August 17, 2017

Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can

Tell The Devil Cover sm.jpg There're two natural phenomena occurring this week. August 21 2017 will see a full solar eclipse of the sun and August 19 will see the release of Ray Wylie Hubbard's newest album Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can. While the former might be getting all the media attention, the latter will probably turn out to be not only more enduring, but maybe even more endearing.

Hubbard is one of those musicians who don't fit comfortably into anybody's safe little niche. He's not really country, blues, rock or folk, but he's all of those things. He plays a mean slide guitar and invokes people like Lighting Hopkins in a rough hewn voice which, to paraphrase his old buddy Jerry Jeff Walker, sounds like the voice of age when he speaks right out. Not age as in old, but age as being tapped into some inner wisdom. Some seam that allows him to gather the past and the present together to reveal little gems of truth.

From a retelling of the Book of Genesis with "God Looked Around" to a literal road trip from Hell down to Mobile in "Lucifer and the Fallen Angels" the songs on this latest release cover an incredible range of territory both musically and lyrically. Some of them, like the latter and "Dead Thumb King" are bizarre and wonderful stream of consciences riffs.

On "Dead Thumb King" he runs through a list of items which sound like a recipe for a voodoo potion designed to make you the ultimate blues musician. Dirt from Lighting Hopkins' grave, a harmonica thrown away by Charlie Musselwhite and a rattlesnake tail in your guitar.

The thing about Hubbard is you can actually kind of see him picking up a hitchhiking Lucifer and friends and taking career advice from them. "Call me Lou, Lucifer said/ Now listen don't take this wrong/Ain't nobody in this town (Nashville) going to want to publish your songs/Your cool but your old/they don't care about that snake farm groove and grip/And you didn't make any money/ even when that ass Paul Thorn recorded it."
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While songs like this and "Old Wolf", a salute to the denizens and permanent residences of roadhouses and drinking houses of ill repute everywhere, are fun and witty, Hubbard's real depths come out in the beautiful poetry of his stories. For he is one of the great raconteurs of our age as well as a songwriter.

"House of the White Rose Bouquet" recounts the tragic love story of the relationship between a gambler and a Madame. By not trying to tug on our heartstrings, but by just telling the story in plain words so its beauty shines through, Hubbard takes something which could have been sentimental tripe and makes it real.

Maybe its because I've toured with theatre companies or have friends who were in bands and lived out of the back of vans, but the disc's title song, "Tell the Devil I'm Gettin' There as Fast As I Can" resonates with me like few other tunes have in recent years. The music and the lyrics combine to create a piece which evokes the life of an itinerant artist traveling from gig to gig.

He doesn't bemoan his fate or complain about his travails - it is was it is - nothing more and nothing less. Of course the fact the song features both Lucinda Williams and Eric Church harmonizing with Hubbard doesn't hurt. Williams voice especially adds a wistfulness to the song which makes it hard to resist.

Hubbard epitomized alt country before the term even existed. He has resolutely travelled his own road without compromise. In a true and just world he'd be heard on radios around the country and sought after by record companies. However, in these imperfect times we have to make do with purchasing his CDs when they travel into our orbit.

Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can goes on sale August 19 2017 and can be ordered through Hubbard's web site. Do yourself a favour - buy it and revel in its magic and mystery.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - Tell The Devil I'm Gettin' There As Fast As I Can)

July 24, 2017

Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World

Rumble Poster.jpg It's common knowledge popular music in North America has deep roots in Africa and other countries around the world. What probably isn't so well known is the influence the indigenous people of the continent have had on the music we've listened to and continue to hear on our radios. A new documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, from Rezolution Pictures, being released in select theatres across North America on July 26 2017, is a big step towards opening people's eyes to this massive omission in the history of popular music.

Taking its name from the infamous song "Rumble" by Link Wray through interviews and film footage the movie traces indigenous influence on popular music from its earliest beginnings to today. The first rock and roll song by a Native American, "Rumble", as well as being one of the songs which inspired Pete Townshead, Jimmy Page, and countless others to pick up a guitar, was also one of the first instrumental songs banned from the radio. Maybe it was the title or maybe it was the sheer threatening sound of the guitar, but somehow it was deemed too dangerous for the delicate ears of the American radio audience of the 1950s.

