one package. Hopefully the world will be ready to listen to this other side of Lou Reed a little more readily today then it did years ago.


I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Marta Sebestyen. Probably the best thing about the fall of Iron Curtain that separated Eastern Europe from the West has been the new accessibility we've gained to musicians previously denied us. Marta Sebestyen is from Hungry and sings a mixture of traditional sacred music and folk songs from her homeland. A beautiful singer, she has an expressiveness to her voice that makes an understanding of Hungarian moot as she is able to convey emotions and feelings through her tone alone. One of the real treasures of Eastern Europe, Sebestyen's music will lift your spirits no matter which God you believe in and what part of the world you come from.

Last, but not least, are two albums released in 2010 that couldn't be ignored. Compilation and greatest hit type releases aren't normally titles I would consider for this type of list, but these two merit special consideration. Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is just what its title claims, and is one the best collections of material from that time period that you'll ever hear. While you might still have trouble getting half of it played on the radio today, the majority of the songs on this collection are far superior to what passes for the equivalent you'll hear on today's airwaves. The second release probably wouldn't present any problems with obtaining air time as Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings gathers together all of Hank's old radio broadcasts sponsored by the Mother's Best Flour company originally recorded in 1951. While some of the material is hokey and sentimental, having the chance to hear Hank play live with his band and offering up trial version of new material, is something not to be missed. The collection comes with a book detailing the history of the recordings and providing full notes for each song on the fifteen CDS. There's also a DVD included featuring Hank's daughter Jett interviewing two members of Hank's band and one of the engineers from those broadcasts. Either one of these compilations would make a great addition to anyone's collection and are great fun to listen to.

So there you go, that was the music that stood out the most for me in 2010. A completely subjective and personal list of preferences, but than again, what did you expect, objectivity?

(Article first published as My Favourite Listens Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 1, 2010

Music Review: Various Performers -Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s

After more than five years of reviewing what feels like thousands of different music CDs a great many of the titles I've covered have vanished into the haze of my memory. It's one of the reasons I don't review nearly as many titles as I once did, there's only so many different ways I have of saying basically the same thing over and over again for music that's all beginning to sound suspiciously similar. For someone to stand out enough for me to remember not only their name, but exactly what they've done, means there was something remarkably distinctive about them. In some cases that might mean they were such an absolute horror show that you can't help but recall them with a shudder.

But as in the case of the Eden & John's East River String Band's disc, Some Cold Rainy Day, there are recordings where a love of the material being performed combines with the skill and passion necessary to bring it to life results in the creation of something truly special. On the above album Eden and John went deep into the past of American popular music for their material and play the tunes on instruments - vintage archtop guitar and resonator ukulele - from the era. However, these are not just lovingly presented museum pieces, Eden and John throw so much of themselves into the pieces they take on new life and are just as relevant as anything written today.

It turns out that John Heneghan, the John from the group's name, is not only a fan and performer of music from the 1920s and 30s, he's also an avid collector of recordings from the era. Blues, jazz, country and Hawaiian are only a few of the genres that are apparently represented in his vast collection of old 78 rpm discs. It was this resource that Heneghan drew upon when compiling the latest release for the Dust To Digital label. Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s And 1930s is a three disc collection of over sixty tunes that cut across race, genre, geographical boundaries and gender. While the historical significance of this release is obvious, its a brilliant snap-shot of the variety of popular music created during those two decades, listeners are also going to be surprised and delighted by the material for its own sake. In fact you'll probably even experience quite a sense of regret that this music has been forgotten over the years, as a great deal of it is every bit as good, if not better, than most of what's being written today around the same themes.
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I think what might surprise people the most is how graphic some of the material is. If Tipper Gore had problems with the "Mature Content" of rap songs, I wonder what she'd make of songs with titles like "Let Me Play With It" or lyrics like those of the song "Pussy" where the singer talks about stroking his woman's pussy. The sexual innuendo isn't exactly subtle and the double entendres fly fast and thick in quite a few songs, but especially on the second disc of the set, subtitled "Lust". Oh and if you think only the male singers are raunchy, well you really have led a sheltered life haven't you. Don't worry, Mississippi Matilda will set you straight as she sings to you what's it like to be a "Hard Working Woman". There's also songs that won't offend the more delicate sensibilities out there as well like "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me", the original version by Eddie Peabody not Tiny Tim. It's still done on ukulele, and still annoying, but make sure you listen closely to the lyrics, you won't regret it.

While there are a few other familiar names that pop up in the credits and titles; Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt are probably the three most widely recognized names; the reality is that even they aren't what you'd call household names anymore. While some of the material and the people performing them have very rightly been swallowed up by the mists of time, the majority are tunes well worth listening to, and if there were any justice in the world, would still be listened to on a regular basis today.

As previously mentioned the second disc in the set contains material that revolves around the theme of "Lust". Each of the other two discs are similarly organized with the first focusing on "Love" and the third on "Contempt". While you might be tempted to skip over the first disc in order to sample what "Lust" and "Contempt" have to offer (Love songs are a dime a dozen these days, but how many good contempt songs have you heard recently?) don't let yourself be prejudiced by thoughts of contemporary songs. Where else are you going to hear bands like Banjo Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band or Little Kimbrough and Winston Holmes and songs with titles like "That's What The Bachelor's Made Out Of " (Taylor's Kentucky Boys) and "Insane Crazy Blues"? (Charlie Burse with Memphis Jug Band) Believe me when I tell you they don't write love songs like these anymore, and while not all of them are going to appeal to everyone, the great thing about this collection is if you don't like a tune - skip ahead to the next because its going to be something completely different from what's come before.
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Of course some of the best titles are to be found on the "Contempt" disc; "You Gonna Look Like A Monkey When You Get Old", "Wimmin-Aaah!", and "Its A Shame To Whip Your Wife On Sunday". The latter very pleasantly reminds listeners that there's no need to whip your wife, or do any manner of things on Sundays, as there plenty more days of the week for you to take care of those tasks without violating the Sabbath. While there is great material throughout the collection, there seems to have been something about "Contempt" that inspired people that little bit extra. Not only are there more songs on this side than either of the other two, there's no denying that on the whole they're a good deal more interesting. It's been said that love and hate are the opposite faces of the same coin, but in the case of popular music from the 1920 and 30s it seems like people might have spent a little more on despising then they did on adoring.

A lot of trouble has been taken with creating an appropriate package for the music on these three discs and you can't help but appreciate both the artwork and the photographs used as covers, labels for the CDs and in the accompanying booklet. The booklet and the disc's gatefolds are adorned with period photographs reflecting the title's themes and each disc comes complete with a label done in the Art Deco style of the period.

Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is a veritable cross section of American popular music. What's truly wonderful about it is that no matter what genre the song, it predates the era of slick presentation and commercial concerns whose end result was to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. This is a trip back to the days when not all popular songs sounded alike or adhered to some industry dictated formula for success. The material on these discs are the real roots of American popular music, but much of it has been forgotten or ignored over the years. While unfortunately a great deal of what was recorded in the time period represented by this collection has been lost, the samples offered by it give us some indication of just how rich and vibrant our popular music culture once was. If nothing else, maybe this collection will inspire people who hear it to seek out more of the same and others to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of popular music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s on Blogcritics.)

November 12, 2010

Music Review: Junior Wells & The Aces - Live In Boston 1966

In the mid to late 1960s blues musicians hoping to appeal to a wider audience were starting to broaden the definition of their sound by incorporating elements of the more pop oriented funk, soul and R&B genres. Young, white, and predominately British, musicians had been mining blues back catalogues to churn out rock and roll hits since the the early part of the decade, with the result that the music's originators were far too often left out in the cold. While the home of electric urban blues, Chicago, was still home to clubs where the blues was welcomed and appreciated, players travelling outside that base faced a tough challenge finding audiences willing to listen to their music. It took a performer with a particular force of personality and presence to bring an audience out for a night of blues.

Junior Wells had been part of the blues scene in Chicago since the 1950s as both a solo performer and a member of Muddy Waters' band. In the 1960s he, like so many others, began to adopt elements of popular music and had some success with younger audiences. His 1965 recording Hoodoo Man Blues, was a surprise best selling album and its mixture of blues feelings and contemporary funk seemed to indicate that he was moving away from his roots permanently. Yet, the following year saw him going on tour backed up by the trio he had first gained renown with back in the 1950s, The Aces. Made up of the brothers Louis and Dave Myers, on guitar and and bass respectively, and Fred Below on drums, they were such an impressive trio that when famed blues singer and harmonica player Junior Walker was asked to name his favourite musicians from among those he'd worked with he simply named them.
Cover Junior Wells & The Aces Live In Boston '66.jpg
With Junior Wells being dead for around fifteen years now we're obviously never going to have the opportunity to seem him performing with the Aces in person. Thankfully, for anybody who has any appreciation for the blues, a recording of one of those gigs they played together back in 1966 has survived and is now being released on CD for the first time by Delmark Records. Live In Boston 1966 not only features some great music, it also includes much of Junior's in between song patter from that night, which goes a long way to showing why he was such a popular performer, no matter what music he was playing. Junior was not only a great singer and harmonica player, he was also one of the great characters of blues music, and this recording captures each of the aspects that made him great.

The nineteen tracks on this disc are divided between the songs Junior and the Aces performed that night and his free associations between songs. Some of them are just your standard type song introductions, but others are short stories intent on capturing the feel of an upcoming song. Junior's delivery makes it feel like he's sharing a joke personally with each member of the audience and if he occasionally makes fun of somebody during his spiel, you have the feeling that he's laughing at himself as much as anybody else. While he might sound something like a fox in a hen house, he's more interested in tickling ribs then going for the throat. However, while the intros are funny enough, what makes this disc really special is the music of course.

Junior Wells doesn't have the best voice you'll ever hear, nor was he the hottest harmonica player, but what he did have, and by the bucket load, was that certain something that grabs you by the throat and forces your to pay attention to him. Even listening to this close to forty year old recording you can feel the energy he's putting out on that stage in a Boston. In some ways it doesn't really matter what he was singing, but how. Listen to him sing and you'll notice that he occasionally slurs words so you can't understand the lyrics. Yet listen a second or two longer and you'll realize it doesn't matter whether or not every word is distinct because you understand what he's singing about.
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Somehow he's using his voice as a fifth instrument, an instrument that every so often spits out words that shape the emotion of whatever song is being sung and provide a framework on which to hang the music which carries the true message. When he's not singing his harmonica takes over and calls out its compliment to the vocals. His playing is as rough and ragged as his singing, but it articulates those words which we can never give voice to. Staccato trills mix with drawn out notes blown hard and fast, slow and mournful or high stepping and strutting. There's no need to ask after how the subject of the song is feeling because the combination of vocals and harmonica makes it crystal clear.

Some of the material will be familiar to listeners; "That's All Right", "Messin' With The Kid" and "Got My Mojo Workin'" for instance, but whether you know the songs or not you can't help but notice that Junior puts his own stamp on them. Some of them you'd swear that he's making things up as he goes along, or at least improvising new lyrics on the spot. Part of what makes this CD so much fun to listen to is that sense of somebody operating without a net at all times. In these days of carefully rehearsed shows with pre-recorded samples and tight arrangements, it's a real treat to hear something where you know there's some element of risk involved. It gives the music an edge and makes it all the more exciting - there's a sense of adventure we don't get to experience that often any more with popular music.
The Aces.jpg
Every so often Junior turns proceedings over to the Aces and we learn why these guys were held in such high esteem. For the first part of the proceedings they don't do anything that draws attention to themselves in particular. However, you can't help but notice how they are loose enough to follow Junior no mater what direction he chooses to go in and tight enough to never miss a beat or slide past a note. However it's when Junior cuts them loose for the instrumental "Hideaway" that you understand just how good these guys are. Having been forced to listen to power trios in rock and roll for so long I'd forgotten it was possible for there to be such a thing as subtlety associated with bass, guitar and drums.

Below and the Myers brothers give a clinic proving the old adage that less is genuinely more and that you don't need to play loud and louder to make your point. Below sets the tone by playing some of the smoothest fills I've heard outside of a jazz combo, in fact his playing is far closer to that of the great jazz drummers of his era than anything I've heard from a blues or rock player. Smart and clean fills circle around a song's tempo without ever once letting go of the rhythm. Dave Myers' bass follows suit with a lead that is somehow complex without being flashy and when his brother Louis joins in with his guitar, he matches his sound so closely that at first it's almost impossible to tell them apart. Only when the bass retreats somewhat do you realize a guitar solo is even being played. I was listening to them play for a while thinking there was something odd going on when I finally figured it out. They were soloing as a unit, not as individuals, and because of that there was a flow and a harmony I've never heard in a trio before.

Still, the concert is about Junior Wells, and no matter how good the Aces are, Junior is the one we're always pulled back to. All he has to do is step up the microphone and begin singing and it wouldn't matter if he were backed up by a hundred piece orchestra playing at full volume and he would capture our attention. He doesn't have to shout, scream or engage in any of the fancy theatrics others use for us to notice him. There aren't many performers who have the ability to reach out and grab an audience simply by walking on stage, and even fewer who can make their presence shine through on a CD. We're not going to be able to see Junior Wells perform in person ever again, but recordings like this one at least give us some indication of what it must have been like to catch him on stage. If like me you never had the opportunity to see him live, don't miss out on this chance at the next best thing.

(Article first published as Music Review: Junior Wells & The Aces - Live In Boston 1966 on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

Music Review: Mark Newman - Walls Of Jericho

It's a long walk to the centre stage microphone from either the right or left side of the stage where a band's lead guitarist usually hangs out. Oh sure it might not look like a great distance physically, but to make the trip from being a sideman to fronting a band involves much more than just taking a few steps in one direction or the other. Think of all those times you've been impressed by either a background singer or a lead guitarist in a group and then compare that with how many of them have ever gone on to have a really successful solo career. To be honest the only one who springs instantly to my mind is Ry Cooder. I can't begin to count the number of people who've made me think, "Wow I'd like to hear them do something solo", only to be disappointed by what they produce on their own.

There's a big difference between being a really good musician and being a front person for a band. He or she will be the focus of an audiences' attention no matter where they are standing or what they are doing while on stage. Even when the spotlight temporarily leaves them to focus on another's solo, it always seems like they are only lending the attention to the other and things only return to normal when the spotlight finds them again. Call it charisma, call it a certain je ne sais quois, call it whatever you like, but there just seem to certain people who are made to be in the spotlight and others who are destined to support them.

The first time I saw or heard Mark Newman was on a telecast of a concert given by the late Willy DeVille on his last European tour. Newman wasn't a regular member of DeVille's touring band and in fact had never played with them before. What impressed me the most about watching Newman was seeing how he didn't try to copy the work of the man he was replacing, but had the confidence in his own abilities to bring his own interpretations to the material. It's very difficult to parachute into a band and replace somebody who has played with them for years, but not only did Newman not look out of place, he brought a new flavour to familiar material while remaining true to DeVille's distinctive sound. DeVille must have been happy with him as well, because after his death his widow presented Newman with her husband's dobro.
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Aside from playing with DeVille and others over the years, Newman has also been forging his own solo career and his first release, Must Be A Poney, came out in 2006. Not having heard the previous CD I was intrigued enough by what I had seen him do in the telecast to check out his brand new release, Walls Of Jericho, and see if he was as capable a front man as he is a sideman. As ten of the twelve tracks on the disc are his own material it should provide a good indication of his ability to live in the spotlight rather than just sharing it for a few seconds a song.

For anyone who has seen Newman play guitar it should come as no surprise that right from the first track, "Until The Morning Comes", his playing is what grabs your attention. Yet it's not because he's doing any of the typical guitar hero stuff involving playing a million notes at high speed or tearing a hole through the middle of a song with any of the other pyrotechnics that seem to be the stock in trade of lead guitarists. Instead what you'll notice about his playing is its clarity of tone and how he has integrated it into the overall flow of each song. His songs aren't simply excuses for him to unleash blistering guitar solos or to show off in any manner, they are fully crafted pieces of work made up of more than just his own talents on stringed instruments.

I say stringed instruments because Newman is not only a highly skilled guitar player, but also shines on pedal steel, mandolin, and bass and slide guitars. No matter which of these instruments he happens to pick up he plays it with the same clarity of tone and restraint that was so appealing on the opening track. Of course there's more to songs and an album than just someone's ability to play their instrument; there's a couple of things called lyrics and vocals which go a long way towards making or breaking a tune. To be honest, Newman's vocal abilities don't jump out and strike you immediately as there's nothing that marks his voice as instantly distinctive. On the other hand he's not one of those people who initially impress you with some specific vocal quirk but who lose your attention after a song or two when you discover they have nothing else to offer, including sincerity.
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What you'll learn about Newman over the course of listening to the recording is that while there doesn't seem to be anything particularly remarkable about his voice, you can't ignore it. Like his guitar playing his vocals aren't about wowing you, but about being in service to the material. Whether he has a particular message he's trying to put across, like "Fire On The Water" and what it has to say about oil spills caused by the recklessness of oil companies, or is being a little more abstract as is the case with the haunting "White Bird", he doesn't have any trouble holding your attention. The only exception for me was the 7th track on the disc, "Vacation" and that was just a matter of personal taste as it wasn't the type of song I like. That's not to say it wasn't as well written and performed as the rest of the disc, it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Anyone who has heard Mark Newman play guitar, or any of the other instruments he is so highly proficient with, will be well aware of what a talented sideman he is. After listening to Walls Of Jericho you will see he's equally capable of taking the large step from the side of the stage to the centre. His abilities as a singer, songwriter and interpreter of other people's material, including a cover of his former band leader's, Willy DeVille, "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl", are such that he can more than hold his own in the bright glare of the spotlight. Even better is how he uses the light in order to serve the material and not his ego, sharing it with others, like his duet with Naomi Margolin on "White Bird", so that the listener is able to get the most out of a song as possible. Mark Newman may not be a name everybody recognizes as a band leader right now, but after listening to this album you can't help but think that will change in the not too distant future.

(Article first published as Music Review: Mark Newman - Walls Of Jericho on Blogcritics.)

September 2, 2010

DVD Review: Bob Brozman - Par Avion

The first time I heard Bob Brozman was a few years back and at the time I was amazed at his abilities as a blues guitarist and vocalist. Aside from John Hammond Jr. I'd not heard another contemporary musician performing solo acoustic blues and be able to hold my attention for not only the length of a CD, but a ninety minute concert on DVD as well. So I was really surprised when talking to the publicist who had supplied me with those discs that he wasn't considered to be primarily a blues performer. Here was a guy who sounded like he was burning a hole in the neck of his resonator guitar his slide was moving so slickly, and yet blues was only considered something he did on the side. How could that be possible?

Well it turns out that Brozman is one of the few people around who justly deserves to be described as a world music performer. Unlike the majority of people who happen to be given that label only because they were born in a non English speaking country, Brozman actually plays music from all over the world. If it can be played on a stringed instrument, seemingly any kind of stringed instrument, there's a damn good chance he's played it at some point in his career. From the islands of Hawaii, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, the Okinawa Islands, Papua New Guinea, India, France, to the blues of his native America Brozman has travelled the world for thirty years seeking out new music and new musicians to play with.

While there have been individual recordings made of most of these musical collaborations, for the first time music lovers have an opportunity to view clips of Brozman and those he's worked with in action. A new DVD, Par Avion, for sale only through his web site, is a montage of video clips, still photos and of course music, dating back to his early days as a street musician in the early 1970's. While age and dubious equipment means the quality of some of the clips aren't the highest, it doesn't prevent the DVD from being a incredibly fascinating document.
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The movie opens with a couple of stills showing Brozman from his street musician days when he was making his living by travelling around America busking for a living. From there we move to 1978 for some faded black and white footage from Boulder Creek California for two tunes, "Ukulele Spaghetti" and "Shake It And Break It". Even at this age we see Brozman is already a virtuoso on his beloved resonators as he rocks the house on both a ukulele and guitar version of the old metal instruments. Combined with a clip from a local San Francisco news show in 1984, on which he's seen playing "River Blues", these pieces of video give viewers an indication of just how good a player Brozman is. With a voice like Leon Redbone and a dexterity on the fret-board like no one else, it's obvious he could have easily been a huge success playing only the blues.

However, this is the man who once said in an interview, "If you're bored it usually means your boring", and he sure wasn't about to let himself be either. The next few clips are from 1986 in Kailua Kona Hawaii and feature Brozman playing Hawaiian pedal steel. This is a style of music that even then had long since gone out of fashion, and in an interview done at the time he admitted that when he played those types of events he was usually the youngest person performing as nobody else his age or younger seemed interested in the genre anymore. It turns out he learned how to play it listening to old 78 rpm records of Tau and Rose Moe, Hawaiian musical stars of the 1920s. Somehow or other Tau heard of Brozman and in 1988 invited him to their home in Oahu. The result was a recording of Hawaiian pedal steel and lap blues unlike any that had been released in decades.

While the video clips from the recording session are faded black and white and over exposed in places, the sound quality is still crisp and clean. However the best moments are footage of Tau and Brozman sitting together jamming on their lap slide guitars against the backdrop of the Pacific ocean and lush green of the Moe house grounds. This section of the film ends with a beautiful shot of the two men walking along the beach together with Tau telling Brozman how much they appreciate a young guy like him from the mainland helping keep their music alive.

We then continue to hop skip and jump around the world and through the years with Brozman to watch him play swing music for ballroom dancers in Vancouver British Columbia in 1992, give a brief introduction to resonator guitars for a Japanese Television documentary in '94, and then down to Santa Cruz California to play some intricate jazz/blues with Martin Simpson of England. The hectic pace continues onto Okinawa, Reuion Island, Papua New Guinea, peppered with occasional stops at music festivals in Quebec City in Canada where he's seen performing with his friends from around the world including Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Rene Lacaille and Granmoun Lene from Reunion, and Debashish and Subhashis Bhattacharya from India.
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From what I've described I'm sure Par Avion sounds a rather disjointed affair, jumping all over the place as it does. However, when putting the clips together editor Daniel Shane Thomas has taken the time to build in transitions which provide some on screen text background as to where we are going and who we are about to see perform. Of course the other connective devise is the movie's subject matter, Bob Brozman. You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm, and obvious love, for the music he's playing and this, more than anything else, that serves as the through line for the movie. Brozman is not your typical musical tourist, taking what he likes best of other people's music and incorporating into his own. Rather he's there to learn how to play the music of whatever region he's visiting, and then record it with the local musicians. Therefore, with each new place visited we learn a little more about the fascinating common language human beings from every part of the world share - music.

Bob Brozman lives for and loves music and he's chosen to share some of what he has loved most over the last thirty years with us through the DVD Par Avion. If you've never heard or seen him play before, you've missed out on a truly extraordinary individual and musician and should take this chance to get to know him. The disc is only available through his web site, but it's well worth your while to make that little extra effort to pick up a copy. You'll be introduced to a whole new world of music.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Par Avion on Blogcritics.)

July 14, 2010

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live

Periodically record labels will throw together greatest hit packages culled from the back catalogues of their biggest stars. Now a great deal of the time one is tempted to dismiss this type of thing as the cynical manoeuvring typical of the industry as they attempt to sell consumers the same product for a second time by merely putting it in a fresh wrapper. However, once in a while they do come up with a fresh idea and deliver something worth while. One such series that has all the appearances of being a good idea is the new Legacy Recordings Setlist collection. While they've still gone into their back catalogues for some of the material, some of the discs promise previously unreleased material, and all them promise an interesting collection of live performances.

If their intent with the series was to choose material that gave listeners a good general overview of a performer's range, than judging by the package they've put together for Johnny Cash, Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live they've done a remarkable job. For not only have they taken tracks from live performances Cash gave at various times and locations during his long and storied career, they've chosen songs that reflect the wide variety of styles and genres Cash played. Of course they're are a number of songs from his recordings at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, two of his most famous live recordings, but did you know he had also made a live recording in a prison in Sweden? I sure didn't know that, but there are two tracks on here from a recording made at Osteraker prison in October 1972. Hearing that familiar Cash voice speaking Swedish as he introduces "That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine" to his audience is almost worth the cost of the disc alone.
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To be honest, types of songs like the one above - sentimental country music - are the ones I liked the least among Cash's repertoire. However, stuff like "I Still Miss Someone", "I Got A Woman", and the medley of "Darlin' Companion/If I Were A Carpenter/Jackson" (from live shows at Madison Square Gardens, Folsom Prison, and Ryman Auditorium respectively) were, and still are, favourites for many. Omitting them would have given a false impression of his career and the music he played. I'm sure there are songs on this disc I like others won't appreciate, but that's part of what made Cash so special, his ability to appeal to so many different people. How many other performers do you know who have had tribute albums created for them by everybody from gospel groups to punk bands? Not many I'd bet.

Fittingly this collection begins and ends with tracks taken from recordings he made in prisons. Back in 1968 when Cash recorded Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison it was a risky thing to do as far as his career was concerned. Those were the days when prisons were places they sent people to forget about them, the idea of rehabilitation was even more of a joke then it is today, and playing for the inmates, aside from Salvation Army bands looking for converts on a Sunday, was unheard of, especially by pop stars of Cash's status. However, as he explains in "Man In Black", track three on this disc taken from a live recording made in 1971, Cash made a point of speaking for those who didn't have a voice. For all their supposed subversiveness and rebellious nature, there were very few rock and roll stars in the late 1960s who were prepared to climb out of their Rolls Royce and play for inmates. Cash not only talked about having a social conscience and caring, he walked that talk, and you can see proof of that in the number of concerts he gave in prisons, and not just in the US.

If there was any more proof required of just how much Cash was willing to risk to put his point across one only has to look at where and when track eight, "What Is Truth", was recorded. In 1970 Richard Nixon had been president for two years, was well on his way to escalating the war in Vietnam and one year away from ordering the National Guard from opening fire on University Student's at Ohio's Kent State Universtiy. The Republican establishment was not the place you were libel to find a sympathetic audience for a song about young people being justified in speaking out against being killed fighting wars overseas or that said they were a voice of truth. However that's exactly what Cash did when he sang that song at Nixon's White House in 1970. I have to wonder at the applause you hear when he finishes. I can just see Tricky Dick grimacing in the front row trying not to order the secret service to gun Cash down.
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No Cash collection would be complete without some gospel tunes, and thosee included on this collection come one right after the other; "Belshazzar" which was recorded at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 1969 and "Children Go Where I Send Thee" recorded in Denmark in 1971. The first is a real fire and brimstone number with deep roots in the Old Testament while the latter is an old spiritual of a much more joyful nature. The thing about Cash is that you never doubted his sincerity when he sang gospel, as he not only obviously believed in what he was singing about, but tried to live his life according to those beliefs. All you have to do is harken back to his declaration of intent in "Man In Black" and his performances in prisons if you require proof.

While some might be disappointed that "Ring Of Fire" didn't make it onto this collection, the last four songs on the disc should make up for its omission. "Wreck Of The Old 97", "I Walk The Line" and "Big River" from the recording at San Quentin Prison and "A Boy Named Sue" from the Swedish prison recording, round it out nicely. As with any live concert a performer can't play everybody's favourites, but Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live does a fine job of picking songs that reflect the many sides of Cash's musical personality. For those looking for either an introduction to, or a reminder of, Cash's great talent, you can't go wrong with this disc.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Setlist:The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live on Blogcritics.)

May 30, 2010

Music Review: John Prine - John Prine: In Person & On Stage

I can't remember the first time I saw John Prine performing live except it was sometime in the 1970's. It was either at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Islands or at Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus. Like all folk singers only part of the attraction of seeing him perform in person was the chance to hear favourite tunes being sung live as half the fun are the stories they have to tell between songs and their personalities. Let's face it you're not going to see a folk musician for the fancy high tech show they're going to put on. You want to share in an experience that only the combination of them and their music can create that never seems to be captured on a studio recording.

So I've always considered the idea of a live recording something of an oxymoron as far too few of them manage to recreate the feeling of being part of a community of people taking part in something special. No matter how much of the in between song chat or crowd noise that might be included you still feel like you're on the outside looking in cut off by a pane of glass or something similar. Now it's been a long time since I've listened to a live John Prine recording, mainly because the ones that I've heard before were disappointments for the reason described above, yet I decided to give it another try with the release of John Prine: In Person & On Stage on Prine's own Oh Boy Records label. Aside from the chance that this disc might bring him to life like previous ones hadn't, there was also the attraction that special guests were spotted throughout the disc helping out on old favourites.
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Maybe it's because recording technology has improved (or those involved paid attention to how Arlo Guthrie records his live albums) but from the opening track, "Spanish Pipedream", to the final cut, "Paradise", it's like having Prine and his various accompanists being invisible presences in your living room. I'm not sure how to describe it, but there's the rawness and immediacy that you'd expect from a live performance. Each of the instruments stand out in the mix in about the same way you'd expect them to if you were hearing them on stage instead of being artfully blended together as they are in a studio.

The songs themselves have been lifted from various performances over the past couple of years and represent an interesting cross section of his career including some favourites that he hasn't performed in a while like "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore". No matter what stage of his career the songs are from they each are performed with an enthusiasm that you only find in a live show when a performer is able to channel the energy generated by his audience back into his presentation. Normally I find audience noise included in live recordings to be self serving and boring, but in this case it's used sparingly and only serves to emphasize how well Prine has connected with them.

A couple of years ago Prine put out a recording called In Spite Of Ourselves which featured him singing with some of his favourite female singers. One of those was Iris DeMent with whom which he sang the title song of the disc. "In Spite Of Ourselves" was originally written at the request of Billy Bob Thornton to be played over the credits of a movie he and Prine were appearing called Daddy And Them and it was highly appropriate for the movie. However since not many people probably ever saw it, for as Prine mentions in his introduction it went straight to video, thankfully it also a hysterical song in its own right. Part of the reason the song works so well is Prine and DeMent sound like they were born to sing together, as is borne out again later in the disc with their version of Prine's "Unwed Fathers". Neither has what one would call a smooth voice, but it's the rough edges that make them interesting and that catch in the ear.
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While their voices might work together because of their similarities, sometimes opposites can make just as strong an impression. I've never heard Sara Watkins before, but she joins Prine for a beautiful rendition of one my favourite songs by him, "The Late John Garfield Blues". Not only does she supply some great vocals, she plays a lovely fiddle line in the middle of the tune which accents and highlights its emotional depth. A couple of tracks later Prine is joined by Emmylou Harris for a wonderful version of his "Angels From Montgomery". The contrast between his growled out lyrics and her delicate sound are a delight and give what's all ready a poignant song even more strength.

John Prine's music has never been what anyone would call structurally complicated. However its simplicity is what gives it strength because that allows his ideas and personality to shine through. While studio recordings have the capacity to reproduce a great deal of what makes him special, seeing him live has always revealed a little something more. Until now none of the live recordings I've heard have been able to bring the experience of a John Prine concert to life for people to enjoy at home. That's all changed with the release of John Prine: In Person & On Stage. For those of you have never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, or want to relive your memories of having seen him live, this is the best opportunity you'll have without actually attending a concert.

(Article first published as Music Review: John Prine - In Person & On Stage on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2009

Music Review: Various Performers - Nowhere Boy (Soundtrack)

Whenever I've interviewed a musician the topic of conversation invariably works its way round to the music that inspired and influenced the individual in question. While contemporary musicians have access to a far greater range of music simply because of the sheer volume of music that is now available through a variety of sources, earlier generations had to make do with either what they heard on the radio or by haunting record stores. In Great Britain of the 1950's and early 1960's that meant primarily tracking down recordings coming out of the United States by the likes of Eddie Cochrane, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and other popular musicians of the time or buying up blues albums in used record shops.

The early to mid- fifties in Britain saw a short-term outbreak of popularity for

Anyone even slightly familiar with popular music history knows that John Lennon began his musical career in a skiffle group called The Quarrymen, and how Paul McCartney and George Harrison joined the band setting the stage for the Beatles. A new movie, Nowhere Boy, being released in the United Kingdom on December 16th, has recreated those days in an attempt to tell the story of the young John Lennon and the first phase in the development of the Beatles. Coming out a week earlier then the movie Nowhere Boy, the soundtrack to the movie, is a two CD set, with the first disc containing music from the film and the second being music of a similar type as that used in the film. (The review copy I was sent only contained disc one so I'll not be commenting on the second disc). The soundtrack itself is a mixture of music Lennon would have been influenced by; songs by a band simply referred to as The Nowhere Boys playing the pieces performed in the movie by The Quarrymen; and two additional songs, "Mother" performed by John Lennon and "Hello Little Girl" sung by Aaron Johnson the actor playing Lennon in the movie.
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Depending on the movie a soundtrack can have multiple functions. In most cases though a soundtrack is composed to augment the story line by underscoring the action that's taking place on screen. In most instances this usually means the music helps develop the atmosphere of the scene, like the blatantly obvious swelling strings at times of heightened emotions. Some composers show a little more originality and create motifs or themes that represent the various characters and locales used during the movie and uses them to help establish each new scene. In the case of Nowhere Boy the soundtrack, as far as can be told with not seeing the movie, seems designed to both recreate the musical atmosphere of the times and to give the listener an indication which music influenced John Lennon's early creative development.

The first two songs on the soundtrack offer an example of the contrasts between the two types of popular music being played at the time. It opens with the original wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis, performing "Wild One", one of his typical fire ball rockabilly piano tunes, and is followed by an example of some of the sappiest pop music you'll hear, "Mr Sandman" performed by Dickie Valentine. Listening to these two songs you can hear immediately how the music of Lewis, Elvis, and other American rock and rollers would have appealed to young men and women who felt even the least bit rebellious.
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Aside from the rockabilly and rock and roll music Lennon would have listened to, the soundtrack also contains examples of the other big influence on British pop music, the blues. The fifth and sixth song on the disc are "Hard Headed Woman" performed by Wanda Jackson and "I Put A Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins respectively, and latter on they've also included Big Mama Thornton singing the original version of "Hound Dog". The unfortunate thing about the inclusion of these three songs on the disc is how poorly the rest of the music stacks up to them in comparison. Gene Vincent And The Blue Caps singing "Be-Bop-A-Lula" sound positively insipid following immediately after Thornton growling out her version of "Hound Dog" Whether intentional or not, what the producers of the disc have done by placing the songs in that order is show just how much the music had been watered down from the original blues that had inspired it. People might have disapproved of Elvis's pelvis and not allowed him to be filmed below the waist on The Ed Sullivan Show, but his version of "Hound Dog" became a hit, while I doubt Thornton's version was ever played on the radio in the 1950's.

The six songs on the disc played by the "Nowhere Boys", representing The Quarrymen, are very accurate recreations of the type of music this band would have played. You can also hear the beginnings of the sound - mainly in the vocal harmonies - that would become the hallmark of the Beatles in the early 1960's, a few years after the events depicted in this movie took place. Although I searched the movie's web site I couldn't find any information about the musicians who make up the "Nowhere Boys" save for the fact that they were specially formed for the movie to play the music of The Quarrymen. Perhaps their names wouldn't mean anything to anyone, but it still would be nice for them to get credit for their performances somewhere.

However, that's only a minor quibble, as overall the soundtrack CD from the movie Nowhere Boy gives you a really good idea of not only the music which inspired John Lennon and subsequently The Beatles, but supplies a very good overview of the musical atmosphere of the times. It not only depicts the difference between what had been popular before rock and roll came across the Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain from America and after, it shows how young British musicians took that music for their own and started to create their own sound. I don't know what kind of job the movie does in recreating John Lennon's life, but those responsible for the soundtrack have done a great job in bringing the music of the times to life. Listening to this CD you hear the sounds that continue to shape popular music to this day.

December 14, 2009

Music CD/DVD Review: Luther Allison - Songs From The Road

One of the biggest mysteries about the American music industry is why it took British musicians to popularize American music in North America. Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Animals all had success on the American pop charts not only by singing the blues, but by playing old blues music. The even larger irony is the large number of American blues musicians, predominantly African American, who have had to go to Europe in order for their music to be fully appreciated. In some cases that has meant successful tours, while for others it has meant signing with European based record companies.

At one point in time the issue of race was a factor as mainstream American radio stations refused to play the blues as performed by African American musicians. Elvis's version of "Hound Dog" might have been popular, but there wasn't much chance of ever hearing Big Momma Thornton singing it on the radio. There is definitely something wrong with a system that would rather broadcast Pat Boone covering Little Richard than playing the genuine article. Sad as that situation was in the late 1950's and early 1960's, it must have been even more disheartening for musicians to hear young guys from England coming over and having hits with songs they had written - and not being given credit for writing them, let alone ever receiving a cent in royalties.

Thankfully for American blues musicians, black and white, European audiences had a taste for the real thing. Not only did many of them, and many still do today, have successful careers over there, but quite a number of the European blues labels began distributing recordings in North America, and putting energy into developing audiences for the blues back in the land where it originated. One of the most successful of those has been the German label Ruf Records, formed by Thomas Ruf in 1994. He had left school in the 1980's when he became Luther Allison's promoter, and the label grew out of that relationship with Allison's 1994 recording Bad Love (released in the US by Alligator as Soul Fixin' Man) being their first title.
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Sadly, Allison died only three years later from lung cancer just as he was re-establishing himself in North America. In fact he was diagnosed while on tour and gave the last performance of his career on July 10th/97 in Madison Wisconsin, the day he had was given the bad news, and died that August. According to anyone who saw him perform, it was his live shows that made Allison special, and now thanks to Ruf Records and Canadian television we have one more opportunity to see and hear him performing in front of an audience. On that last tour of North America, his performance on July 4th at the Montreal Jazz Festival was recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). While the original concert was ninety minutes long, the video was edited down to fifty to fit into an hour time slot. However the complete audio track survives allowing fans at least the opportunity to hear the entire performance on the new two disc, CD/DVD set, Luther Alison: Songs From The Road.

The first thing you notice about the DVD segment of Songs From The Road is its high quality. It's been re-mastered for surround sound and the picture quality is excellent. The CBC had been recording live performances of music for decades by then, and that shows in the quality of the presentation. From the number of cameras used to the seamless editing job, they did everything possible to bring the performance to life for the audience at home. From tight shots of fingers on fret boards during leads, close ups of Allison's face as he's wringing every last drop of emotion from a lyric, to shooting through the band allowing us to see the audience on their feet and dancing, the DVD brings you as complete a concert experience as is possible on camera.

Of course, there's Luther himself. Now, while I've heard any number of his recordings dating back to his earlier years on through his career, I never had the opportunity to see him perform. Unlike some performers who run all over the stage or contort themselves while playing their leads yet still don't feel like they are giving off the energy to rival a fire-fly, Luther Allison standing still centre stage feels like he could power a small city. There was one moment when he let loose a lyric, half-way between a primal growl and singing, sounding like the words were being torn out of his soul, that set shivers running up and down my spine. At that instant he became a small sun around which everything else revolved, dependent on him for the energy required for life to exist.
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I knew a theatre director once who referred to rock and roll stars as the shaman of the modern world as they had the power to control tens of thousands of people during their concerts. To be honest with you I had never really bought into that line because to my mind the power we awarded those people never felt like it was as a result of their actions, but more because of their status as celebrities. However, when Allison sang that note, even though I was separated from that moment by twelve years and technology, there could be no denying the pull he exerted on me by whatever it was he was generating. You could almost hear the collective drawing in and holding of breath by the on screen audience as they too were captured, and then the explosion of its release in the form of cheers and applause.

Electric blues music has been around for decades, and quite frankly a lot of it has become cliched and boring. Somehow the music whose power and mystery so frightened radio programmers thirty years ago they refused to play it has been turned into something bland. The passion has been sucked out of it by performers who put themselves centre stage ahead of the music. Instead of being conduits for its power, they suck it dry to make themselves look impressive. Watching Luther Allison on Songs From The Road, giving the next to last performance of his life, is to understand what the blues are and to be reminded what makes them so special.

He didn't know it was one of the last times he would ever perform, but he played and sang like it was, because that's what he always did. For those of you, like me, who never had a chance to see Allison perform the CD/DVD two disc set Songs From The Road is a treasure you don't want to miss out on. One warning, after watching and listening to these two discs, you might start experiencing a great deal of dissatisfaction with what passes for blues these days.

December 11, 2009

Music DVD Review: Grayson Capps - Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso

Grayson Capps had really blown me away the first time I heard any of his music, and continued to do so with his most recent release, Rott 'N' Roll. Then in August of 2008 I had the chance to spend some time with Grayson on the phone for an interview and that only confirmed all the good opinions I had formed about him from listening to his music. You know how it is, sometimes a person might come across a certain way on record, but then when you talk to them you find out it was only artifice and they aren't anything like what you had heard. Well that's not the case with Grayson Capps, what you hear on the records is pretty much what you get when you talk to him.

A while back I came across a concert that he had recorded at the Paradiso club in Amsterdam that you could watch on line. I had like it so much that I had gone to the trouble to embed a link to it on the front page of my blog. Unfortunately I went back a short while ago and discovered the link no longer worked as the concert had been removed. Thankfully it turns out there was a good reason for it no longer being available on line, as Capps label, Hyena Records, has now released it on a new DVD, Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso

The concert was filmed in May of 2008, and features Capp playing solo and unplugged. Over the course of about one hundred and ten minutes he sings twenty-five songs and regales the audience with stories about people he's known and some of the places he's been. Some of his songs tell versions of the stories that's he's just told us, versions that take us inside the story so that instead of being an observer all of a sudden we're sitting in that bar with him and Bobby Long on a Saturday afternoon in Alabama ("The Love Song Of Bobby Long").
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Watching Grayson Capps perform is almost like attending an old fashioned revival meeting. He's a commanding presence on stage, and not just because he's a big man but because of the force of his personality. Whether he's telling a story, singing, reciting, or leading the audience in a sing a long, he exudes a life force that has to be seen to be believed. He sings with a voice that sounds like its been carved from the wood of a tree that's been around as long as the Tennessee Mountains he sings about in his song "Arrowhead". Yet for every rough hewn song about some strange and tragic character who has crossed his path, there's an equal number of songs that express his joy and wonder at the world.

You get the impression with Grayson there's always a great big laugh just waiting to burst out even when he's at his most serious. It's like he can be serious if he has to, and knows there are times when it's important, but there is so much about life to enjoy that he can't hold it in for very long. In the song "A Love Song For Bobby Long" he talks about a character who was a friend of his dad when Capps was a kid. At one point he compares Bobby to Zorba, the character played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Zorba The Greek, who teaches a young English school teacher how to enjoy life to its fullest. You get the feeling that Grayson received similar lessons and took them to heart as he pours all of himself into all of the songs he performs that evening on stage at the Paradiso.

The set list pretty much covers his entire career as a solo performer, with songs from all three of his recordings, plus a couple of covers including a version of the traditional Scottish ballad "Barbara Allen" and the Tom T. Hall song "Fox On The Run". He alternates between playing an old battered Gibson acoustic, and a wooden resonator for when he switches to playing slide guitar. Interestingly enough he doesn't use a pick-up on either instrument, so he stays seated for most of the concert in order to keep in range of the microphone. However, unlike a lot of folk who stay seated while playing, you never get bored watching Grayson. He's got to be one of the most animated people I've seen. Even when just playing an instrumental on his guitar his whole body is involved, from his toes tapping out the beat to his eyebrows furrowed in concentration as his fingers strum, slap, and pick at the strings or fly over the fret board.

After having listened to a few of Grayson Capps' discs and talking to him on the phone for about an hour or so, I'd thought I had begun to get to know a little about him and his music. However, watching him perform, and seeing how the music brings him to life and how he brings life to the music, I realized that to really appreciate Grayson Capps you have to see him. He is such an integral part of his music; his personality, his zest for life, and, most of all, his spirit, that just listening to his songs on the CDs you'll never fully experience him or his music.

Which means if you're like me and live in some small city where the chances of Grayson showing up to give a concert are minimal (people usually only stop in my town to give concerts because the wheels on their bus fall off while travelling between Toronto and Montreal) your best bet is to find a good recording of him in concert. Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso is a great recording. Excellent sound recording and expertly shot, there's an intimacy you'd very rarely feel even if you were at a concert in person, let alone watching one on DVD.

Perhaps part of that is Grayson Capps himself, as without trying he brings the audience into his world by breaking down the usual barrier that exists between him and them. How many performers do you know are going to bum cigarets from their audience during a show? You could almost believe you were sitting around on his back porch watching the sun set on the Tennessee hills around his home. If you've never heard Capps before this DVD is a great introduction to the man and his work. For the rest of us, its a chance to see him in doing what he does best. Entertain, enrich, and exhort those watching to appreciate the wonder of being alive.

November 5, 2009

Music Review: David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters (Featuring Taj Mahal) - The Devil Tried To Kill Me

If there is one genre of popular music that has managed to to both refrain from being co-opted by commercial and corporate interests yet still remain culturally significant, it would have to be jazz. Of course there have been moments when one performer or another has captured the public's imagination and the industry has tried to cash in by attempting to replicate that person's success with imitators, never meeting with anything but limited success.

One of the true glories of jazz is that it remains the purview of the individual, and you can no more recreate or imitate one person's music, to any degree of success, than could a dancer duplicate what another does exactly. Oh they might be able to follow the same steps, hold their arms in exactly the same manner, but they won't imbue it with the same spirit. The same spirit that made it so attractive to the audience in the first place. Like dance, the personality of the individual performing in jazz is what helps establish the connection between the performer and the audience. No matter how hard they try, record companies still haven't figured out how to mass produce individuals so they can cash in on his or her creativity.

Like so much of our popular music, jazz developed out of the music brought over to North America from Africa by those who were dragged into slavery. In the latter part of the 20th century, specifically the 1960's, jazz started to become an avenue through which many African American musicians began to explore their African heritage. Whether through improvisation around rhythms or collaborations with musicians with more direct ties to the continent, a real sense of who they are and where they came from has started to appear in the music of many of todays African American jazz players.
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Such is the case with the latest collaboration between David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters, The Devil Tried To Kill Me, on Justin Time Records. This is the third recording American Murray has made with this group of musicians from Guadeloupe. The tiny island nation is unique in that former slaves who inhabited the island rebelled and achieved independence 100 years before slavery was abolished in the United States. Although their state hood only lasted a decade, they were integrated into France after ten years, their history is unique among African Americans in the Western hemisphere. As Christian Laviso, guitar player on the disc puts it, "The Americans lost their drums...that is what they seek here, the rhythms and melodies of our ancestors"

Murray, (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Laviso, are joined by; Jaribu Shahid (bass), Renzel Merrit (drums), Klod Kiavue (Ka Drums), Francois Landrezeau (Ka Drums), Rasul Siddik (Trumpet), Herve Samb (guitar), and special guest vocalists Taj Mahal and Sista Kee. While the music on the disc has elements that will be familiar to anyone with jazz, there's also the distinct flavour of the Caribbean to it that gives it a texture I've not heard before. It's hard to describe as it doesn't come across as any particular sound or rhythm, but more like a sense of overall movement that is different from almost anything else I've come across in either jazz or music from the islands either.

All the tracks on the disc are original tunes with music by Murray, and lyrics for "Africa", and "The Devil Tried To Kill Me" by poet Ishmael Reed and "Southern Skis" by Grace Rutledge and Kito Gamble. There are two versions of both "Africa" and "Southern Skies" included on the disc, with the second ones being shorter versions edited for radio play. "Southern Skies" and "Africa" stand out in particular on the disc for their provocative lyrics. "Africa", which features Taj Mahal's growl, looks at the continent from the point of view of a person describing how they would provide care for it if they were a hospice worker and Africa were a patient in an infirmary. Aside from ensuring she has enough food and proper medical care, the hospice worker would also ensure that Africa's bed pan was emptied, her sheets would be changed regularly and her body washed carefully to make sure there was no chance of bed sores.
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It's hard to figure whether Reed who wrote "Africa" sees the continent as being that sick, is commenting on the neglect and lack of care shown her by the rest of the world, or is describing the depth of his love for her - or even a little bit of all the above. "Southern Skies" on the other hand is more direct in its statement as it is a lament for the ill treatment of African American women at the hands of men. Sista Kee and Taj Mahal share the vocals on this song, with both of them delivering the solid message that things have to change: "Southern sky is cryin cause she/Still payin dues".

As leader of the band you'd expect David Murray to be front and centre on most of the material, and while he delivers some great solos with his tenor saxophone, there's a wonderful point on the opening track "Kiama Fro Obama", where he takes flight, his priority is obviously the integration of the two different styles of music. Even the solo on track one is built up to gradually over the course of the tune until it finally rises up almost of its own volition - as if the saxophone was some mysterious tropical bird bursting out of its lush jungle background. The other occasion I noticed Murray's playing in particular was on track six ""Canto Oneguine", taken from an opera about the Russian author Pushkin - who was of Cameroonian descent - which Murray wrote the music for.

Bass clarinet is not the most common of instruments, so for a second I was slightly puzzled as to what could be making one of the most soulful sounds I've heard from a woodwind before. Like a rich baritone voice, its sound was like a balm to the ears as it literally caresses them with its playing. Even when Murray gradually climbed the scale there was an elegance to the sound I've never associated with a clarinet. Usually there is something very aggressive and strident about the instrument that pushes it into the forefront whether its meant to be there or not. In this case, however, it blended itself in with the other instruments as a compliment to the overall sound of the piece.

The Devil Tried To Kill Me is an example of how fiercely independent jazz is, and the benefits that we listeners derive from the fact that the music industry hasn't figured out how to control it yet. The combination of different styles of music contained within the eight tracks of the disc is not something you're liable to find on recordings of any type aside from jazz. The playing, and singing, from all involved is exemplary, with Murray's saxophone and bass clarinet leading from within instead of dragging everyone behind him. American and Caribbean music come together on this disc to create a sound as distinct as their individual parts, as unified as their common ancestry, and a genuine pleasure to listen to.

November 1, 2009

Music Review: Hank Williams -Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings

Once upon a time there was no such thing as cable, satellites, or the Internet - not even dial up let alone DSL. In those days televisions and radio stations relied on individuals owning antennas on their houses that would reach up into the sky and pick off signals as they'd pass by. Thirty years ago I still used to be able to lay in bed on cold clear night in Toronto Ontario and pick up radio stations in Chicago and Detroit that managed to punch through the crisp air with blues and R&B we never heard up north.

Now a days you can't turn a radio dial without hitting noise of some sort at every point on either the FM or the AM band. Yet at one time there used to be such a thing as dead air on the radio - when all there would be is silence. In rural communities in the States, especially in the South, a housewife's day would be well underway before the first programming of the day started up. At around 7:00 am every morning with the husband headed out the door to start work on the back forty, or tending the livestock in the barns, and the kids off to school, she'd be over the sink up to her elbows in soap suds when the voice of Cousin Louis Buck would come over the radio. That was the signal for the start of fifteen minutes of Hank Williams on Nashville's WSM radio station - home station of the Grand Ole Oprey - brought to her by Mother's Best flour and feed.

In 1951 when Hank Williams wasn't on the road, and had a spare moment or two, he'd be in a studio in Nashville pre-recording fifteen minute morning shows that would be broadcast Monday to Friday across the South. Seventy-two of these tapes have managed to survive over the years and Time Life is now ready to release its second set of recordings culled from these shows. Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings will go on sale as a three disc set on Tuesday November 3rd/09, while individual discs from the set are being released as independent recordings at selected retailers in the United States.
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The three discs each represent a different facet of Hank's character and his music. Disc one are his hits; "Cold, Cold Heart", "Move It On Over", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", and many more old favourites. Disc two is called "Southern Harmony", but it could just as easily been called Old Time Gospel, as its an entire side of old gospel tunes, with some having roots as old as 17th century England. The final disc is a collection of homilies and stories that Hank recorded under the name of Luke The Drifter. Either spoken word or recited verses, to our ears they might come across as being corny and hackneyed, but they were aimed at his unsophisticated and very religious audience of farmers and their wives who would have appreciated the story's simple axioms.

Each of the discs not only contains a collection of material taken from various broadcasts, but includes as an added bonus a complete Mother's Best broadcast built around the disc's theme. Regardless of whether or not he's doing a gospel show, telling tales, or singing some of his hits, each of Hank's shows start off with him and the boys doing the opening of "Lovesick Blues" from which he segues into introducing the show, its sponsor, and its host, Cousin Louis Buck. There's only enough time for a couple of tunes as well as fitting in the necessary mentions of Mother's Best Flour And Feed in the fifteen minutes allotted for each show, but Hank and the Drifting Cowboys deliver the goods each time. It might sound funny to us selling house wives flour for baking and feed for their livestock all at once, but the majority of the show's audiences are going to be a farmer's wife who not only has to feed her family, but think about the care of the livestock as well.

The real treat about these recordings, especially disc one, is that you get to here Hank completely relaxed. Some of the songs he's not performed outside of the recording studio before, and he and the guys are just winging it, with Hank calling out the solos for each member of the band as their turns come up. "Cold, Cold Heart" for instance was only released on record in February 1951, while the recording for the show it was featured in was probably made in January of that year. This means that Hank and the boys hadn't played it outside of the recording studio before this, and you can hear in his delivery just how fresh the tune still is for him.
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The same relaxed atmosphere permeates all three discs, with the boys in The Drifting Cowboys, making interjections between the songs, and Hank and "Cousin" Louis trading banter and conversation throughout. Although I can't agree with their comments about the beauty of the gospel tunes, some of them with their talk of Christ's bleeding wounds while on the cross, "How Can You Refuse Him Now", made my blood run a bit cold. However it gives you a look into some of the darker recesses of William's brain where guilt and fear sit holding hands. "At The Cross", the ninth song on the disc, shows how deep the roots of Southern Christianity go, as its a reworking of a 17th century Passion hymn, "Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed" by English churchman Isaac Watts. The Puritan themes of blood and suffering run throughout most of these songs, and in Hank's performances we can see the roots of today's Christian conservative movement.

The final disc contains the work of Luke The Drifter, the pseudonym that Hank's record label, MGM, forced him to use to record collections of his spoken word pieces. While they're not quite as bad as the gospel tunes when it comes to their subject matter, to our ears they're not exactly heartening or inspiring. Ironically most of the advice Luke The Drifter dispensed Hank himself ignored. Like his gospel music, I think these pieces represented his yearning to be something other than who he was, and signified some of the guilt he felt about his lifestyle. Remember by this time he was living on pain medication and booze because of deterioration to his spinal column. At one point on the second disc you can hear him mention about having to sit down in order to sing, and there are times throughout all three discs when the pain you hear in his voice has nothing to do with the song he's singing.

The series of radio shows Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings was drawn from recordings made in the last year of Williams' life. They were a friendly voice to lonely housewives across the South on many a morning. When your closest neighbour is miles away, and your life doesn't extend much beyond the confines of your house and church, hearing Hank Williams' voice weekday mornings was one of the only things you had to remind you that a bigger world existed beyond your yard and kitchen.

Listening to Williams on these discs you get the feeling that he understands exactly what and who he represents to his listeners as he tries to entertain and inspire where he can. We may not be able to relate to some of the material he sings, but that in no way stops us from appreciating what he's doing. These recordings are close to the last stuff that Hank ever put down on tape, and they're a fitting testimony to what makes him such a beloved figure in the annals of music.

October 28, 2009

Music Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama (And Friends) - Duets

I'm not a religious person, but I've always understood how a person's faith can inspire them to produce great art. One only needs look at the religious paintings produced throughout the centuries by artists of all faiths for proof of just how many have looked to the divine as their muse. However, no matter how beautiful a painting or inspiring a sculpture might be, it never seems to be able to match the way music is able to communicate an artist's beliefs. Perhaps it's because we experience music on a much more visceral level than the visual arts, its a living, breathing, thing after all while the visual arts are static, its able to elicit the greater emotional reaction. As a test, compare the way you feel while listening to Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" from his Ninth Symphony to the way you react while looking at pictures of Micelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel, there's sure to be quite a difference.

Even non-religious people like me can't be failed to move while listening to faith based music. As I have the same reaction listening to traditional Sufi poetry from the middle ages as I do listening to European classical work, Native American pow-wow singers, and Jewish cantors, in my case it has nothing to do with being moved by the power of the message that the artist is delivering, but the way in which they are making the delivery. While there are some, there aren't many contemporary musicians who are able to bring that level of passion to their music.

So when I learned that the gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama were releasing a collection of recordings they had made with contemporary musicians, I was intrigued. What kind of impact would playing with a gospel group, singing gospel songs, have on popular musicians? Would they be able to rise to the occasion, or would the music sound forced, or, even worse, insincere? I don't know if it's the power of the music, the passion of The Blind Boys, the talent of the performers who have joined them, or a combination of all of the above, but each of the fourteen tracks on the CD Duets, on Saguaro Road Records is not only a pleasure to listen to, but far more sincere than just about anything you're liable to hear on pop radio these days.
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Now, on the whole the performers who join The Blind Boys on this disc are pretty much the type you'd expect to have the ability to make a success of playing gospel music. However there are a couple of real surprises on this disc, performers who I know I considered the least likely ever to perform a gospel tune. I mean it's no surprise to hear blues players like Charlie Musselwhite ("I Had Trouble"), Bonnie Raitt ("When The Spell Is Broken"), Susan Tedeschi ("Magnificent Sanctuary Band"), and John Hammond ("One Kind Favour") sound just as at home singing gospel tunes as they do their normal fare. Blues, especially traditional acoustic blues, is only a small step removed from the church in the first place. When performed by players as steeped in the blues and its history as those four are, who feel each and every note they play or sing as if its being wrung from their hearts, that step is almost non-existent.

Although country gospel doesn't normally move me in the same way as other forms, there's no denying the relationship between the two genres either. So folk like Randy Travis and bands like Asleep At The Wheel ("The Devil Ain't Lazy"), are just as at home playing gospel tunes as blues players. Of all the mainstream country singers that sprung up in the 1980's, Travis was one of the few whose sincerity you could never question. Maybe it was just because his voice poured out like molasses, but it always sounded like he was singing directly from his heart. So there's no real surprise that his contribution ("Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)") is just as impressive as anyone else.

Although Ben Harper is best known for his rock playing, anybody who saw his contribution to the benefit for New Orleans, From The Big Apple To The Big Easy, a few years back won't be surprised at his soulful performance of "Take My Hand". There will be a similar lack of surprise I'm sure that both Marva Wright ("How I Got Over") and Solomon Burke ("None Of Us Are Free") do equally magnificent jobs on their contributions. However there were two names in the credits that might raise some eyebrows. Both are men whose work I admire, but who I really never would have associated with gospel music: Lou Reed and Toots Hibbert.
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Toots Hibbert, lead singer of Toots And The Maytals, first came to international attention with the song "Sweet And Dandy" when it was included in the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff. Hibbert's long association with reggae, his 1968 recording "Do The Reggay" is credited with being the originator of the genre's name, makes him seem an unlikely candidate for singing gospel. However listening to him singing "Perfect Peace" along with the Blind Boys, reminds you that reggae was more than just another form of pop music. It too was born out of the passion of belief, either for the Rastafarian faith or for the fight for civil rights in Jamaica. His voice cracks with soulful energy and you can't help but feel his passion for the material.

However hard it might be to picture the man who gave the world "Walk On The Wild Side", "Heroin", "Sweet Jane", and other classics of the seamier side of life in New York City, signing a tune called "Jesus", it's a far better fit than you'd expect. His almost matter of fact delivery when he sings has always belied the passion in his music and that swirls beneath the cool exterior of his stage persona. You can't sing about AIDS ("Halloween Parade") or any of the other social and political issues Reed has tackled in recent years with the amount of intensity he's shown without there being a well of passion to draw upon. Don't look for any histrionics, or anything else out of character for him in his performance of "Jesus", but listen to the subtle changes in his voice and you'll hear the depths beneath that still exterior.

While the performances on Duets are uniformly excellent, even better is the fact that the songs included in the collection aren't the typical ones you'd expect to hear under the circumstances. To be honest I don't remember hearing any of them before. Perhaps to people more familiar with gospel music than me these titles are well known, but I was pleased to be hearing material that was new to me. While the majority of the performances on this disc are much like you'd expect, there are also a couple of excellent surprises as well. It just goes to prove that passion comes in all shapes and forms, but it ends up sounding just about the same no matter what fuels it. This is great music sung by great performers, what more could you want.

October 14, 2009

Music Review: Victor Wainwright And The WildRoots - From Beale Street To The Bayou

There's a tendency these days to forget that rock and roll music can be fun and doesn't have to be about "serious" matters. Us critics can be the worst for that with our penchant for doing in depth analysis of lyrics and looking for hidden meanings under every bass line and chord progression. I dread to think how much all that is us trying to make our subject sound more important then it really is to inflate our own importance. I mean we're not taking about high art here folks, we're talking about down and dirty rock and roll - stuff that smells of sweat, cigarette smoke, and whisky.

All we have to do is think back to the early days of the music and lyrics like "Be bop be lula", "Whole lotta shakin' going on", or "Tutti Frutti - all rutti" to remember it was fun and nonsense first and foremost. Of course that made it dangerous to the establishment because it encouraged abandonment and frivolous behaviour, although I'm sure most people's objections to it in the 1950's was the sexual innuendo inherent in its name. Anyway, it's always good to be reminded that rock and roll is fun and doesn't need any other justification for its existence than to ensure that we'll have a good time listening to it.

Victor Wainwright And The WildRoots' new release, Beale Street To The Bayou, is just such a creature, as the fourteen tracks on the disc capture that spirit of abandonment and fun quite unlike other recordings that I've heard in a while. Not only that, they don't just stick to playing one style of rock and roll either, for as the title suggests they've latched on to various inspirations for these songs. One song might have some gospel flavour, while another you can hear rock and roll's country roots shining through, and yet another smacks strongly of the Mississippi Delta. What's even better is that none of the songs sound like any of those influences were pre-meditated. If there's a gospel flavour to a tune its only because that's what worked with the lyrics, not because somebody said we should write a gospel tune.
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What's great about this band is not only are they completely comfortable playing any of the styles above, but they do so without making any sort of big deal out of it. They play this music because they enjoy and love doing so and its bloody obvious when you listen to them. While the core of the group is composed of only four members; Victor Wainwright (Vocals, keyboards, harmonica), Stephen Dees (Bass, acoustic and electric guitars, vocals, and percussion), Greg Gumpel (Lead guitar, mandolin, and banjo), and Brian Kelly on drums, they not only extend the line up to include a couple of saxophones and extra percussion on a couple of tracks, they haul in a whole bunch of special guests to fill out the sound on individual tracks with everything from trombones to cellos.

One of the great things musically about these guys is how they are able to sound loose in their playing while being really tight. It feels like at any minute the music could disintegrate into a mishmash of sound, but the reality is everything is played for a reason and every note is in the exact right place all the way through. Dees, who used to play extensively with Pat Travers, appears to be the musical director of the band as he's either written or had a hand in the writing of the fourteen original tunes on the disc. It's also his responsibility, along with drummer Gumpel as the bass player on most tracks, to hold the band together no matter what song they are playing. His bass is not only the heart beating at the centre of each track, its also the pulse the band adheres to that ensures they stay on track and never lose sight of what they're playing.

If Dees is the glue holding the band together, Victor Wainwright is the ball of energy that threatens to periodically send them off into orbit. As keyboardist and lead vocalist he's the voice of the band, and he loves to sink his teeth into anything he sings. He throws everything he's got into every song in terms of passion and enthusiasm. Now that doesn't mean he goes over the top, or sound like he's too much on a softer number, as he always manages to never cross the line into excess. He's also got one of those great rock and roll and voices that sound like its been soaked in whisky since birth and then hung out to dry in a smoke filled room every night. Rough as it is though he is surprisingly versatile and his range is much greater than you'd expect.
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While it might sound like an odd thing to say, but the fact that I hardly noticed guitar player Gumpel's contribution is probably one of the best compliments I can give him. That means his guitar playing is exemplary as far as I'm concerned as he never once puts himself above the needs of the song or the band. It doesn't mean he never takes a solo, or that his solos aren't really good, but he makes sure that its never just about him, but about how he can serve the song with his leads. He also does some really wonderful banjo and mandolin work, something not all guitar players can handle. As for the fourth member of the band, drummer Brian Kelly, there's a real case of not noticing him because he's done his job so well. I mean lets be real, the only time most of us notice a drummer - unless he does one of those really boring drum solos I've learned to dread since the 1970's - is when they screw up. Kelly is back there on the drums for the whole disc keeping them steady and helping Dees hold it all together.

While The WildRoots are primarily a good time, boogie-woogie band who would sound right at home being the house band for a bordello - and I mean that as a compliment - they do have their surprises as well. The second song of the disc, "Planet Earth", is a beautiful gospel tinged number reminding us that we'd better take care of where we're living or we might just find ourselves homeless in the middle of the solar system. However, what really distinguishes these guys in my eyes from so much of what I've been listening to recently is they are having so much fun doing what they do that you can't help get caught up in it. For those of you who miss the days when rock and roll was about having a good time, or have never really known what's it like to simply enjoy music, this CD is a timely reminder of just how much fun there can be had listening to rock and roll.

October 8, 2009

Music Review: Zora Young - The French Connection

The human voice has the potential to be one of the most expressive musical instruments around. Yet you couldn't tell that by listening to the majority of women on the pop charts these days. Sometimes it seems like they're equally divided between those sounding like squeaky dolls and those who equate volume with emotion. It certainly makes you wonder what's going through the minds of those behind the scenes in the pop music industry that would inspire them to keep foisting one or the other on us year after year.

It's especially galling putting up with either of this type when you know there are singers like Zora Young out there who sings circles around anybody you hear on radio today. Nominally a blues singer, one only need listen to Young's newest release, The French Connection, on to hear not only how good she is, but how her talent extends far beyond the one genre. The fourteen tracks on Young's latest recording range from a cover of a Dylan tune to her renditions of classic blues songs and everything in between.

As for the disc's title, it was recorded entirely in France with Zora being accompanied by a band made up of the creme de la creme of French blues musicians. African American musicians have been migrating to Europe and France since the 1920's when they formed the jazz bands that played in clubs throughout Paris. For blues musicians in the 1950's and 1960's not only did Europe mean an appreciative audience, it also meant the opportunity to be in a non-segregated society and allowed them to be free from a great deal of the racism they faced back home. Some of them were so enamoured of the change that they took up permanent residence in the countries which treated them the best, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
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So when Young first started touring France in 1981 she found an audience who was not only appreciative of her talents, but who were far more knowledgeable about her music than the average North American crowd. As a result she's toured France twenty times, and, unlike in North America where she;s a virtual unknown, she's widely known and treated with the respect she deserves. Therefore, while it might seem odd to us that a blues singer from Chicago would chose to record a CD in France with French musicians, for Zora Young it makes perfect sense.

For The French Connection her regular pianist, Bobby Dirninger, put together three different bands to play behind Young; one for the five live tracks included on the disc, an acoustic band, and a second electric band for studio work. The result is three separate sounds to showcase Young's vocals and the variety of styles that she sings in. However, while all three bands are equally skilled and provide the appropriate environments for her signing, I don't think it would matter who accompanied Zora Young and you'd still be blown away by her singing.

It's not just a matter of her having a strong enough voice to handle belting out electric blues on par with anybody else out there, as there are any number of vocalists with power to burn. No, what really distinguishes her from the pack is what she can do when she turns down the voltage. There are two songs on this disc which show off this aspect of her voice, her cover of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" and her rendition of the traditional gospel tune, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee". From the moment she begins singing "Tonight" her voice captured my attention and I couldn't ignore it if I tried. The strength of emotion you could hear in her voice as she bares her heart to the person the song is addressed to sends shivers down your spine it's so potent. She actually recorded the song as a duet with Dirninger, and while he can't match her for intensity, having him as focal point for her words makes them all the more poignant.

In some ways "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" is as much a declaration of love for another as the Dylan tune is, and Young is able to convey that love with every word she sings. The Sufi poets and songwriters of the middle ages used to write love songs to the divine in much the same manner as they would write ones expressing mortal love. Love was love as far as they were concerned and whether you were talking about your love for a woman or your love for the creator it didn't really matter. Young has captured that sense in her rendition of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" as the impression you are left with after she's finished singing is how genuine her love for her God really is. She's not trying to impress us with how religious she is or anything like that, she's singing to express the love she feels in her heart for her creator, and its beautiful.
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There was one song on this disc that I must confess I was dreading having to hear, the old Mac Davis, Elvis Presly chestnut "In The Ghetto". Maybe it was the thought of a guy who epitomized conspicuous consumption like Elvis did that made him singing about the life of inner city black people in the US nauseating, maybe it was the maudlin lyrics, or perhaps a combination of the two, but I've always hated that song. Zora Young hasn't re-written the lyrics, so it's still a little much, but she is at least able to bring genuine understanding and compassion into play when she sings it. It's a reflection of just how talented she is that she's able to make this piece of dreck almost bearable, and if you just listen to the sound of her voice and ignore the lyrics, its even better.

Other highlights of this disc are her wonderful renditions of the Muddy Waters tune "Honey Bee" and a great version of the old classic "Mystery Train". What impressed me the most about both those tunes is how she makes them her own and doesn't try to simply imitate the originals, and not just because she's a woman singing songs that were originally composed for men to sing, but because she does that with ever song she sings, and makes them all her own.

Zora Young is a great vocalist who reminds you of just how pathetic the majority of today's female pop vocalists really are. This is a woman who's voice can fill an auditorium, but at the same time she can whisper so soulfully that you'll stop everything you're doing in order to listen to her. Now that's what I call singing the blues.

October 5, 2009

Music review: Quintus McCormick - Hey Jodie

If you go back and listen to some of the great rhythm and blues (R&B) singers from the sixties and compare them to what's called R&B today, with very few exceptions, you can't help notice how the genre has lost touch with the blues segment of its name. In fact you'd be hard pressed to find anything even resembling something that passes for rhythm in most of the dreck they try to pass off as R&B. I have no idea what happened, but what used to be the music Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye burnt the house down with is now mainly associated with adult easy listening stations.

R&B was always a more polished and refined take on the blues with some of the rougher edges smoothed out. However it still used to be able to get people out of their seats and dancing and tug at your heart strings. Disco has a lot to answer for, but I think the worst casualty of that era was what happened to soul and R&B music. If there were ever a couple of genres that needed a heart transplant it's these two as they've been on life support for the last couple of decades and in desperate need of some sort of resuscitation. While it still might be too early to take R&B off the critical list, there's at least a sign that somebody is willing to attempt to give it the transfusion it needs to stabilize its vital signs.

When Quintus McCormick started playing guitar he wasn't particularly interested in the blues. It wasn't until he left his native Detroit and came to Chicago that he found his way into the blues. Even then it was only by accident, as he was taking gigs playing guitar to help pay for his schooling, he has a bachelor's degree in music from Columbia College in Chicago, and it wasn't until he was doing a stint with Chi-Town Hustlers in 1990 that he and the blues found each other. From there he took gigs as a sideman for the likes of James Cotton that took him deeper into the blues. However, you don't need to be told any of this to know that he's tapped into the heartbeat of the blues, all you have to do is give a listen to his new release, Hey Jodie! on Delmark Records to know that he might have started late with the blues, but he's sure made up for lost time.
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So, okay you say, what's any of this have to do with R&B? Well, the very first song on the disc, the title track "Hey Jodie" (a Jodie is defined on the cover as a noun meaning a back door lover), is one of those sweetly aching R&B songs that I thought had ceased to exist some thirty years ago. To be perfectly honest I wasn't expecting anything of the sort when I put the disc on so I was somewhat taken aback and not able to appreciate what it was I was listening to on the first go round. It was only after a second listen that I caught how McCormick and the rest of his band have infused the song with all the subtle nuances that are the hallmarks of great R&B tunes.

First of all the music has a gentle flow that carries the lyrics like a boat on smooth waters running before a gentle breeze. However, where most of the modern versions of R&B don't go beyond that, McCormick injects an extra little bit of chop into the song, giving it an emotional edge and making it interesting to listen to. What really impressed me about "Hey Jodie", and the other soul/R&B type songs on the disc, is although they are all tightly scored and arranged, they are also played with an amazing amount of emotion. While most players seem to rely on improvisation to allow them to get in touch with the emotional content of a song, McCormick has been able to write it into the music. All the various players have to do is open themselves up to the music, let it speak through their instruments, and it comes through loud and clear to the listener.

Of course there are also some really great blues numbers on this disc as well, and McCormick proves that he's no slouch in that department too. His doesn't go in for the big flashy solos of some of his contemporaries, but that doesn't stop him from being any less potent or effective a guitar player. His credo seems to be the song takes priority over individual players in the band, whether its him or anybody else. As a result there is nothing distracting the listener from appreciating the songs as an entity instead of their various parts. You might not remember any specific solos from any one song, but you will remember the songs.
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McCormick's vocals walk the fine line between sweet and soulful with great skill. He sings primarily in a soft tenor, that could easily fall over the line into sweet and ruin his material. However he has just enough of an edge to his voice on the softer songs to give them the emotional honesty required to keep you believing in his sincerity. At the same time when he sings one of his tougher blues numbers he not only has the grit to make them work, he retains enough plaintive soulfulness that the songs aren't quite as harsh as the blues normally are. Therefore, when he sings about a woman treating him wrong, the accusatory tone you'd normally find in a blues tune is replaced by feelings of regret and genuine sadness.

Hey Jodie has to be one of the most diversified blues recordings I've heard in a long time. Musically McCormick has pushed and expanded the genre in such a way that it allows the listener to appreciate just how flexible ite can be. Far too often musicians get stuck in playing the same formulae over and over again, but McCormick has taken the basic building blocks of blues and broadened its horizons. Oh its still the blues all right, there's just more to it in his hands than you'd normally find with most people. It's like he's filled in the empty spaces that are normally left in a blues song and in the process has given it more emotional depth. If he's managed to inject the blues, which have been too long absent, back into R&B, he's also added a little extra rhythm and soul into the blues to build up its sound as well.

While one person probably can't save a genre on his own, Quintus McCormick and his band have at least given people a great example of what R&B can sound like. If you've been missing the blues of rhythm and blues as much as I have, than you should take as much pleasure in this album as I did. Here's hoping a lot of others are listening and learning.

September 11, 2009

Music Review: Harry Manx - Bread And Buddha

There's always been a fine line between what's interesting and what's tedious when it comes to acoustic music. For while some performers seem to have the knack for imbuing a song with the heart or soul necessary for bringing it to life, others can sing the exact same song and it will just lay there like a wet dish rag. It doesn't even seem to matter how skilled or unskilled the performer is either, for their fingers could skip and skim over the fret board of their chosen instrument and sing with the voice of the angels, and still bore you to tears. Yet the person whose voice sounds like gravel and who can only strum the few basic chords making up the bare bones of a tune, can break your heart or bring a smile to your face that will light up the darkest night.

People who have listened to folk music, acoustic blues. or country for any length of time will be familiar with this phenomenon as they have will undoubtedly heard plenty of examples of each over the years. While undoubtedly a listener's individual tastes and preferences in music have hand in deciding whether a song has emotional depth or not, the musicians can't escape being responsible for the quality of their music. Perhaps the most disappointing are those who you start off liking because what they do is interesting enough to hold your attention. However, over the course of a few CDs their music doesn't seem to change, or the novelty of their style begins to wear thin, and you begin to notice deficiencies in their sound.

About five years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the music of Harry Manx, who played an interesting mixture of Western and Indian music. He had studied for twelve years under an Indian master on an instrument known as the Mohan Veena. Shaped like an oversized guitar and equipped with an additional set of "sympathetic" strings that give its sound a quality similar to a sitar, its played in the same manner as a lap slide instrument. Taking advantage of these properties, Manx has married traditional Delta blues with the sound of India. While one can't help but admire the skill that's gone into playing and creating the music, and there is something undeniably captivating about the elegant, almost ethereal, sound he can produce at times, after listening to his forthcoming release, Bread And Buddha, coming out on September 15th on his Dog My Cat Records label, I can't help but feeling there's something missing in his music.
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Don't get me wrong, the music is still expertly played as Manx is as skilled as ever and those who are accompanying him are equally adept. However, there's also been no change in what's being presented either, and after four CDs of hearing elegantly played blues and acoustic music, I find myself wishing for a little more rawness, or a hiccough of some sort or another to break the monotony. I like my blues music, and my country, to be a whole lot rawer and earthier than Manx seems willing to play. The lack of emotion and passion, that to me are the hallmark of those genres, can only be ignored for so long before the music starts to wear thin.

With its complicated, intricate, and intertwining rhythms, and the way it piles layer upon layer of themes on top of each other, Manx's style is ideally suited to classic Indian ragas. There the musician almost approaches his subject sideways, gradually building the picture he or she is trying to create until the audience can feel it on many levels. However the music he is playing on this disc, and his other releases, needs a more direct approach and requires a performer to commit him or herself to a song immediately. Whether it's the vocals or the instruments, the audience has to believe the performer right from the outset for the songs to have the emotional impact they require to be effective, and that's not happening on this disc.

It's especially obvious on his cover of the song "Long Black Veil". An old melodramatic, tear jerker of a country song, it tells the story of a guy who let's himself be hung instead of admitting he was in bed with his best friend's wife at the time the murder he's charged with was being committed. There's two ways you can ruin this song, one being by chewing the scenery and really overplaying it, but also by going to far in the opposite direction and not giving it enough. While there's no way Manx will ever be accused of being guilty of the former, although maybe that's what he needs to start shooting for, he definitely makes the song way too bloodless.
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Ironically he has chosen to reduce the use of his trademark Mohan Veena on this disc, for instead of its absence giving his music more emotional oomph, those deficiencies have become even more obvious. On the two songs where it is employed we are given beautiful demonstrations of its haunting qualities and how adept he is with the style of music the instrument was initially created to play. So when he switches to playing more conventional Western instruments and genres, but retains many of Indian music's sensibilities, the problem stands out in very sharp relief. The mellowness and subtlety he employs on the former, don't have what's needed for the latter.

Harry Manx is a highly skilled musician who plays any instrument he get his hands on with elegance and style. Vocally he has a decent range and his delivery is as smooth and graceful as his playing. Unfortunately a great deal of the music he plays calls for rough edges that he doesn't seem to be able to deliver. When he picks up his Mohan Veena, and plays music that is Indian influenced the difference is immediately obvious, and those songs transport you in a way the other songs don't. While Manx is able to accomplish his version of fusing East and West technically, stylistically and thematically it doesn't quite work as there is an emotional void that leaves you feeling the songs are incomplete.

September 5, 2009

Music Review: Dave Riley & Bob Corritore - Lucky To Be Living

It used to be the most common combination for a duo in blues music, but now a days it seems to be getting harder and harder to find the old harmonica and guitar mix that dominated the scene for so long. Sure there are still some really good harp players out there, but more and more the genre is becoming dominated by the guitarists. Off the top of my head I can only think of three or four "harp" players who are even band leaders anymore, and none of them are the household names that people like Sonny Boy Williamson ( either the original or the copy) or Corey Bell were among blues fans.

One of the reasons for there being fewer and fewer harp players is the fact that while its a fairly easy instrument to just pick up and start blowing, to really master its intricacies a player must be willing to dedicate themselves to years of daily practice. I remember reading of one harmonica player telling how he'd spend up to eight hours a day in front of a mirror practising to make sure that his technique was as good as it possibly could be. How many people do you think are going to be willing to put that kind of effort into learning an instrument which really doesn't offer the opportunities for fame and glory that the guitar does.