However, although the movie starts with rock and roll, it also reveals the roll indigenous people have played in the development of country, blues and jazz. Blues musicians Charlie Patton and Howling Wolf had native blood. Not only did the latter create great music in his own right, but he was one of the musicians who influenced bands like the Rolling Stones. In fact, aside from the obvious like Robbie Robertson and Buffy St-Marie, what will really surprise you is how many musicians from across different genres are Native American or First Nations from Canada.

The movie travels across North America from the Grand River Six Nations reserve, home to Robertson, in Southern Ontario Canada to the Mexican Native roots of Black Eyed Peas vocalist Taboo. It takes us down to New Orleans where it reveals the Choctaw roots behind the elaborate Native style costumes seen in Mardi Gras parades each year. Cyril Neville, of the Neville Brothers, (Choctaw himself) put it simply; run away slaves were given shelter on reserves and the next thing you know - black Indians.

We also travel up to the Carolinas where we talk to Pura Fe Crescioni (Tuscarora) about her group Ulali and the influence her people had on early country and bluegrass music. Over in Idaho is the home of early jazz singer Mildred Bailey of the Coure d'Alene nation.

We hear a native woman singing a traditional Coure d'Alene song and then listen to Bailey and hear where her vocal styling and intonation came from. Everyone from Tony Bennet to Frank Sinatra have talked about Bailey being an inspiration to their singing careers. Listen to any Billie Holiday song, her vocal trills in the high registers, and you're hearing Mildred Bailey and by extension the Coure d'Alene.

Some of the names mentioned in the movie are probably not going to be familiar to contemporary audiences. But guitarists like Jesse Ed Davis played with everyone from Taj Mahal to Rod Stewart and the Faces and sat in for Eric Clapton at George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh. He also was the one who convinced the late activist and poet John Trudell to set his words to music on albums such as Graffiti Man. While Trudell appears in the movie, to talk about Davis and other musicians, his influence can't be underestimated either as he went on to inspire a new generation of bands including A Tribe Called Red.

Of course no movie about indigenous rock and roll musicians would be complete without mentioning Jimi Hendrix and the first Native American band to have a hit single, Redbone. While the connection between the band who recorded "Come and Get Your Love" (One of the first songs heard in Guardians of the Galaxy) and the guy who seared people's ears with his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" might not be obvious it was there.

For it was Hendrix who advised them to "Do the Indian thing", which resulted in Redbone showing up on television shows like The Midnight Special in full regalia and starting their set with traditional dancing. There's a lovely moment in the movie where Taboo and Pat Vegas of Redbone meet up and the former tells the latter how the beat from "Come and Get Your Love" influenced a Black Eyed Peas track.

With contributions from Buddy Guy, Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer, Iggy Pop, Steven Tyler and other non-Native musicians, the picture developed by this movie is of a population widely unrecognized for their contributions to popular music. Not only have indigenous musicians been some of the most influential of their times, but so much of "our" music has its origins in Native traditions.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World is an exhaustive and exhilarating ride through the music of the modern era. While there have been other movies and TV shows which have taken us on this journey, this movie tells a familiar story from a perspective we've never seen before.

By times heartening and other times heart breaking for a variety of reasons, this movie will open your eyes and ears in a way few music documentaries have done in the past. If you have any interest in the popular music of the last hundred years, than this movie is a must see. It will make you listen to everything from country to jazz, blues, and rock in a whole new way.

(Article originally published at as Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World)

June 21, 2016

Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions

Cover The Cedar Creek Sessions.jpgIn celebration of his 80th birthday (June 22, 2016) Kris Kristofferson will be releasing the two CD set The Cedar Creek Sessions on his own KK label. Recorded live over three days in 2014 at the Cedar Creek Studios in Texas (June 23, 24, and 25) the two discs are as close to a retrospective of his prolific songwriting career as can be crammed into a package of this size.

A proper recounting of his storied songwriting career would require far more than the 25 songs recorded during these three days. However, unlike most greatest hits recordings this collection isn't simply songs culled from past albums, these are brand new re-interpretations of the songs Kristofferson felt like playing over the course of the session.

Now the man has never had what one would call dulcet tones. Those of you who can remember the early days of his career will know he was born with a voice that sounded like it had been soaked in a whisky barrel and then smoked by playing a thousand bars. Age has not mellowed his voice any, but neither has it made it any worst for wear. Sure Kristofferson has a little bit more trouble hitting notes at either end of the scale, but that only gives the song's a new depth of character.

The sense of history his voice now personifies brings a new perspective to the songs. Instead of them sounding like they're about a particular moment in time, they now feel as if they were written in relation to a person's entire life. So, a tune like "Sunday Morning Coming Down, arguably one of his most famous, is no longer the Sunday morning repentance of a drunk, but the wistfulness of a person looking back through years and wondering what a simpler life would have been like.
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Those who are familiar with Kristofferson's vast catalogue will be delighted to hear gems that aren't played as often as they should. Chief among those as far as I'm concerned are "The Law is for the Protection of the People", "Billy Dee", and "To Beat The Devil". The latter is particularly great as it closes the second disc and the lines, "And you can still hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,/To the things that I am sayin',prayin' someone's gonna hear." are about as good an summation of any songwriter's career as you'll find. The fact that he wrote it about himself, and it is the last song in this collection, makes it even more powerful in this context.

Kristofferson is joined for this recording by a collection of great players who not only fill in the sound but support his voice perfectly. Shawn Camp on guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, Michael Ramos on keyboard, and Mike Meadows on drums add great accompaniment without overshadowing Kristofferson's uniqueness. There's also a special treat when he's joined by Sheryl Crow in singing the duet he wrote for Johnny Cash and June Carter, "The Loving Gift", a song Kristofferson never recorded.

Willie Nelson, no mean songwriter himself, said "There's no better songwriter alive than Kris Kristofferson. Everything he writes is a standard, and we're just going to have to live with that". While some might debate Kristofferson's status as the best songwriter alive, there can be no debating the fact he's one of the great singer/songwriters of our times. The Cedar Creek Sessions not only serves to remind us of the depth of abilities, but serves notice that he's not done yet. Which is some of the best news the music world could receive about now.

Image of Kris Kristofferson by Kate Simon

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions)

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 as Music Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Ruffian's Misfortune - A Texas Original)

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 as Music Review: Willie Watson - Folk Singer Volume One)

April 2, 2014

Music Review: Steve Conte - The Steve Conte NYC Album

One of my favourite authors, Christopher Brookmyre, in his book Not The End Of The World described New York City (NYC) as a place where "An outgoing personality and a trusting nature would be filed as contributory negligence on an NYPD homicide sheet" and the average citizens's level of paranoia as "a constant state of heightened alertness like mainlining caffeine". Like many other assessments of NYC, this is probably three parts hyperbole and one part reality. For no matter where you live there's always a certain level of heightened awareness when you step out of the sanctuary of your own house.

As I once said to a person I knew who lives in NYC, my small city with a population of just over 100,000 has all the disadvantages of living in a big city, crime, pollution etc., with none of the advantages that come with a major metropolis. A small city is often very parochial as its population never has the opportunity to expand its world view through galleries, museums, theatres or other such venues displaying works from other parts of the world. When culture is limited to only what you can produce locally, with injections of new blood few and far between, it stagnates. No matter how hard an artist tries to grow, without inspiration or examples it's next to impossible.

I was reminded of all this listening to the latest album from NYC musician Steve Conte, The Steve Conte NYC Album. In his last solo release, Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth, Conte captured the spirit of the wild ride NYC can be in a series of brilliantly done rock and roll songs. Having played with the New York Dolls and the Mink DeVille Band he's been enough of a part of the city's rock and roll story to offer a perspective of life in NYC few others can. On this occasion he's delved even deeper into its psyche to show us the city through the stories of the people who live there.
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The other change you'll discover on this album is how much he's expanded his musical horizons. While there are still some wonderful New York rock and roll songs, he's also drawn upon other musical influences. Both the disc's eighth, "Broken Spoke Saloon" and 10th, "Tax Free", tracks have definite country/blues feels to them which makes the stories they tell all the more powerful. What's even better is neither song feels like they're some sort of token piece of "Americana" tossed off because its the in thing right now. Instead their content and placement on the album make them feel like they are part of a natural progression in the overall story Conte is trying to tell us.