Thankfully that doesn't seem to have completely stopped people from picking up the harmonica and learning how to play and I don't doubt there are plenty toiling away in obscurity in bars and honkey tonks around the world. One of those who deserves far more recognition then he probably already gets is Bob Corritore, who is one half of a great guitar and harmonica duo. The guitar half, Dave Riley, was born in Hattiesberg Mississippi and moved to Chicago when barely a teenager. He was living near Maxwell Street when he was drafted and sent off to Vietnam, and there he eventually ended up in a Military band that toured bases and opened for USO shows. Those are the types of life experiences that are bound to give you the blues, but it wasn't until the mid-1990's that Riley returned to his Mississippi roots and the music of the Delta full time.
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Lucky To Be Living on Blue Witch Records is the duo's second recording and will be released on September 8th/09. Their first disc together, Travellin' The Dirt Road was nominated for a Blues Music Award as Best Acoustic Album in 2008, and there's no reason why this new disc shouldn't receive the same consideration. This collection of ten songs, four of them originals written by Riley, covers a lot of territory musically as it mixes the slow drawn out deep blues that carries with it the echoes of the slaves whom the music sprung from originally, with the up tempo swing of the juke joints that dot the byways and highways of the south. While their sound is filled out by bass and drums on most tracks, and piano and an extra guitar helping out on tracks two, six and ten, the focus remains solidly on the two leads throughout.

I don't think it would matter whether or not they had a multi-piece band accompanying them all the time or if it was just the two of them playing, your focus would remain fixed on them. They are both dynamic enough performers in their own rights to hold down centre stage easily enough on their own, so taken together they form a formidable combination difficult to ignore. Riley's guitar work and vocals tell the stories, while Corritore's harmonica provides an emotional accent that takes the music to another level. Whether it's the laid back sounds of "Country Rules", the deep pathos of "Sharecropper Blues" or the the fun of "Jelly Roll King", they compliment each other's sound so well that you could almost think it was a solo performance.

Of course that's not possible as no one can sing and play harmonica at the same time, or at least to my knowledge they can't, but the interplay between these two guys is so seamless that you're hard pressed to tell them apart. What makes them most effective as a duo is the fact that they both serve as conduits for the music instead of using the material as opportunities to show off. Listen to any of the songs on this disc and you'll see what I mean, for instead of either of them playing elaborate leads or adding in any of the extra flourishes that so many players use, they take the approach that simplest is best. As a result their music is filled with the emotional power of the songs they play and that's what stays with us, not anything that either of them did in particular with their playing.
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That's not to say they aren't talented musicians and don't know their way round their instruments, it just means they are confident enough in their abilities and the music they're playing to focus on making sure what they do serves the music not themselves. Riley's guitar work for instance somehow combines the smoothness of a jazz player with the rough and raw edge required for the blues. However, what I noticed the most about it was how clean it sounded with each not ringing out distinct from the others and being allowed to have it's say in the song. In contrast, his voice is rough hewn and road weary and the sounds of the Delta come through loud and clear with every word he sings.

It's easy to be impressive on the harmonica by playing a lot of notes and blowing your head off to fast songs, What's hard to do is draw notes out of the instrument in such a way that they take on the character and the spirit of the song. Corritore can blow as wicked and mean as anybody out there, but at the same time he can draw out a note in such a way you feel its weight tumbling out of the speakers. It's like he picks emotions out of the air and then funnels them through the reeds in his harmonica to give them voice. It's been a long time since someone has managed to send shivers up my spine with their harp playing but Corritore did on this disc.

If you've missed listening to the old fashion duo of guitar and harmonica playing the blues, but have no patience for those who have forgotten the blues are supposed to be about life and not the past, you'll not want to miss Lucky To Be Living by Dave Riley and Bob Corritore. Not only are they gifted players who have the sensitivity to let the music take centre stage, they also imbue it with the necessary passion to bring it alive. This is twenty-first century blues music that knows where it came from, but is perfectly happy to be living in the present.

September 4, 2009

Music Review: Les Triaboliques -rivermudtwilight

I'm not a musician, but I don't see how anybody can play the same type of music day in and day out for years on end without getting bored. Surely after a couple of decades of playing blues based rock and roll a guitar player would want to explore something else, if for no other reason than to open their minds to new ideas that could be incorporated into their genre of choice. However that doesn't seem to be the case with the majority of popular musicians out there, as they appear quite content to keep doing the same thing over and over again with only a few minor variations along the way.

All of which only serves to make the work of Les Triaboliques on their soon to be released, September 8th/09, disc rivermudtwilight, on the World Village label, all the more impressive. Les Triaboliques are Ben Mandelson, Lu Edmonds, and Justin Adams, guitar players who began their popular music careers during the British punk era playing with bands like Magazine and The Dammed, or in the case of Adams, as sideman for people like Sinead O'Conner. They are the first to admit that American music of the twentieth century was the first and major influence on their music, but unlike others their musical voyage didn't stop there.

Perhaps it's only fitting that Justin Adams has become well known for his work with the Tuareg nomad band Tinariwen, as he, Edmonds, and Mandelson, have been musical and literal nomads. Wandering the world, from Siberia to North Africa and stops in between, each of them has absorbed a variety of influences that has broadened their musical horizons far beyond what we normally find in popular music. It seems only natural these three wanderers would eventually end up together when the winds blew them back home to Great Britain, where they all originally hail from, pooling their talents and experiences to make this recording.
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The eleven tracks on the disc not only represent their multiple influences but also the huge variety of instruments that each of them have taken up. Brilliantly, what they've decided to do is not wed an instrument to its country of origin - ie have an oud only play Turkish music - but have used them where they fit best and feel most appropriate no matter what an individual piece of music's background might be. Naturally some of the results might sound a little startling to your ears, especially until you get used to the sounds of the various instruments, but if you can put aside any preconceived notions on how a song is supposed to sound you're in for some delightful surprises.

For, while Adams sticks mainly with the instrument he's mot familiar with, guitar, Mandelson and Edmonds get to show off their versatility on instruments like things called a thee planktone, cumbus, bow bus, or khomuz. Now I doubt if I could have told you those names before listening to this disc, and even now I doubt I could recognize them by their sound (the only thing lacking in this disc is the fact that they don't break down which instruments are used with which song), I do know they are being played extraordinarily well. For it becomes abundantly clear that this is not just some affectation or dalliance on the part of these guys to pick up other instruments because they sound "cool". You can't do the things they've done on this disc without having spent a serious amount of time studying, practising, and playing. This isn't a group of guys simply hacking around for the fun of it or to make themselves look good. They are three musicians who are so passionate about what they do that they've exerted a lot of time and energy into how to make it h more interesting for themselves and of course those who listen to it.

One of the best examples of this is probably the medley of "Hora Anticuta Draga" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". You haven't lived until you've heard the latter played on what sounds like it must be the barizouki. Aside from the version sung by Michael Burdon and the Animals, I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard this song performed by an endless succession of bar bands, and yet hearing these guys play the song it's like I was hearing it again for the first time. Instead of it being almost the challenge that it usually sounds like, they've managed to capture its more plaintive nature and turn it into a genuine plea for understanding.
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Each song on this disc has been given the same careful consideration that they've shown towards "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" when it comes to choosing the instruments to be played and its arrangement. As a result, even on songs that you're most familiar with you'll hear something new. Yet at the same time they haven't gone out of their way to change songs just for the sake of changing them. It's extremely difficult to play a song written by somebody else and retain its core while giving it your own interpretation, but that's exactly what Les Triaboliques have done.

What's even more impressive is the fact that they've taken on the extremely difficult task of performing songs from other cultures as well as their own and not sounding awkward. Too often you'll hear somebody playing a song from another country, or singing in a language other than their own, and it sounding affected or false. Yet listen to Edmonds singing "Gulaguajira" ("I The Dissolute Prisoner) in it's original Russian, you don't think about the fact that he's singing in another language - in fact I didn't even notice he was until the second time I listened to the song - because he is so completely involved in the story of the song that you can't help but believing in it.

When you're an established popular musician it's very easy, and acceptable, to keep doing much the same thing over and over again. However there are those who aren't satisfied with just playing variations on the same theme endlessly and so push themselves and their music in new directions. Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson, and Lu Edmonds have pushed further than most on their new album rivermudtwilight and the results are remarkable for not only their integrity, but for their quality as well. It's not often you get the chance to hear music as well played and lovingly presented as the material on this disc so don't miss out on it.

August 21, 2009

Music Review: Watermelon Slim - Escape From The Chicken Coop

People are always surprised to hear that I like country music. I'm not sure what a country music fan is supposed to look like, but whatever it is I'd hazard a guess that I don't fit the image. On the other hand the country music I tend to like isn't the stuff one hears on the radio on a regular basis, so maybe that explains a good deal of people's confusion. For as far as I'm concerned the stuff that gets passed off as country music on the radio these days is just so much sentimental twaddle which shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as music written by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Graham Parsons, and Emmylou Harris.

I don't seem to the only one dissatisfied with the rhinestone and Stetson crowd either as in recent years there's been a resurgence of interest in, for lack of a better word, traditional country music. Whether it's people rediscovering the joys of an old Hank Williams tune, or new performers recording songs that harken back to the older sound, it appears people are finally getting sick of the plastic heart that beats at the centre of mainstream country. Oh they've created all sorts of new categories within which to slot this new stuff; Americana, alt-country, or even roots music; so they can keep calling the shlock on the radio country, but when you hear an album like Watermelon Slim's new release, Escape From The Chicken Coop, on the Northern Blues label, there's no disguising who or what it really is.

Now most of you probably know Watermelon Slim as a blues artist, one of the most well respected and awarded blues artists in recent memory as he's won almost every award offered to a contemporary blues performer at the Blues Music Awards for the last three years. However Bill Homans had a life before he became Watermelon Slim that included serving a stint in Viet Nam, being the only veteran of the Viet Nam war to release an album of protest music against the war, driving eighteen wheelers, picking watermelons (hence the stage name) and even some petty larceny for a while. It was the truck driving though that sounds like it was the worst and meanest of all those jobs at least in terms of the wear and tear it took on Slim.
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Now looking back at his history the real surprise is that he hasn't recorded a country album before this. It may sound like a bit of cliche, but there's not many other genres that lend themselves to stories about the lonely life of an eighteen wheeler driver than country music. The problem is of course how much of a joke the country song about a trucker has become. However I'm betting that ninety per cent of the songs that fed the joke weren't written by guys who ever sat behind the wheel of one of those behemoths, let alone drove loads of industrial waste for crooked bosses like Slim did.

Those of you who have heard Watermelon Slim before knows his music comes from his heart and he's not one to gloss over real emotions with sentimentality or pretty words, and this disc isn't any different from his other recordings in that regard. In fact there's really not much difference between this disc and any of his previous ones. For when you come right down to it good country music sings the blues as well as any blues song ever has. Anyway, Slim is still the same compassionate and honest person he was before, so the lyrics, and the stories they tell, of his new material is as real and sincere as ever.

There's a couple of songs on Chicken Coop whose titles might make you wonder a little bit, and if it were anyone else songs like "American Wives" and "Should Have Done More" might have ended up being maudlin tear jerkers. However Slim is able to take the subject matter of how difficult it is for the wife of a long distance trucker to make ends meet and the regret felt by somebody for not being willing to help out a panhandler and create songs that touch you in a real way. Part of that is his ability to bring a scene to life with his words so you can see what he's talking about in your mind's eye as he's singing. You see the harried and worried woman in her kitchen and can imagine the cracked tile flooring and her furrowed brow as she tries to work out how she's going to feed her kids, pay the rent, and the bills with the little money her husband was able to leave her with while he's out on the road.
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There's nothing romantic about that image anymore than there is anything romantic about the image he creates of the man feeling remorse over refusing to give someone a handout. These are both real people whose thought processes we can identify with even if we may not have been in their exact circumstances. Like a good story teller Slim brings situations and circumstances to life so anybody listening can find a way to relate to them even if they've never actually experienced it themselves. I have the feeling it wouldn't matter what genre of music he was singing and he could still write a song that everybody could take to their hearts.

Slim isn't a complicated guy, he's not out to change the world with his music or anything silly like that. Yet what he does with his music is nothing short of miraculous. Everybody talks about the little guy, the average American out there slaving away to try and make ends meet, but the reality is that hardly anyone ever gives these people a second thought or cares enough to tell their stories. Slim hasn't forgotten what it's like to have a thankless job whose only reward is to keep the devil at bay by providing shelter and food for the family. There's no glamour or glory in this life and what dreams there might have been have long since flown away. Where others might make some sentimental palaver about these folk being the backbone of America, Slim doesn't try and disguise the hardships and difficulties that's their daily bread.

Escape From The Chicken Coop proves that not only is Watermelon Slim a great blues artist, but he's a great song writer. There hasn't been a songwriter whose been able to capture the lives of Americans in quite the same way Slim does since Woody Guthrie stopped writing. While others may try and write these types of songs they just don't have the understanding or the life experience to do them justice. Like Woody before him, Slim has been down the same roads as the people he sings about, and he sings about them honestly and sincerely. Call this disc what you like, country, folk, or blues, but in the end its a collection of great songs and that's what really matters.

August 20, 2009

Music Review: Dennis Jones - Pleasure & Pain

I'd say I get close to a CD a day being delivered in the mail from somebody looking for me to write a review, the majority of which come from people promoting blues performers. Don't get me wrong I love the blues, but after five years of listening to who know how many different bands and solo performers playing everything from old time country blues to hard rock electric blues... Well let's just say I'm not as easily impressed as I once was. Now I'm not so crass as to say that I've heard it all, however if I'm being honest with myself and others, there are a lot of folk out playing the same thing.

However that makes it all the more of a pleasure when you come across somebody who mixes it up as much on their disc as Dennis Jones does on his new release Pleasure & Pain. For although Jones plays electric blues like countless others, he distinguishes himself from the pack by not being satisfied with simply playing loud, hard and fast. In fact he plays more than just your standard twelve bar electric blues by adding in dollops of other flavours to many of his songs.

Sure he can rock out with best of them as he proves on tracks like "Try Not To Lie" which is full of power chords and searing solos. Heck if you only listened to that song and the two that follow it on the disc, "I Want It Yesterday" and "Him Or Me" you'd label him a hard rocking blues man and be done with him. I have to confess when I first looked at the cover of Pleasure & Pain I fully expected a whole album of that type of music. However, this disc offers solid proof that there is truth in the old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Sure he may look like a gunslinger on the front cover, but that doesn't mean he's not capable of delivering other styles equally well.
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In fact the first song on the disc, "Brand New Day", lets you know right away that he's more than a one dimensional player. It's a great up tempo song with a real swing to it that immediately takes the edge off any hardness the cover might have suggested. What you don't know, as its only the first song, is that its also an indication of his ability to marry his guitar style with the mood of the song's lyrics. Now that may not sound like much to some of you, but it seems to becoming something of a lost art these days for guitar players to be able to adjust their style of playing to suit a song's atmosphere.

As you move through this disc you'll notice how Jones' guitar changes with the needs of a song and not just in the usual obvious ways that most players can handle. For while so many can adjust their volume or their speed Jones manages to add textures to his playing which make for subtle difference in tone and style. This is really clear on the song "Kill The Pain", one of the more compassionate songs I've heard about substance abuse, for although it's a pretty standard electric blues tune, there's something about his guitar that really communicates the sadness and regret that he's feeling over the suffering this person is experiencing.

The other thing that impressed me about Jones and his band (Michael Turner drums and Tony Ruiz bass) is the whole time I was listening to this disc I never once thought of them as a power trio. They are joined by guest musicians on the first and seventh tracks, but on the other nine songs its just the three of them. In fact it wasn't until I was preparing to write this review and I went to check the credits for the album that I realized the core of this group was only three people. While a lot of the credit has to go to Jones' ability to create different moods and atmospheres with his guitar playing, the other two are also responsible for helping to create the richness of sound that fooled me.
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Jones doesn't have the most powerful of voices, nor the greatest of ranges, but he more than makes up for any deficiencies in those areas with character and expressiveness. He is clear and articulate and you can hear what he is feeling in his voice without him trying to "emote". While there's the usual element of bravado and toughness that comes with the territory of being a blues/rocker, there's also a certain amount of wry self awareness that lets you know he doesn't take himself overly seriously.

I don't know how many blues CDs I've reviewed over the last five years, but I do know for somebody to stand out as much as Dennis Jones has done with his new release Pleasure & Pain means he's doing something different from the others. While I can tell you that he plays a variety of styles of electric blues equally well, that he writes all his own material, and he's an exemplary guitar player, that still doesn't quite cover what distinguished him for me. There was something about him and his music that keeps you listening where with others you might not. I'm not sure how to describe it other than to say he and his music have a type of charisma that attracts and won't let you go.

That's not something I can really describe in a review, and you'll pretty much have to experience it for yourself. However, once you start listening to Pleasure & Pain you'll understand, and you also won't want to stop. It's not often I'm surprised by a blues CD these days, but this one did. Give it a listen and perhaps it will surprise you too.

August 14, 2009

Music Review: Johnny Winter - Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience

When we look at the names of the acts who were performing at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969 we see them as we know them today. To us Santana, Johnny Winter, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and others are established stars who headline festivals all the time. However this was forty years ago, and even the most established star had to have his or her early career when they weren't well known. According to the liner notes accompanying the Legacy Recordings release, Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience, the producers of the Woodstock festival had been very deliberate about booking bands who were relatively unknown at the time to mix with the established groups.

One of those unknowns was the young man from Mississippi Johnny Winter who had only just released his first album, Johnny Winter, earlier that year. Now if you had asked me if Winter had played at Woodstock, I would have said no way, because up to now there has been no record of his having appeared on stage at the festival. He hadn't been on either of the albums, or any version of the movie, released. So the Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience package represents the first time his eight song performance from August 17th 1969 has been heard. As with all the other packages of this type being released the manufactures have also included a copy of the album he had released earlier in the year, the above mentioned Johnny Winter, and a poster made from a photo taken during his concert.

Now I have to admit to never having really listened to Winter's music before, as I had wrongly assumed it was along the lines of so many other rock power trios, or even his brother Edgar's power pop. I hadn't known that Johnny has always considered himself a blues player and nothing else. So for the first time I actually sat down and listened to his music and discovered that although he doesn't play a type of music that I would listen to everyday, what he does play is some really well executed electric blues.
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It's pretty normal today for there to be white electric blues players, but in the late sixties it was nowhere near as common, especially for young men from Mississippi, to want to play the blues. However, as teenagers Johnny and his brother Edgar had hung out in the black bars and catch performances by people like Muddy Waters and BB King. He actually began his performance career on the ukulele at the age of ten on a children's television show and switched to guitar when he was a teenager. He appeared on two recordings prior to his own release; a forty-five by Roy Head and The Traits and another album called The Progressive Blues Experiment

So when he appeared at Woodstock, although he had only released one recording under his own name, he had accumulated far more musical experience than most twenty-five year olds could hope (he was born on Feb.23rd 1944) and it shows. Unlike many others appearing at the festival who simply played the music from their most recently released recordings, Winter's set included only one song from his album, "Leland Mississippi Blues". Aside from it the other seven songs were either blues tunes like "Tobacco Road" and "You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now" or the early rock and roll classic "Johnny B Goode". He was even confident enough in his own abilities that he brought his brother Edgar out half-way through the set to jam with them on keyboards and saxophone.

Like I said earlier the music he played isn't the kind of stuff that I'm liable to listen to on a regular basis, but it's played extremely well. In fact the most impressive thing about his music in this set is that it doesn't fall into any of the usual electric blues/power trio cliches. True it's still hard and driving, but it has far more elements of blues music than I had expected. I had thought it would be all hard rock noise and solos, instead it was rough hewn and strong electric blues which managed to retain a good deal of the emotional depth that so many players in this genre let fall by the wayside in their pursuit of power and speed.
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The other surprising thing about Winter is the quality of his voice. Unlike far too many others, who seem to consider vocals a matter of muttering and growling incomprehensibly into the microphone, he paid attention to how he sang. His voice might not be the best in the world in terms of range and body, but he showed that he knew how to make the best use possible of it. In fact its roughness and ragged edges were perfectly suited to his musical style, as it matched his guitar's strong and abrasive emotional honesty.

The other great thing about Johnny Winter's performance on the live disc is how obvious it is that he has a great sense of humour and doesn't take himself anywhere near as seriously as other guitar slingers do. There's something about his choice of performing "Johnny B Goode", and the way he sings it in an almost self-mocking tone, that's like he's dropping the audience a giant wink to let them know it's all in good fun. In fact more than anything else what makes his music so good is it's obvious how much fun he is having and how much he loves what he is doing. He knows that this music isn't about to change the world, but it's what he loves doing and he has a great time doing it. It's a combination that is hard to resist.

Now a days white electric blues players are a dime a dozen and a great many of them are about that original in their playing. Johnny Winter may not be the most innovative of players, or even the best electric blues guitar player to come down the pipe, but he brings to his playing the passion and joy of playing that so many other seem to be lacking. Listening to the live tracks from his Woodstock appearance on Johnny Winter: The Woodstock Experience really make that obvious, and it can't help but bring a smile to your lips.

August 11, 2009

Music Review: Janis Joplin Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience

White woman in North American popular music in the early 1960's were expected to be one of a few types. There was the earnest folk music type with long hair who didn't wear very much make-up and sang very seriously about love, politics and social injustice. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the teeny bopper pop singer who could be seen on American Bandstand wondering who would take her to the prom or crying about the boy who broke her heart. As long as a woman agreed to play one of those roles and had a modicum of talent she could ride the back of the music industry up the pop charts.

Of course women didn't have to be like that, and as the decade progressed there were those who charted their own path instead of worrying about the path up the charts, but you'd have to look long and hard for them.This attitude has more to do with the nature of popular music than any sort of sexism as there has always seemed to be some sort of law against demonstrating real emotion while singing if you want to be on the hit parade. Like cotton candy, popular music has always been light and fluffy with little or no substance. It wasn't Elvis's sex appeal that was so scary when he burst on the scene, it was that his music stirred emotions, and even worse, he sang with emotion.

While that was all right for jazz and blues singers, it just wouldn't do for pop music, so all those rough edges had to be smoothed down, and the raw energy turned down. So popular music was scrubbed clean of as much of its "colour" as possible in order to make it palatable for as many people as possible. So when Janis Joplin came along sounding like Big Momma Thornton and fronting a band playing psychedelic blues it was unlike anything the majority of people had heard before. By the time she got to Woodstock in 1969 she was getting ready to release her I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama. For reasons that have always escaped me her performances at the festival weren't included in the movie or its soundtrack, so the Legacy Recordings two disc release Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience is like a forty year old mistake finally being corrected.
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Disc one of the set is a reissue of I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama and disc two is her complete performance from August 17th/69 at the Woodstock festival. The album and the gig marked a change for Joplin as they were the beginnings of her solo career. For her performance at the festival she took the chance of mixing material from her forthcoming album which people wouldn't know with old crowd favourites like "Ball And Chain", "Piece Of My Heart", and the Gershwin classic "Summertime". Some of her new material included "Try ( Just A Little Bit Harder)", Kozmic Blues", and her cover of the Bee Gees "To Love Somebody".

Now I've seen some footage of Janis Joplin singing live before, I think it was from the Monterey Pop Festival when she was with Big Brother And The Holding Company, and have heard plenty of studio recordings of her singing before, but nothing had prepared me for the rawness of what was on display when she went on stage and started singing that night. I've heard people describe her concerts as a lone victim being sucked dry by thousands of vampires because she opened herself up so wide and was so emotionally raw on stage. I don't know about that, but it was almost frightening to hear how much of herself she was pouring into each song that night. It was hard to believe that one person could to stand in front of an audience and bare her soul in that way.

When she sings "Piece Of My Heart", and she starts into inviting whoever to take another little piece of her heart, she sounds like she is pleading to be loved, by somebody, anybody, so intense is her offer of giving up her heart. In fact it almost feels like intruding upon something highly personal. She sounds so desperate to be loved, and so willing to put up with anything in exchange you forget you're listening to someone performing a song, but rather feel as if you are eavesdropping on her thoughts.
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You might think that something like George Gershwins "Summertime", from his opera Porgy and Bess, would be a little less intense, but not the way Joplin sings it. Most people merely sing about the hope implied in the song's lyrics, and if it's done really well you'll feel some of the wistfulness of the singer as she hopes for her daughter's future. Listening to Joplin sing it and there's very little hope, more the anguish of telling someone you love a lie in order to preserve their hope. For what hope is their really for the daughter of slave that her life will be any different from her parents? Little to none. Somehow, without saying anything about the subject, Joplin is able to capture the emotional damage done by slavery to a person's heart and soul.

There are times when the sound system fails Joplin and her voice distorts, yet even on those occasions when you can't understand what she is singing, you can still feel what she is singing about. When you listen to this concert, listen to the timber of her voice and the slight catches in it as she becomes momentarily chocked by what she is trying to express. In the world of popular music where singers have long been discouraged from showing anything close to real emotion and lyrics are designed to say nothing of substance, Janis Joplin was an anomaly. She felt everything she was singing about, and only sung about those things important to her. In her you were able to hear the potential for music to be a catharsis for those listening as well as performing, for you could not come away unmoved after hearing her sing.

If you've never heard Janis Joplin sing, than Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience offers an amazing opportunity to experience her at the peak of her professional prowess. For the rest of us, this package is a reminder of what a truly unique and amazing performer she was. Just be careful she doesn't take a little piece of your heart.

August 10, 2009

Music Review: Santana - Santana: The Woodstock Experience

The first time you see a performer or a group in action goes a long way towards forming your opinion of them and their work no matter what you see and hear of them anytime after. Well that's the case with me anyway and, whether its fair or not, if they suck the first time I see them its going to take a whale of a performance in the future for me to change my opinion of their music. That first exposure will have made an indelible impression on my memory banks, and somewhere in the back of my mind I'll always carry the awareness of that lousy gig and be waiting for them to repeat it. Than again if they are magnificent the first time, and it will take a lot for me to give up on them.

The first time I saw Santana in action was also the first time I saw the movie Woodstock. It looked like Santana was the first group to go on after the infamous rain storm which had turned Yasgur's farm into a mud bath. In the movie the crowd had started to do their own percussion thing to entertain themselves with people playing on everything from fence posts to beer bottles in order to participate. After a couple minutes of that the movie segued into Carlos and the boys playing "Soul Sacrifice". While I had heard them play the same song on the soundtrack, actually seeing them perform it was completely different experience.

Although both the movie and its soundtrack only have Santana playing the one song, like everyone else who played "The Woodstock Music & Art Festival" they played between forty-five minutes and an hour. Now, for the first time, the whole set Santana played Saturday August 16th 1969 has been released on one recording as part of Legacy Recordings' Santana: The Woodstock Experience. The two CD package also contains a copy of the group's 1969 release, the self-titled Santana, their first recording, and a poster of the group performing at the Woodstock festival.
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I have to assume the eight tracks on the Woodstock disc represent the entire set performed by Santana that afternoon after the rainstorm, and the order they appear in on the CD match the original performance order, as it doesn't say different anywhere on the packaging. There's two reasons that's important to me; one it means they basically performed, with the addition of "Fried Neck Bones And Some Home Fries" and the subtraction of "Shades Of Time" and "Treat", their album for the concert, and two, "Soul Sacrifice" hadn't followed directly after the audience's spontaneous percussion performance as the movie implies, as it was the second last song in their set. What happened on screen was the result of creative editing on the part of the film makers, not some shared experience between audience and performers.

While that was a little disappointing to discover it did nothing to diminish the electricity of the band's overall performance on the live recording. For not only was "Soul Sacrafice" as good and exciting as it was the first time I heard it in the movie theatre all those years ago, now that it was placed in its proper context as being part of the band's overall set, it somehow became even more exciting. Santana is one of those bands whose performances are a cumulative thing, with each song building on the momentum and energy created by the one preceding. Like a rising tide the music builds in its intensity until it finally reaches its high water mark leaving the audience feeling like they've experienced something equivalent to a force of nature.

It's not often you have the opportunity to listen to a band doing studio versions and then live version of pretty much the same songs on the same release. This is especially interesting when dealing with a band like Sanatan where everybody from Carlos Santana on lead guitar, the conga and percussion players Mike Carabello and Jose Chepito Areas, drummer Mike Shrieve, bass player Dave Brown, to Gregg Rolie on keyboards (which in those days meant piano and organ) are such gifted musicians they can play extended solos on their respective instruments that are miniature performances unto themselves. The embellishments they each add to a song during a live performance aren't just gilding, they almost take it to a new dimension as they push the material as far as it can go without becoming self indulgent.
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Something you have to realize listening to these two discs, especially the live one, is that in 1969 the type of music Santana was playing was something most people hadn't heard before. While today bands like Los Lobos and others have made the mixture of Spanish music, blues, and rock and roll well known, it was Carlos Santana and his band who first popularized it, and it was this concert that started it all. Before they had played Woodstock Santana hadn't been known outside of the San Francisco Bay area and this concert brought their sound east for the first time.

Mike Shrieve's drum solo in "Soul Sacrifice" is now one of those seminal moments in rock and roll history for the impact it had on the audience that day. Michael Lang, co-producer of the Woodstock festival recalls, according to the liner notes, it was that solo that captivated the audience and completed the job of winning them over. While they may have missed some of the subtler nuances of the performance simply because of the size of the audience and the primitive sound system, Shrieve's drumming wasn't something that anybody could miss. While normally I find there's nothing more boring than a rock and roll drum solo, and am ever so grateful that they are now mostly gone the way of the dinasour, the solo he uncorked that concert was like the best of jazz drumming, but tinged with the wild abandon of rock and roll.

When Carlos Santana and the rest of his band strode onto stage on Saturday afternoon on the 16th of August 1969, nobody quite knew what they were going to hear. Unlike them we've had the privilege of being able to listen to Carlos Santana for forty some years now, but you've probably not heard him quite like you'll hear him on the live from Woodstock disc. Of course according to this article in Rolling Stone Magazine he was peaking on mescaline when they went on stage, which might have made some difference. However that, after all, was part of what the era was about too and you can just consider that part of the spice that makes the music so special. The sound quality might not be the best on these live recordings, but that doesn't really do anything to diminish their significance and how the music will make you feel and what you just might experience listening to it.

August 7, 2009

Willy DeVille: Rest In Peace

At about 11:30 on the night of August 6th 2009 we lost one of the great voices of American music. At the age of fifty-nine Willy DeVille has succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer. His death came as a shock to those who loved him and his music, for his diagnosis came only shortly before his death. Earlier this year Willy had informed his fans that he would be having to take some time off from performing and recording as he was having to undergo treatment for Hepatitis C, but in May of 2009 the doctors discovered that he had Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer.

Born on August 25th 1950 as William Borsey, he changed his to name to DeVille with the formation of the band that propelled him to international renown - The Mink DeVille Band. When asked about the genesis of the band's name in an interview Willy replied that the band had been sitting around talking of names when one of the guys said how about Mink DeVille, there can't be anything cooler than a fur lined Cadillac can there? While the band was put together in San Francisco, it was in New York they caught fire. In 1975 CBGB's was one of the few clubs hiring live rock and roll bands so along with hundreds of others Willy and the band auditioned and the roller coaster began.

While most of us associate CBGB's with the early days of punk rock; The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie; Mink DeVille were playing the type of music that Willy had first fallen in love with as a kid listening to the radio around the breakfast table. The rock and roll and R&B of the early sixties that was big on American Bandstand. Willy described listening to bands like the Drifters as being a magical experience and how the drama of it would hypnotize him..
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No matter that they were formed in San Francisco, you'd never think of Mink DeVille as anything but a New York City band. The Latin beats came from the lower east side and their cool was that of the street. While everybody else was in ripped t-shirts and jeans, Willy was even then developing the elegance and grace that would become the hallmarks of his stage presence throughout his career. It was one of those happy accidents that can only be put down to destiny that he and Jack Nietzsche were brought together for his first album with Capital records. It was Jack who had been involved with so much of the music that Willy had loved as a kid. Cabretta, released in 1977, was the first indication of the unique talents hidden within Willy as it showed him equally comfortable singing R&B, Latin, rock, and blues. Nobody before or since Willy has been able to blend the diverse elements of American popular music into one sound with such authenticity, soul, and passion.

Unfortunately nobody has ever known what to do with that sound once it was pressed onto wax. Even back in the early days Willy remembers Nietzsche saying that he never understood why Capital signed Mink DeVille as they were the label of safe bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. There's no need to look further than Willy's lack of recognition is his own country to see how screwed up the music business in North America is. Here's someone who is the quintessence of American music, yet his last CD, Pistola, wasn't even released domestically and Crow Jane Alley, released prior to that, only had 500 made for domestic release.

The most recognition Willy ever received in his home country was a nomination for an Academy Award for his song "Storybook Love" from the album Miracle that he made with Mark Knopfler. The album itself came about because of a suggestion made by Knopfler's wife at the time, Lourdes. According to Willy she had said to Mark you really like Willy's stuff so why don't you make an album with him? When Willy got to London he was playing Knopfler some of the songs he wanted to record and when he heard "Storybook Love", he asked Willy how he had found out that he was doing the soundtrack for Princess Bride as Willy had just written a song perfect for it. They sent director Rob Reiner a rough copy of the song and he loved it.

I've been an admirer of Willy's since hearing his stunning voice on the radio for the first time. He has an enormous range, with influences from all corners of the country, from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and New Orleans music to Latin, folk-rock, doo-wop, Ben E. King style soul and R&B - all part of the New York mix.  The songs he writes are original, often romantic and always straight from the heart.  He can paint a character in a few words.  When we worked on his Miracle album I enjoyed the occasional opportunity to offer a chord or two to go with his great lyrics. Mark Knopfler

While Willy may not have ever been properly appreciated in North America during his life time, he was adored in Europe where he was appreciated for his artistry and diversity. We have our flavours of the minute and we celebrate stardom not talent or passion. In that kind of environment there was no room for an artist of the calibre of Willy DeVille. Like any artist Willy wasn't satisfied with doing the same thing over and over and again - what painter would want to paint the same painting repeatedly? - and was always experimenting with different styles of music and presentation. But in the cookie cutter environment of North American popular music originality is looked upon as only slightly less a sin than honesty and integrity, both of which Willy also happened to be cursed with.
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All told, either as himself or under the Mink DeVille banner, Willy released sixteen albums, and fourteen compilation packages of his material were also released over the years. He also appeared on tribute albums for people ranging from Edith Piaf to Johnny Thunders, and two other film scores aside from Princess Bride, Cruising and Death Proof. All this in spite of the fact that he went a good chunk of the 1990's without a record contract. Most people when faced with the type of career adversity he's had, on top of the troubles he faced at times in his personal life, would have thrown in the towel long ago. However, as anybody who knew him will attest, Willy wasn't most people.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to talk with Willy on two occasions, and each time I was impressed by both his love for what he did and his warmth as a human being. We talked for hours each time about his music, but also about the common struggle we had shared with addictions. His compassion and heart were boundless, and in spite of the troubles he had in his life - finding his second wife when she had committed suicide - he still found time for others and their problems. A friend of his recounted to me how she and her husband coached a young man who had lost his arms and legs in singing as he had been chosen as the Variety Club poster child. The young man had wanted to sing one of Willy's song for The Variety Club Telethon and had needed to supply sheet music for the event. Not only did Willy arrange for his bass player at the time to write out a score for the song, (Willy was living in New Orleans at the time and the young man was in New York City) when the young man came to see Willy playing at the Bitter End the next time he was in New York, Willy spent two hours talking with him after the show.
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There aren't many people who I've come into contact with in the past few years of reviewing and interviewing music who I can honestly say have had the same effect on me as Willy did. It was something about the way he talked about his art, his music that was genuinely inspiring. I'm not a musician, but talking to him rekindled my own passion for writing and to always push myself as much as possible. In the acknowledgements to my book being published this fall I wrote "Over the course of two very long and wide ranging conversations Willy DeVille taught me what the word passion really meant..." and that's a gift he gave me that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life. I'll not only miss his music, but I'll miss him - it's hard to believe that I'll not hear his voice coming down my phone wire ever again or that I won't have the opportunity to go and meet him and his wife Nina for a coffee in New York like we talked about.

Of course it's not only me who will miss Willy there are millions of fans all over the world who were touched by his music. One person who knew him better than a lot of us did was John Phillip Shenale who produced Willy's Crow Jane Alley and Pistola albums and he offered the following comment about Willy after hearing of his death. "He left us, as he lived. Brilliant and eccentric, surrounded by love. I will deeply miss him."

Willy loved what he did, especially performing, and in his description of how that made him feel you can begin to hear something of the passion he felt and exuded.

There's this feeling you get of absolute silence when you know that the crowd are listening and that silence is louder than anything else I've ever heard in my life. Those are my moments of absolute bliss and I feel sorry for people who can't feel those moments of euphoria. But in order to feel passion you have to be passionate about something in the first place. For me that's music.

A distinctly American voice has gone silent and we are greatly reduced by its sudden quiet. We're not likely to hear his kind again and those of us who have heard it will not soon forget it.

July 20, 2009

Music Review: Izzy & Chris - Preachin' The Blues

After a while there's only so much acoustic blues music you can listen to without it starting to become tedious. It's not the music's fault, it's the fact that there are far too many people out there playing it who really have no business doing so. Acoustic blues are apparently a fairly simple genre to play, judging by how many people all of a sudden are either recording or performing it. It seems like every time I receive a new batch of material to review there are always a couple of new acts trying their hand at it. However, far too many of these acts just don't have what's necessary to make the music interesting.

So it was with some trepidation that I began listening to Preachin' The Blues by the duo Izzy & Chris on the 80/20 Music Entertainment label. I was all prepared to have to try and force myself to pay attention to their music. Far too many of the discs like it that I've received in the past little while have been so boring that all the songs end up sounding the same. However, I quickly realized that these guys weren't like that at all as the first song reached out and grabbed me by the ears and made me listen to it.

The intangibles that go into making a good blues song are sometimes hard to spell out. First of all different things appeal to different people, so that something which might make a blues song work for me, is going to turn you off. We all have different emotional triggers that we react to, and blues has to be able to work on an almost primal level for it to make a connection to its audience. If the performer doesn't connect to you emotionally your not going to be that interested in him. Personally I respond more to the tonal quality of a performance rather than what a band is actually saying with their lyrics. I listen to quite a lot of music where I don't even understand the lyrics because they're being sung in a language I don't know, but I can still relate to the music because of what they are able to communicate in other ways.
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Izzy and Chris are Israel Stetar on guitar and Christopher Nacy on harmonicas, and I assume they share vocals, but they don't delineate who sings what so that's hard to tell. Although it's probably safe to assume that when Chris is blowing the harp it's Izzy doing the singing. However, no matter who it is, they could have been singing in pig-Latin, and I would still have been moved by their music. Right from the opening guitar chords of the first song on the disc, "Steady Rollin' Daddy", you get that shiver up your spine that tells you're about to hear something special.

One of the things I noticed about them right away was that they weren't trying to impose their will upon the music. Some players will try and make their guitar sound more "emotional" by strumming or plucking harder, playing faster, or doing something else to "colour" their music. Izzy just lets the music speak for itself, and in doing so he's found a way for it to express what he's feeling with the same amount of power that his voice does. I don't know how it works, but when a person is completely focused on what they are doing and are willing to invest everything they do with all of themselves, it shines like a beacon on a dark night. Izzy is somehow putting so much of himself into his guitar playing that each note "talks" to the listener. It doesn't seem to matter what speed he's playing at either, as each note is alive with a little piece of his soul and comes through loud and clear.