The disc opens with wonderfully ironic "Dark In The Spotlight" which takes aim at those who want to find fame through infamy. If you don't have talent at least make sure you're found with a needle in your arm and make a suitably impressive corpse. "Well you're a medical wonder/you're no Johnny Thunders/but you kept up quite a pace./Always severely high and ya didn't die trying/Well lord knows it ain't no race./Somehow you stayed out of the headlines,/the whose nearly deadlines,/guess you missed out on the press." Unlike Thunders, who was a talented musician with genuine demons, the subject of this song is just another sad story of the pursuit of fame for fame's sake. Not only doesn't he or she have the required talent and desire to be a great musician, they can't even get the dying young part right.

This isn't the only New York stereotype Conte's sharp pen pricks with the bite of satire/sarcasm. He also takes aim at the supercool dudes with their machismo attitudes who have long been celebrated in song and emulated by every half wit whose walked into a bar and hit on some unsuspecting victim. "Lady Luck" tells the story one of these dudes who finally comes to the end of his run of luck. "You're the king of the world with a crooked crown/Another day in the life of a fool falling down/With your face in the muck/That's Lady Luck/...She busted your glass jaw, it's the karmic law/She really left you raw". There's nothing cool or glamorous about the life of a low rent hood getting by on the luck of the draw. A player in his own mind, once he steps outside of his comfort zone his world comes tumbling down around him.
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By the time Conte's tour of NYC brings us to the "Broken Spoke Saloon" we're almost prepared for the song's bitter/sweet ode to friendships which have withstood the test of time and two people going in opposite directions. "You couldn't make the rent so you went straight/But I kept on believing I'd get my twist of fate/Now I wonder when you look at me/Do you see a piece of your history?/Something that's too far gone to reclaim/I love you just the same." How many times has a friendship ended due to the resentment one feels towards the other's success, especially when they had met while pursuing the same dream?

In a city like New York this is probably a scene played out in many different bars between many different people. For every person who is able to find a way of making their living doing what they love, there are going to be twenty who have had to give up their dreams. Of course just because you've made it to the point where you're living the life you thought you wanted doesn't mean its without frustration and thoughts of just giving it all up and running away.

The final track on the disc, "Tax Free", shows Conte giving voice to those thoughts. While the song is funny, there's also an element of seriousness to it's expression of how even the most dedicated of artists can get frustrated. "Yeah I'm big joke to the New York Press/So I wake up on the floor/I'm just an aging freelance whore/Don't want to die in this den of despair/There's always death and taxes, but no tax down in Delaware".

The Steve Conte NYC Album is a wonderful mixture of music, thought and emotion which takes you on a tour of NYC as seen through descriptions of a wide variety of people who inhabit the city. Sometimes ironic, sometimes funny but always insightful and intelligent, Conte shows himself to be more than just another rock and roller. The portraits he has created give what most people see as a highly impersonal city the sense of being a place not much different from where they might live. With this release Conte has found a way of reminding us there might be millions of people jammed into NYC's many boroughs, but each one of them is an individual and their stories are what give the city its character.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Steve Conte - 'The Steve Conte NYC Album)

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

September 24, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls

Look at those who've endured the longest in popular music and you'll notice the thing they all have in common is they know who they are and what they are capable of. The really good ones have managed the fine art of both staying within their comfort zone musically and finding a way of not sounding like they're going through the motions. They may not deviate too much from what made them successful in the first place, but neither do they ever seem to stagnate or become boring. With some it's the force of their personality which keeps them interesting while others simply have a quality which makes them endlessly endearing to generation after generation of fans.

Since his career started back in the 1950s Willie Nelson has written some of the most iconic songs in country music ("Crazy"), had a crossover hit on popular music charts before the word was even fashionable ("Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys") and put out albums of everything from jazz standards to pop songs from the 1940s. He is beloved by everybody from the farmers whose plight he raises awareness of with his annual "Farm Aid, to country music fans, bikers, hippies and millions of people all over the world. He has recorded albums with artists from almost every genre of music, and not matter how incongruous the pairing might have seemed at first, the music has always worked.

You think a guy who just turned 80 would be slowing down now, but not Nelson. He recently signed with a new record label, Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, and his third album with them, To All The Girls, is being released on Tuesday September 24 2013. Each of the 18 songs on the disc features Nelson in a duet with, as the title suggests, a different female singer. Reading down through the list of singers who have joined him for these duets is like looking over a Who's Who of country music. From great old ladies Loretta Lynn ("Somewhere Between") Dolly Parton ("From Here to the Moon and Back") and Emmylou Harris ("Dry Lightning") to new stars Carrie Underwood ("Always On My Mind") and Shelby Lynne ("Till the End of the World").
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The roster isn't limited to women from country music either as he's also joined by another ageless wonder, Mavis Staples for a rendition of the gospel classic "Grandma's Hands" and Norah Jones on "Walkin". The one thing all of these women have in common is they each have their own distinct style. It's highly unlikely anybody is ever going to confuse Parton, Lynn, Staples or any of them with anyone else. Yet such is Nelson's ability, no matter who he's performing with, it sounds like they were made for each other.

What's always amazed me about Nelson has been his ability to sing even the most sentimental and contrived song yet somehow or other make it emotionally honest. There's something about his delivery and the genuineness of his voice which can turn the most hackneyed piece of pop or country music into sincere emotional expression. As a result, while there are some singers on this recording who I normally wouldn't listen to as I find their singing contrived, paired with Nelson I enjoyed their performances. Maybe they absorbed something of his integrity, or perhaps his talent is so vast it can cover up another's deficiencies. Whatever the reason, no matter who he's teemed with on this recording the results are just fine.

Of course some of the performances are better than others and to my mind there were a couple in particular that stood out. The combination of Nelson and Mavis Staples on the previously mentioned "Grandma's Hands" is probably the highlight of the disc. These are two of the great voices of popular music and to hear them together is to hear the form elevated to art. Neither of them have an insincere bone in their bodies and it comes through with every note and word they sing. The contrast between his mellow baritone and her throaty growl is amazing. They turn this very simple song into a testimony on the power of a grandmother's love to inspire somebody for a lifetime. Like all the best gospel music it will move you and make you feel better about yourself after listening to it whether you believe in the message or not.
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Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton probably aren't to everyone's taste. Both still carry the twang of their Tennessee backwoods upbringing in their voices like a flag proclaiming their heritage. However, unlike those who might try and affect this accent and end up being annoying, in the mouths of these two grand old ladies of country music its the sound of authenticity making their words ring true. Listening to them partnered with Nelson and the mix of their respective voices is like hearing the roots of popular music come alive in song. There's a power in each of their respective voices which is capable of sending a shiver up your spine. Hearing them together is as fine a treat as you could ask for.

I only recently discovered Shelby Lynne and was impressed with her the first time I listened to her. So I was happy to see Willie had included her on this disc. The version the two of them do of "Till the End of the World" is both touching and interesting. Lynne has one of those great throaty voices which gives all her material character. She sounds like a real human being singing about issues which mean something to her. The combination of her and Willie's smooth as properly aged whisky voice makes for a great meeting of sounds and turns the song into something special.

Willie Nelson is 80 years old, but you'd never know it listening to him sing. While some people's voices become rougher as they age his has become increasingly velvety. Like the best of that material it has a surprising amount of texture. So, while it laps against your ear like liquid gold its has enough of an edge to it to give it emotional depth. Hearing his voice mix and contrast with the various women accompanying him on this collection of songs is a reminder of what an incredible talent he is. For no matter who he works with, or what they sound like, he sounds like he was meant to sing with them. This is a wonderful album of great material performed with style and grace you'll listen to over and over again.

Article originally published at as Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls)

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

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 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.)

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 30, 2013

Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - Feeling Mortal

People always seem surprised when they find out I like Kris Kristofferson's music. Maybe it's the fact I don't just like the songs he writes, but also like the way he sings them. Sure his voice sounds like its being pulled through a whisky soaked rasp that's been allowed to sit in a smoke filled room for a couple of days. There's also the fact the words he sings always sound like they had to fight to their way out of his chest in order to be heard. It's like he's only grudgingly willing to share these secrets of his heart and soul with us.