Chris is doing much the same with his harmonica playing. Now I've heard guys who play fast, loud, and who can fill the air with a million notes when they play harmonica. They bend notes left, right, and centre in an effort to show off their virtuosity, and put on a really good show. However, half the time I don't really feel anything while listening to them. There's been tons of guys who can do the same thing. From what I heard on this disc though, Chris doesn't seem hung up on the impression he makes on the listener, he's more concerned with making sure he serves the song that he and Izzy are playing. When he bends a note it's only because he's expressing the curve of an emotion as it arcs through a song, not to show off. It's not often a harp player is able to send shivers up my spine just by playing a single note, but there's something about Chris' playing that the was able to do that time and time again throughout this recording.
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As befits the almost plain and rough hewed style of music they play, the vocals on this disc are rough and unadorned. If they've used anything like reverberation in the recording process it's been so little that you can barely tell. Again, like their playing, neither of them are forcing anything when they sing and are content with allowing their voices to come out as naturally as possible. Just the sound of their voices is able to communicate a depth of feeling that is usually lacking in performers who try to be expressive.

There are only a couple of acoustic blues artists who I can listen to on regular basis anymore, as the rest have just become far too tedious. With Preachin' The Blues Izzy & Chris have made a very convincing argument that they should be included among those few worth listening too. They show a dedication and commitment to the music that you don't often find in anyone playing these days. As a result there's also an emotional honesty to what they do that makes them hard to resist and a pleasure to listen to. If you've been looking for some really good acoustic blues to listen to, than you need look no further than these guys.

July 17, 2009

Music Review: Missy Andersen - Missy Andersen

If you're not old enough to remember the 1970's and the ravages of disco, count yourself lucky as you missed out on the first wave of turning music into pre-packaged plastic. One of the worst myths to be borne out of that era was, you can say what you like about disco but there's no other music you can dance to. Which was utter garbage of course, but as you weren't going to hear anything else in clubs, at dances, or on the radio that you could move to aside from disco, the chances of anybody knowing any better were slim to none.

Of course there were plenty of alternatives if you were only willing to look for them. Funk, soul, R&B, and all the rest were still being recorded and released all though out the 1970's. Now a days of course disco is long gone, but its legacy lingers in the car stereos and dance clubs which blare out bass laden cacophony under the guise of it being dance music. Like disco the lyrics, if any, are as mindless and mind numbing as the music itself. Yet for some reason people still can't seem to be bothered to seek out some of the great music out there which you can not only dance to, but that has intelligible lyrics.

So as a public service announcement to those people I'd like to tell you about Missy Andersen's self-titled release, Missy Andersen, that manages to pack more substance into its eight tracks than you're liable to hear from a night of what normally passes for dance music. Even better is the fact that you can even listen to this recording if you don't feel like dancing as the music is just as enjoyable to listen to as it is to move your feet to.
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One of the reasons this disc is so good is that Andersen has chosen to mix it up on this recording so no two songs are exactly alike. From the old style R&B of the opening cut "Ace Of Spades", the up-tempo, horn driven blues number "New Feet", the driving funk of "Pack It Up", to slow soulful tracks like "Same Old Blues", she and her band rock you off your feet, and then slow it down so you can rock in your sweet baby's arms. You could replace a DJ with this disc as all you have to do is slip it in a sound system and let it run. You'll get thirty plus minutes of music you can move to without ever feeling like you've had to listen to the same song twice, let along over and over again.

The band, Heine Andersen (guitars), Asmus Jensen (drums), Soren Bojgaard (bass) and Jeppe Jull (Hammond organ) with the help of guests Robbie Smith and Bob Mathes on trumpet and saxophone respectively, do a great job of creating the illusion of being loose while being incredibly tight. They can push the beat forward hard and fast when required, but also slow it right down and play slow and rich so that you feel each note in your bones. And that's not because they've got the bass turned up so high that you can pulverize tempered steel with it, but because they play with such feeling that you can't help but allow it to seep beneath the surface of your skin.

Of course the band can be as hot as you like but if the singer can't keep up her side of the deal, well there's not much sense in listening. Missy Andersen not only lives up to her obligations as a singer, she blows them out of the water. One moment she's growling out some charged up funk lyrics and the next her voice is aching from the blues. Even more impressive is the breadth of her range as she's able to climb and descend the scale with equal ease so that no matter where she is on the it she's not showing any strain what-so-ever.
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Back in the day when people like Areatha Franklin were tearing up the soul charts with their songs, most singers had received their start in church choirs. Things are different now, and Andersen had to make due with singing at home to her parent's collection of soul, R&B, and classic jazz and blues. Her first singing gigs were actually as a rapper, but she soon started earning her chops as a session vocalist doing backing vocals in studios. In the 1990's she moved to the West Coast where she joined the Juke Joint Jezebelles, a quartet who sang gospel, blues, and soul and provided back-up vocals for blues performer Earl Thomas.

So even though Missy Andersen is her first recording, she's had year of experience within which she's been able to develop not only her voice and style, but the ability to handle the demands of singing a multitude of genres. Often times people who have made a career our being a back up singer aren't successful in making the switch to front person. While they may have wonderful voices, they lack the presence required to stand up in front of the band and lead them. It's obvious from listening to Andersen that she's mot only paid her dues singing for others, she learned enough to be a front person of power and passion.

There's something about her voice that not only grabs your attention but holds onto it as well. How often have you listened to music that makes you want to dance and listen to the lyrics at the same time? Well that's what happens when you listen to Andersen's recording as there's an urgency in her delivery that compels you to at the least pay attention to her while she's singing, if not listen carefully to what she has to say.

Missy Andersen is a great recording which proves that dance music doesn't have to be mindless. Missy Andersen and her band deliver great sounding music that will either have you up on your feet and dancing, or sitting back and listening appreciatively. Either way its a great disc and holds out the promise of a great future for her as a lead singer.

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
Time Life
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

A Thank You To Willy DeVille

It was on May 17th that I received the e-mail that broke my heart. Willy DeVille's wife Nina wrote to let me know that Willy had been diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic cancer. At the time she had asked me to keep it to myself, but as she's since gone public with the information at Willy's web site I'm free to talk about it. We knew Willy was sick earlier in the year, but at the time the doctors thought it was Hepatitis C, and it was only when they were testing him prior to beginning treatment they discovered the cancer. It doesn't look like there's much they can do for him aside from ensuring his comfort. Nina assures me that they have hospice people in making sure he's not feeling too much pain and that he's being well looked after.

I came to know Willy outside of his music first back in 2006 when I him for the site just after the release of his first DVD Live In The Lowlands and his first studio recording in a number of years, Crow Jane Alley. It was an amazing experience as we talked for well over two hours about art, music, and life. If there was ever a performer who had every right to be bitter it is Willy, as his music career has been marked by record company stupidity and indifference. Capital, his first label, didn't know what to do with his music - in fact they shelved Le Chat Blue, an album Rolling Stone called the fifth best of 1980, and music historian Glenn A Baker has called the tenth best rock album of all time, until sales of the French import version became so high they were embarrassed into releasing it.

Yet in spite of a career where stuff like that was the norm, and a personal life marked by hardship and sadness (his second wife committed suicide and overcoming addictions) he still retained his passion and love for music and life. I had a great time with Willy, but I figured that was the end of that, and I would treasure the memories of that conversation for the rest of my life. However, in December of 2007 I received an e-mail from the German edition of Rolling Stone asking me if I was interested in updating the original interview for publication in their February 2008 edition. They were planning a special feature on Willy prior to a mini tour of Europe he was doing that spring to publicize his 2008 release Pistola. Instead of merely updating the interview I took the opportunity to get in touch with Willy again and do a whole newinterview which I then combined with the first, and wrote a couple of side bar articles, all of which ended up in the magazine. When combined with photos the special "Willy DeVille" section ended up being around fifteen pages long.
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So Willy was responsible for my first paying writing gig, and it was a big one. He and Nina were really happy with what I had written, and we've been keeping in touch since then. In fact Nina was able to direct some more work my way by recommending me for the job of writing the liner notes for a new DVD of Willy's, Live At Montreux in '94. Coincidentally, it was only shortly there after that I was offered the contract to write the book I have coming out this fall. I wrote Nina and told her that she and Willy were my good luck charms as the DVD liner notes had led to bigger and better things.

It was shortly after that we were writing a press announcement about Willy having to cancel his touring and recording plans for 2009 because of having to be treated for Hepatitis C. Unfortunately all that's changed for the worse now, and when Nina contacted me in May it was to ask if I would write something for after he went, and I still plan on doing that. However, I wanted to do something for him while he was still alive that would let him know what he's meant to people all over the world and how much his music has impacted on those who've listened and appreciated what he offered.

Willy released sixteen albums either under his own name or under the Mink DeVille banner; there have also been fourteen compilation albums of his material released by various labels around the world; four DVDs of concerts that he performed; and at least three live albums that I know of, including the great recording Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio Live In Berlin which featured some of the most soulful music you'll ever hear. His music has been used in three movies including Princess Bride (for which he garnered an Academy Award nomination for the song "Storybook Love"), Cruising, and Death Proof; and he's appeared on tribute albums for people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders.
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According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio, for a performer to be considered for induction it must have been at least twenty-five years since they released their first recording and they must have made a significant contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll. Well as far as I can see Willy meets all those criteria as his first recording was released in 1977 and he's been producing some of the best, and most soulful, rock and roll ever since. His album of New Orleans music, Victory Mixture, alone should qualify him for the job it did in bringing the music of that city to a whole new audience in North America and Europe.

Yet for some reason, while his contemporaries from CBGBs the Ramones have been inducted, Willy DeVille has not. In an attempt to redress this inequity, and in an effort to create a lasting memorial to his great talent, I've started a petition asking that Willy be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. If you're interested in supporting this effort please sign the petition and ensure that this great singer and songwriter is not forgotten after he's gone.

While this hardly seems adequate when compared to how much enjoyment Willy has provided people over the years with his music it's at least a tangible way to show our appreciation. It's a start anyway, and perhaps, like many other artists before him, his reputation will continue to grow after he's no longer with us and more and more people will come to know what I've known for years, just how special he is. It's only a pity that it will mean him being taken away from us for him to receive the appreciation he deserves. In a perfect world he'd still be with us and be able to show up for his own induction ceremony.

I know that I would trade all the signatures in the world for the chance to see him perform live, or even to hear his voice coming down through my telephone wire a year from now, but barring a miracle neither of those events are going to be happening. My heart is a lot heavier these days knowing Willy is not going to be with us for much longer, and while this effort won't keep him around any longer, it's a start in saying thanks. I'm not ready to say good bye yet so thanks will have to due for now.

June 24, 2009

Music Review: Willie McBlind - Bad Thing

When you look at a piece of music written out on a scale have you ever wondered how those particular notes came to represent the sounds we hear when somebody plays the piece of music written in front of you? In part it's based on the way instruments are tuned so they play a particular sound when a string, or its equivalent depending on the instrument, is depressed and vibrated. The majority of our popular music has used what's known as the Twelve Tone Equal Temperament system of tuning in order to create specific scales and octaves that allow composers to arrange those sounds into the recognizable patterns we call music.

It stands to reason there are other sounds, or notes, that exist outside of it that could just as easily be used to make music. However when they are played in concert with Twelve Tone notes, they sound so wrong we call them out of tune. Yet, there are many music traditions through-out the world that make use of those sounds without a problem, we're one of the few cultures that limit ourselves to only using those twelve tones. According to the people behind Freenote Music microtonal music, music that uses those notes not employed under the Twelve Tone system, is just as viable and can be achieved through the use of what they call Just Intonation, tunings based on what they call the pure notes of the naturally occurring Harmonic Series.

Through the simple expedient of adding more frets to the neck of a guitar or a bass, playing a fretless instrument, using alternate fingering on a wind instrument, or by experimenting with open tunings, musicians can redefine the notes they play. When a string is plucked on the guitar more than one note is actually sounded because of the harmonics created by the vibrations - how many different possibilities exist within that one resonation for creating new notes that we currently don't use in our music? Well the folk at Freenote produce records by groups like Willie McBlind, who have just released their second album of blues music, Bad Thing, using Just Intonation tuning giving us a chance to hear some of the possibilities that this systems opens up..
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Willie McBlind are Jon Catler on 64 tone Just Intonation and fretless guitars, and vocals, Babe Borden on vocals, Neville L'Green bass, and Lorne Watson drums and percussion. I was curious as to whether someone like me who doesn't have a musician's ear for music, I couldn't tell you what key a song was in by listening to it, would notice an appreciable difference in the music they were playing. In other words, does it really matter whether you play the blues using the old Twelve Tone system or embrace the new Just Intonation system? On the other hand, would it still be the blues if it wasn't played using Twelve Tone - would the sound be changed so much that it would no longer trigger the same reactions that you'd get listening to Muddy Watters and B B King?

As to the first question, the answer is yes there is a definite difference in the sound of this band from that of your normal electric blues band. While you won't really make out any difference in the rhythm section, as L'Green and Watson do the needful in holding the music together. It's in the guitars and vocals where it becomes obvious that something different is happening with the music as both instruments create unexpected sounds. It's noticeable right off the top of the disc as "13 O' Clock Blues", the opening track, opens with sustained guitar work by Catler. While he plays familiar enough sounding patterns, he appears to be filling the space with more and different sounds than what you'd normally hear.

Things become even more interesting when vocalist Borden joins him and you really begin to notice just how much they have expanded upon the range of a typical blues song. Under any circumstances Borden has a great voice for the blues, powerful, expressive, and a tremendous range. She also has the control required to find and sing the notes outside of the normal scale without sounding unnatural or strained. Not only does this give her voice an added dimension when it comes to how she sounds. those extra notes seem to give her access to greater emotional depth. Listen to her on the eighth track, their cover of Willie Dixon's "It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace)" and you'll hear what I mean.

The hardest part of listening to any of the songs is that are notes both Borden and Catler hit that sound discordant because we're just not used to hearing them. However the fact that they are in harmony with each other and what the band is playing soon offsets that initial discomfort. Which begins to answer the second question as to whether what they're singing is still the blues. While there is no denying that they don't sound like the blues you've been used to hearing, there's also no denying that what they're playing is the blues as they generate the same emotional reactions as any tunes I've heard play by any blues band.

What was refreshing was the absence of the cliches dotting the work of many electric blues players, especially those with a tendency to play fast and loud. With the additional notes at their disposal it only makes sense that they are able expand upon what both a guitar and a voice can do. Even better is that they don't waste it by doing silly things like having longer or faster guitar solos or showing off of any sort. They have taken a genre already rich in emotion and found a way to make it a deeper and more fulfilling experience for both the listener and I'm sure those playing as well. Having more notes at their disposal seems to have given them the equivalent of giving a painter new colours that allow him or her to give extra texture and depth to their creation.

I have to admit that when I first read about the idea of going beyond Twelve Tone for playing the blues I was intrigued, but also doubtful as to whether it would really make that much of a difference for the listener who isn't a trained musician. However, after only a couple of listens to Willie McBride's Bad Thing it's obvious that breaking free of the constraints of Twelve Tone scales is just as liberating for the blues as its proven for any other form of music. They've brought new depth of meaning and emotion to an already passionate genre making it blues as you've never heard it before, and all the better for it.

June 20, 2009

Music Review: Eddie C Campbell - Tear This World Up

Usually when someone says something like, "I don't know much about art but I know what I like" it's an indication that their preferences are for black velvet or dogs playing poker. On the other hand when a person is faced with the barrage of sub-genres in music that seems to be the vogue these days, it's perfectly understandable for them to say, "I don't much about it, but I know the blues when I hear it". I've stopped counting how many supposedly different types of blues there are, as it seems like every region in North America, if not the world, now deems the blues played in their territory significantly unique to qualify for its own sub-category.

However, unlike painting where there is more than just a stylistic differences between a black velvet poster of Elvis and a Chagal, beneath the surface of every blues genre beats the same heart no matter how its played. How else could you explain so many different styles of music rightfully calling themselves blues if there wasn't some sort of common denominator tying music played on a solo acoustic guitar with that played by a five piece electric band with a horn section? I don't mean the chords played either. There are who knows how many, rock and roll bands, from the heaviest metal heads on down, that use the standard blues progression in their music, but you'd never call them blues bands,

No, there's an almost indescribable something blues bands and performers have that hits you solidly between the eyes letting you know they are without a doubt. a blues band. Such is the case with the latest Eddie C Campbell release on Delmark Records, Tear This World Up. Stylistically it veers all over the place, from R&B, funk, to standards like Gershwin's "Summertime", but each and every cut on the disc is undisputedly a blues song. Campbell has a long history of playing, starting off his career at a young age sitting in with Muddy Watters, and proceeding to play with a who's who of Chicago blues stars through out the fifties and sixties. However, he didn't release any recordings of his own, aside from a couple of singles with small labels, until 1977's King Of The Jungle.
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Like so many other blues people before and since, Campbell sought out the bluer pastures of Europe for nearly a decade, spending most of the 1980's recording in England, Holland, and Germany, only returning to the States in 1992. Tear The World Up is his fourth release since then, and it shows just how versatile a player and singer he is. After years of playing with a variety of people, from James Brown to Howlin' Wolf, he's developed his own unique style that incorporates a little of everything he's picked up along the way. Binding it all together is his deeply felt awareness of the blues.

For like all the great players, Campbell has an intrinsic understanding of what it takes to play the blues. Listening to the fourteen tracks on this release is like taking a guided tour of the history of the blues. For he covers music from people who he's played with and known all his life like Magic Slim's "Easy Baby" and "Love Me With A Feeling" or Howlin' Wolf's "I'm Just Your Fool". However some of the best indications of his talents lie in his own compositions. Take "Big World" for example, where he stands the whole blues idiom on its head by making fun of a man complaining about his woman, but the music is as pure as any blues you'd want.

While he's not afraid of laughing at the himself, and how overwrought some blues musicians can get over their women done do them wrong songs, that doesn't mean he doesn't take his blues seriously. Listen to his "Summertime" if you think otherwise. What's wonderful about his version is that while he respects the sentiment of the original he doesn't wed himself to the slow, almost ponderous, pace that so many others seem to think it needs to be played at. Instead he takes it and makes it the uplifting song the lyrics suggest it can be. Yes birds are flying in this summertime, and the living is easy, but it's also a lot more fun than normal.
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On most blues discs you're liable to hear only one style of blues being played, depending on what part of the world the musicians hail from. That's not the case with Campbell as he's equally comfortable playing in front of a full horn section as he is with just your standard four piece band. The other thing you quickly realize is he understands that the whole idea of blues music is to help you forget your troubles. While some guys, and gals, might do that by being as blue as they can be for you to help you forget your own problems, Campbell is just as likely to play a tune that will pull you to your feat and get you dancing your blues away.

There was this great photo of Campbell that came with the Delmark publicity materials that shows him from sometime in the 1970's looking like he could have just stepped off the stage from jamming with Sly Stone or Parliament. The spirit of the funk music and driving horns that propelled those two groups can be heard in his music even today. It gives his music a snap and pace that you'd not expect to find even on an electric blues recording. While there's a definite power to the usual twelve bar electric blues, too much of even the best things can start to drag after a while. So the various change of paces throughout Tear This World Up are not only a relief, but also keep you listening a lot closer than you might under normal circumstances as you wait to hear what's coming next.

Eddie C Campbell has been around the blues most of his life, and been close friends and played with the men and women we've come to associate with the sound of electric blues. However, instead of merely emulating these people Campbell has taken their sound as his starting place and pushes the blues in as many directions as he possibly can while still holding onto what makes them what they are. Not all the material on this disc may sound like what you're used to when it comes to electric blues, but don't worry, because what beats beneath the surface of each track is the heart of a true bluesman.

June 15, 2009

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Delmark Performers It Ain't Over! Delmark Celebrates 55 Years Of The Blues

It's now been fifty-six years since Robert Koester founded Delmark Records in St. Louis back in 1953. For any independent record label to have lasted that long is pretty amazing, for it to be one that's dedicated itself primarily to the music of one city is damn near a miracle. Yet since he moved down river from St. Louis to Chicago the majority of records produced by Koester's label have featured musicians playing in and around that city. What makes this story even twice as remarkable is that no matter what the winds of fashion have dictated or the whims of the marketplace have suggested, the label has never once deviated from producing the jazz and blues Bob started selling our of his college dormitory room.

Although Koester has supplemented his own recordings by buying up other companies old masters and issuing the occasional re-release, the majority of titles issued on the Delmark label have been recorded in either their own facilities or live from the stage of one of Chicago's clubs. So it was only fitting when they gathered to celebrate Delmark's fifty-fifth anniversary of recording blues records that they would do so in the club owned and operated by one of Chicago's biggest name in blues, Buddy Guy's Legends. In May of 2009 It Aint Over: Delmark Celebrates 55 Years Of Blues, as either a CD or DVD, was released to commemorate that party held on March 7th 2008. Not only did the party include performances by some of Delmark's finest, Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, issued a proclamation marking that day as Delmark Records Day in Chicago, and the label was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for their 1965 recording of Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues.

While all the accolades are great, what everybody was there for that night was to celebrate the music that Delmark has released over the years. While the DVD contains a few extra tracks by some of the performers, the line-up on it and the CD are the same, representing a cross section of the talent you'll have heard and continue to hear from Delmark. If you're new to the label, and unfamiliar with the Chicago blues scene, you might not recognize many of the names performing. However anyone whose been following Delmark for even the shortest of times will find lots of familiar faces; Zora Young, Jimmy Johnson, Little Arthur Duncan, Lurrie Bell, Eddie Shaw, Aaron Moore, and, of course, Tail Dragger.
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The great thing about Chicago blues, and more specifically Delmark blues, is the community of musicians it has created. While some of the performers at Buddy Guy's that night had their own bands, the majority of them used what for many of us has come to be recognized as the Delmark house band. The rhythm section of Kenny Smith on drums and Bob Stroger on bass held down the fort for the majority of the high flyers on this night, and on most songs they were joined by Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards. While there was a little more variety in the guitar players, one name appears on the credits for this night far more often than anybody else, Lurrie Bell.

If there were anyone who might be considered a star on the Delmark label it would probably be Lurrie, although he might be the last to admit it. Whether he's the front man, handling the vocals and lead guitar as he does with "Don't You Lie To Me" and "Reconsider Baby", or supplying his guitar work for another's performance, his work is some of the best you'll ever see. I've seen and heard him play now ever since I heard my first Delmark recording, and I've yet to hear him play any of the standard, cliched, blues guitar leads. I've never figured out why so many guitar players don't seem to realize their instrument has a neck that extends quite some distance away from the body of their guitar and they can play notes up at that other end. Lurrie Bell not only knows this, he also gives a clinic in how to play a lead that compliments a song without stealing it away from whomever is doing the singing
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While Lurrie represents a polished form of urban blues the same can't be said for either Tail Dragger or Little Arthur Duncan. Tail Dragger howls and growls his songs as he strolls through the audience. Flamboyant and extravagant as he may be, there's still no one who quite matches him for putting his heart and soul into his performances. You know when he flops down into his chair between songs he needs his rest. However, he jumps right back up as soon as the opening chords for the next song start, ready to put his all out there again. Little Arthur is another of those old time singers whose voice seems to be connected directly with his heart and soul when he sings. Perched on his chair downstage, either blowing his harp or singing his heart out, his material drives right through you and pins you back in your seat.

It's not only men on the Delmark label, and both Zora Young, who opens the show, and Shirley Johnson remind you that for every man whose felt the blues because of a woman, there's a woman who has been made to feel blue because of some man. When you listen to either of these wonderful voiced women sing, you'll wonder at the injustice of a world that will make stars out of squeaky voiced child or some so called pop diva, while ignoring them. They both can reach down deep to power a song, but they never go over the top or succumb to the bouts of hysteria that seems to pass for emotion among too many female singers in popular music today.

In the optional commentary supplied by Bob Koester for the DVD he talks about how its always been a performer's voice that's attracted him over the years. It doesn't matter if they're saxophone players like Eddie Shaw, or guitarists like Jimmy Johnson, each and everyone of the performers on this recording has a voice that reaches out and pulls you into the song they're singing. You couldn't ignore them if you wanted to. Like all the previous Delmark recordings that I've heard, both the DVD and the CD have impeccable sound. Again and again Delmark has proven they are more than a match for the big labels when it comes to ensuring the highest quality of sound and video in everything they produce. The only difference is that with a Delmark production the performers you hear are so good that you don't pay any attention to whether the sound is surround or mono - they'll blow you away no matter what.

If you've never been to Chicago and inside a blues bar, experience the next best thing, pick up any DVD or live CD from the Delmark label. If you want a great sampling of what they have on offer, It Ain't Over!: Delmark Celebrates 55 Years Of Blues either on CD or DVD will fill that bill. The only problem either of them is the disc hasn't been made that can hold all the great music that comes out of this great Chicago label.

May 30, 2009

Music Review: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds Kicking Against The Pricks

By the mid 1980's popular music was settling back into the doldrums from which punk had rescued it in the late 1970's and once again the airwaves were flooded with formulaic dreck. All of which meant that when Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds released Kicking Against The Pricks, a collection that featured covers of mainly old and traditional country tunes, it really stuck out. This was long before movies like Oh Brother Where Art Thou brought about a revival of interest in old time country music, so hearing anybody performing something like "Long Black Veil" was an anomaly even on country music radio stations.

Yet here was this collection of guys who looked like your atypical new wave band, skinny ties and tight pants etc, playing a mixture of old time county and blues standards, and not trying to make them sound contemporary. Instead, they were playing nearly straight versions with no signs of this being some sort of send up. For those who missed this recording the first time around, Mute Records has reissued a special two disc set. Disc one is a CD containing all the original martial plus a couple of previously unreleased tracks from the same sessions. The second disc is a DVD and it not only contains all the tracks on the first disc re-mastered into 5.1 surround sound, it also includes a documentary shot specifically for this release featuring contemporaries of the band talking about the disc. The DVD also allows you to download mp3 versions of the bonus audio tracks, the documentary, and a video of Nick Cave singing "The Singer", made famous by Johnny Cash.

While the documentary is interesting enough in that it provides a context for the music and some insights into the process which the band went through in creating the recording, its still just a collection of talking heads which becomes a little tedious. Anyway, it's the music that's important, not what a bunch of people most of us have never heard of think about it. For the music is brilliant from beginning to end. Somehow Cave and the Bad Seeds have managed to turn what ninety per cent of the time others have made sound like cheap sentimental crap into songs with heart which generate a genuine emotional connection to the listener.
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With all apologies to Glen Campbell fans, but normally listening to "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" would make me gag. It was one of the worst examples of how country music had been polished and buffed into something that could be sold at Los Vegas, and left with the emotional depth of a Hallmark card. In the hands of Nick Cave and company though the song becomes something more than you'd think possible. By stripping down the music to a bare minimum and singing as if you actually believed the lyrics, you reveal a song filled with regrets and fears that has a lot more going for it than just sentimentality.

Cave does this with all the so-called standards on this disc, including numbers like the aforementioned "Long Black Veil" and "The Singer", and other chestnuts like "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", and "Sleeping Annaleah". Now while it take a certain kind of courage and skill to tackle songs like these and turn them into respectable and enjoyable music, it's even harder to take a respected song readily identified with another singer and create a version that stands up to the known one.

While there may have been plenty of other versions of the old William Roberts' tune "Hey Joe" recorded, probably the most famous was done by Jimi Hendrix. At least it's the one I was most familiar with up until a couple of years ago when I heard Willy DeVille perform his Latin version of the song. While I didn't think I'd ever find another version capable of matching what either Hendrix or DeVille had done with it, Cave's version ranks right up there with both of them. He's turned it into a real murder ballad, dripping blood, regret, envy, and love all over the place. When he sings "I'm going down to shoot my old lady - I caught her messing round with another man" you can hear the death in his voice - you can believe someone is going to die.
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However, no matter how good the songs on the rest of the album are, the ones that knocked my socks off the most came from two of the last four cuts on the disc. The second last track of those that had been originally released on the CD was the band's cover of a gospel tune called "Jesus Met The Woman At The Well". Lyrically it's pretty lame, and again its not the type of song that normally would have provided me with any sort of inspiration. However, listening to Cave and the band performing it, you forget the lyrics as you get caught up in their amazing four part vocal harmonies and the power they are able to generate through singing.

Yet, just when you think they've run out of ways of surprising you with their performances, you hear the first of the bonus tracks, a version of Leadbelly's song "Black Betty". They've reduced this song to it's bare bones until its almost no more than Cave's vocals and a single tom pounding out a primal rhythm. Its power comes from its simplicity as Cave wails out the vocals over the insistent drum with an urgency that's close to painful, but a passion that stirs the blood. It's been a long time since I've heard any song, let alone one done by a popular music group, sung with the intensity and passion that Nick Cave and the Bad Seed imbued this piece with.

Releasing an album of cover tunes could be seen as a cop-out as it implies the band couldn't be bothered to come up with any original material of their own to perform for the recording. However, in an instance like Kicking Against The Pricks nothing could be further from the truth. Cave and the band turned their considerable talents to the task of creating interpretations that not only brought life to hopelessly moribund material, but found ways of giving classic songs their own indelible stamp. A remarkable achievement that has to be heard to be believed.

April 17, 2009

Music Review: Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, & Lurrie Bell Chicago Blues A Living History

Those who have more than a casual acquaintance with the blues know the music comes in many flavours and variants. Like regional cuisine, the basic ingredients might stay the same, but the spicing changes dependant on which area of the world you taste it in. From Mail to the Mississippi Delta and India to Indiana and Illinois, the blues assumes the local flavouring that give an area its distinctive bite, yet never loses it's basic nature. While there's no denying the music's Southern American roots, you're just as liable these days to find it being played on a mohan vishnu as an electric guitar.

However, there is probably no region outside of the Mississippi where the music has taken deeper roots then the city of Chicago. As the closest major city to the south above the colour line it became the obvious destination of choice for African-Americans seeking a better life as far back as the 19th century. However it was during the depression of the 1930's, when people desperate for work of any kind left the land and flooded cities across the United States, and the post WW2 industrial boom, that saw the largest waves of migration. That roughly twenty-five year span also saw the development of the sound we know as Chicago blues. A sound that continues to be played today in bars throughout the city by the children, nephews, and grand-children of the men and women who first played it.

In honour of both the originators and their descendants Raisin Music is releasing Chicago Blues A Living History on April 19th 2009. The two CD set offers samples of the sound of Chicago from 1940 to the present, with disc one covering the period 1940 -55 and disc two 1955 onwards. The four featured players on the anthology, Lurrie Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, and Billy Branch all have roots deep in the Chicago Blues scene. With Bell and Branch representing today's musicians, Primer considered one of the originators of the electric blues sound of the 1950's, and Arnold's career beginning in 1963, between the four of them they have seen and heard just about all the variations that modern Chicago blues has had to offer.
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Of course it's not just these four playing on the disc, as they're accompanied by some of the finest players on the Chicago scene today. Men whose names aren't as familiar to a wide audience as the four leads, but whose faces I've seen pop up on DVDs of gigs recorded in Chicago blues bars over the last four or five years. It doesn't seem to matter whether they're playing "My Little Machine" written in 1940 by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson or Buddy Guy's "Damn Right I've Got The Blues" from 1991, they sound like they were born playing the music. It's not just the fact that they're skilled musicians, which they are, but they also have the feel and the touch for the music that comes from having lived and breathed it for so long that playing it has become second nature to them.

As for the music that's been selected to be performed by these musicians, while it was obviously impossible for the collection's producer's to fit examples of everybody and everything that was recorded from 1940 to present, what they've done is try and collect together samples of the most distinctive players. Aside from John Lee "Sonny Boy", that also includes the other Sonny Boy Williamson, Rice Lee (a radio show sponsor figured nobody would know the difference between one harmonica player and another over the air waves and stole the moniker to apply to their performer), Junior Walker, Jimmy Reed, Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Watters, B.B. King (technically King was never part of the Chicago blues scene but his influence on electric blues music was so great that the folk putting together the compilation figured they had to include him), Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Tampa Red, and other equally famous names.
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What makes this collection special is the fact that not only is this an amazing collection of music performed by an incredible group of musicians, it also brings the music alive in a way that listening to old recordings of these performers doing their songs doesn't. Sure it's always nice to go back and listen to let's say an original recording of Elmore James doing his song "I Believe", but there's also the sense that you're listening to something from the past. Whether it's because of the poor quality of the recording or something else, I know when I listen to even a re-mastered recording of older material I've always felt slightly disconnected from the music. As if it were something from the past that weren't particularly relevant anymore. I always really appreciated and enjoyed it, but it was also lacking something.

After hearing this recording of many of those same songs it felt like I was hearing him for the first time. Instead of sounding like museum pieces, or something from a bygone era, they felt like songs written just the other day were meant to be performed today. They still sounded the way Chicago blues music has always sounded, and like you hope it always will sound, but there was also a vitality to the songs I had never experienced or heard before. It's not even as if the musicians on this disc have never played together before, which can sometimes result in songs sounding fresher, because that's not the case as a number of them have even been in the same bands at one time or another (Lurrie Bell and Billy Branch were part of a band called Sons Of The Blues that was made up of the children of first generation blues musicians from Chicago).

No, the real reason is that for the musicians on this recording, the blues, and specifically Chicago style blues, are a living breathing organism and they're continually working out new ways to keep it alive and vital. So it doesn't matter to them whether a song was written in 1940 or they wrote it themselves yesterday, they're looking to make it as interesting as possible for themselves to play and aren't thinking about what it's supposed to sound like. The result is classic blues songs made alive and fresh as it's possible for any music to be.

Anybody who thinks that the blues are a music of the past needs to think again and give this collection a listen. It doesn't matter when any of the material on Chicago Blues A Living History was written, because the music is certainly alive and kicking. If more collections were made along the lines of this one, I don't think you'd ever hear anyone ever wondering about the health of the blues again. Chicago has always been home to some of the most exciting blues music around, and this disc only confirms how exciting and important that music is. Even better is the fact that it reaffirms the blues don't belong in a museum, and are every bit as vital as they ever were.

March 26, 2009

Music Review: Chris Darrow Under My Own Disguises Box Set

Have you ever noticed how there is always some great musician that almost no one's ever heard of who supposedly is better at what he or she does than all those who have become famous for playing the same style of music? It's amazing how ordinary so many of these supposed hidden great ones turn out to be, and the reason they never made it big becomes obvious as soon as you listen to them. However, once in a while one of these folk turn out to be the real deal, which is the case with a guy named Chris Darrow.

I don't know about anybody else but I'd never heard of him before I read the press release announcing the Everloving label was releasing the Under My Own Disguise Box Set consisting of Darrow's first two solo releases, Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise (from 1973 and 1974 respectively) on both LP and CD, plus a forty-eight page 12 X 12 inch photo book. The review copy I received was a single CD without any of the bells and whistles, but it did contain what really matters, the twenty-one tracks from the original releases. While it's true what I said about having never heard of Darrow before, reading through his biography made me realize how many times I had heard him without knowing it.

Even the briefest summary of his career sounds like a whose who of the country/rock genre and folk as Darrow was one of the founding members of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in 1967, played with Linda Ronstadt and Hoyt Axton, was the basest on Leonard Cohen's first album, and played fiddle and violin on James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. When he wasn't doing country/rock he was experimenting with psychedelic rock by co-founding with David Lindley Kaleidoscope, playing bluegrass with The Dry City Scat Band (again with David Lindley), and even had a stint with The Flying Burritos. It appears that he hasn't met a stringed instrument he doesn't like for he plays guitar, fiddle, bass, violin (which is different from fiddle playing), banjo, Dobro, lap steel, and mandolin for a start.
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However its his own work that we're mainly concerned about here, and while there are a lot of great session musicians who can pick up almost any instrument and play it, very few of them ever go on to recording their own music, or if they do it ends up not being that special. I wasn't sure what to expect from Chris Darrow; his press materials mentioned one of my personal favourites Graham Parsons, but also made reference to that mockery of country rock, The Eagles. Much to my relief Darrow's music from that period was far closer to Parsons then The Eagles, while at the same time being almost completely different from most anything else I'd heard before.


While some of the songs are pure country, like "Albuquerque Rainbow" or "We're Living On $15 A Week", there's others that veer over towards the psychedelic jug band sound of the Grateful Dead. "Take Good Care Of Yourself" seems to have four different melodic patterns going on, starting with the reggae derived beat that drives the song and finishing with Darrow's laconic, country tinged vocals on the off beat. Somehow, although it constantly feels like its on the verge of imploding, this strange mixture not only manages to find its way to the end of the song, but it sounds great.

The rest of the songs from those two early solo releases show off Darrow's virtuosity as he plays mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, bass, fiddle, slide-guitar, dobro, guitar, sings lead, and produced them as well. Probably the only stringed instrument he doesn't play is the Celtic Harp played by Alan Stivell. "Devil's Dream" is a beautiful instrumental with Darrow accompanying Stivell's harp with his mandolin. The harp shows up again on the next track "We Don't Talk Of Lovin' Anymore", which sounds like Darrow's reached back and grabbed the Celtic roots of country music and combined them with American folk to create this aching and haunting song.
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Listening to Darrow's music one can't help feeling cheated, because you realize just how severely country music and so-called country rock have compromised themselves in their attempts to be commercially viable. The irony is once anybody listens to any of Darrow's music they're not going be satisfied with anything from either Nashville or the bland tedium of the Eagles. Darrow's music has the honesty and passion of Graham Parson at his best and the musical inventiveness of the Dead, while drawing upon traditional folk, blues, early rock and roll, and psychedelic pop for inspiration.

Today we'd probably try and fit him into the roots rock or Americana genres, but realistically you can't cram him into any of those neat little categories. I mean what are you going to do with a guy who covers Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" and then latter on has a song like "That's What It's Like To Be Alone"; a plaintive lament whose lead instruments are cello, harp, what sounds like a kazoo, and harpsichord. The fact that medieval and renaissance instruments like the rebec (and early stringed and bowed instrument), sacbut (an early version of the saxophone) and others equally obscure show up to rub shoulders with mandolins and guitars only make him harder to pin down.

It's one thing to go back in time and re-discover music by someone who's no longer with us and mourn what's been lost and regret over what could have been. It's another thing altogether to look back on an artist's career to help put his current output into perspective. Chris Darrow is still alive and well and producing compositions quite unlike anything you'll see and hear anywhere else. The web site Chris Darrow's Art contains examples of both his photography and current music projects and shows that he's still drawing outside the lines and charting his own unique course.

While some have seen fit to lump Chirs Darrow's work from the 1970's into the same category as the Eagles and other California so called country/rockers, it doesn't take long to realize just how erroneous a judgement that is. Even one quick scan through either Chris Darrow or Under My Own Disguise will tell you how much more exciting and innovative he was than anything else from that era. The early 1970's might have been primarily a wasteland of commercial pabulum when it came to pop music, but there was at least one shining light being hid under a bushel, and his name is Chris Darrow.

February 4, 2009

Music Review: Art Rosenbaum & Various Performers Art Of Field Recording Volume ll

Cultural anthropologists and music historians have been making what are known as field recordings ever since Thomas Edison invented his wax cylinders more then a hundred years ago. A field recording is pretty much what its name implies, any recording that's made out "in the field", or in other words, the home location of the people who make the music. A majority of the time these recordings are done not with public consumption in mind, but as a means of obtaining samples for future study and analysis or of simply having a record that will preserve a sound for posterity.

However there are also those who make field recordings for the simple love of the music and hearing it played in the way its been played for generation after generation. The sound quality of these recordings are obviously going to be inferior to anything that's been recorded in the studio, but the compensation lies in the immediacy of the performance and the connection between the performer and the music. In his introduction to the book that accompanies his Art Of Field Recording Volume ll on the Dust To Digital label, Art Rosenbaum talks about how the context of memory, history, and associations each performer has connecting them to the songs he recorded them singing makes them makes them resonate with an audience.

Art should know what he's talking about for the subtitle of the collection is "Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music Documented By Art Rosenbaum". With recording equipment in hand Art has travelled across America for the last fifty years listening and recording music on back porches, living rooms, churches, and anywhere else that people gather to play, listen to, or dance to the music that their parents and grand parents taught them. The four CDs of music that make up "Volume ll"; "Survey", "Religious", "Accompanied Songs And Ballads", and "Unaccompanied Songs And Ballads", not only show the amazing diversity of music that has been and is being sung across America, it demonstrates that personal connection between performer and music on every track.
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There's so much wonderful music in this collection that it's hard to know where to start when talking about it. "Survey", the first disc, contains twenty-nine songs from all across America representing everything from French Canadian fiddle tunes found in New Hampshire, Fidel Martin playing "La Grondeuse" (The Scolding Woman) that was recorded back in 1967, to Tony Bryant playing "Broke Down Engine", an example of Georgia blues that was recorded forty years later in 2007.

This first disc can make your head spin a little because one second you might be listening to the Cajun sounds of The Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire from Luisiana, and the next your listening to a teenaged Kirk Brandenberger recorded in the 1970's playing amazing fiddle tunes and sounding wise beyond his years when he talks about how he's not so sure whether he likes the fiddle competitions that he keeps on winning because of the hurt feelings of those who lose. (I hadn't read the background information on this track until after I heard it, and I thought Kirk was a much older man when I heard him talking and playing. Not only did his voice sound like that of someone who'd lived for a while, his playing did as well)

While the second ("Religious"), third ("Accompanied Songs And Ballads"), and the fourth discs ("Unaccompanied Songs And Ballads") each contain songs of a similar type, that doesn't stop them from being any less diverse than disc one. I have to admit that I've always preferred African American gospel music to old time country religious music save a few exceptions. However after listening to disc two of this collection I realize that was only because I'd rarely had the opportunity to hear the latter played by people with conviction. Listening to The Myers Family and Friends singing their version of Hazel Houser's "The River Jordon", originally written for the Louvin Brothers, you know these people feel what they are singing about as it sounds like each word is drawn out of their hearts.
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Of course there are plenty of examples of the African American style of gospel music we're most familiar with, my favourite on the disc being "Lets Have A Family Prayer" performed by The Travelling Inner Lights, but there's also some examples of older styles of African American gospel. "A Charge To Keep I Have" by Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart, Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Eddie Ruth Pringle is done in the old style called "lining" where one person intones the words of a line and then the congregation repeats the line in song. This style of music also contains the unique feature of the congregation moaning the last line of the piece, which according to Rev. Eberhart allows an individual to feel the music deeper in their spirit. As listening to these three women sing that final line gave me chills I'd have to agree with her.

The last two discs contain music that probably more of us are familiar with, standards such as "Barbara Allan", "John Henry", ' John Hardy", and "On Top Of Old Smokey" to name only a few. But until you hear someone like Mose Parker sing "John Henry", growling out the lyrics and strumming and beating on his guitar like it was old John Henry's hammer, I don't think you can say you've actually experienced the song. I don't know any other way of describing what it was like to hear him sing it except to say that if he didn't live through that experience he knew somebody who did.

It's easy to forget just how potent a single unaccompanied voice can be until you hear somebody like Mary Lomax on the final disc of this set. By no one's definition does she have a refined voice, or even one that's easy on the ear, but it's easily the realist voice you'll ever hear. Listen to her version of "Fair And Tender Maidens" and you'll understand more about a woman's broken heart than any poet could tell you and hear more real emotion than if you combined all the modern pop divas together.

Art Rosenbaum is not only a music collector he's also a gifted painter, (the painting above is one of his) and each CD cover as well as the box set's cover is graced by one of his works depicting people playing the music that he loves so much. For Art Of Field Recording Volume ll is nothing if not a labour of love. Why else would you wander the backwoods roads and into villages in the hopes that you'll find someone who not only plays music but will let you barge into their living room with no introduction and record them? Reading the accompanying ninty-six page book, full of photographs and illustrations by the author and his wife and blurbs on each song and the people performing it, and Rosenbaum's descriptions of how this music is unique because of the love that each performer has for their music, you can hear his love for them and the music shine through.

Art Of Field Recording Volume ll is an amazing collection of music and people that can't help but make you feel better about the world. There are fewer and fewer people today who play music because of what the song means to them in terms of their family's history or the people who taught it to them. To have the opportunity to experience listening to that type of music is a rare treat and one that might not be available to us for that much longer. Thanks to people like Art Rosenbaum though we will at least have records like this one to help us remember just how good that music was.

December 9, 2008

Music Review: Various Performeres Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest

Music has always had the power to inflame people's passions. From ultra nationalist songs that whip up hatred against others to religious music that inspires devotions, music has the potential to have the strongest and most immediate emotional impact of all the arts. Therefore, it's little wonder that down through the years music and songs have been written to express both dissatisfaction and appreciation for the way the world is going.

While I'm sure you can find examples of protest songs from almost every era of civilization, just check out the Irish songs about the British occupation, it really wasn't until the twentieth century that English language protest songs began to take the shape that we are familiar with. Most of the early ones dealt with the plight of the working class in North America and called for the establishment of unions. As the twentieth century progressed, and fell into the depression of the 1930's, songs the plight of the poor farmers and the social/political system that could allow the crises to happen began to be heard.

However it wasn't until after WWll and the popularization of folk music that protest songs began to obtain widespread popularity in English speaking North America. With first the civil rights movement in the United States, and then the war in Vietnam, causing people to question the moral authority of government and society's inequities protest, songs and the people who sang them gained widespread popularity. Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag", and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing" were along the lines of typical folk songs, while Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers Of America" showed that the protest song didn't have to be limited to just folk singers.
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Yet, after only a relatively short time the protest song's popularity died again. It seemed that when the impetus created by the unique combination of events and circumstances that had fostered the movement for social change died, so did interest in listening to songs about what was wrong with society or other people's troubles. While punk bands like the Clash, or musicians like Billy Bragg made no bones about their politics and did their best to motivate their listeners, the majority weren't interested. Like punk, rap and hip-hop had the potential to speak for the disenfranchised, but it was co-opted until now it glorifies the very things it originally protested against. (Check out the the lyrics of any Grandmaster Flash song from the early eighties and compare it to what's being sung as rap now and you'll see what I mean)

Now that doesn't mean that protest music is dead, it just means you have to look a little bit harder to find it. As a public service the good people at Ruf Records in Germany are releasing a new compilation CD of protest music recorded in the last few years. Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest, to be released in the United States and Canada in the new year, is a collection of topical blues songs that were written in response to the first American presidency of the 21st century. While Ruf Records is distributing the disc, only two of the performers appearing on the disc are from their label, as producer Kenneth Bays has searched out recordings by as diverse a group of blues players as he could find. You'll notice that some of the songs seem to stretch the definition of blues somewhat, which explains the slightly unwieldy title, but does nothing to diminish the quality of the music.

I guess it only shows how unpopular protest songs have become when of the twelve songs on the disc not only have I only heard two of them before, "Follow The Money" by Bob Brozman and "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane, but I only recognized the names of two of the other musicians who had contributed to the recording; Guitar Shorty and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. Which is a great pity, because not only are the songs on this disc all intelligent, and sometimes quite funny, but even better, they are all good pieces of music. Protest music has received a bit of bad rap over the years for being painfully earnest and painful to listen to as its been wilfully misrepresented by those who'd rather we'd not be reminded that the world isn't quite the way the government depicts it.

Needless to say as the songs collected here are all in direct response to the Bush administration and its policies their primary focus is on topics that have dominated the newspapers since his election. What was nice to see was how each of the performers found a way to address the issue they chose to talk about without resorting to making villains out of people like the soldiers being sent overseas, but attacked the policies and motivations of those who made the decision to send them. Even better, there are a couple of songs that don't even resort to blaming anybody in particular, but instead seem to be shaking their heads with regret at the whole damn situation.

Two of the best songs on the disc are the previously mentioned "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane and "A Time For Peace" by Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. In the former, Candye Kane imagines a conversation taking place between the two prophets and them shaking their heads in disbelief at how their followers could have screwed up their respective messages so badly. "This isn't what we wanted, both were heard to say, how could our words of love lead us to this day/ Oh my children don't you understand, misery and hatred won't get you to the promised land". Sung along the lines of a country/blues gospel number, and especially with Candye Kane's big and expressive voice, the song is a particularly effective condemnation of the hatred generated by all those who would have their followers on either side believe they are fighting a holly war.

Like Candye Kane, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater has turned to the gospel roots of blues music for his song, complete with an echoing organ solo and church choir. "How many politicians have to lie? How many good soldiers have to die?". What makes this song so effective is the stark simplicity of its message, "It's time for love/It's time for peace/It's time for war...to cease", and the genuine passion that he and the choir are able to bring to what they are saying. "A Time For Peace" is a genuine prayer for peace that transcends individual religions or politics and reminds us if we don't keep love in our hearts we're no better than those we criticize for making war.

Rich Man's War is a collection of intelligent, musically interesting songs written in response to events of the last eight years. You probably won't have heard many of the songs on this disc performed before, and you may not have even heard of some of the performers themselves. However, after eight years of listening to one version of events and maybe starting to feel a little uncomfortable with what you've been told, don't you think it's about time to give some other opinions a chance? This CD represents that chance - maybe you should give it a listen.

December 8, 2008

Music Review: Joanne Shaw Taylor White Sugar

It wasn't too long ago that you could count the number of women rock guitar players on the fingers of one hand. After Bonnie Raitt, the Wilson sisters from Heart, and Melissa Ethbridge you had to really struggle in order to think of anyone else. Well, as the man said, the times they are a changing, and now its becoming more and more common to see a woman fronting a band not only as the lead singer, but also as the lead guitar player. They're obviously still in a minority situation, but at least now it's no longer considered an oddity or a novelty act when a woman fronts a band, and the days of people saying, "Hey, she plays pretty good for a chick" are becoming a thing of the past.

I don't know if it's a coincidence or not, but a good many of these guitar women are showing up fronting blues bands. A couple of years back the German independent blues label, Ruf Records released a two disc set called Blues Guitar Women. Canadian guitarist Sue Foley, who helped put together the compilation, said in her liner notes that she found it alarming that she was able to fill two CDs so easily, because it made her realize just how many women were out there playing the blues, and how many weren't getting the recognition they deserve.

Unfortunately, just like their male counterparts, a great many of these guitar players are pretty much indistinguishable from each other. It seems like women are just as inclined to fall into the loud, hard, and fast school of playing as men, forgetting that a little bit of diversity makes music a heck of lot more interesting. So when someone like Joanne Shaw Taylor shows up with a CD like her forthcoming White Sugar (January 1st/09 on Ruf Records) I pay attention. Not only has Joanne written all the tracks on the CD, she understands that music, especially the blues, sounds a whole lot better when you don't play the same thing over and over again.
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As with so many blues guitar players since the 1960's Taylor hails from Great Britain, and like those who came before her she looked to the United States for her inspiration. In her press materials she cited Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert Collins as the musicians who made her want to pick up a guitar and dedicate herself to playing the blues. Although she has also followed in their footsteps by fronting a trio, she sells herself short by saying she fronts a power trio. For while it's true her music has plenty of power, there's none of the let's make their ears bleed mentality that I would normally associate with the term.

At sixteen, in 2002, she was touring Europe with former Eurythmics guitar player Dave Stewart's super group D.U.P., and maybe that experience played a role in developing her sensitivity to the potentials that exist in blues music. Whatever the reason White Sugar not only demonstrates that Taylor can play and sing, but understands music far better than a great many musicians with far more years under their belts. It's hard to put into words what it was about the music that gave me that impression, but listening to the disc one of the first things I noticed was that each note played on her guitar was a distinct moment in time no matter how fast she was playing or what effects had been added. It was like every note she played or sang was the most important one in her life and she was investing all of herself into that moment.

Of course it doesn't hurt that her voice sounds like its wreathed in the smoke of a thousand whisky soaked bar rooms. Unlike some who affect rawness in their singing voice, Taylor hasn't sacrificed expression for character, which prevents her from becoming monotonous. Whether she's playing a slow blues number like "Time Has Come" or a hard rocker like "Who Do You Want Me To Be" she makes her vocals as interesting as her guitar playing. While her range may not be the biggest, she makes full use of what she has, and understands that you don't have to be loud to express passion or power.
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However, it's her guitar playing where she really shines, for no matter whether she's playing Texas blues, playing hard, or playing soft she shows an affinity for the music and her instrument that belies her years. Any half way decent guitar player can bend notes or run leads, but what separates the gifted from the rest of the pack is the expression they are able to put into their music. The guitar should sound like its an extension of the player's singing voice, crying out those words that we can't articulate because we don't have a vocabulary extensive enough to articulate that kind of passion.

When Taylor's guitar leads follow hard upon her lyrics it sounds like she's continuing the thought she began while singing. No matter how fast she's playing you can't help but hear how interconnected the music and the lyrics are. Her guitar leads add an extra layer of emotion to what was being expressed by her vocals so instead of sounding like an obvious lead break the one flows into the other seamlessly. One of the reasons Taylor is able to do that so well is she's as equally comfortable playing rhythm as she is cranking out the leads. This is really obvious on a song like "Heavy Heart" with its R&B groove that she plays with an almost elegant smoothness.

Joanne Shaw Taylor joins the ever growing number of young women who have picked up electric guitars and pursued the life of a blues guitar player. With White Sugar, her first solo release, Taylor shows that she has the promise to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time. While there are plenty of people who can sing, play guitar, and write songs, there are precious few who have the passion and soul that elevates their music beyond the ordinary: Joanne Shaw Taylor, is one of them.

November 27, 2008

Music Review: Guitar Red Lightin' In A Bottle

You see them on the street corners of almost every major city in the world. Some of them have elaborate set-ups including battery powered amplifiers, others are one man bands playing a kick-drum t, strumming a guitar, and blowing on a harmonica. Some of them can barely play their instrument, while others are virtuosos. Yet, no matter how good or bad they may be, for one reason or another, no matter what the weather, these musicians have made the sidewalk their stage and what, or whoever passes by, their audience.

In another life time I was part of a children's theatre company that use to perform outdoors in parks and even on the occasional sidewalk. So I speak from experience when I say there is nothing more difficult for any performer to do than attract the attention of someone just passing by, unless it's holding their attention in spite of all the distractions around them. Amplifying your sound doesn't do much more than add to the overall white noise of a city street and actually increases the likelihood of people blocking you out like they attempt to block car horns and everything else around them.

The experienced street performer knows that it's force of personality that attracts people's attention. If you just stand there strumming your guitar and singing, the average person walking down the street with their mind on the day ahead or the one that just passed won't pay you any attention. When you play the streets you learn how to "sell" yourself and your music so someone catching sight of you out of the corner of their eye, or hearing just a snatch of sound coming from your direction, will be attracted and turn their attention to you. If you think it sounds difficult to do, well believe me it's even harder to accomplish in practice.
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After listening to Lightin' In A Bottle, street musician Guitar Red's new release on Backspace Records, I'd lay odds that when he plays street corners not only do people stop, but traffic does too. Right from the opening notes of the discs first song, "Box Car No. 9" he reaches out and grabs your attention, and doesn't let go until the last note of track ten, "Song About A Jimi Hendrix Song" fades away. Accompanying himself with only guitar and clavinet, and helped out on bass by Chris Francisco, Guitar Red's music has more energy and vitality than most bands, and hundreds of times more personality than ninety percent of any musicians I've ever heard.

There's nothing sophisticated or polished about Guitar Red (real name Billy Christian Walls) or his music. What it does have is pure and unadulterated heart and soul, with each song sounding like he's drawing upon personal experience for inspiration. It doesn't matter whether he's singing about the woman who done him wrong or serving on a chain gang for stealing potatoes, you can't help but believe he sweated out his days under the Georgia sun breaking rocks or had his heart broken time after time. When he sings about telling the boss man not to ride him so hard because his momma just died on "Chain Gang Blues", you don't have to be prescient to know that the next line will be "now I'm serving twenty to life" because you can feel the depth of his grief and know just how close to the edge he is.

It doesn't matter whether he's playing slow or playing fast, singing sad or singing glad, because he doesn't differentiate between them when it comes to passion or intensity. He's like the best storyteller you've ever heard, in that he draws you into what he's telling you without seemingly trying. One second you're listening to the opening notes of a song, and the next you're sitting looking at the world he's created through his eyes and experiencing everything he's talking about.

A lot of people who play acoustic blues, or traditional blues music, seem to get hung up on playing the same rhythmic pattern over and over again until you're stupefied with boredom. Guitar Red on the other hand keeps things moving, so that the music fits the mood expressed by the lyrics of his song. The blues isn't about what note or chords you play on your guitar, the blues is what comes from your heart. Guitar Red knows that and his music reflects it, and listening to it you sure can feel it.

One of the things that really struck me about this recording was how he used his voice. He doesn't have what you'd call an attractive singing voice, but he has a fine ear for understanding how to make the best use of the gifts he's been given, which is a highly expressive voice. Many people who play the streets end up only knowing how to be loud and louder when they sing from years of having to compete against traffic noise. Red, on the other hand, modulates his voice according to the needs of the song and the mood he's trying to establish. Compare how he sounds on the up tempo "Lips Poked Out" where's he creating a fun, teasing atmosphere, to "I Believe", a quiet and sincere declaration of his faith that has a hundred times more conviction to it than any preacher foaming at the mouth.

After years of listening to histrionical pop singers trying to prove how emotional they are by either screaming or whispering, Guitar Red comes as a welcome relief. It's like he has a direct conduit from his heart to his voice so that no matter what he says it comes out sounding like he means it with his entire being. If he's singing one of his up tempo, up beat songs you can hear the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye coming through in his voice. When he's singing about something difficult or serious you can feel his body bending under the weight of the words.

There are thousands, if not even millions, of people who play music on the streets of our cities every day of the year, and the majority of them aren't anything special. Once in a while though there are genuine gems among the dross whose talent is so pure it shines out like a beacon for all to see. Guitar Red is one of the latter as his music is heartfelt, passionate, and full of life. He might be singing the blues, but he sure brought a smile to my face.

November 22, 2008

Music CD/DVD Review: Various Musicians Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz & Delmark: 55 Years Of Blueselm

When Bob Koester started selling old jazz and blues recordings that he scrounged in second hand stores out of a box in his collage dormitory back in the early 1950's I doubt he would have believed you if you told him that years later he would not only still be selling records, but would also be the owner of one of the oldest independent record labels in the United States. After all, his love of jazz and blues notwithstanding, his ambition was to become a cinematographer not a record producer. Yet somehow those boxes under the bed turned into Delmark Records, arguably one of the most influential jazz and blues labels in North America. (For a detailed account of Delmark and Koester's history read the interview I conducted with him about a year ago)

Through buying up the back catalogues of defunct jazz and blues labels and lovingly restoring recordings from their master tapes (and in some cases the piano rolls of player pianos) Delmark has created a catalogue of recordings that traces the history of the music as far back as the 1920's and through all their changes in style. However, even in their early years the company was just as concerned with recording the music of current performers as they were with the past and have continually searched out the talented and innovative indiscriminate of style or age. There aren't many labels who can boast issuing current recordings of Dixieland jazz and releases by members of Chicago's avant-garde jazz community at the same time, but with Delmark you never know what treasures they have in store for you.

I've seen and heard everything from a German traditional jazz band featuring a washboard player performing at an Ace Hardware in downtown Chicago (it had originally been a jazz club in the 1920's where people like Louis Armstrong had played), to stuff so experimental I doubt I'll ever understand it, but that left me strangely moved anyway. Delmark's blues catalogue is just as diverse as it includes everything from barrelhouse piano, country blues from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, to live recordings from the stages and floors of Chicago's blues clubs where Buddy Guy still plays and Little Walter once stood.
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Even more remarkable is the role that Delmark, and Koester, have played in ensuring the future of blues recordings. Not only did they help establish the Chicago Blues Festival and continue to record blues artists of all stripes either live or in the studio, they have been the training ground for those who have gone on to found important blues labels like Alligator, Earwig and Rooster Blues. For those of you like me who've not been able to see the inside of a Chicago blues club, Delmark's DVD recordings of gigs around the town have brought the blues alive in a way that no other label has. Entering into a neighbourhood bar like B.L.U.E.S through the lens of one of the cameras recording the performance is the next best thing to actually being there to watch Jimmy Burns and his band sweat their way through a riveting set of high energy, electric blues.

In the past few years of reviewing discs I've been fortunate enough to watch and listen to a great many of Delmark's recordings. However that only represents three years of the fifty-five years of material they have produced so each of the two, two disc sets (one CD and one DVD) made to commemorate the label's fifty-fifth anniversary, Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz and Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues, contain tracks that I've not heard before. As DVD production has only been added to their catalogue in the last few years the CDs are a more accurate representation of the label's history with tracks like Big Joe Williams' "Coffeehouse Blues" dating back to his 1961 release I Got Wild and Speckled Red's " The Right String But The Wrong Yo-Yo" from one of the earliest recordings, The Dirty Dozens of 1956.

On Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz they've included a little something special extra - some of their re-issues. The 1944 album Rainbow Mist featured a band that contained Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach among others, and the track selected, "Bu-De-Dant", has Hawkins taking the lead. Twelve years later Sun Ra released Sun Song, and the track "Brainville" may not follow in exact chronological order from the Hawkins' number, but it comes right after it on this disc and is another recording that Koester and company gave a second life.
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When the Chicago avant-garde first started to hit their stride and groups like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were forming up, it was Delmark who produced their first two discs. Although there aren't any examples of their work on this release, a couple of their descendants, so to speak, show up on the DVD. Both the Ritual Trio; Kahil El'Zabar (kalimba), Ari Brown (tenor sax), Yosef Ben Israel (bass), and guest Billy Bang (electric violin), and Chicago Underground Trio; Rob Mazurek (cornet, computer, moog source), Chad Taylor (drum kit and percussion), and Jason Ajemian (bass and electronics), are taking jazz to, and beyond, frontiers that twenty years ago nobody would have believed possible.

It's only fitting that both of these bands are represented on the DVD half of the release, as they really have to be seen to be believed. Chronicle, the DVD that the Chicago Underground Trio's track "Power" is taken from, was accompanied by visual effects created by filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon that the music inspired. While this is only an excerpt taken from "Power", its enough for you to see the amazing potential for combing abstract video art with the type of experimental music that the Trio is creating. What's even more amazing is that you're watching it on a disc produced by a commercial company, not public television or a state funded art gallery.

Yet, that's what Delmark Records is all about, making sure that all types of jazz and blues are being recorded, not just what's popular at the moment. Dixieland, or traditional jazz, has fallen out of favour among certain circles in the jazz world, but that doesn't stop Bob Koestler from seeking out and recording bands that are still actively playing it. In our interview (see links earlier) Koestler mentioned that one of the things he really appreciated about the people involved in the AACM was that they understood there's a history to jazz and they weren't afraid to use what had been done before as a springboard for what they were doing.

Listening to either Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz or Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues you are given a unique perspective of that history as you hear the various styles and means of expression that each genre has gone through over the last fifty-five plus years; a small slice of the nearly century's worth of music the label represents. Names like Anthony Braxton and Roosevelt Sykes might not have shown up in any of the history books you studied while in school, but they are part of the fabric of our society. It's not often you get to not only see and hear history, but also see and hear it being made - yet that's what Delmark Records does with every disc they release, and these two are no exception.

November 16, 2008

Music Review: Margot Blanche Pages In My Diary

When American jazz came to Europe in the 1920's it inspired a new type of night club performance. Cabaret, was a mixture of live theatre, burlesque, and a musical revue with featured vocalists. If you've ever seen either The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich or Cabaret starring Liza Minelli, you'll have a good idea as to the kind of performances that were seen in those places that presented cabarets. Those who sang in cabarets were encouraged to sing in as suggestive a manner as possible, drawing upon the sensuality inherent in jazz and blues to make it as sensual as possible.

Perhaps because cabaret style performances were driven in part by the desperation of the times, an attempt to cram as much fun as possible into a short period of time before the inevitable war, it did not survive WW2. After the war, with all the competition for the entertainment dollar, and the advent of accessible home entertainment, fewer were willing to take the financial risk involved in mounting such lavish entertainment.The closest thing to it that we have today is the plastic sexuality of the Las Vegas show.

Another reason for the demise of cabaret has been the compartmentalization of popular music which has led to there being fewer and fewer performers with the skill to perform the variety of music it required of a singer. There aren't many vocalists who have the ability to not only sing the styles of music required, but have the ability to put on a show as well. That doesn't mean there aren't any out there, and if her newest self-produced and distributed release, Pages In My Diary, is anything to go by, Margot Blanche not only has the abilities to sing a variety of styles, she appears to have the required panache for the showmanship side of things as well.
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Judging by the images that are included of her in the booklet accompanying the CD she has created a persona for this disc modelled after Varga girls and other classic pin up images from the 1940s. The twelve tracks that are included on the disc, all of which she has at least co-authored, contain elements that are reminiscent of that era, along with more contemporary stylings. She has even gone so far as to include production values on some of the numbers that generate the sound of a song being heard through the thin compressed sound of an old mono, tube radio to help re-create an authentic atmosphere.

If that weren't enough for us to get the idea of what she was trying to accomplish there are even some songs which include samplings of singers like Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. However, least you think she is merely trying to recreate the past her songs also contain elements of hip hop, soul, and R&B and the occasional sample of more contemporary performers like Isaac Hayes and The Meters. While this is beginning to sound like a hideous pastiche of music that will end up a confusing mess, that estimation fails to take into account Margot Blanche's skill as a both a performer and a composer.

She is not only gifted with a voice that has the range to work comfortably at either end of the scale and well beyond a single octave, it's a voice with an exceptional amount of character and the versatility to handle any of the formats she attempts. From the hard edged, street smart voice required for the hip-hop/rap flavour of the title track, "Introduction (Pages Of My Diary)", the teasing sounds of "Material Love", to the genuine soulfulness of "Beautiful Soul", she is able to accommodate all the styles she attempts with ease and naturalness.
margot Blanche.jpg Where many people who attempt multiple styles of music within one recording come across as unconvincing or insincere, Margot Blanche is not only able to carry them all off with equal aplomb, but does so sounding like she was born to sing that particular genre. While in part this is due to her ability as a vocalist, it's also a tribute to her talents as a performer. Instead of merely assuming an attitude that would be appropriate for a song, she goes a lot deeper and creates a character who fits what's being expressed in the material.

Of course that makes a lot of sense once you understand that Pages Of My Diary is not merely a collection of love songs. Think of it as a collection of diary entries, each of which are a reflection of the different approaches one person could take to the thorny and complicated subject of love. It's as if Margot has opened the pages of a diary where she's allowed different personalities to hold forth on what they think about love and what they desire in a relationship. In that light, Pages From My Dairy becomes a one woman show about love with songs serving as the script instead of monologues.

Margot Blanche is a gifted singer, a creative songwriter, and a talented producer, with a flair for theatricality which make the songs on her CD Pages Of My Diary not only interesting to listen to, but turns the disc into a mini piece of musical theatre. The art of cabaret may not be as dead as I thought after all.

November 4, 2008

Music Review: Sleepy John Estes & Hammie Nixon On 80 Highway

I have to admit, that no matter how much I love the blues, there are times when some of the older styles of the music can get boring. After one or two songs there just isn't enough variety in either the music or the vocals to maintain my interest. I think, like any genre, unless the person performing has something unique they can bring to what they are doing there won't be anything of interest for the audience to listen to.

The really good players, no matter what style they play, are always distinguished for me by the force of their personality. When performing a style of music that's as simple as country blues a performer without charisma, or who isn't willing to invest as much of his or her character as possible into a song, won't be able to deliver a performance that will hold an audience's attention. This becomes especially noticeable when you listen to people like Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon.

Delmark Records of Chicago has just released a collection of never before released recordings that Sleepy John and Hammie recorded back in 1974 just prior to the two them heading off for a tour of Japan. On 80 Highway is a collection of standards and original Estes tunes that are perfect examples of just how good the music can be when performed by people who are willing to let themselves become part of the song.
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In fact it's quite amazing how much energy is generated by just the two performers. John Estes on guitar and vocals and Hammie Nixon on harmonica, kazoo, and vocals are able to generate more enthusiasm and excitement between the two of them then a good many full rock bands. Now part of that is the interplay between the two, both during the songs, and the in between chat that has been included on the record. It's impossible not to get caught up in the fun the two men are so obviously having doing the music and just hanging out together.

Of course that sort of rapport only comes about after years of playing together, and the two men have been recording music together since the late 1930s. John began his recording career back in 1929 and hasn't stopped playing music since even though his recording career took a break in the fifties when country blues fell out of favour with the rise in popularity of rock and roll and electric blues. It wasn't until the folk/blues revival of the early 1960's that his career started up again and he was able to hook up with the American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe.

Estes and Hammie not only performed and recorded together but they also rode the rails together when trying to save money. It was on one of those occasions, when they had cashed in the tickets given them to attend a recording session, that Hammie lost his last good eye as a piece of gravel in the gravel car they were hitching on flew up and hit him in the eye. While it's true that for some duos playing and being together for numerous years didn't make them close - supposedly Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee didn't talk to each other for the last few years of their career together - but I can't see how you could continue to make great music the way John Estes and Hammie Nixon did without the camaraderie you hear on this recording.

Even the old chestnuts, and there isn't an older chestnut than "When The Saints Go Marching In", on this album sound fresh in their hands. Perhaps it's because I've never heard it played on kazoo before, but I think it's also because of the character they are both able to imbue the song with. I've heard countless people sing this song, as I'm sure you have, but this has to be the first time that I've heard someone sing it who sounds like they might actually believe what they are singing.

One of my favourite bits of this recording isn't actually them singing a song, its their introduction to "I'll Be Glad When Your Dead". It starts off with some rambling nonsense about John's name - he mumbles something unintelligible for a few seconds - and continues on into Hammie accusing John of stealing every women that he ever wanted to marry. It doesn't sound like much to see it put baldly on the page like that, but there's something about the interplay between the two men and the infectious nature of their laughter that makes the ensuing song that much more alive.

They are also more than just a humorous act, as they show on their passionate renditions of "President Kennedy" (Take 13 & Take 14). These two tracks are in homage to the late John F. Kennedy and what makes them so special is the simplicity of their lyrics and the heartfelt way in which they deliver them. There aren't many songs that I can honestly say I've heard sung more "straight from the heart" than these two versions included on these sessions. The simple line "everybody was sad, we lost the best President we ever had" doesn't sound like much when read, but hearing Estes sing them you hear how much Kennedy had meant to those his presidency had brought the hope of a better tomorrow to.

Mixed with the country blues numbers on the disc are some gospel tunes; "Holy Spirit" and "Do Lord Remember Me" as well as the previously mentioned "Saints Go Marching In", and it's in those songs you find a clue to what makes John Estes and Hammie Nixon so good. Listen to the heart felt belief in every word of what they are singing, it's nothing elaborate or ornate, it's just a simple, honest, and sincere belief in their God. What makes their secular blues songs so powerful is the fact they are able to bring the same passion that fuels their belief in God to songs about loving to eat potatoes; "Potato Diggin' Man".

There's nothing complicated or sophisticated about Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon. They play songs that probably countless other people have played on very basic instruments. Yet, there is a quality to what they do, a spirit that they bring to the music, that makes it alive in a way that you're not liable to hear from many other performers. If you've ever wondered what the fuss is all about when people rave about old time blues, because any that you've heard had bored you silly, give a listen to On 80 Highway and I think you'll really appreciate it for the first time.

October 15, 2008

Music Review: Fontaine Brown Tales From The Fence Line

You have to wonder at some people's stamina, sticking with being pop musicians for over forty years. I'm not talking about folk like Mick and Keith either who have been stars for longer then most of you reading this will have been alive, but the guys (and women) who have somehow or other managed to make their livings in popular music since the early sixties. Think about what it must involve to do that if you don't have a record contract with a major label that pays the bills. It means you're dependant on the cash you make from any gigs you can scrounge.

After some success in the early 1960's playing the Detroit rock and roll scene with the likes of Bob Seger, some collaborative work with Del Shannon, and bouncing around he industry producing and performing, Fontaine Brown spent five years living what he called the life of a man with no fixed address, playing crappy little clubs and making just enough to get by. There's only so long though that a man can do that, and so he pulled his van over to the side of the road, set up a home studio, and through his industry contacts settled into a comfortable career as a songwriter for the last twenty years supplying the likes of Emmylou Harris, Persy Sledge, Dave Edmunds, and John Mayall with tunes.

Now two hundred songs later Fontaine has stepped back into the studio for the first time in close to thirty years to record his own music. If you couldn't tell by the diversity of the folk who have recorded his songs over the last few years, Tales From The Fence Line is a collection of tunes that ranges from country flavoured pop to some of the raunchiest and low-downiest blues you'll have heard outside of a swamp. Fontaine has been out right to the extreme edges of pop-music, where it's dirty and nasty and bar owners stiff you for a night's work, what he calls "the Fence Line", but instead of becoming bitter and resentful over lack of success like others might have, it seems to have only made his love for the music he plays stronger.
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Some performers who spend their lives doing a little of this and a little of that end up being only mildly proficient in a variety of styles; basically only good enough to satisfy the not so discerning audiences of drunks they play for in bars. Judging by the evidence presented on Tales From The Fence Line that's not the case with Fontaine Brown. It doesn't seem to matter what style of song he's singing or playing, he's not only as comfortable playing it as someone whose dedicated their whole career to that genre, he writes tunes that reflect its best aspects.

The first thing you notice upon listening to Tales From The Fence Line is how seamless the disc fits together. You'd think that a recording make up of a mixture of genres would sound pretty disjointed, but Brown and his producers, Don Dixon and Daniel Bourgoise, have arranged the twelve songs in such a way as to create the flow that you don't normally find on recordings. The songs don't have anything to do with each other, there's no "theme" tying them together, yet they fit together just like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

The opening track is an ear grabbing, blues/rock song, "Ain't No Brakeman". Complete with raunchy, fuzzed out lead guitar, harmonica solo, catchy chorus, and slow break in the middle of the song, it's a classic rock song that could have been written anytime between 1969 and 1975. From there they go into the mandolin drive title song from the disc, "Fence Line". While anybody could have penned the opening song, this one could only have come from the heart of a man whose spent as long wandering in the wilderness of popular music as Brown has. There are echoes of John Fogarty in his vocals, but the song is uniquely his own, as it sums up a great deal of the desperation he must have felt while sweating up on stage in some nameless bar in front of empty chairs.

Musically the song is also far more interesting than your standard blues/rock song as they do things like have the drums and guitar playing on each other's off beat to create a strange syncopation for the mandolin to run across. There's something about the song that it sent shivers up my spine the first time I listened to it. Somehow or other the music manages to capture the desperation of the lyrics in a way that most songs aren't able to accomplish. This is not a pleasant song to listen to, not because it sounds bad, but because it's never easy to listen to something this truthful and emotionally raw.

Fontaine gives you a bit of break for the next four tracks as he does a sort of tribute to the various styles of music you can tell have influenced him the most. "Detroit Saturday" is the sounds of Detroit rock and roll; "Closer To The Flame" is a soul influenced pop song that shows his affinity for Motown; from it's organ driven opening to it's chorus "Love Come Rescue Me" sounds like it could have been a hit for Marvin Gaye or even Otis Redding; and "Southside Story" is Chicago blues - electric and scorching.

After giving you some steady ground, and making you think he's going to deliver a disc of fairly safe conventional pop songs, he yanks the rug out from under you for the rest of the disc. While each song might contain some element that you can recognize as being blues, or whatever, he pushes the boundaries of the song past what most people would be willing to risk. Take "Pool Of Light" for example, nothing's prepared you for the electric sitar and tabla which gives the song its almost psychedelic flavour.

Most guys who spent their careers playing bars or writing songs for a living end up being fairly conventional, only if from having to spend so many years being concerned with pleasing as many people as possible with their music. Fontaine Brown can play that game as well as anybody and can write a pop song when he wants to. However what makes Tales From The Fence Line a cut above what you're going to hear from most people is his willingness to take chances and experiment. The result is a recording that is continually surprising in its content, and a delight to listen to. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Fontaine Brown before listening to this disc, but I think you're going to be hearing a lot more of him from now on. After forty some years of working in pop music its about time he got a little recognition and he deserves it for this recording.

October 2, 2008

Streamed Concert Review: Grayson Capps Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso

There are times when it's really obvious that I don't know my way round the Internet very well. I guess I can offer up the excuse that for the first seven years I had access to a personal computer I was using a dial up modem connection which meant on a good day I was operating at about 43kps. For those of you who've never been stuck down there in low speed land what it means is that your options for activities on line are limited. For instance you're not going to watch any streamed video unless you don't mind it stopping every few seconds to buffer as you can't download the information fast enough to play it continuously.

So even though I've been using high speed since the beginning of this year, it's only been recently that I've started shedding the old behaviours and taken to watching clips of concerts that show up on places like You Tube. What I didn't know was that there are sites like Fabchannel where they broadcast entire concerts online. I found out about them when I was trolling through Hyena Records' blog looking to see which, if any, of my reviews of their people they had linked up to, and I came across a link to a concert that one of my new favourite performers, Gryason Capps, had given at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam.

Grayson Capps had really blown me away the first time I heard any of his music, and continued to do so after I heard his recent release,Rott 'N' Roll. Then in August I had the chance to spend some time with Grayson on the phone for aninterview and that only confirmed all the good opinions I had formed about him from listening to his music. You know how it is, sometimes a person might come across a certain way on record, but then when you talk to them you find out it was only artifice and they aren't anything like what you hoped. Well that's not the case with Grayson Capps, what you hear on the records is pretty much what you get when you talk to him.
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The opportunity of seeing even a recording of him performing was too good to pass up, so I decided to check out Fabchannel's offering. It wasn't going to cost anything except some time, and if, like some of the feeds I've seen on other video sites, the sound or the picture quality sucked I could always turn it off without feeling like I'd wasted anything. Well I don't know who these people are over at Fabchannel, but, in this case anyway, the quality of the sound and video was better than many concerts I've seen on DVDs offered for sale. Even when I blew up their embedded player to fit my full screen the picture quality stayed almost as crisp as it was in the smaller version and the sound was crystal clear.

The concert was filmed in May of this year, and in a bit of a surprise was Grayson performing by himself without his band. Over the course of about one hundred and ten minutes Grayson sings twenty-five songs and regales the audience with stories about people he's known and some of the places he's been. Some of his songs tell versions of the stories that's he's just told us, versions that take us inside the story so that instead of being an observer all of a sudden we're sitting in that bar with him and Bobby Long on a Saturday afternoon in Alabama.

Watching Grayson Capps perform is almost like attending an old fashioned revival meeting. He's a commanding presence on stage, and not just because he's a big man but because of the force of his personality. Whether he's telling a story, singing, reciting, or leading the audience in a sing a long, he exudes a life force that has to be seen to be believed. He sings with a voice that sounds like its been carved from the wood of a tree that's been around as long as the Tennessee Mountains he sings about in his song "Arrowhead". Yet for every rough hewn song about some strange and tragic character who has crossed his path,, there's an equal number of songs that express his joy and wonder at the world.