However, that's what makes his songs so powerful. There's nothing casual about either the emotions behind his songs or the manner in which he delivers them. As befitting a Rhodes Scholar (a scholarship awarded North American university students who mix excellence in academics and athletics that allows them to attend Oxford University in England) there is thought behind everything he does. Not once have I ever heard him cross the line from genuine emotion to cheap sentimentality in order to manipulate a reaction from his listeners. The direct result of what can only be careful consideration of both his lyrics and the music accompanying them. While you can check out nearly any album he's ever released, his most recent, Feeling Mortal, the first on his own KK record label, will give you all the proof you need.

There have been times in the past when Kristofferson's music has fallen victim to the machinations of some overzealous Hollywood or Nashville producer. While they have never quite succeeded in submerging his rough honesty beneath their saccharine coatings of strings and massed backing singers, they came close. Thankfully he started working with producer Don Was seventeen years ago and the results of that arrangement have been some of Kristofferson's cleanest and most honest work since the early days of "Me and Bobby McGee", "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Pilgrim".
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On Feeling Mortal Kristofferson has assembled a collection of ten songs reflecting the theme suggested by the title. Yet this isn't some attempt at atonement or a plea for forgiveness on the part of a repenting reprobate. It's just an honest self examination of who he is, where he's been and what he sees when he looks in the mirror. Take the title song's last verse, "Soon or later I'll be leaving/I'm a winner either way/For the laughter and the loving/That I'm living with today". The past might hold sorrows and regrets for mistakes he made, but he's not dwelling on them. Who knows what the future holds, but the present is still something to be celebrated and be grateful for.

Of course there are songs that look to the past. While some like "Castaway" reflect moments when he realized he was flirting with disaster by sailing close to the edge (" 'Cause like a ship without a rudder/I'm just drifting with the tide/And each day I'm drawing closer to the brink/Just a speck upon the waters/Of an Ocean deep and wide/I won't even make a ripple when I sink) others are almost defiant in their lack of apology for who and what he's been. The title of "You Don't Tell Me Me What To Do" should be a giveaway, but for all those a bit slow on the uptake Kristofferson spells it out for them with the lyrics. "So I sing my own songs/And I drink when I'm thirsty/And I will go on/Making music, and whisky/and love for as long/As the spirit inside me/Says you don't tell me what to do".

Even those songs which in the hands of others might descend into what I call hangover Christianity - repentance after a night's debauchery - are saved from a fate worse than death by both the sparse production values and Kristofferson's vocal delivery. Never what you'd be tempted to call flowery, his voice sounds even more lived in and care worn then ever. However, any deficiencies in his vocals are more than made up for his capacity to deliver each word of every song as if it were being wrung directly from his soul. No matter how hard you try you'll never be able to make him sound pretty or smooth out his rough edges. All of which pretty much guarantees a purity and honesty to his music that others can only dream of obtaining.
The accompanying musicians, Mark Goldenberg guitar, Greg Leisz pedal steel, Matt Rollins keyboards, Sara Watkins vocals and violin, Sean Hurley bass and Aaron Sterling drums, play in support of Kristofferson and his voice. They are not so much a backing band as the framework or the backdrop for his songs. Playing underneath, around and beside, but never over top of his voice, they provide accents which fill the songs out without taking away any of the rough hewn honesty that gives them their power. You have to listen carefully in order to even hear Watkins' harmonies on some songs. However this is a great change from background singers overwhelming a lead vocalist.

I can't talk about this album without mentioning the final song on the disc, "Ramblin' Jack", a tribute to the great country folk singer Rambling Jack Elliot. In some ways though the song is also autobiographical with lines like "And if he knew how good he'd done/Every song he sung/I believe he'd truly be surprised" describing Kristofferson's own life and career just as much as it does Elliot's. However the song also reaches way back to an earlier tune Kristofferson penned, "The Pilgrim", which in its introduction he dedicated to a variety of people, Elliot included.

That song was filled with the spirit of young men living the life of rebellious poets taking chances and flaunting conventional wisdom. Now many years later those who still survive have grown older and wiser and have careers to look back upon. Yet this isn't a maudlin or sentimental wondering where the years have gone song. Nor is it a song filled with regrets or repentance. Its just a simple statement of fact. This is the life we led and what we did.