You get the impression watching Grayson that's there's always a great big laugh just waiting to burst out even when he's at his most serious. It's like he can be serious if he has to, and knows there are times when it's important, but there is so much about life to enjoy that he can't hold it in for very long. In the song "A Love Song For Bobby Long" he talks about a character who was a friend of Grayson's dad when he was a kid. At one point he compares Bobby to Zorba, the character played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Zorba The Greek who teaches a young English school teacher how to enjoy life to its fullest. You get the feeling that Grayson received similar lessons and took them to heart as he pours all of himself into all of the songs he performs that evening on stage at the Paradiso.

The set list pretty much covers his entire career as a solo performer, with songs from all three of his recordings, plus a couple of covers including a version of the traditional Scottish ballad "Barbara Allen" and the Tom T. Hall song "Fox On The Run". He alternates between playing an old battered Gibson acoustic, and a wooden resonator for when he switches to playing slide guitar. Interestingly enough he doesn't use a pick-up on either instrument, so he stays seated for most of the concert. However, unlike a lot of folk who stay seated while playing, you never get bored watching Grayson. He's got to be one of the most animated people I've seen. Even when just playing an instrumental on his guitar his whole body is involved, from his toes tapping out the beat to his eyebrows furrowed in concentration as his fingers strum, slap, and pick at the strings or fly over the fret board.

After having listened to a few of Grayson Capps' discs and talking to him on the phone for about an hour or so in August, I'd thought I had begun to get to know a little about him and his music. However, watching him perform, and seeing how the music brings him to life and how he brings life to the music, I realized that to really appreciate Grayson Capps you have to see him. He is such an integral part of his music; his personality, his zest for life, and, most of all, his spirit, that just listening to his songs on the CDs you'll never fully experience him or his music.

Which means if you're like me and live in some small city where the chances of Grayson showing up to give a concert are minimal (people only stop in my town to give concerts because the wheels on their bus fall off while travelling between Toronto and Montreal) your best bet is to find a good recording of him in concert. Thankfully not only is there one available, it's also amazingly enough free. Fabchannel's recording of Grayson Capps live at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, is not only free, it's professionally produced and recorded. Not only are the sound and video of excellent quality, the actual camera work is superb as five cameras were used and captured wonderful footage of all aspects of the performance. I guess the only drawback is that you won't be able to burn concerts like this onto a disc of your own to watch on an external machine, as they are broadcast through a flash player like the one embedded into this article.

If you've never had the chance to see Grayson Capps live, and want to, this concert should tide you over until you get the chance to do so in person, it really is the next best thing.

September 29, 2008

Music Review: Los Fabulocos Featuring Kid Ramos Los Fabulocos

Living in Canada it's easy to forget that there is another European influence upon North American culture aside from the French and British. In our defence I'd offer the excuse that since the first settlements from Europe started dotting the St. Lawrence river between Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean in the 1600's it's been the relationship between the two cultures that's dominated our political landscape. The British North America Act (BNA), which served as Canada's constitution until 1980, written shortly after British troops finally overcame the last French stronghold in North America, began the process of ensuring that Canada would have two official cultures by guaranteeing rights of language, education, and religion to the newly conquered French population.

One of the main reasons for this document was the hope that it would reduce the chances of Quebecers succumbing to blandishments from the new republic to the South to throw off its British masters and join them in independence. Instead of expanding Northwards therefore, America moved South and West and carved chunks of Texas and California for itself from Spain's Mexican colony. Due to American policies at the time of, you are either one of us or not us, the Spanish speaking populations that came with those territories and others did not receive the same consideration as their French counterparts in the North until many years later, if at all. In spite of this the culture was able to hang on and its influences upon American life can be seen today in everything from architecture to popular music.

While Hispanic influences in popular music have eventually worked there way north across the border into Canada they are nowhere near as ingrained into the structure of the music here as it is in the United States. While Ritchie Valens was obviously the first Hispanic pop star, Spanish influences can be heard in the music of everybody from Buddy Holly to Willy DeVille and everything from country music through to pop, jazz, and Broadway musicals. Yet while their cultural influence has spread, there doesn't seem to be much awareness of Hispanic bands outside of the old territories. Names like Los Lobos, Ricky Marten, and Jennifer Lopez might be known to today's audiences and an older generation may remember Jose Feliciano, but outside of those few there aren't many who have broken through to wide public awareness.
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One of those bands that's been making an impression out in California is Los Fabulocos featuring Kid Ramos. While the individuals in the band are all veterans of the music scene; Ramos has played with the James Harman Band and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and lead singer/ accordion player Jesus Cuevas led The Blazers; their self-titled release, Los Fabulocos on the Delta Groove label in mid August of this year was their first disc as a unit. However, there's no way you're going to be able to tell that by listening to it as they sound like they've been playing together for years.

Right from the opening track, "Educated Fool", you realize that you're entering uncharted territory. For while the song starts out sounding like a typical up tempo country rock song, when the accordion pushes itself front and centre on the first chorus, things take on a different complexion. I think, listening to this song, this is the first time I understood the Spanish connection to Cajun music, as the way the way Jesus pulled notes from the accordion on this track and the one following, "If You Know", sounded like they could have come from New Orleans as easily as from California.

Yet it wasn't quite zydeco either as the guitar pushing the song forward sounded more like it came from Chicago via Texas than anything you'd usually hear in the French Quarter. Of course after hearing their version of "Crazy Baby", sounding like an old fifties rock tune, I pretty much gave up trying to figure out the provenance of the songs and decided to just sit back and enjoy them. Which wasn't what you'd call a much of a chore, as Los Fabulocos continued to be packed full of surprises right to the end of the disc.

For the CD is like a trip through the history of American popular music since the 1950s if Mexico had held onto both Texas and California, or if, at the very least, the Spanish population had wrung the same concessions out of their conquerers as the French did in Canada. It's like the music has been given a transfusion of Spanish blood that's warmed up its stolid Anglo origins. A song like "Lonesome Tears In My Eyes", a country chestnut if I've ever heard one, isn't the type of music I can normally listen to without access to insulin they're usually so saccharine. Yet there's something about replacing pedal steel with Spanish instruments, and Kid Ramos' vocals, that has made potentially maudlin lyrics ring with genuine emotion.

Okay, perhaps there's a good chance that the Spanish lyrics on the disc have caused me to romanticize some of the other tracks to an extent. But when, if ever, has any Anglo song ever inspired you to romanticize anything? There's a damn good reason Spanish, along with French, Italian, and Romanian, are part of what's known as the Romance language group. Although technically speaking it's because they are all descended from the language of Rome, Latin, they all sound one heck of a lot more poetic and beautiful than English ever could. I mean, when was the last time you ever hear anyone being referred to as an "Anglo Lover" instead of "Latin Lover"?

Putting all of that aside for now, what it comes down to is Los Fabulocos are an extremely talented and versatile band that can play just about any style of popular music, from both sides of the Rio Grande, that you care to throw at them. One moment they can have you up dancing your cares away and the next they'll have you crying in your beer. Or better yet, holding your true love a lot closer to you then you had previously thought possible. Pick up a copy of Los Fabulocos today and experience just how much fun they are. California has been hoarding some great music, but the secret is out and you're going to have to share Los Fabulocos with the rest of us from now on.

September 28, 2008

Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso In Amsterdam

This is something different for me, this isn't really a blog entery - a review or an article like I'd normally write - all it is is an embeded video thingy that will allow you to see Grayson Capps live at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam. Grayson is absolutely amazing - it's him solo - and he rocks the house like no one else I've ever seen. So just hit the play button and enjoy - If you check back through my blog you'll find an interview with Grayson and a review of his latest release Rott 'N' Roll

September 26, 2008

Music Review: Various Performers Sprigs Of Time: 78's From The EMI Archive

It's only been in the last twenty years or so that the world music genre has obtained a significant level of popularity among the general public. What had first been a sort of novelty in the 1980's is now just another one of the genres of music that we take for granted. Weekly, it seems that one label or another is releasing music from one part of the world or another. From the Middle East to the Amazon basin, from music as basic as tribal rhythms to stuff as sophisticated as the intricacies of classical Hindustan compositions, it seems like we've got the whole world at our fingertips.

Although no one says it, the implication is that all of this is happening for the first time and that if it weren't for the intrepidness of certain individuals and labels we wouldn't be able to experience things like music from Nepal or Kenya. While it's true that these new labels are making more and more music from various parts of the world available to us, and in quantities that were perhaps unheard of before now, it would be wrong to think that music from these parts of the world had never made it to record or distributed before.

I'm not talking about music ethnologists who recorded for research purposes only and weren't making their recordings for popular consumption. Major record labels like EMI of England were making recordings of music from around the world as far back as 1903. One only needs to look at the latest collection of music from Honest Jon's Records, Sprigs Of Time: 78s From The EMI Archive, that's being released on October 14th/08 and you'll see recordings that date as far back as 1903 (The Imperial Palace Band of Japan playing a piece called "Seigaiha") and are as recent as Trinidad's The Mighty Sparrow singing "The Queen's Canary" in 1957.
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There's something a little odd about a seemingly haphazard collection of music like this one. Thirty tracks have been culled from the archives of EMI's back catalogue of 78 records in Hayes Middlesex, restored at Abby Road Studios in London, and then dropped onto the CD in no particular order. At first there is something rather disconcerting about hearing voices and instruments that have nothing in common with each other. One moment you're listening to music from Iraq and the next the stages of Britain's music halls from between WW 1 and WW 2, but as the record progresses do you find yourself getting used to it, but it's never quite enjoyable.

One fascinating thing, for me anyway, about this collection was wondering about the provenance of some of the music. Why, for example, was a recording of Vengopal Chari of Madras laughing made in 1906? At first when I listened to it I thought whoever it was was crying, and then when I realized it was somebody laughing it became even more mystifying. First of all it seems such a strange thing to record and secondly there is something disturbingly manic about it. Whoever Vengopal is you wouldn't feel very comfortable being alone with him after listening to this recording - it would be the perfect laugh for the diabolical villain in some cheap horror movie.

While that piece is rather disconcerting, to say the least, the disc also contains examples of some of the more wonderful types of music that are out in the world just two tracks later. There's the wonderful guitar and trumpet duet of the flamenco song "Flor De Petenera" from Spain 1933, followed by the haunting voice of Fairuz of Beirut recorded in 1956 singing "Ya Honaina". Of course before you can get too carried away by the sublime moments offered by these two tracks, you go back in time to New York in 1926 to listen to Cliff Edwards performing " I Ain't Got Nobody" a sort of Dixieland jazz number played on banjo and song in the near falsetto that singers used to affect during the twenties.

I don't know if these moments are intentional or just the result of happenstance, but over and over again the recording brings you up cold with moments of the near ridiculous after items of some beauty. While I can't be sure of the motivations of the people responsible for compiling and arranging the material on the disc, it does appear like they don't want you to ever be in a particular mood for very long. Perhaps it's because they want you to appreciate the diversity of what was recorded and available on the old 78's they have taken the music from, but it seems just as likely to be sheer perversity on their part and a desire to keep us, the listener, on our toes.
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However you want to look at it, and in the end it doesn't really matter, this collection of music is as esoteric and eccentric as the human race. Many of the tracks have the rawness of field recordings about them while others were made with the finest technology available at the time. Some of the songs are performed by people who are forgotten by history and there are those, like Mighty Sparrow, one of the first popular Calypso singers who brought the music of the Islands to the world, who have made significant contributions.

In the end this disc serves as a good reminder that long before there were labels specializing in world music, there were recordings being made of music from all over the world. Unfortunately I only received a promotional copy of Sprigs Of Time which came with almost no information about the songs or the performers involved. Hopefully when its released to the public in October it will be accompanied by information that will explain a little of each track's history, as it would be nice to have some frame of reference for them. Otherwise it remains an interesting, but confusing, melange of sounds and music that has been arranged with apparently little rhyme or reason. While it has moments of enjoyment and fascination, it does get a little tedious by the end just listening to song piled on top of song in such a jarring fashion.

September 24, 2008

Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band Some Cold Rainy Day

In the past few years technology has taken on a larger and larger role in popular music on both the performance and manufacturing sides of the business. When it comes to the strictly practical side - recording and distribution for instance - technology has been a boon for the independent musician as it has allowed him or her to manufacture and distribute their own music for no more than what it would cost to purchase a personal computer with a good sound card and a high speed Internet connection.

One only needs to look at the success of bands like Dispatch who never signed with any record label and yet were able to sell out three nights at Madison Square Gardens by simply making the tickets available to their MySpace Friends list to see how well that could work out. Bands no longer have to jump through hoops with record companies in order to get their music published and distributed. True they have to pay for it all out of their own pockets, and as their pockets aren't as deep as the big companies, they won't be able to afford to do all the big companies do marketing, distributing, and promoting their recording. But for some people that's a fair exchange in return for being able to retain creative control.

On the other hand the ever increasing role that electronics and digitally created effects have started to play in the music itself has led to something of a backlash resulting in some musicians and audience members looking to older and simpler forms as an alternative. Like the punks in the 1970's who rebelled against what the saw as the excesses of progressive rock and the blandness of the industry controlled charts, the musicians among them aren't interested in creating music for the sake of celebrity. They want to play music that inspires them to play and moves them.
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Like some of their contemporaries, for Eden Brower and John Heneghan of Eden & John's East River String Band that has meant going backwards in time and searching out old blues and popular songs from the early part of the twentieth century to perform. While there's always the risk that when performers look to an earlier era for their material that they will become a type of museum piece or a curiosity, one only has to listen to their recently released CD, Some Cold Rainy Day, recorded on their own East River Records label and distributed by Forced Exposure, to realize that this duo won't be put in a display case under glass any time soon.

One of the hardest things for a musician to do these days is be able to hold an audience's attention when it's just you and your guitar up on stage or on record. Even a duo, like Eden and John, face a stiff challenge in both grabbing their audience's attention and then holding on to it once they begin performing. Even more difficult is doing what they have accomplished with their CD. I don't remember the last time that either a solo act or a duet has been able to hold my attention like these two.

Right from the opening track, Mississippi John Hurt's "Ain't No Tellin'", Eden's voice reaches out and pulls you into the songs. You don't just sit and listen, as there is something about how she sings that drags you into the song so you experience what she's singing about. There's been plenty of people who have covered old blues and pop standards from these time periods, but very few of them have been able to bring them alive like John and Eden do.

I've gone years without being able to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument, and now for the second time in as many weeks here's another person playing one with such flair and finesse that it makes you forget people like Tiny Tim. Eden plays a resonator ukulele, metal body with a cone built in to amplify the sound, that you think would make it sound tinier, but in actual fact gives the instrument more body. It makes a wonderful counterpoint to John's guitar playing as she fills in the spaces around his chords with her sound.
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Some of the songs on the disc are ones I'm familiar with from other sources, "Nobody's Business If I Do" by Tommy Bradely & James Cole for instance, but some of them, both songs and writers I've never heard of before. John and Eden have culled these tracks from old 78 records that they have dug up at used records stores, garage, and junk sales across the United States, and some of the song titles and writer's names are half the fun of this disc. "On Our Turpentine Farm" by Pigmeat Pete & Catjuice Charlie or "I Had To Give Up Gin" by the Hokum Boys are two of my favourites. What makes it even more fun is how good the songs sound.

I think part of the reason the songs sound as good as they do is that both of Eden and John have been passionate about this music for a long time. They have pictures on their web site of them standing in front of shelves filled with old 78 records that they've collected over the years. They appear to spend a great deal of their time getting together with like minded musicians and playing this music just for the love of playing it. That love shines through in every song sung and every chord plucked and played. When you hear people that excited by what they are doing you can't help but get caught up in it.

You can also tell this just isn't a fad for these two. They'd be playing this music even if there wasn't the renewed interest we've been seeing over the last few years for more traditional forms of music. When Eden and John play a song like Little Hat Jones' "Bye Bye Baby Blues" the song sounds like it was written for them. They may not have the most polished of voices or be the slickest of players, but this music wasn't written by or performed by people who were either. I think if you're going to sing "Do Dirty Blues" by Bertha "Chippie" Hill you have to be a little rough around the edges.

If you go to Eden and John's web site you'll find links to all sorts of interesting information about the music they play and where they found it, and places you can see them, and others like them, playing. For those of you who like beautiful old guitars, even if only to look at them, they also provide a link to a site that sells restored guitars from the 1930's featuring some very rare items made by Stella. I mention this because I think it will help you understand how they are able to bring music that's nearly eighty years old, if not older, alive without sounding affected. They have taken the time to understand the music and dedicated themselves to it until, and you can tell this by listening to them, they live and breathe it.

Utah Philips might have been talking about Eden & John's East River String Band when he said "The past didn't go anywhere" because it hasn't. While living in the past may be a dangerous thing, too many of us are in so much of a hurry that we forget the past and about what we can learn from it. The music on Some Cold Rain Day is from the past, but it speaks to things that most people can relate to and about topics that all of us can understand. Eden and John have lifted these songs from the wax grooves of old 78's and breathed new life into them so another generation of music fans can appreciate them. Its a great record of great music performed by people who love what they do - it doesn't get much better than that.

September 19, 2008

Music DVD Review: Long John Baldry It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University

In the late 1950's and early 1960's young English musicians were putting together bands to play music that most of them had no experience with outside of records they had picked up in the shops. There just weren't that many opportunities to see bluesmen from Mississippi and Chicago performing live in London and Lincolnshire in those days. Now a days they're all household names, but back then Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, John Lennon, and the rest were unknowns playing anywhere they could get gigs.

Aside from their love of blues and American music one other thing that most of those young men had in common was the patronage of the man Rod Stewart refers to as the "first white guy singing the blues (in England)", Long John Baldry. Baldry wasn't really much older then the others, but he had experience. He had toured with Ramblin' Jack Elliot and sung with Muddy Waters, and was working professionally when the Beatles were still only playing sets during intermissions at The Caravan in Liverpool. It was Baldry who gave most of today's old veterans their first gigs by hiring them to play in his band; Ginger Baker, Jeff Beck, Brian Jones, Elton John, Ron Wood, Charlie Watt, Keith Richards, and Rod Stewart all played with Baldry early in their careers. He was so important and respected by all of them that when The Beatles did their first international television special in 1964 they insisted that Baldry be included on the bill singing Muddy Water's tune "I've Got My Mojo Working".

Baldry never became famous, it doesn't appear he wanted fame that much, and according to Rod Stewart he was content to play bars and sing the blues where and when he felt like it. Not that he didn't have his share of troubles, as he battled with alcoholism for long a while, but unlike others he won that war and came out the other side. He was also an incredibly brave man, as long before it was popular, or even safe, he went public with his homosexuality, and was probably the first openly gay music personality of any repute. I remember hearing him being interviewed somewhere around that time, the mid-eighties, and he sounded like a man at peace with himself. He had left England in the early 1970's and moved to Canada where he began a third career as a folk and blues artist signed to the Stoney Plain label who he was with until his death in 2005. His last release was Remembering Leadbelly in 2001, a tribute to his first inspiration, Huddie Leadbetter.
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Long John Baldry was distinguished by two features on stage; his towering presence - he was six feet seven inches tall (where did you think he got his name from?) and his deep, mellifluous voice that was made to sing the blues. Stony Plain has kept quite a few of his releases in stock, including some reissues of work from the late sixties and early seventies if you're interested in checking him out. Even better though is the opportunity being offered by MVD Video on September 26th when they will be releasing the DVD It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University. Recorded in 1987 it features Baldry playing a small club on campus backed by a five piece band and supported by vocalist Kathi McDonald.

While this represents a rare opportunity to see Baldry perform it's not what I'd call an ideal situation. The sound quality is fine, as is the picture, in fact, given the age of the recording it's a lot better than anyone has any right to expect. The problem is that who ever did the original filming only recorded eight of the songs that the band performed that night, and two of them, "Respect" and "Natural Woman", are sung by Kathi McDonald without Baldry even being on stage. Don't be fooled by the running time of eighty-five minutes, as only fifty or so are of the actual concert, while a good chunk of the remainder seems to be taken up with promoting other releases on the Quantum Leap label. The backstage interview with Baldry is a truncated affair that starts in mid sentence with him talking about when he met the Beatles in Liverpool and his appearance on the 1964 television show and then ends just as abruptly.

However the six tracks we do get of Long John singing are vintage Baldry. One moment his voice is as smooth and thick as slow poured molasses, only to have him switch gears into a low growl that reverberates through your ear canal. The disc opens with an extended version of "Going Down Slow" which allows him to feature each member of his highly skilled band. Special mention has to be given to Joseph Ingraio on keyboards and Papa John King on lead guitar. Ingraio is not only a skilled blues piano player, he's versatile enough to play some really good boogie-woogie for Baldry's signature "Don't Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock 'N Roll". John King proves to be an inventive guitar player, not only doing a fine job with the slide when needed, but making full use of the fret board to play leads that aren't your usual run of the mill, "see how close I can get my fingers to the pickups" that so many people think are special.

While Baldry plays acoustic guitar on the opening track, from there on in he focuses solely on vocals. His version of "Everyday I Have The Blues" is great as he delivers it with a sly smile that belays any suggestion that having the blues is a negative experience. You can't help but enjoy yourself watching Long John perform as he's having so much fun that he just picks you up and carries you along with his enthusiasm. Of course there's also the site of him shimmying his six foot seven inch frame across the stage. He might be a tall man, but he's also very graceful, and moves around the stage with an elegance that's a treat to watch.

Unfortunately just as you're starting to get into his performance Kathi McDonald joins him on the stage and I found her to be a distraction at best, and a pain at worst. She of the school of vocalist who seems to think that if you spit your words out like a machine gun firing off rounds and shout at the same time that it will pass for emotional intensity. It wasn't so bad when she was backing up Baldry, as his voice went a long way to smoothing over the more jarring aspects of her performance. However, I couldn't sit through her renditions of "Respect" and "Natural Woman" when she soloed. Thankfully Baldry closes the show with great versions of the old classic "Iko Iko" and his previously mentioned signature tune, so the disc ends on an up note and you can easily forget her performance.

Long John Baldry was a marvellous singer and a great performer, but unfortunately It Ain't Easy: Live At Iowa State University barely scratches the surface of what he had to offer. Of course a little Long John Baldry goes a long way, and even this small sampling is enough to understand just how great a talent he really was. It may not be the longest or the best examples of his work, but any Long John Baldry is a damn site better than a lot anybody else has to offer.

September 18, 2008

Music Review: Pete Seeger: Pete Seeger At 89

There were only two records that my parents owned when I was a child that I remember at all, The Weavers Live At Carnegie Hall and The Songs Of Joe Hill by The Almanac Singers. I wasn't what you'd call politically aware as a kid, so I can only imagine I liked the old union organizing songs that were on the second record for the same reasons that I liked the music the Weavers performed - they sounded great. The music was up tempo and the singing voices were enthusiastic and nice to listen to, which for a little kid is really all that matters. Hell I could have liked them for the simple reason that they were the only "singing records" my parents had aside from opera, and the relief of hearing something intelligible made them easy to like.

However, aside from whatever relief the albums might have given me from the dubious benefits of an early and unwanted education in classical opera, they were my introduction to Pete Seeger. The cover of the Weaver's album featured a picture of the four musicians grouped together around a microphone and while Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays were fairly distinct based on gender and age, distinguishing between Fred Hellermen and Pete was a little more tricky for me until I figured out that Pete was the one with the banjo and Fred was holding the guitar. Ever since, and no matter how many pictures I've seen of Pete playing a guitar or any other instrument, he has remained firmly fixed in my head as the tall guy playing banjo who sings with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open.

I'm sure any of you who have either seen Pete in concert or a picture of him performing can visualize exactly what I'm talking about. He stands up in front of the microphone, slightly stooped, as if its just a little bit too low, with one shoulder slightly higher than the other. When he talks its straight out into the audience, but when he begins to sing his head tips up as if he's trying to throw his voice out around the world for all to hear. Now I know it's probably a hang over from the days when he was playing places where there was no amplification and he was doing his best to send that voice up and out so that even those furthest away could hear whatever message he was trying to impart that day. Yet, whenever I see him a picture of him standing thin and alone against the sky poised to begin singing, I can't help but think that he's offering up his songs as a prayer for the world.
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When you think about it, it's not that much of a stretch to think of his music in that way. After all his concerts are as much like revival meetings as anything else with him leading people in songs that are as often as not messages of hope and faith. While he's always peppered his set lists with songs from other parts of the world that give us a window into somebody else's reality, the majority of his music is about what can be done, should be done, and needs to be done to make the world a better place for all of us. All of this has been captured brilliantly in a new, to be released on September 30th 2008, recording from Appleseed Music called Pete Seeger At 89.

On thirty-two tracks of music and talk Pete and his friends show what it means to really care about what goes on around you and the importance of involving as many people as possible in whatever way possible in it. That could mean getting a person to sing a song that makes them feel better about themselves and whoever is sitting next to them at the moment, or singing a song that encourages them to get involved in their own community cleaning up a polluted tract of land. Honest, sincere, and unconditional caring is a rare commodity and it was so palatable that, in these days of increasingly cynical politicians and disillusioned people, listening to this CD brought me close to tears on a number of occasions.

It wasn't even a matter of what was being said, it was how it was being said that affected me. Whether it was song about PCB pollution in the Hudson River ("Throw Away That Shad Net (How Are We Going To Save Tomorrow?)") or about the end of WW2 as seen through the eyes of a young Japanese woman ("When I Was Most Beautiful") it didn't matter. What caught at me was the realization that every word was spoken or sung with genuine caring no matter what the topic. Who but Pete Seeger could write a song based on a twenty-seven word zero waste resolution passed by the city of Berkeley California and not only turn it into a call and response sing-a-long, but make lyrics like "Hooray for the city of Berkeley California" not sound corny?
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Nobody, that's who. You know over the years there have been people who've derided Pete Seeger for not being radical enough while at the same time he was being pilloried as un-American for being a dangerous radical. What neither side have failed to understand is the true nature of Pete's radicalism. Its got nothing to with politics and everything to do with the heart. He encourages people to open their hearts and genuinely feel that they are part of something bigger then themselves. Even if it's only for the briefest of moments while they join in a chorus of "This Land Is Your Land" or a folk song from some place across the ocean in a language they don't understand, they become part of a community of people who are all doing the same thing at the same time.

That's what Pete Seeger's music has always been about, building bridges between people. Either by telling the world at large the story of what it's like to be a miner who "owes his soul to the company store" or getting a thousand strangers to sing together in a darkened concert hall, he brings people together. His songs remind us that there is a world outside of ourselves and that the person who lives on the other side of the world is as real as we are. With Pete Seeger as our guide we find out that it's not difficult or bad to care about the person beside you or the person on the other side of the world and that it actually makes you feel better about yourself.

At eighty-nine years old Pete's voice isn't as robust as it used to be, and he doesn't so much sing anymore as he recites some lyrics now, so he wisely he has chosen to have a bunch of friends help him out on this album. Yet by taking a back seat on some songs and allowing others to lead instead, he gives yet another example of how his music is able to bring together diverse groups of people to accomplish a common goal. Who else but Pete Seeger could get an Israeli songwriter and a Palestinian poet to re-write a Hebrew language folk song, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", so that it now includes Hebrew, Arabic, and English lyrics sung at once in harmony?

Long ago, in the days before there was a world music genre, Pete Seeger was singing songs from cultures around the world in languages he probably didn't even understand. In those days folk music was just that, the music of different folk from around the world. Pete still doesn't see any difference between playing a song written by a guy from Oklahoma or one written by someone from Chile or Moscow. It's that attitude that has permeated his music for generations and has inspired audiences around the world to broaden their horizons. Now if only the rest of the world could catch up to him we'd be getting somewhere.

Pete Seeger At 89 is a great album of music by a great hearted performer. In the forty odd years since I first heard him singing he's still the tall guy with the banjo. His voice might not be able to crack the sky anymore, but his heart and soul are as mighty as ever and that banjo still surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

September 15, 2008

Music Review: Taj Mahal Maestro

I've been trying to remember the first time I heard Taj Mahal, and for the life of me I can't. On the other hand I can't remember a time when I didn't know the name Taj Mahal. He's one of those musicians who has been a constant presence, maybe not always in the forefront, or even someone I've listened to on a regular basis. Yet in a world where names come and go and musical fashions change with the hour, mere mention of his name has always be sufficient to gain my attention.

He always seems to pop up or be involved in music related things which I'm interested in; from his appearance in the movie Songcatcher as a banjo playing blues man to his support of Tim Duffy's Music Makers Relief Foundation. His interest in music is so broad that to try and confine him to one genre by calling him a blues musician almost seems a disservice, as he seems as comfortable with early Americana music as he does with reggae and Hawaiian music. He was first person to get me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument after years of seeing it in the hands of people like Tiny Tim and adolescent movie stars of the forties and fifties, and he was definitely the first person to convince me that the banjo was indeed a blues instrument.

Of course all of that is peripheral to what's most important - his music. For forty years he's been writing and performing great music and in celebration of that anniversary he will be releasing Maestro, on Heads Up Records, September 30th 2008. Although the recording is not an overview of his career or a greatest hits package, it could be looked on as a retrospective of his time in music. The twelve tracks reflect not only the various musical styles that Taj has proven his excellence with over the years, they also display his virtuosity on his favourite lead instruments, slide guitar, banjo, and ukulele.
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The word maestro, when used in connection to music, is usually associated with the conductor of an orchestra, and it implies a position of leadership and experience. It's direct translation though, master, implies more than just leadership, suggesting as it does a person with authority over others, or someone who is considered to be an authority on a particular subject or object. I think it would be safe to say with Taj Mahal that all of those definitions are appropriate.

Of course the word maestro also carries with it a certain level of recognition and appreciation for a person with years of experience under their belt like Taj Mahal, and becomes an honorific to express the respect and admiration that people feel for that individual. On Maestro Taj is joined by musicians from countries all over the world in order to help showcase his special abilities. The fact that quite possibly most of them weren't born when Taj first started working professionally only emphasizes the level of respect that is felt for what he has brought to the music industry.

Now most times when a performer of Taj Mahal's stature releases a disc which features guests on it, they might play a support role on occasional songs, either by singing back-up or laying down a lead track on one of the star's past hits. That's not the case with Maestro as Taj is not only using the disc to celebrate his career, but the music he loves. For example, not only does Ben Harper join Taj on the CD, the song they do together, "Dust Me Down" was written and produced by Harper, and would just as easily fit onto a recording celebrating Ben Harper as it does Taj Mahal. It's a great up tempo rocking blues number that shows off both men's ability to their finest.

Each of the songs that Taj has elected to do with one of his guests not only showcases his own diversity, but also plays to that person's strengths as a performer. As is the case with his number with Harper, on the piece he performs with Ziggy Marley, Taj's "Black Man, Brown Man", he joins his guest's band in the studio, making sure that Ziggy is seen in the best light possible. Given the political nature of the song, in some ways its also a nod to Ziggy's father Bob and his contributions to music, as it reflects Bob's concerns about black people's struggle for identity. Of course Taj puts his own distinctive touch to the reggae number by playing banjo and making it sound like the most natural thing in the world, although I'd be hard pressed to think of another example of banjo and reggae coming together in one song.

While the songs featuring the guest musicians are special, some of my favourite material from Maestro are songs that Taj Mahal performs with the band that's accompanied him on and off throughout the years, the Phantom Blues Band. From their opening cover of "Scratch My Back", his tribute to Otis Redding who made the song famous in the 1960's, Taj's own "Further On Down The Road", on which Jack Johnson joins them as guest vocalist, and "Slow Drag", to the last song on the disc, Willie Dixon's "Diddy Wah Diddy", these tracks put Taj right where he belongs - centre stage. Nothing against Jack Johnson, but these were Taj's songs and I don't think anything Jack could have done with his vocal tracks would have been enough to come close to matching the intensity of Mahal's performance.

Of course that's a hallmark of every song on this disc, the amount of energy that Taj Mahal is kicking out. It doesn't matter if he's covering Fats Domino's "Hello Josophine" accompanied by The New Orleans Social Club, singing a duet with his daughter Deva on the song they wrote together, "Never Let You Go", backed by Los Lobos, or moaning out his own "Strong Man Holler" in the best electric urban blues tradition, he's putting every ounce of himself into every note he sings. Sometimes on anniversary discs like this one, the artist will coast, and attempt to get by on their reputation alone, but that's not the case of here, as Taj appears to be playing with the same amount of enthusiasm for the material now as he did when he released his first album back in 1968.

If there was ever any doubt as to Taj Mahal's place among the premier performers of contemporary blues music Maestro lays them to rest. Perhaps some of you have forgotten just what an amazing singer and instrumentalist Taj is, after all it has been five years since his last domestically released studio album, but listening to him and the Phantoms jump all over the first few bars of "Scratch My Back" I can't see anybody having any trouble remembering him for a long time.

There aren't very many popular musicians who have the vision, the talent, and the commitment to music that would merit them being referred to as a Maestro, but Taj Mahal is one of them. His music combines the elemental passion of early blues players like Leadbelly with a willingness to be influenced by everything from the African roots of the music to the sound of Hawaii's ukulele. He's taken a leadership role in ensuring that those who played before him and the roots of the music aren't forgotten while never losing track of the future through his willingness to share the spotlight with the next generation. Ladies and gentlemen allow me to reintroduce to you, Maestro Taj Mahal, and recommend that on September 30th, you proceed directly to your nearest music outlet and purchase a copy of Maestro - you won't regret it.

September 9, 2008

Interview: Grayson Capps

I first heard of Grayson Capps by accident when a distributor sent me a catch all of CDs to review. Buried in amongst them was this disc called Songbones, which turned out to be a collection of songs that Grayson had recorded along with a friend at somebody's studio one night after hours back in 2002. Some of these songs have shown up again on his releases since that time, If You Knew My Mind and Wail & Ride, but I had never heard any of his music before and I was blown away.

I contacted Grayson's label, Hyena Records and asked them if they could send me out any of his more recent releases, I had been thinking of Wail & Ride, and instead they sent me out a promotional copy for his soon to be released disc - Rott 'N' Roll - September 9th/08. This was the first I heard of Grayson playing with his band the Stumpknockers and as a unit they were even more powerful than he had been solo. Sometimes when a guy's music sounds so potent solo it loses some of the edge that it might have had when a band is brought in, almost as if it gets watered down to accommodate the other musicians.

That wasn't the case here as Grayson seemed able to hold on to his intent whether he was playing solo or with a full band. I was captivated by his ability as a story teller and his uncanny ability to bring things to life through song. You really felt like you were being plunked down in the middle of something when you listened to what he was offering, and that if you closed your eyes you'd find yourself wandering through the lives of the people and places he was singing about.

When the people from Hyena offered me the opportunity to chat with Grayson about his music, I took them up on it and connected up with Grayson in mid August. He was visiting family in Kansas when I caught up with him and we ended up talking about stuff for about an hour. I think the people from Hyena might have expected me to talk about his new release, Rott 'N' Roll, and we might have a bit, but we mainly ended up talking about his music in general.
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We ended up jumping around all over the place - I'd ask a question and one of us would get distracted and change the subject to something else - so I've tried to round up all the stray bits of conversation we had and plunk them in as answers to the questions they seem to fit the best. So Grayson, if you end up reading this and it doesn't quite sound the way you remember it sounding that's why.

Grayson had just returned from a two or so week tour of Norway, and I had wondered about that so I figured I'd start us off with that, and we went from there. I'd just like to thank Grayson for taking a hour out of his time with his family to talk with me, and Kevin over at Hyena for setting this up.

You've just come back from a rather extensive tour of Norway - while I know quite a few musicians have followings over in Europe - Norway is a bit off the beaten path - how did you get hooked up there?

It was two or three yeas ago, some guy, and I can't exactly remember his name now, really liked my music over there and invited us over to play, and they really liked us so we've been going back ever since. We've already played two weeks over there this year, and probably will go back again. You know it works out pretty good for me money wise too, 'cause the way the economy is over there, they pay two to three times what they pay back home in the States. As long as I can get out of there without buying anything I come out ahead. Everything is about two or three times more expensive there as well.

It's really cool over there though - it's so beautiful the fjords and all, and the people are friendly - so we like playing there. It's weird though too 'cause they have a different way of looking at the world than I'm used to - I think it comes from them being pretty much self sufficient - they've got their own supply of Oil from the North Sea oil so they don't have to rely on anyone for anything it seems.

I've read the biography that you've published on your web site, and your early years sound like they could be the subject of one of your songs. What do you think you took from those years that continues to influence you today - creatively and otherwise?

They really made me who I am today - formed me I guess you could say. There were always all these people around, friends of my father, and friends of friends, who were full of ideas and creativity. It was like a community who would be always involved, and they'd all feed off of each other - sparking ideas and inspiring each other. You'd get late night sessions of people sitting around drinking, but reading poetry to each other and singing songs instead of just partying right. I'd like to emulate that sort of environment now, if I could - minus the chaos and the staying up all night drinking, I've got a family and the two just wouldn't mix - but the community of like minded people who can inspire each other ...

There's so much from those days that's till sort of boiling around inside of me, adventures in the past, that are waiting to come out if I could just find the time to write it all down. Finding the time to write is hard when you're on the road, it really gets in the way, and we must have spent over two hundred days touring last year. You're the first person in the bar and the last out every night and you're doing five shows a week in different towns... it really starts to wear on you. Where are you going to find time in there to let your mind relax enough to bring up the stuff from the past you want to write down?
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My father was a big fan of writers like T.S. Elliot and others like that, poets who didn't forget about the journey that people took to get the place they are when you see them. So when I look at people now I wonder who are these people - especially the folk that most of us would rather not look at. The guy in the park sleeping on the park bench with the bottle in his pocket wasn't always there - what was his story - what brought him there? I really believe their problems are an extension of what is wrong with society, and so I try to look at them in those terms too - what is this and what's it mean?

You were a theatre major at Tulane University, but music seems to have had other plans for you - What happened?

Yeah I went to New Orleans as a theatre major but a university education really opened my eyes as it exposed me to so much more of the world than what I had seen to that point growing up in Lennox Alabama - there's far more to the world than you realize when you're from a small town and starting to see it through the eyes of other people like you do at a university is an eye opener. Of course so is New Orleans itself...(laughs) bars and brothels...

It was a teacher of mine in the theatre department who probably planted the idea of music, as he said something along the lines of rock and roll being the new theatre. A couple of friends of mine and me started to do open mich shows, and I guess we were quite a bit different from everyone else that did these things. Instead of just learning some songs, we would put together a whole show. Being theatre majors we would rehearse the shit out of anything before we got up on stage. You can do anything you want on stage and in a bar, so we had a great time.

But it wasn't until I moved into the house on South Front Street that I started to get serious about music and began focusing on song writing full time. That's when we did Stavin' Chain and I got my first real taste of the music business. But that was too much music and not enough show, and I need to find that balance between the two.

"A Love Song For Bobby Long" is not just a song, it's also the name of a movie that was based on a book your dad wrote about two of the people from the time of your childhood. You said you wrote the song in defence of Bobby Long - what did you mean by that?

Bobby was handsome like Al Pacino, and he was like that guy Anthony Quinn played in that movie...damn I can't get it to come, you know he's full of the zest for living and...(Me: Zorba? in Zorba The Greek) Yeah, that's it - he was like a real to life Zorba the Greek - he showed you the potential for what life could be by living it to it's fullest. Of course he also was a great example of how not to live your life too as he ended up burning all his bridges and pissing everybody in his life off.

You know a lot of people thought Bobby was a fool, but he played the fool, and that was an important lesson, cause by playing the fool you can rid yourself of ego. You've gotta get past your ego to be a good performer otherwise you're not going to be honest in what your doing. (laughs) I remember when I first told my dad about wanting to go to Tulane to study acting he said well let's see what you can do. Get down on the floor and lay there kicking your arms and legs screaming I'm a dying cockroach and see if you can make me believe it.

He wanted to make the point that you had to be willing to get beyond thinking of yourself at all if you were going to be a performer. You have to be able to look completely ridiculous, and not be afraid of it, that way you stop thinking about being yourself, get rid of your ego, and just be what you are performing - an archetype instead of a cliche.

So you know, although Bobby ended up alone and drunk in a V.A. hospital, and I guess in most people's eyes he was a failure, he was a good teacher and there was far more to him then what most saw.

You were living in New Orleans until Katrina, and have since moved to Tennessee. Others who I've talked to who have lived and worked in New Orleans at any time in their career talk about the indelible effect both the city and the hurricane had on them. What type of effect do you see the city having had upon you

I lived in New Orleans for twenty years before I moved out to Tennessee. I don't know how much I was influenced by the music of New Orleans to be honest, it's funny how so many people out here who aren't from here, act like there from New Orleans, and I was never really part of or embraced by that scene. If anything New Orleans influenced the way I see characters and my way of looking at life.

For the first time in my life I was a minority when I lived there, and I liked that. It created a tolerance for people that you don't find anywhere else, it's like you get used to seeing people naked. It has to be the least judgemental place I've ever been.

When you grow up in a small town and everybody knows you, they want you to stay like you are, and you can't grow because of that. New Orleans on the other hand embraces growth and that was incredibly liberating. It's like this great boiling broth where everybody is in the same soup but it keeps mixing and creating something different each time you taste it.

I remember after the hurricane and everybody saying it's going to be the death of New Orleans, well you know the day after the winds and everything died down some gay guys were out parading in their panties, (laughs) and I knew no matter what happened the spirit of that city couldn't be killed.

Ever since Katrina you've been living down in Tennessee. Has this changed your music?

To be honest I've not spent all that much time here in the past two years. Last year, like I said I was pretty much on the road all the time, 240 shows or something like that. I'm changing that now, so I'll just be playing on weekends and spending more time here. I'll have a couple of weeks in September and October where I'll be overseas - the UK and Holland but that will only be for a week or two week at a time.

Moving from New Orleans to Tennessee has made me write more about the country. When I write it's a journey of self discovery, a song will usually come about from me trying to figure out a problem I have - if it offers a way out - growth - then I'll keep it. Having children and living here in Tennessee have made a difference in that it's got me out of wallowing in my own stuff. I don't know, but before it feels like I was in a damaged state of mind, and coming here has renewed my focus on what's important. It's like I said earlier about finding a way to have the community of like minded people without the chaos - well it feels like that's what we have here.
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We recorded the latest (Rott 'N' Roll) almost all live, and it was great because we could feed off each other's energy, and what's around us. This was the first album where it was just me and the band, Stumpknockers, and it was great. The first two were me and some studio musicians, so with me and the band it was a different thing as we all had our own stakes in it. There was the sense that we were doing something together that made it a lot more fun.

What, if anything do you wish to accomplish with your music. Is there anything you'd like your listeners to walk away with after listening to one of your records?

I wanna change the world (laughs) They say that poets say in words what people can't express and I look on that as something to work towards. You can express a lot in a song or a poem - all the dreams you want, all the magical possibilities in the world, yet what it comes down to for me is trying to achieve honesty - it's the hardest damn thing to do. There's parts of me at times that can say fuck it, but I've got to remember what it is that's important. You can feel it in waves, it's like little magical moments, and every so often you get it - your truth. If you tell your own truth, people might not get it in quite the same way, but they'll get it on their own terms. It's all about finding common ground where you can meet them.

The world today teaches people that they need shit; material stuff like clothes and cars and other sorts of shit. Truths remind people of what they know and have forgotten because of the distraction of struggling to get all the shit that they've been told is important.

I was really struck by how vivid your songs are - I find that I can imagine just what the place looks like if I close my eyes while listening. Is that a conscious effort on your part to do that - or does it just happen in the process of creating the song?

That goes back to my theatre school days and the stuff we used to do in class. Who, what, where, why, and when - all the questions you ask yourself to make a place real. So when I start to write something I do that and put myself in a place. If you're keeping all that mind you're just going to be able to convey it. I remember one of the exercises we used to in class was one person had to get up in front of the rest of us and imagine what room of the house they were in. They couldn't do anything but sit and think about that room and the rest of us had to figure it out simply by looking at them. It was amazing how many times we were able to figure that out from just looking at the other person.

It was around this time that I started hearing the sounds of family in the background, and we'd been talking for a good hour already so I figured we should wrap it up and I'd let him get back to his visit. We talked a little about the possibility of him coming to play in Canada, and then we said our good byes. Looking back at what I've written out it sorta seems inadequate, but maybe that's because words on a page just don't do justice to either the man or his music.

Even over the phone Grayson Capps is a three dimensional figure, filled with a vitality that just doesn't show up here. I hope this interview offers you a little peek inside his head, and if you've not listened to his music before piques your curiosity enough to go out and pick up his new CD Rott 'N' Roll that's being released on September 9th/08. For those of you who already know Grayson's work, well maybe you've just got to know him a little better than you did before. Thanks again to Grayson Capps, and his family, for sparing me time from his vacation to chat and I hope you can make it up to this part of the world sometime.

September 7, 2008

Interview: Willie Nile - The Troubadour Of New York City

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to review the new DVD by Willie Nile. Live From The Streets Of New York. It had been years since I'd really listened to any of Willie's music, and the DVD brought back in a rush all the reasons that I'd listened to him years ago. Honest, passionate, and intelligent rock and roll without any of the pretensions that seem to have to crept into people's music these days.

Yet he's more than a rock and roller, as he's been bitten by a muse who lets him look at the world with an eye full of mischief and an ear for the absurd. His songs spring from the streets of New York City, but he's not blind to the rest of the world. The music might ring with a New York accent but his songs speak to everyone.

The other week I sent him off some questions through e-mail about him and his career and what you're about to read are his answers reprinted verbatim. I hope reading this interview will inspire you to check out Willie again if like me you lost track of him for a while, or if you've never listened to him, that you take the time to do so now. You won't be disappointed.

You mentioned in the DVD Live From The Streets Of New York that you were originally from Buffalo NY. Can you tell me a little about those early years and what influenced you to pursue a life in music

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family where with older brothers buying rock and roll records and playing music all the time in the house as well as having a lot of classical music played so there was a wide variety of things to be heard by our small ears. We had dozens and dozens of international visitors, exchange students, Buddhist monks, Indian poets and governors, you name it. They came to our house, some for dinner, some for a few days, some for the summer and some for a year. It gave us all a pretty cosmopolitan world view. They all had different languages, customs, clothes, attitudes, etc., yet you could see how people could live together and get beyond the differences. It was interesting to see from such a young age. On top of that my father was a great storyteller. Somewhere along the line I started writing poetry and when I learned to play the guitar I started putting the words into songs.
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What was it about New York City that made you decide that it was the place you needed to be in order to do what you wanted to do?

It was where the beat poets were from. I was into Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat sensibility. New York was also where the record companies were and it was closer than LA or Nashville. I had a bunch of songs I'd written and wanted to make a record. I used to hitchhike down from Buffalo in the summertime and sleep in the park when I was in high school and I found it to be a magical place. I felt free in the city.


You arrived in New York City in the 1970's - it must have been quite intimidating to show up on your own and try to find your way as a musician - did you have any contacts or had you made any arrangements before hand? How did it end up coming together for you?

It was pretty simple for me. I wanted to record my songs and the record companies were in NY. It also felt like Paris in the 1850's and London in Dicken's time. There was a timeless quality to it that I liked. It was definitely intimidating at first but I got over it after a while.


New York by 1977 was a hot bed for new music, with Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, as well as guys like Lou Reed who'd already been around for quite a while - where did you fit in amongst all that?

It was an amazing time. I'd been living in the Village since 1972 and there were a lot of old ghosts from the 60's in the air. There was a pretentiousness in certain quarters that I found ridiculous. One day I was looking in the paper for new places to play I saw an add for CBGB OMFUG. It was on the Bowery and not far from where I lived so I took my guitar and wandered in. At that time it was a Hell's Angels hangout along with a lot of Bowery characters. There was a flop house above it. I asked who to talk to about playing there and was told. "Speak to Hilly." I waited for a half hour and Hilly never came out. While waiting and looking at the jukebox I saw one record on there by a "Hilly Kristal." So I proceeded to pump about five dollars of quarters and played the song over and over until Hilly finally came out of his cave quite annoyed to see who was playing his song so many times. I think he got a kick out of some wise-ass doing something like that so he let me play there. This was when the bar had a jazz pianist as the entertainment and just before Television started playing there. I played in front of a bunch of Hell's Angel's and Bowery Boys. It was great fun. I got to remind him of that story on the last night at CBGB's. I'm glad I got to see him before he died.

As for the scene that developed shortly afterwards, it was incredible. I used to go see Patti Smith and Television all the time, The Ramones, you name it. It was inspiring and original and it rocked. It was a welcome relief from the tedium of the music that was being played around that time. It was original music played from the heart by a bunch of outcasts and Dead End kids. I used to call friends up on the phone at midnight from the back of CBGB's and hold the phone up and say: "Listen to this... you gotta come hear this, come to New York." It felt like The Cavern Club in Liverpool back in the day when The Beatles started happening. They were great days.

You opened for the Who during their 1979 tour of the United States - how did that association come about?

I'd heard through my record label that Pete Townshend was a big fan of my first album. I didn't believe it and thought it was just record company hype but when we played LA on that first tour, The Who's management came to the show and after seeing me play invited me to open for The Who on their cross-country tour in the US. Naturally I said yes. I was a huge fan. It was magical to see them play night after night. I had never played with a band live before that tour so to be playing in front of 20 - 25 thousand raving Who fans night after night was pretty interesting. I had a great time.

I was interested to hear you describe yourself as a troubadour at one point on the DVD, just because that's not a word you hear people describe themselves as very often any more. What do you mean by it in terms of your music and your approach to it?

Someone who travels from town to town singing songs and telling stories would be considered a troubadour in days past. I guess that's close to what I do. I write what moves me, in one way or another. It helps me get a hold on some of the madness that goes on in this world.

One of my favourite songs on the Live From Streets Of New York DVD was "The Day I Saw Bo Diddly In Washington Square". I know you co-wrote that with Frankie Lee, but it, "Back Home", and "Streets Of New York" all struck me as being distinctly Irish influenced. How much if any do you think that heritage influences your writing style?

I love Irish music and my family roots are Irish for the most part so it's not surprising that some Irish influence would get in some of these songs. Irish music has passion, spirit and soul and if there's any of that in my music as well then that's okay by me.

There are a couple of songs on the DVD, "Cell Phones Are Ringing (in the pockets of the dead)" and "Hard Times In America", that are obviously political, but you're more than just a political songwriter. Where do you find your inspiration for material?

I just write down what comes to me from everyday life. Sometimes it's a love song, or a bar band rocker, or a minstrel fairy tale, or a poke at some phony who needs a good sock in the jaw, or a lowdown dirty rock and roll song that can ignite the masses to revolt and take over the planet and make it a better place for people to live in.
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With Cell Phones, I live not too far from the World Trade Center and was in town on 9/11. I watched the towers burn and felt the shock and horror, as did everyone. I was on one of the first flights out of town a few days later on my way to Spain for a tour and was struck by the concern and compassion the Spanish showed night after night with their questions. They really cared about what happened and how people were doing. So, in March of 2004, when the Madrid train bombing happened I immediately checked to see if my Spanish friends were okay. The next day in one of the NY papers one of the headlines read: "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead". Apparently there were some 190 body bags lined up along the tracks and cell phones were going off in the bags. People were looking for their loved ones. It went right through me. It gave me chills and made me angry. That people could do this to one another in this so called 'modern world' really pissed me off. I wanted to fight back in some way. I think we, as a race of people, are capable of much more than this. It's bullshit, all these religious zealots running around praising their 'god' and then killing some innocent people. All sides are guilty of this recklessness. We've got to find a way to get more compassion in this world. So I just started typing away on my computer and wrote the song straight out. It was my way of fighting back. When I sing it live it's surprising to hear so many people singing along with the outro chant "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead" in defiance of all this madness. It's heartening, I must say.

When you write a song, do you have a specific intent in mind before you start, or do you just let the muse take you and then run with it?

Usually I just let the song happen to me. I just go by my instincts on whether to pursue an idea or a phrase or a line of music. If it feels like it could be something I'll just follow that and try not to get in it's way.

What's all this that I read about the 2006 CD Streets of New York being a comeback CD? Had you not put something out for a long time before that?

I think it was 6 years since the last one was out (Beautiful Wreck of the World). I guess I just take too long between albums. I don't see any of it as a 'comeback'. I just take my time and do it when it feels right. I'm just now finishing up a new album for a release in early 09. Can't wait to get it out there.

Earlier I asked you about what it was about New York City that attracted you in the first place, and it's obvious that the city means a lot to you now. Are you able to articulate what it is about New York that makes it so special for you?

There's an electricity to this town that is intriguing to me. It's a cosmopolitan city where the rich and poor and everyone in between wander and roam about amidst canyons of concrete and steel. I've heard that Manhattan is built on a certain kind of granite that is a strong conductor of electricity. When you leave the island you can feel a certain quietness come over you.
There's always interesting music and art and food and crazy people and people who think they're normal but aren't, you name it, it's here. It's the concrete circus where everybody gets a chance to do the do.

What's next for Willie Nile - are there more CDs in the works, any tours on the horizon etc?

There's a number of shows booked till the end of the year. The web site lists them (Willie Nile.com). We're also putting together some tours for next year after the new album comes out. After we finish this new album I intend to make another one right away. The songs are still coming and it's never been more fun so I plan to take advantage of the time and record as many things as I can. Here's to making music and magic and maybe stumbling across a little inspiration here and there...

Well I can't think of a better note to end this interview on than that, so thank you Willie, and I'm glad to see we won't have to wait as long between drinks this time.

August 27, 2008

Interview: Richie Havens

Sometimes when you get to know somebody only through what you see of them on a movie screen or hearing them sing the impression you form of them turns out to be completely erroneous. However there are those rare people who, when you do actually get the opportunity to meet or talk to them, turn out to be just what you thought they were. Richie Haven is such a man. On the morning of Tuesday August 26th I was fortunate enough to spend just over a half hour on the phone with him and it turns out he's the gentle, intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, and humorous person that I had thought he was from seeing his pictures and listening to his music.

The hardest part about interviewing Mr. Havens was remembering I was interviewing him and to not get so wrapped up in enjoying our conversation that I forgot to take notes and write down his answers so all of you would be able to read what he had to say. I hope that a little of his gentle spirit is able to shine through "the flat, unraised words" that I've transcribed from our conversation, as once again I find this medium far too inadequate to do my subject justice.

After the initial greetings were over and I verified that we were going to have slightly more then the twenty minutes that you're normally allotted for these types of interviews, my query of whether I was going to be first of millions for today was answered with a gentle laugh and an assurance that I was actually second of only a few, we began. It seemed to make sense that we talk a little about his recent release -Nobody Left To Crown so that's where we started - but be warned - both of us (maybe it's something to do with being a Richard) turn out to share the same predilection for deviating from the subject under discussion and getting fascinated by something else. Anyway without further ado -Ladies and gentlemen - Mr. Richie Havens.
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When you were putting together Nothing Left To Crown did you have a particular intent in mind about what you wanted to accomplish with the album.

I was trying to actually align it with everything that's going on today in the world, the total surroundings if you would. In some ways it's a reflection of all the questions that were being asked a long time ago that we still haven't been answered. There's also a certain amount of wanting to let others know, those who are just becoming aware and not knowing what the world involves that there are questions that need to be asked. In some ways it was a catch all type of situation, with bits and pieces of of the whole picture in an attempt to show how it all works.

In some ways it's also about trying to avoid the making the same mistakes over again, learning from them - retreating from that aspect of ours selves and finding new ways of being and doing.

At this point I apologized to Richie for any pauses on my part - and told him it was just me trying to keep up in my note taking. I recounted that the very first interview I had done was with Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers and had used a tape recorder. I had fallen in love with his accent and just enjoyed listening to him answer my questions only to discover that I had forty-five minutes of white noise - so I no longer used tape recorders.

(laughter) I was waiting for that (laughs again) But you know, getting caught up in beauty, in the awe in the world, is a good thing.

Not when you're trying to do an interview with somebody

(laughs) No I suppose not.

Speaking of which - I wanted to ask you about two of the songs from Nobody Left To Crown, ones that happen to be favourites of mine, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who and "Lives In The Balance" by Jackson Browne. What was there about each of those songs that attracted you and how do you see them as being pertinent to today's world

Those two songs, in fact any song that I do, have first of all moved me in some way. It's like I hear a song and the light comes on because that person has articulated something in such a way that there's no way it could be any clearer. It's been like that right from when I first started out though.

Do you know Freddy Neil? He wrote "Everybody's Talking About". Well I used to travel up from Brooklyn to the clubs in Greenwich Village, and you have to remember I was singing doo wop songs with my friends in Brooklyn, and I heard Freddy singing about "Knocking The Walls Down" and I thought to myself - can he sing that in public? Isn't he going to be arrested or beaten up or something and hauled off stage? The songs were all about the need for change.

To this day I still have feel an awe for the songwriters who can write those tunes that show how it's possible to make a choice in how to live your life - they built a platform that can be built upon. So it was those songs, the songs that moved me that I first sung. (laughs) It was funny how that came about, because, you know, I would be sitting in the audience singing along with Fred and a couple of the other folk playing in those days, and Freddy said to me why don't you get up and sing - you've been singing them - harmonizing - in fact, you know them just as well as I do. The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughs) (If you go to Richie's web site there's a specific page where he explains his playing style) I went from singing Doo Wop and having four guys to harmonize with to having six strings to harmonize with.

It all comes back to the awe again really - my awe for the guys who can create those songs that illuminate things in such a way that it shines a new light on a subject so that you might say I never thought of that. So when I'd hear them, they would inspire me to sing them - it's like the songs came to me.

I've always admired the way you interpret other people's music, and I was wondering if you had a particular process that you go through when you prepare an interpretation?

Well, no, I don't have a particular process, what I try to do is let the ring of the writer shine through when I sing someone else's material. It's like I'm the vehicle for their message and allowing it to flow through me. Of course I use my own tuning like we talked about, but I really don't make any conscious decisions about them aside from that - I just sing them because they were powerful enough to make me want to sing them and I hope that comes through - how important I felt the song was.

You know I never think I'm changing anyone else's song, and I'm always surprised when someone says to me - wow you really perform that differently from so and so - because that's never my intent.

This is sort of a silly question to ask someone whose performed and sang as many songs as you, but is there any one in particular, or even one performance of a song in particular that stands out in your mind

(laughs)Well it's not as odd as you think, because I've been thinking a little along those lines. I've been thinking a lot about that first trio that I performed with, you know the guys who were at Woodstock with me. I've been thinking of maybe doing some work with them and trying to show the connection between the music of the fifties and the sixties. For me that's an important connection because of where I came from in the fifties, in Brooklyn doing four-part harmonies with my buddies on street corners, to where I went, which was singing in folk clubs in Greenwich Village.

You know we all like to sing the songs that appeal to us, and writing songs that work for our voices, yet it's the songs that have changed me, the ones that have made think about their messages are the ones that have had the most impact, and are the most important. You know I never thought about changing the world with the music, except maybe on some deep and personal, almost subliminal level, for individuals. If someone would say to me after hearing me perform a song, that they'd never thought of something that way before - then I would feel like I'd accomplished something. It was always especially nice when they would come up to me afterwards and say they'd never understood something until they had heard me sing it. That always surprised me, cause like I said I never saw myself as doing anything different than the person who I'd heard do the song in the first place.

I'd love to go back and do a compilation album of the songs that changed me, as they are the ones that are most important to me.

Speaking of things important to you, I wanted to ask you about a project you started up a few years ago, The Natural Guard, and wondered if you could tell me a little bit more about it

Well the Natural Guard was almost like a test of the things I went through as a young person. I was always thinking about things, and asking questions about things that nobody else I knew was interested in, and there was nobody there to answer those questions for me. So I was just curious about whether or not there were others, kids now a days who were experiencing that same sort of thing. Kids ask a lot of questions and there aren't always the people around to answer them, and this was to be a way to help them find the answers.

It was also to show them that through involvement they can make change, so we'd put out the idea to them that their community is the most endangered environment and they were most endangered species and can be done about that. We didn't want to force anybody to do it, because for so many of them school is enough of a prison already, and we figured if they didn't want to be there they weren't going to be able to accomplish very much. So in the first program we had eighteen kids between the ages of seven and thirteen.

There were quite a few people who said they didn't think it would work, because the older kids would soon get bored of working with the younger kids, but it turned out that the older kids became the teachers for the young ones, and helped them out. We adults stood aside and let them make the decision as to what they wanted to do for their community - the first one was in New Haven Connecticut - all we there for was to provide them with the tools to accomplish the what they wanted.

It was quite amazing how well it worked out - you know kids are great - they went down to the mayor's office and said we want more trees for our neighbourhood, and they got them, because whose going to say no to kids right? But more than that is how they learned what they were capable of - that they were able to make a difference just by being who they were and caring. That first group did so well that they were recognized with a Points Of Light award by Hilary Clinton. It was wonderful - I was so happy that what I felt would work really did work.
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What's really wonderful is that I recently heard from one of the young women who was involved in that first project and she's gone on to become an environmental lawyer. That was really a great feeling to hear that.

Well I've probably taken up more of your time than I should already, but if it's okay I'd like to ask you about the movie I'm Not There which you had a small part in

That was a lot of fun... You know when I first heard about what he was trying to do, with the different personas, and different people playing different aspects of Bob, I wasn't sure how it would work, but it ended up being amazing. Knowing Bob, I don't know what else could have really captured him in the way this movie did.

When they introduced me to Marcus, and said this is Woody, I was sort of taken aback (laughs) What do you mean Woody? Woody Guthrie? Yet it all made sense too because of who Bob was and what he went through. There was so much pulling on him all the time that I'm sure it really did get to the point for him that he be wondering where he was and am I there, or I'm not there. Marcus was great, you know, they had him learn six Dylan songs for the movie, and he had to learn how to play guitar too, because he didn't know how before, but I had great time doing our song.

(Me: Yeah I really liked it, on the DVD in the special features they have the complete version of that, not just the edited version in the film.)

Really I didn't know that, I'll have to get the DVD so I can see that. I was sort of disappointed that it was cut in the movie, although I could understand why of course.

Wasn't Kate Blanchate something else though, she was so him it was amazing.

(Me: I know, I'm old enough to remember Bob from that time, and I've seen pictures of him from then, and it was amazing. What really got me was her use of her hands - that was so exactly like him - especially the scenes at the piano)

Putting a woman in that place, to give a female version of self, was brilliant. We were able to see things that might not have come out any other way, just because it was a woman in that place. There's something about women and the way they can change something about themselves without making a big deal about it that allows us to see things that weren't there in them before. That's what Kate did with Bob, brought something to him that none of us had ever seen before. It was exceptional.

Working on that movie was wonderful and I really think it did justice to Bob (Me: I thought it did a better job of telling the story of that period of his life than the documentary Bringing It All Back Home) Yes, I think so too, and I'm really glad that I was involved with it - You know there's a club I play in and it's near where Marcus lives, and he drops in and sits in with me on stage for a few songs, and I really enjoy that. He's got so much natural charisma that kid that you could put him on stage with Barack Obama and he'd put him in the shadows (laughs)

Well I guess I really should be letting you go, but I have to ask what you have in store for the future - you're off to England I know this week (Richie: Tomorrow) but are you going to be touring in support of the new album or do you other things you'll be doing?

Well to tell you the truth, I'm glad not to be touring in support of the new album. I'm actually already starting to work on the next one, I've got a couple of songs in mind for it that I'm working on. One thing always does lead to the next thing though. Albums are often just like pieces that are cut off from the fold, and you don't stop because an album is finished. Although starting a project again is a challenge because of that arbitrary nature of them. I'm just leaving myself open for things to come through. I'm also keeping up with the folk under four feet tall, children, and have become involved with literacy programs for children, so a lot of energy goes there.

Well thank you very much for this, and have a wonderful time in England

Well thank you and maybe we'll see you up in Canada sometime.

There it was, my few precious moments with Richie Havens. I don't know how successful I was in capturing just how gentle a spirit he truly is, while still being incredibly passionate about life and his art. I hope you are able to appreciate just what a rare treasure this man is from my words. If you can't the deficiency lies in my pen (or keyboard as the case maybe) and not in the subject matter. The world would be a lot better off if there were more people like Richie Havens in it

August 18, 2008

Music Review: Jake La Botz Sing This To Yourself And Other Suggestions For A Personal Apocalypse

There's a big difference between feeling depressed and suffering from depression. If you're feeling depressed it's a temporary thing that you'll usually pull out of within a few days, after the effects of whatever it was that caused you to feel down wear off. Clinical depression on the other hand is a permanent condition that some people cope with their whole lives. Its insidious as it can emotionally and psychologically cripple you, leaving you bed ridden as surely as if you suffered from some physically debilitating disease.

You are overcome by a lassitude of such magnitude that you eventually don't see the point in getting out of bed. While there are all sorts of scientific explanations for what happens to the brain because of depression - hormonal imbalances and various chemicals either not reaching the brain in sufficient quantity or too much arriving all at once leaving the brain swamped - it's not certain whether or not this merely describes what's going on in a depressed brain or if these are causes of depression. While it's true that the medication used to treat depression works on flat lining emotional responses by inhibiting certain chemicals, they are not cures for the ailment and barely even treat the symptoms.

In a society where feelings are frowned upon to the point that we're taught to repress them from an early age there's a lot of stuff that gets bottled up inside. Most cases of depression are as result of that bottle coming uncorked and the person being overwhelmed. The chronically depressed person deals with that permanently, as unlike the majority they haven't shut down their ability to feel and without an avenue to express what that does to them they fry. The so called "artistic temperament" is in actual fact a creative person's ongoing struggle with depression as they search for the means to express what they are feeling.
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I suppose this must seem like an odd way to start off a CD review, with a dissertation on depression, but Jake La Botz's latest release on his own Charnel Ground Records label,Sing This To Yourself And Other Suggestions For A Personal Apocalypse is as lucid and honest examination of the subject as you'll hear anywhere. Without a trace of self-pity or melodrama the eleven songs on Sing This To Yourself explore and describe what a person going through depression experiences. While some might wonder at the rationale behind creating a recording of songs about depression, La Botz's explanation of "My hope is that these songs could be a comfort to those who are struggling" is worth remembering.

Depression is an incredibly isolating illness, so for the person suffering with it the knowledge that somebody understands what they're going through is more valuable then any medication. Now that's not to say this album should only be listened to when prescribed by a shrink, (although I personally think it's a far better medication than Prozac or any of the other deadening drugs they give to depressed people) as it's an amazing collection of songs that has a lot to offer anybody who appreciates a well written blues tune. For Jake La Botz has an astounding capacity to express emotions in a way that anybody listening can't help but understanding and be touched by them.

Jake reminds us where the blues came from and what drew people to it in the first place. That's not because he's trying to imitate what somebody did sixty years ago, but because he deals with the stuff that troubles the human spirit in the same manner that blues people of old did. Of course he's not singing about the things from yesterday that caused the blues; what it's like to be on a chain gang in the deep south, picking cotton, or being a sharecropper, he's singing about the things today that scrape us raw and leave us wounded in the heart.

"Hungry Again (Put Me In A Hole)", the opening track on the disc, describes the kind of life that can make a person feel too much. "Left alone too much as a small boy/Learned to walk and talk from the animals/they taught me what to eat". Neglect and abandonment are sure fire ways to turn a person in on themselves as they feel like they don't matter and they know the people who are supposed to care about them don't, so why should anybody else? That song expresses the hunger that burns in a person's chest to be wanted, to know that somebody cares about what happens to them.
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The great thing about Jake La Botz's music is Jake himself and what he brings to his performance of the tunes. His guitar work is elegant in its simplicity, as he picks out individual notes with the precision of gem cutter splitting a stone to expose the heart that was hidden within the matrix. The notes he plays traces a similar path through his songs, as they follow a line that lead us to the heart that beats inside each tune - its emotional core. Speed isn't important for these songs, in fact it would be the worst thing possible for them. We gloss over emotions in our world by whizzing past them, so Botz's music allows us the opportunity to stay in the moment and properly experience them.

Jake's singing voice is as singular as his songs, and as raw as their content. Like the folk and blues singers of old, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, his voice is that of a person who has experienced the world and seen his share of hardship. Yet in spite of that, or maybe because of it, there is a strength of spirit to his voice that makes these songs positive experiences. In a world where men aren't supposed to express their feelings, here's this guy pouring his heart out in a strong, sure voice that cracks with emotions. If nothing else it's certainly an example for other men to follow about how to be emotionally real.

If you want to see Jake La Botz perform songs from Sing This To Yourself and other recordings he's in the middle of his third "Tattoo Across America Tour", which is seeing him play tattoo parlours from the east to the west coast until the middle of September/08. He's on the East coast right now and about to head south to Florida - so check you local listings because Jake La Botz could be coming to a tattoo parlour near you and you don't want to miss that concert.

Jake La Botz's Sing This To Yourself And Other Suggestions For A Personal Apocalypse is as fine a collection of traditional acoustic blues music as you're going to find anywhere. The fact that it also happens to be some of the most emotionally honest and beautifully passionate music as well makes it even more special. Do yourself a favour, the next time your feeling down, give Jake a listen, his blues are the best medicine that money can buy.

August 16, 2008

Music Review: Richie Havens Nobody Left To Crown

It was while sitting in a second run theatre in the east end of Toronto, Ontario that I first saw Richie Havens perform. In 1977 I was sixteen and the Woodstock Music Festival had taken place eight years earlier, but the movie of the event extended its life for people like me who had no interest in the pop culture of the mid seventies. In the days before punk hit Canada the music and the politics of the late sixties seemed far more alive then anything our own time had to offer.

Which explains why on that Friday night there were about forty of us sitting spread out through the Roxy Cinema, squinting through the haze produced by the smoke from about that many nickel bags of Mexican pot, at a so-so print of Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace And Music. Hearing the soundtrack on my brother's cheap stereo at home hadn't prepared me for seeing the force of nature that was Richie Havens playing guitar and singing on the screen. With the camera shooting him in a tight close up, Richie filled the screen, and you could see individual rivulets of sweat running down his face as he curled his body around the guitar he was strumming and poured out his soul into a microphone.

Although there were many other firsts in terms of seeing people perform that night, Richie Havens' performance was the one that left the most indelible impression on me that night. The intensity that he played with and the incredible passion that was being transmitted by this one man to the thousands of people in the audience on screen, and to us in the old and tacky theatre helped make him far more memorable then some of his more famous contemporaries.
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It's 2008 now and I own a DVD copy of the director's cut of Woodstock as a memento of my own youth, and as a historical record of the event itself. While some of the musicians have become history, and some of the music sounds dated, Richie Havens has not been swallowed up by time, and as can be told by listening to his latest release on the Verve Forecast label, Nobody Left To Crown his music is as powerful and relevant as it ever was.

There aren't too many people left from the Woodstock era with the moral authority to be singing about the state of the world anymore. They've either left the world, or been co-opted by the very establishment they were supposedly so intent upon changing. Musically many of them have become vapid and are content to play out their remaining years as near caricatures of their former selves. So the performer who has adhered to his ideals for the last forty years and continues to express them through his music like Richie Havens does is a rarity.

Six of the thirteen songs on Nobody Left To Crown are new originals that Mr. Havens has written for this disc, while the seven covers are ones that speak to either issues of the day or express an idea that he cares passionately about. That last bit might be a tad redundant as I can't think of Richie Havens singing a song if he wasn't able to make an emotional commitment of some kind to it. Interestingly enough one of the covers dates back to the Woodstock era, Pete Townshead's "Won't Get Fooled Again", and Havens' interpretation of it keeps it as pertinent today as it was then.

That's the thing about Nobody Left To Crown that's important to know, Richie Havens maybe a figure some of you think of as belonging to a time in the past, but that is unfair to the man and his music. None of these songs are exercises in nostalgia, nor is the disc some sort of sixties revival thing. This recording has been made for today's world, and the messages it has to impart are relevant to what is going on around us. Listen to the second song on the disc, "Say It Isn't So" and you'll hear what I mean.

"Say it isn't so/ That the world must choose again/ Who is foe and who is friend". It could be a commentary on any of the numerous wars that are ongoing in the world today, or it could also be about how our society seems to demand an us and a them in almost every circumstance. We are always searching out somebody to blame for the things that are wrong in our lives. It could be the poor people for being a drag on the economy because we have to pay taxes to make sure they get their welfare, the immigrants who steal all the good jobs, or the minority that got the job and not you. It's our choice whether we live a life of perpetual wars or "realize we are all the same" in the important ways, in the ways that truly matter.

Whether it's his cover of Jackson Brown's "Lives In The Balance" questioning America's friends of convenience in the world, and how can a country say it stands for freedom when it has friends that kill their own people. Or the title track, Richie's own "Nobody Left To Crown", where he questions the way America elects it's leaders, he's showing us what lies beneath the surface sheen of the twenty-four hours of non-stop distraction we call a culture that diverts attention away from the real problems in the world. The more time people spend talking about their favourite celebrity, or reading about their most recent affairs, the less they spend concerned with the state of the world around them. Who cares if the infant mortality rate in America is as high as it is in some developing nations when you can look at candid pictures of some star's boob job?
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He doesn't say any of these things directly, he's too good a song writer for that. Instead he points us in certain directions in the hopes that we will think for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. One of the ways he has of making us listen is his voice. While it might have lost a little power over the years, it's expressive qualities and the sense of urgency he can impart with it is still more then sufficient to grab our attention and hold it.

The same goes for the music, as Havens still plays his guitar with the staccato strumming style that made him famous and that has pushed many a song into orbit. However. this isn't just a solo recording as he's accompanied at various times by everything from a cello to the twenty-six string mohan veena played by Harry Manx. While an exotic instrument like either of the two just mentioned can be overused to the point where they become the focal point of a song, in the case of Nobody Left To Crown the instruments are used perfectly to accent which ever song they are being used in. Either the sitar sounding mohan veena will silver in the background of one song or the cello will gently interject a counter point to the rhythm of another. All in all these are beautifully crafted arrangements, whether they are Richie Havens' originals or covers of another person's work.

There's something of the prophet about Richie Havens, not that he makes any predictions with his songs, but rather the fact that something about him suggests that not only can he see things in a way that not many of us can, he can also tell us about them. For more then forty years Richie Havens has been singing impassioned pleas that we examine the lives we are leading and make some decisions about them. Nothing Left To Crown shows that as a performer and a composer he continues to be a musical force to be reckoned with.

August 14, 2008

Music Review: JJ Grey & Mofro Orange Blossoms

It's easy to form false impressions of places by basing them on the superficial information available today. From recollections of people's holidays in on line photo albums to what we see of them in television and movies, we're inundated with images designed to entice us to spend our tourist dollars. Air conditioned, air brushed, and sanitized they have as much to do with a place's reality as a centre-fold has to do with real people. In spite of being aware of this, I've never been able to picture Florida as anything more than a collection of motels and beaches, created by Disney World. If ever a state was made out of plastic it was Florida.

Which is of course completely unfair to everybody and everywhere in the state that have nothing to do with the designated tourist zones, but until recently I had no way of knowing that anything else existed. Although in my defence I would ask how many people in Florida think that because I live in Canada I speak French and have to wear snow-shoes year round. Anyway, about a month ago I was introduced to a slice of a much more realistic Florida by a group of musicians from Lochloosa in a band called JJ Grey & Mofro.

I had been sent copies of two of their earlier recordings, Country Ghetto and Lochloosa, on Alligator Records by their Canadian distributor. I was not only impressed with them musically, but by the way they were able bring their part of the world to life. Instead of the mawkish sentimentality or boasting that's earmarked a great deal of the regional music that I've previously heard, these folk created songs firmly rooted in reality that contained elements of such universality that even a city boy from the frozen north could understand what they were about.
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One of the things that had impressed me most about those two discs was how they had expanded their musical horizons from the first to the second. Not only did the music become more sophisticated, they also showed a willingness to experiment stylistically. So when I received an advance copy of their forthcoming release, Orange Blossoms due out on August 28th/08, I was interested to see what they had in store this time.

Well these guys don't fool around, and right from the opening track on the disc, the title song "Orange Blossoms", they show that they have no interest in standing still. For if on the last disc they dabbled in funk and R&B, they've taken the plunge here and committed themselves fully to creating a groove that will move you physically, emotionally and intellectually. That might sound like hyperbole, but these are songs that you can listen to just as easily as you can dance to them as the lyrics matter just as much as the tune, and the CD has been produced with that in mind. Not only are you able to hear the lyrics on all the songs, but they're also comprehensible, not buried under a whole bunch of effects so that you can't understand a word the vocalist is saying.

In "Orange Blossoms", JJ Grey plays with the idea of sense memory, the scent of orange blossoms that pervade the spring atmosphere in his part of Florida, in creating a song that starts off appearing to be a typical nostalgic look back at young love/lust. The music is a mixture of R&B and innocent guitar rock and roll that sounds like it could have been written in the early nineteen sixties. The combination of the lyrics and the music work so well together that the twist at the end of the song catches you completely off guard, successfully changing the mood and the implications of the tune.

Track two, "The Devil You Know" moves into the realm of hard funk, complete with horns punctuating the beat and giving it a harder edge then the opener. Where the horns on "Orange Blossoms" added a layer of sweetness, here they give the tune the dangerous feel needed for a funk tune to really find its feet. When coupled with the background vocals, and the tight playing of the rest of the band, "The Devil You Know", has funk classic written all over it.

I have to admit to some qualms about the fact that they listed strings among the instruments used on the disc. Too many time strings have been the kiss of death for many a good band as they turn songs into clichés. "She Don't Know", track four on the disc, is the first time that the strings make themselves really known and they are used in just the right way to make the song that much stronger. The tiny bit of soaring under the vocals, gives way to some really nice punctuation much like the horns have been used on the funkier numbers.
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Unlike other groups that use strings in order to prove their emotional authenticity, Mofro don't need the props as they've already established those credentials. So when they use strings it's for what they can bring to a song musically, not how they can be used to manipulate the listeners. In fact the way they are used in "She Don't Know" almost works to push you away from an emotional reaction as they insert breaks into the flow of the other instruments. What was a simple R&B tune is made complicated and brooding by the presence of strings, instead of schmaltzy and vapid.

Something that happened on this disc that didn't on the previous ones for me, was that I really became aware of JJ Grey's singing voice. To be honest I'm not sure how I could have missed out on it before as its really quite amazing. It's not often you hear somebody with a genuinely soulful voice, meaning that his voice is full of soul, anymore. There aren't many people out there who can sing with the type of honesty that he brings to all of his songs, and on this disc it really comes through. I don't mean that he's some brooding and intense guy or some such shit like that, because soulful doesn't have to equal drama queen like so many people think today.

Listen to the fun that Grey is having while singing "On Fire" and you'll see what I mean. You can't do that if you're going to get hung up on being melodramatic over nothing. Being a soulful singer means you sing every song with everything you've got so nothing is left over when the song is done. When you listen to Grey sing, no matter what the song is about, you know that he's not held back, and the song is only over because he's got nothing more to add.

When I first heard JJ Grey & Mofro what caught my attention was the way they had created a sound that reflected the part of the world they came from, and wrote songs that worked within that frame work. With each subsequent disc I've heard them expand on that base and branch out into new directions while still holding on to the core that made them distinct in the first place. Orange Blossoms, being released on August 26th/08 continues that process and shows them to be more than just a regional band. This is music that speaks to you no matter where you come from or where you've been.

August 8, 2008

Music Review: Travis "Moonchild" Haddix Daylight At Midnight

There were two performances back in the 1970's that turned me on to the power of electric blues. The first was part of the television special on Public Broadcasting called All You Need Is Love that traced the history and roots of popular music. During the segment on blues and jazz they concluded the episode with B. B. King singing his version of "Free At Last" while playing film footage of African Americans from as far back as the late 1800's up to the civil rights marches and sit-ins of the 1960's. Not only did the poignancy of the lyrics hit home, but the power of King's guitar leads really struck home when seen in that context. Somehow they seemed to sing as loudly about hardship and struggle as the lyrics.

The second performance was Muddy Waters singing "Mannish Boy" during the Band's concert movie The Last Waltz While there wasn't the emotional context of the television show, there was something about the sight of this man standing up on stage dressed in a leisure suit looking so normal, while out of his mouth came this amazing, resonating, voice, that was incredibly moving. The song is deceptively simple, as it follows a basic rhythm that repeats itself throughout. However, the way the vocals and the music accented certain points in that pattern gave the tune an emotional power that a more complex song couldn't hope to match.

Now obviously Muddy Waters and B. B. King are tough acts to follow, and both performances were in special circumstances, but on some level or another I'm sure those two performances have been the benchmark against which I've compared everyone else that I've seen since. It's not often that I hear anyone who is able to measure up to the emotional strength and honesty that they generated, but Travis "Moonchild" Haddix's newest release, Daylight At Midnight distributed by Earwig Music, is one of the few that have evoked both of those performances.
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It will come as no surprise to learn that Travis has been around the blues since he was born in Mississippi in 1938. His father was Delta bluesman Chalmus "Rooster" Haddix, who played fish fries and juke joints on weekends and worked the fields during the day. If his guitar playing reminds you of B. B. King's, it's probably because it was meeting King in Memphis that made him want to learn the guitar. It was during his time in the Armed Forces that he began entertaining as he and a buddy were given the option of guard duty or playing for other soldiers and settled on the latter. Once back from Europe and discharged he joined an R&B band called Chuck & The Tremblers based out of Cleveland Ohio who he stayed with for six years.

It's not often you get to hear someone play who can handle King style leads, R&B grooves, and the deep rooted pulse of the Mississippi valley like Haddix does. In each of the songs on Daylight At Midnight he incorporates at least one of those three styles, if not sometimes more, and as a result has created a CD of diverse and exciting work. Even better is the fact that unlike others who are satisfied with being able to simply reproduce a style, he has used them in order to create his own style that comes through on each of the ten original tracks on this recording.

Perhaps it's his background in R&B, or maybe just a singular attitude towards life, but Haddix has a wonderfully sly sense of humour that comes through in his song's lyrics. Maybe it's because of my predilection for wixing my mords up that I liked his song "Backward Baby" so much, but how many times do you actually hear someone use the words back-assward in a song? Just as funny are the subtle, sexual overtones to "Way Back In The Country" where he talks about the lessons he learned about the birds and the bees. Some of those birds don't sing, eagles who like raw meant for breakfast and buzzards who cruise around waiting for something to die, and not all bees make sweet honey, some will just sting you.

There are far too many blues singers who feel like they either have to always shout their lyrics or put on some type of affectation they think is appropriate for singing the "blues". It's when you listen to a man like Travis Haddix that you realize what you've been missing out on by listening to people like that. He has one of the more expressive voices that I've heard singing any style of popular music in a long time. In fact he's such a skilled writer that the music on some songs was obviously created to take advantage of that and works with his voice to emphasis its expressive qualities.

He has more than just humorous songs, and while his material covers the usual love/relationship/mystery-of-the-opposite-sex topics typical of blues and R&B, there's also a side to his music that you don't find in too many songwriters. The title song, "Daylight At Midnight", is in reference to a tour he did recently in Finland and found himself in the land of the Midnight sun for the first time. In it he expresses his wonder at joy at the "Strange things that happen in this town, it's daylight at midnight - seem like the sun don't go down".

Daylight At Midnight is Travis "Moonchild"Haddix's tenth solo release, and all of his discs, including this one were originally recorded and produced for his own label, Wann-Sonn Records, and are now being distributed by the Earwig label. It's not often you have the chance to hear someone who is able to move so seamlessly between the blues and near funk R&B on the same disc with such authority and assurance or whose lyrics are both funny and intelligent. This disc is a real antidote for all those bands who have forgotten that just because it's called the blues doesn't mean it can't be fun and who don't know how to sing about anything else besides that girl who done them wrong.

August 7, 2008

Music Review: Chris James & Patrick Rynn Stop And Think About It

I like blues music, always have and always will. Yet I'm not blind to the fact that it's probably one of the most abused genres of popular music out there. Almost any idiot who picks up a guitar can play the twelve bars that form the basis for nearly every blues tune and blues based rock song ever written. The problem is that most of them don't seem to know what to do beyond that. It's depressing the number of blues releases I listen to that I don't review simply because they sound just like twenty-five or thirty other discs that I've hear in the last year.

You can usually divide the guitar players into two different categories the screamers and the plodders. The screamers are the guys who rip off guitar solos at every opportunity and play down at the high of the fret board making lots of high pitched noise that they think passes for music while the plodders plough through the music because they equate slow with sincerity. Sometimes if you're really unlucky you'll get somebody who combines the two and plods around making noise every so often.

After a steady diet of this you actually start to dread the arrival of blues discs by performers you've never heard of signed to labels that you didn't even know existed. Fortunately there are still some labels out there who you can usually count on, and even if you haven't heard of the band or individual on the disc, it will be at least worth a listen. Earwig Music out of Chicago are one of those labels and their recent release of Chris James' & Patrick Rynn's, Stop And Think About It is a good example of the quality they tend to deliver.
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Looking at Chris, guitar and vocals, and Patrick, bass and occasional vocal, you might not immediately think blues musicians, but once you start listening there's no denying that these guys have talent. While their band, The Blue Four, has played with quite a few more experienced blues musicians and appeared on other people's recordings, this is Chris and Patrick's first solo recording. Of course it's not just bass and guitar as they're joined by friends like Sam Lay on drums, Bob Corritore on harmonica, and Johnny Rapp taking second guitar for a few tracks.

The disc is a good mix of original material and interesting covers. Of course it doesn't hurt that they share my affection for Elmore James, and four of the tracks on the disc are covers of his material. What I like about their covers is that while they show respect for the original material they do more than simply offer imitations. Their version of Elmore James' "Hawaiian Boogie" not only captures the song's original bounce, but introduces some nice swing elements that give it an almost jazzy feel.

What I like about their own material is that while they are consummate professionals, they aren't so full of themselves that they take everything too seriously. You can't write a blues song called "Mr. Coffee" without having a pretty good sense of humour. Hey don't get me wrong, coffee is very serious business and I'm glad to see people are finally giving it more recognition in song. Of course they could also be auditioning for a certain coffee maker commercial now that Jolting Joe has gone. What I especially appreciated about it was that unlike a lot of so called humorous songs, this one has genuine wit and intelligence behind it and isn't just some juvenile throwaway.

Musically they play a mixture of 1950's style Chicago blues and more contemporary sounds. What that does is create an overall atmosphere that is both comfortable in it's familiarity and interesting because of the new touches that they've added. Both Chris and Patrick have a really good feel for the sound of that era, which explains why they do such a good job with the Elmore James songs, and such a genuine appreciation for the blues in general, that you can't help but be caught up by their enthusiasm for the music.

It's one thing to be talented, which they are, but it's another thing all together to be able to convey your love of what you're doing while playing the music. It's under those circumstances that even familiar riffs are infused with new life and no matter how many times you may have heard a song before you can't help but enjoy it like you're hearing it for the first time all over again. Stop And Think About It doesn't break any new ground when it comes to the blues, but it's one of those recordings that reminds you that something doesn't have to be brand new to be exciting.

Chris James and Patrick Rynn have made a recording that once again show us there is no music quite like the blues when it's played with love and enthusiasm. Not only do they bring both to this disc by the bucket load, but they have the skill to channel it into tight arrangements of other people's material, and create originals with their own distinct flavour. Not bad for their first disc.

July 30, 2008

DVD Review: No Direction Home - Bob Dylan

The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was in the fall of 1978 when I was seventeen. I remember being really surprised that he did the whole first set solo; just him, his guitar, and harmonica. He did a mixture of old favourites and more obscure tunes from his early albums, The Times They Are A Changing and Freewheeling Bob Dylan including "Masters Of War", "Hard Rain", and "Blowing In The Wind". In the second set he brought out his band that he was touring with at the time, and they rocked the house with stuff from his then current release, Street Legal and various electric hits from his past.

After the immediate euphoria of being able to say that I'd seen Dylan in concert had passed, I began to experience something akin to being disappointed with what I had seen. It wasn't as if he was bad or anything, he had performed letter perfect renditions of his material so they sounded almost exactly the way they did on his records and his band was hot. Yet the feeling of being let down persisted. More then a decade later I saw him for the second time, and this was a completely different show. He did a lot of his old material again, but this time he did versions of them that were nothing like his original recordings.

After the concert I heard people around me, including some I had come with, complaining about how they barely recognized songs and he didn't sound like he used to. It had been a difficult concert, with Dylan and his band in attack mode mounting assaults on each number like they needed to be battered into submission. However, unlike the previous concert which had left me feeling strangely empty, this time I found the music stayed with me and I found myself thinking about individual songs in a way that I hadn't before.
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I was reminded of all this after first watching I'm Not There, the fictionalized account of Dylan's career from 1963 - 1966, and then again after watching Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary about the same period, No Direction Home. I have to admit that having watched Todd Haynes' fictionalized account before the documentary probably affected my perception of Scorsese's work, as I spent a lot of time exclaiming over how much both Cate Blanchette and Christian Bale had been able to capture the physical characteristics of Dylan from the respective periods they portrayed, and how accurately Haynes had recreated situations and moments that showed up in the documentary.

Scorsese follows Dylan from his beginnings in small town Minnesota down to New York City and his emergence as the star of the burgeoning folk music scene of the time. Through interviews with various people who were there, film footage, and still photographs, he does a great job of establishing both the era and the atmosphere of the times. Greenwich Village in New York City was in the midst of an explosion of artistic expression, of which folk music was only one component. Poets, visual artists, novelists, playwrights, and musicians were all crammed together into one area creating a hot house affect that encouraged artistic growth.

Into this environment came the young man from Minnesota weaving a tale of travelling across America and learning songs from people all over the country. The reality was slightly different as he had snuck into a friend's house and helped himself to some 250 recordings of traditional folk and blues songs dating back to the 1930s. Dylan was blessed with the ability that allowed him to learn a song after only hearing it once or twice. Anything that he couldn't find in his friend's collection he'd learn by going into the listening booths that record stores had in those days for customers to preview records.

Probably the most important person to Dylan's career in the early stages was Joan Baez. The interviews with her were quite wonderful as they were candid and full of humour. She is smart enough to know that Dylan never meant to hurt her when he changed the direction of his career away from the topical protest songs that she was singing, to to do what he needed to do. At the time of course she was hurt, but now she can laugh at herself and respects him for his integrity. Dylan, in his comments, admits he handled the situation badly, and is genuinely grateful to Joan for being so understanding.

It's moments like this that make No Direction Home special as they show a side of Dylan that is rarely seen. For instance when he recalls how devastated he was upon hearing how upset Pete Seeger was with the poor the sound quality at the infamous Newport Folk Festival that he supposedly threatened to take an axe to the mike cables, you can still hear the hurt in his voice. ( I know somebody who was at that concert and he told me that if you were sitting more then three rows back from the stage all you could hear was feed back and white noise).
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One of the best of the latter interviews in the movie is with keyboard player Al Kooper, he plays the organ on "Like A Rolling Stone". Not only does he supply some interesting information about recording both Bringing It All Back Home Again and Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan's first two electric albums, he gives insight into just how scary the situation was at the time with the way people were reacting to Dylan's change of musical direction. Half jokingly he says that he opted out of the tour of Great Britain because he "didn't want to be John Connely to Dylan's John F. Kennedy", in reference to the American senator who was in the car when Kennedy was assassinated. Dylan himself says that he'll always admire the Band for sticking with him on that tour, not only because of the abuse they suffered, but because of the gruelling schedule.

Unfortunately, Scorsese didn't seem to know when to stop, and the movie starts to drag near the end and belabours the point that Dylan's fans were upset with the music on that tour. How many times did he think we needed to hear people saying basically the same thing over and over again before we'd get the point? Repeatedly showing concert footage of people booing at the end of songs from various venues around Great Britain and the U.S. became an exercise in tedium by the end, and I was left wanting the movie to end.

In fact so intent was he about making the point that people were upset, we almost lost the more important message of Dylan's frustration with people's expectations. He had never asked to be nominated as the "voice of a generation" or whatever other tags people wanted to hang on him, and he didn't want to be playing the same thing over and over again. With the world changing around him, Dylan would have been dishonest as a creative person not to change with it. He was no longer interested in doing what he had done three years ago.

It's unfortunate that Scorsese allowed this to happen, because No Direction Home started off excellently and contained a lot of interesting information about Dylan's early career. Somehow though he gradually started to lose direction, and didn't seem able to find a way to bring the movie home to any satisfying conclusion.

The two disc set includes bonus features of concert footage from the time period covered, as well as footage of other people singing Dylan songs. While some of the early footage from television shows is interesting enough, the live concert footage from England only proves out Dylan's comment that the halls he played in weren't meant for people singing rock and roll, and the sound ranges from bad to pretty awful.

Looking back on the two concerts I saw in light of No Direction Home I understand my own feelings a little better. In the first concert Dylan gave people what they expected, doing things the way he'd always done them, but that ended up making the songs feel like museum pieces with no life. Twelve years later he did many of the same songs, but with brand new interpretations that made them alive and exciting. Of course he failed to live up to most people's expectations and the complaints began again. When e.e. cummings wrote "Every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself and the artist who plays that country false has committed suicide" he didn't have Bob Dylan in mind, but Bob Dylan has done his best to avoid artistic suicide his whole career, whether the fans like it or not.

July 29, 2008

Music Review: Gryason Capps Rott 'N' Roll

When Elvis and others started recording back in the fifties down in Memphis for Sun Records they took the music they grew up listening to on the radio and melded it to what they heard coming out of the black communities. Although it was called rock and roll, it bore very little relation to the music we call by that name today. If anything, it sounded a heck of a lot like what we now call rockabilly.

Probably some so-called folk purists, anyone who thinks that folk music has to be played on acoustic instruments only, would argue that I'm off base, but I think what they were doing at that time was folk music. If folk music is supposed to be music that reflects the the people of a particular region, i.e. the music of the folk, than people like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis were doing that for the people of their region better then anybody else had done before.

When I think back over the music that I'm familiar with from the last thirty to forty years, the rock and roll that I've liked the best has had roots running back to a certain community or region. It doesn't matter whether the community has been the slums of Brixton in London England or the streets of Spanish Harlem in New York City, the music has grown out of something and has a connection of some sort to a people's voice. Now I don't know if it's because I tend to gravitate to this music over others or not, but it seems like I'm hearing more and more regional music these days. One guy who recently came to my attention playing music along those lines is Grayson Capps
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I first heard him on a release of stripped down out takes of some of his older material on an album called Songbones and was blown away by his voice and the lyrics to his songs. I contacted his label, Hyena Records, to see about getting more of his music and they sent me out an advance copy of Rott 'N' Roll slated for release on September 9th/08. Unlike Songbones, which was just Grayson and one other musician, Rott 'N' Roll is him with his band, The Stumpknockers, going at it in the studio.

Grayson was born in Alabama in 1967 and grew up surrounded by artists, poets and musicians. He went Tulane University in New Orleans on a theatre scholarship and it was while in school he formed his first band. Although both that band and a subsequent one achieved recognition and gained some acclaim, they both ended up self destructing. It was while he was living in New Orleans though that he made the connection that would start him on his solo career as a singer songwriter. His father had written an unpublished novel, and a film maker friend of his turned it into the 2003 movie A Love Song For Bobby Long staring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. Grayson wrote four songs for the soundtrack and had a small part in the movie.

Since then he has released three recordings, If You Knew My Mind, Wail & Ride, and the previously mentioned Songbones, toured North America and Europe, and been forced to move from New Orleans to Tennessee after Katrina wiped out his home while he was on tour in 2005.

Rott 'N' Roll was recorded in his home studio in Tennessee and he and the Stumpknockers recorded their tracks live, with the majority of what was used coming from the first takes. While obviously that accounts for some of the raw and vibrant energy that comes through on this disc, the songs; their subject matter and Grayson's ability to bring people and places to life in a song, are what make this recording truly special. Anybody can do a "live" studio recording, but if the material sucks, the recording is still going to suck in the end - needless to say the material on this disc doesn't suck.

Musically it's an amazing hybrid of country, New Orleans blues, and raw rock and roll that can't help make you think of boarding houses on dusty back streets in the old, ramshackle parts of some faded Southern town you've never heard of. You know, the kind of places where the paint on the clapboard has seen so much sun, rain, and wind that whatever colour it might have once had is long gone. Nobody hurries on these streets because there's no reason to. Whatever work there is to be had comes in fits and starts, and most of the day is spent sitting on the porch listening to the flies buzz.

Of course it's a different story when the sun goes down and the fire flies start dancing and the couple of street lights come on. Music spills out of doorways leading into kitchen parties where men and women sit drinking beer and whisky around the peeling linoleum. Or down at corner there's a band playing in a bar where the only air conditioning comes from the condensation on the bottles and cans of beer. There's an edge to the night that is a little dangerous, but mostly just alive. There's still life in these streets, but if you don't know where or how to look you won't see it.

Grayson Capps' songs see into these houses and show us the life and vitality that exists under the seemingly dead or somnambulistic exterior. Poets, preachers, prostitutes, and others come and go in his songs. Laughing, crying, and just going on about the business of living their lives in an environment that the majority of us no nothing about and will probably never even notice. There's nothing sentimental or romantic about his songs, or the people who live in them, but he sees them for who they are and not what they look like. Most of all though he refuses to dismiss or ignore them, and reminds us that they exist and feel just like the rest of us.

If you like your music, rough, raw and honest, accompanied by lyrics that are a mix of poetry, bourbon, humour, and empathy, than you need to listen to Grayson Capps. Rott 'N' Roll will make you realize that you've never actually heard Southern rock before - everything else was just a pale imitation of this - the real thing.

July 23, 2008

Music Review: Double Trouble & Friends Been A Long Time

It's sort of ironic that the two members of a rock and roll, or any popular music band for that matter, who are most responsible for the rhythms that make the music so distinct are usually hidden off to one side or behind the other members of the band. While the lead singer and the guitar players can usually be found as far down stage as possible basking in the glow of an audiences accolades, the bass player and drummer are sometimes lucky if the stage lighting even makes them visible to the crowd.

Of course there have been exceptions to the rule, as there always is, but the majority of drummers and bass players toil in relative obscurity compared to their band mates. As if that wasn't bad enough, in a lot of today's music drums and bass are being replaced in bands by computer and digitally generated rhythm tracks and drum machines. Talk about rubbing salt into a wound! I have to wonder how many studio musicians have seen careers dry up as they've been replaced by machines?

All things considered it's not surprising that we don't find very many rhythm sections making enough of a name for themselves that they are able to command popular attention. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie) became internationally known for their work with reggae stars Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru in the 1980's, and parlayed that success into appearances on recordings with people as diverse as Grace Jones to Bob Dylan. Aside from them, there's only two other men that I know of that have been able to parlay initial success as a unit into a long lasting career working together.

When Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton, on bass and drums respectively, backed up the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn they picked up the name Double Trouble. Not only has the tag stuck around, but so has their career as a unit. Working behind the explosive guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn for most of, if not all of, his career, and then continuing to work ever since, makes them one of the most enduring rhythm sections in popular music. Not only have they put together various bands, and played as a unit for some of the best musicians in the world of blues and rock and roll over the years, they've garnered such a reputation for excellence that they can call upon everybody from Willie Nelson to Dr. John when putting together an album.

Such was the case with the recording Been A Long Time, first released back in 2001 and now re-released on the Music Avenue label. Chris and Tommy called up a few former band mates from the Arc Angels (Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall ll) and Storyville (vocalist Malford Milligan) to join them and a couple of other friends. When your friends include Jimmy Vaughn, Susan Tedeschi, Gordie Johnson, Johnny Lang, Eric Johnson, Willie Nelson, and Dr. John, you hope they're going to do a little more than just get by with a little help from their friends, and Been A Long Time doesn't disappoint.

One of the nicest surprises of this collection is how many of the songs are originals that Layton and Shannon have either written or co-written with the others appearing on the recording. Be honest, how often when you check writing credits do you expect to find the names of the drummer or the base player listed as one of the primary composers of a song? Sure in some bands they'll get a credit for their contribution to the music, but as lyricist?

Having only my memories of Stevie Ray Vaughn to go by when thinking about Double Trouble musically, I was expecting a disc of blues tinged rock and roll. So the opening track on the disc, "Cry Sky", was a pleasant surprise. It's a beautiful, gospel tinged, soul song that Layton and Shannon co-wrote with one other person that is performed wonderfully. I'd never heard of, let only heard, Malford Milligan before this recording, and his singing on this song blew me away. He's got amazing vocal control and a great voice for this type of music, making it one of the few contemporary songs that I've heard that can match up to the great soul songs of people like Al Green and Wilson Pickett.

The whole disc is full of unexpected treasures like this, including a searing rendition of the old Led Zeppelin classic "Rock And Roll" hammered out by Susan Tedeschi on vocals, Charlie Sexton and Van Wilks on guitar, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd adding a searing guitar solo. Tedeschi was great because she brought her own power to the vocal track and didn't try to imitate the original. It's always a pleasure to hear someone interpreting a song instead of just "covering" it, especially a tune as well known as this one.

The other thing that I found amazing about this disc is that not once did I notice either Layton or Shannon any more than I would be aware of any drummer or bass player on an album. There's no padding of songs with extraneous drum and bass solos just because they are names on the cover of the disc. They do their jobs like they have been doing for years; supplying rock steady rhythm for the people playing in front of them no matter what style of music is being played.

Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bonnie Rait, Jimmy Vaughn, and of course Stevie Ray Vaughn, long ago discovered just how valuable Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon are as a rhythm section. Been A Long Time shows them doing what they do best - being the core around which great music is built.

July 18, 2008

Music Review: Janiva Magness What Love Will Do

I don't know about anybody else, but I'm getting really sick of the histrionic singing passing for emotions that's come to dominate popular music. If I have to listen to one more wannabe diva screech out her undying love in an upper register I might just go postal. Just because opera singers, who've probably spent more hours studying how to sing than most of their pale imitators have spent singing, can use the upper registers to for emotion, doesn't mean that everybody should do it, or that popular music is even suited to such stylings.

If that abdominal woman in Las Vegas wasn't bad enough, screeching her way to a million a week, the airways are now dominated by the clones of Brittany or painfully insincere, breathless voiced idiots who have to "share" their feelings with us. Why can't they all just stay in Oprah land where they belong and leave the rest of us alone? Their singing is bad enough, but the brainless babbling that passes for lyrics is the final insult.

You would never know by listening to any of these supposed vocalists that they are the musical descendants of people like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Janis Joplin. All of whom could not only sing circles around any of them, but had more genuine emotion come out of their mouths yawning than these yahoos can ever hope to produce singing. Compounding the insult of having to listen to these voices pollute the airwaves is the knowledge that there are vocalists as good as Janiva Magness out there, who don't get anywhere near the popular acclaim of the pop tarts.
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Listening to a disc like Janiva's most recent release, What Love Will Do, on Alligator Records, makes you realize there is really no justice in the world and that pop music industry executives have their collective heads so far up their asses they've cut off all oxygen to their brains. There can't be any other explanation as to why Janiva Magness isn't on the top of the charts or her music in constant rotation on every radio station playing some form of popular music.

At least the blues industry can recognize talent when they hear it so she hasn't gone completely unnoticed. Janiva won the best contemporary female artist award in 2006 and 2007 and was nominated for the B B King Entertainer Of The Year award in 2008 at the Blues Music Awards. Yet if you don't follow blues music closely there's a good chance that you'll not have heard this woman sing, and that's a damn shame. Her husky and smoky voice growls out funk, brings real passion to a love song, and can shivers up your spine with its power to speak to your heart.

Unlike some female vocalists who seem to sacrifice musicality for character, Janiva has more than one note in her repertoire. Aside from having the huskiest voice this side of Marlene Dietrich, she also has the range to prevent it from becoming a monotonous drone. She's equally able to sing slower, almost torch song numbers, as she is up tempo funk and blues. The thirteen tracks on What Love Will Do range from powerful covers of Annie Lennox's "Bitter Pill" to the softness of a pensive version of "Sometimes You Got To Gamble".

As the title suggest this is a disc of love songs, but we're not talking about the sentimental pabulum that passes for love you hear most of the time. Sure there are songs about having your heart broken, bad relationships, and all the other usual fodder for pop music, but they are being sung by an adult with the life experience to give them the credibility that a sixteen year old (or the mental/emotional equivalent) lacks. While there's many a singer who will make trite comments about a song having to move her in order to sing it, and then sound as insincere as an insurance salesman, in Janiva's case you know she's telling the truth when she says " I could go through the gymnastics, but if it's not the truth I'm not gonna mean it and that'll show".

You see, while the majority of the songs on this disc are about romantic love, she's also trying to make a point about what genuine unconditional love can do for a person. Janiva spent a good deal of her adolescence in foster care, as she lost both of her parents to suicide by the time she was sixteen. Ever since she stabilized her own life she's been heavily involved with raising awareness of what good positive foster parenting can do for a child; what love will do to turn somebody's life around.

What Love Will Do is therefore more than just another collection of "love"songs, where some emotionally stunted ego whines about her broken heart and dreams about meeting the perfect boy to take her to the prom. Janiva might be singing lyrics about relationships or the desire to be loved by someone, but she's motivated by the understanding that love is far more than just a word to describe the feelings one person has for another. It's not often that I'd use the word sub-text when talking about popular music, but in this instance it's her belief in the importance of unsentimental love that gives this disc the underlying power that makes it special.

Musically the disc is a mixture of funk, rhythm and blues, and straight ahead blues numbers. Not only can Janiva handle all the different genres with equal aplomb, but the band playing behind her is also equal to the task. She and co-producer Dave Darling have done a great job balancing the various instruments with her voice. They've shown a great sensitivity to the songs chosen by knowing just when they need that extra boost from the horn section, and when to pull almost everything back and let her voice do all the work.

In the end, What Love Will Do is all about Janiva Magness and her amazing ability to bring songs to life with power and integrity. If you want to hear a real woman sing real music for a change, than this is the disc for you. It will make you believe in what love can do.

July 17, 2008

Music Review: MIchael Burks Iron Man

The blues rose out of the churches and the fields of African slaves in America. Both the work songs and the church music had roots that disappeared into tribal rhythms from their former homes. With each new generation born in the new world Africa moved further into the past and the slave's music started to adapt features of the other cultures they came into contact with. For the majority this meant the Anglo-Saxon heritage of their masters, for a few it was French or Spanish influence, and even in some places, Native American.

So depending on the region of the country the music developed differently. Who knows what the exact set of circumstances were that brought Robert Johnson to the crossroads that day to sell his soul for the gift of music, but we do know it was down in Mississippi where the delta blues rose out of the mud flats like steam from puddles after a thunder storm on a hot summer's day. Instead of singing about the power of God, it sang about the about the cares of men. The bars became the blues singer's pulpit where they could sing about life on earth and not the here-after.

It was when the descendants of the Scotch/Irish white settlers started to combine the music they had brought over from England with the blues their former slaves were singing that we got rock and roll. Since the time that Elvis started recording songs he had heard people like Big Moma Thornton perform, the blues and rock music have been continually cross-pollinating, and now they share many of the same characteristics.
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When you listen to the music of a modern electric blues player you mainly hear rock and roll's influence in the guitar playing, especially the leads employed by some of the more exuberant players. Listening to Iron Man, Michael Burkes' most recent release on Alligator Records, gives you a perfect example of someone who has taken the power of rock and roll's electric guitar solos and wrapped it in the soul of the blues.

With so much of rock and roll being blues based to begin with it's kind of hard sometimes to differentiate between a guy playing electric blues and just another hard rocker. It's when you listen to someone like Michael Burks that you can really hear the difference between the two. For, while he can tear up the guitar with the best of them, it doesn't prevent him from maintaining his blues sensibilities. You can hear in in the way he sings, in the material he writes or chooses to sing, and the over all feel of his music, that deep in his heart he will always be a blues musician.

The opening track of the disc, "Love Disease" is a great example of this as he's written a song that contains all the elements of a blues number and rips off some great screaming guitar solos. The song is about pretty much what you'd think it's about based on the title, infected by the desire for love he's at a loss as to what he should do. Calling his doctor doesn't do him any good, of course, so he's just going to have to figure it out on his own.

Pretty standard stuff I know, but with the blues it doesn't matter as much what you sing, but how you sing it that makes the song work. Burks takes these lyrics and turns them into a searing blues number. In the breaks his guitar is so hot that it sounds like it could melt the paint on the walls of any bar that he's playing in, yet his soulful voice gives the lyrics a strength of passion that you're not likely to hear in a rock and roll song.

Of course it doesn't hurt that he's got a really tight band backing him up and holding it all together. Wayne Sharp on organ and piano, Don Garrett on bass, and Chuck "Popcorn" Louden on drums provide a solid foundation for Burks to build on. When Burks takes off on one of his solo flights, they stay back on the ground keeping the sound firmly rooted in the blues. Music like this is a group effort and these guys work really well together to make sure that everything sounds like its supposed to.

As the blues has influenced other music over the years it has also drawn upon the music its inspired to ensure that it continues to grow and evolve. Michael Burks' brand of the blues has taken its lead from the rock and roll it gave birth to by interlacing hard edged guitar solos with the soul of the original to create his version. Iron Man is good solid electric blues with a little extra soul added on top for its own special flavour.

Music Review: J J Grey & Mofro Country Ghetto & Lochloosa

No one likes to admit to their own prejudices, let's face it who wants to own up how narrow minded they really are? So it's with some chagrin that I have to confess that I've long thought of Florida as being a mixture of plastic tourist traps, right wing money, and conservative Christians who would as soon see me burn in hell as talk to me. Of course I should have realized that the state is made up of more than Miami, Walt Disney World, and Governor Bush, but they're the ones that get most of the attention in the media and they don't exactly paint a pretty picture. So it's easy to forget that outside of places like Miami and the other tourist destinations that there are a lot of poor people down there struggling to get by just like everywhere else in the world.

On top of that they have to watch as one of the great environmental wonders of the world - The Florida Everglades - are gradually being drained and turned into golf courses that most of them aren't allowed into except to wait tables or chase after rich people's golf balls. Even worse is the joke of Disney Land, turning the Everglades into a plastic "Wild Kingdom Safari". Does no one else see how ridiculous it is to destroy a natural environment to build a plastic replica of one that exists thousands of miles from there?

Well I was forcibly reminded that there's a whole world of Florida that exists outside of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach with the introduction into my life of two CDs by JJ Grey & Mofro. Lochloosa, on Fog City Records, and Country Ghetto, on Alligator Records, are as far removed from the neon and plastic of Miami and Disney as you can probably get without leaving the state of Florida. If John Fogerty and Credence Clearwater Revival were Louisiana Swamp Rock, than these boys are the music of the Everglades. You can almost feel the humidity rising off the music and hear the mosquitos buzzing in the background when you play these discs.
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Back in 2004 when Lochloosa was released Mofro was JJ Grey and Daryl Hance and a group of studio musicians. Maybe there are some of you out there familiar enough with Florida to have recognized Lochloosa as a place name, but I sure wasn't one of them. Yet after listening to this disc I not only know the place exists, I have a much better idea of what life and the people who live down there are like. From the title cut, "Lochloosa" on through the other eleven songs, this is a homage to a people and a place that few of us know anything about.

This ain't no sentimental drivel about how pure country life is, or any of that bullshit you hear sung by supposed country musicians who've never been outside of an air conditioned recording studio or a twelve room limousine. "I swear it's ten thousand degrees in the shade/Lord have mercy knows how much I love it" sings Grey on the title track, not attempting to disguise or romanticize anything about his beloved home. This isn't an easy place to live, but its been home to his family and their friends for generations and he loves "Every mosquito, every rattlesnake, every cane break, everything".

The music on this disc is a swampy mix of blues, rock, country and funk. The guitars churn along like old out board motors chugging through swamp waters, with occasional breaks where they take off like those weird boats that look like they have a giant fan mounted on back to propel them through the Everglades. Grey's voice cracks and breaks over top of the music with the strength of his conviction. It's not smooth or polished, but than neither are the land or people around Lochloosa. If you want smooth or polished go to Disney World and watch their latest mouse eared clone singing for Michael Eisner's supper.

By the time 2007 rolled around and Country Ghetto was released the band was known as JJ Grey & Mofro in recognition of the fact that Grey was handling the majority of the song writing credits. On Lochloosa he had written all of the lyrics and most of the music and the same holds true for their most recent release. The band has also expanded now to include a permanent drummer and organ player alongside Daryl Hance on guitars and Grey on bass, guitars, harmonica and vocals. Like the earlier album this one is rooted firmly in the Florida soil and the "land and culture rich and dollar poor" life that Grey was raised on.

Yet this more of a personal disc; while Lochloosa was an avowal of love, Country Ghetto is a declaration of faith. Faith in the people that he grew up with and the knowledge that there's nothing wrong with their way of life no matter what outsiders like me may or may not think about them. Yet this ain't no rabble rousing, Rebel, "The South Will Rise Again" bullshit with it's undertones of racism. It's a genuine heartfelt appreciation for the lessons that the land and the people he's known have taught him.

"Yes we're black and we're white/Out here in the cut/Still living side by side/So never mind what you seen/And just forget what you heard/Another ignorant redneck/Just some Hollywood word" aren't the words of someone whose prepared to roll over and let somebody put down their way of life out of ignorance. If you think those are just words with no meaning, or might be similar to how the segregationists use to claim everybody was happy because they knew their place, you only need listen to the way those lines are delivered and the music on this disc to belay that thought.

Like Lochloosa the music on this disc has been dipped in the blues and funk before the country rock was laid on top of it. Yet that's not what gives this disc it's personality, for lack of a better word. I can't think of any music that works better for a declaration of faith than gospel, especially the gospel that came out of the black Southern Baptist churches, and Country Ghetto rocks and rolls like a church on Sunday. You're not going to hear any Hallelujahs or Amens shouted out, but this is a gospel album in spirit if not in fact.

The background singers, whether the trio of women who do most of the work, or the full chorus of family members who appear on "The Sun Is Shining Down", give the songs the vocal power that is normally associated with gospel. Yet even without them, the strength and conviction of the music and lyrics would convince you that these folk were testifying to an article of faith.

JJ Grey & Mofro play music that's as distinctive as the part of the world they come from and that offers a glimpse into a world that few of us even knew existed let alone know anything about. Even if it doesn't change any of the preconceptions you might have had about Florida and the people who live there, its mighty fine music filled with heart and soul that can't fail to move you.

June 26, 2008

Music Review: Candye Kane, Deborah Coleman, & Dani Wilde Blues Caravan: Guitars & Feathers

Since 2005 Ruf Records of Germany has been putting together a travelling revue featuring musicians signed to their label and touring them through Europe and North America. This year's version of what they call The Blues Caravan, Blues Caravan 2008, features three women; two established performers, Candye Kane and Deborah Coleman, accompanied by one of their new discoveries, British guitarist Dani Wilde

On January 27th 2008, the three women were recorded live in Bonn Germany and that concert has now been released as a live concert CD Blues Caravan 2008: Guitars & Feathers. The guitars in the title are a reference to Dani Wilde's and Deborah Coleman's guitar playing ability, while the feathers are...well... that's Candye Kane. Aside from being a reference to Candye's last release on Ruf Records, Guitar'd and Feathered, it also refers to Candye's larger than life personality and the fact that she does have a thing for feather boas.

(As of this writing Candye Kane is in recovery from Pancreatic Cancer - the kind that can be dealt with through surgery - and is actually well enough to be talking about a return to performing this July. She had been diagnosed sometime shortly after this concert, and in all probability this could have been one of the last shows she gave before her surgery. As a musician she of course had no insurance that would cover the majority of her medical bills, but thankfully the Blues community rallied around her and were able to raise sufficient funds through concerts and individual donations that it appears she won't have debt to deal with as well as recovering from surgery. For those who'd like to keep up to date on how she's doing, she posts on a regular basis to a special page on her web site)
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Unlike previous Blues Caravan recordings where the three performers have worked together, this one was set up as three mini concerts, with the three women coming together to cover Ray Charles' "Won't Leave", to open and again at the end for a finale. First up is Dani Wilde who performs four original tunes. The Brits seem to have a factory that produces high quality, high energy, electric Blues guitarists, and Dani is the latest model. Britain has never been known for mass production like the States, instead of millions of family cars coming off the line, they are better known for luxury sedans like the Rolls Royce. The same thing seems to apply to their guitar players.

Like her predecessors Dani plays with both elegance and power and an understanding that while speed is important, it's also important to hear every note. While its hard to make a definitive judgement on someone's playing after only hearing them for four songs, Dani is definitely more than just another guitar hero(ine). She plays with a passion and commitment that belies her years, and the fact that she felt assured enough to play her own compositions on this night says a lot for her self-confidence. This assurance also comes across in her vocals, for although her range is limited, she sings with a clarity and expression that many vocalists with more experience lack.

As far a vocals go, there are few around these days who can compare to Candye Kane when it comes to power and expression. While there are a lot of big voiced women out there, and women who have a larger range than Candye, there are very few who can do as much with their voices as she can. Not since Mae West has there been a woman who can put so much innuendo into her voice. Unlike many people with large voices though, Candye doesn't just attack her songs and try to bluster her way through them. At the same time she doesn't try and milk them for emotion that isn't there like far too many of today's pop divas. Instead she gives as a true a reading of a lyric's meaning as possible, while always remembering that her purpose on stage is to entertain those listening.

While Candye Kane is a hard act to follow, Deborah Coleman doesn't have any trouble grabbing an audience's ear. While Dani Wilde is a talented player, Deborah Coleman's playing shows what experience adds to someone's guitar work. There's an intangible quality to her playing that says, "this is a Blues woman" that can only be achieved from a combination of life experience and years of playing. I talked earlier about the history of British Blues guitarists, but that pales in comparison to the history that's evoked by Deborah's singing and playing.

That's a point driven home firmly by her version of Willie Dixon's "Whole Lotta Love". While Led Zeppelin might have made a name for themselves covering it as a hard rock number, Deborah's version reminds us where it came from. Instead of pummelling the listener into submission with volume, she digs deep into the emotions of the song and makes it real. There's an authenticity to Deborah's playing that makes her performance live long after she's done on stage; she brings the Blues to life in a way that few other performers, male or female, can.

Ruf records' Blues Caravan recordings have provided showcases for their talent in the past, and has proven to be a great vehicle for exposing an audience to a variety of Blues styles in one package. Blues Caravan: Guitars & Feathers is no exception as its an opportunity to hear three very unique women performing their music on one great disc.

June 23, 2008

Music DVD/CD Review: Byther Smith Blues On The Moon