In many ways this song sums up the theme of the entire album. Kristofferson isn't asking anyone for their forgiveness or understanding, he's just looking in the mirror and telling us what he sees. This might trigger some memories of things from the past and he might feel regret for the way he treated some people. However he's honest enough to realize if given the chance to do it over, he'd probably do everything pretty much the same.

Like some aged whiskies Kristofferson is an acquired taste. His voice isn't what you'd call soothing or mellow and he doesn't try to please anybody but himself with his songs. Once you get past the initial bite his music will leave you with a warmth that fills you from the inside out. Feeling Mortal is a perfect example of the magic he works with song and music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - Feeling Mortal 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.)

December 16, 2012

Book Review: House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash

As the only child of the marriage between two music icons, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash John Carter Cash grew up in what must have been a rarified atmosphere. When your parent's house guests range from Billy Graham to Bono and you spend much of your early childhood on the road it's fair to say that your upbringing isn't going to be what anyone would call normal. However, your parents are still your parents no matter who they are, and you see them differently from the way anyone else does. Seeing them before they have their morning coffee or at home out of the spotlight gives you a far different perspective.

Since Cash's death in September 2003, only four months after his wife, Carter Cash has been combing through the family archives. As the release of four compilations of previously unreleased Cash material in the form of multi-disc sets through the Legacy label show he has proven to be a careful and meticulous caretaker of his parent's memory. The musical treasures he has unearthed have reminded the world of not only the diversity of Cash's musical interests but the depth and breadth of his world view.

Now in an attempt to shine a light on the man he knew as his father, Carter Cash has opened the family vault a little wider. In a new book, House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash, published by Insight Editions, he has combined his memories of his father with an intriguing collection of Cash's personal papers and photographs to bring the man behind the myth to life.
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You might wonder what there left to tell about Cash's life. What with him having written two autobiographies, a movie having been made about his early life and courtship of June Carter and him always being so open about his struggles with addictions and the other demons in his life it's hard to imagine there's anything left to add to the story. If you're reading the book in the hopes of finding some startling revelations or unearthing new tidbits about Cash then you will be disappointed. However, this is a son's view of a very public figure, and as such we see the man from a far different perspective than any that's been offered before. In of itself that lends the book a validity it would otherwise lack if it were merely another biography looking to mine already overworked material.

Over the course of the book the picture Carter Cash draws of his father shows that in spite of his complexities, contradictions and celebrity he was still very much the down home country boy. In spite of living in fancy houses and being driven around in a limousine he still would go squirrel hunting and cook them up for supper. On Valentine's Day he might buy his wife fancy jewellery, but he'd also always make her a rough hand made card each year as well. A family shopping list included in the book reads much like any household's, including such staples as white bread, bologna and lard. True that would change latter in life as he and his wife became more health conscious (among the items included in the book are family recipes for among other things the Cash family version of a vegetarian burger) but that doesn't change the fact he seemed to make a special effort to keep his family life as home spun as possible.

Part of that attempt at keeping his family life grounded in the common place was both his and his wife's refusal to become attached to material items. While some might say the trappings of celebrity don't mean much to them, in the Carter Cash household those weren't just words. They would do things like sell their classic Rolls Royce in order to pay for a trip to Israel for their employees and their families. After his wife died, Cash started giving away everything he owned. He had always claimed she was what was most precious to him, and once she was gone nothing else seemed to have much value for him anymore.
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Of course things weren't always idyllic in the Cash family home. In the early 1980s Cash fell back into drug addiction again and Carter Cash tells about fearing his parents would end up divorcing the fights at home were so bad. One of the letters included in the book is a copy of one Cash wrote to his son from the Betty Ford Clinic during this time. He doesn't try to apologize or explain himself to his son. Instead he tells him what his days consist of, including how he attending a lecture on meditation and that's he learning how to meditate. He then goes on to define meditation as the listening half of prayer adding the codicil of "Isn't that neat?"

As you might expect from our public knowledge of Cash and his wife their faith played a very large role in their lives. While they were good friends with Billy Graham and Cash was never shy about stepping up and "testifying" about his beliefs, his son also remembers his father being completely without judgement about other people's beliefs and practices. When his eldest daughter, Rosanne, from his first marriage, was interested in astrology instead of disapproving he told her to read as much as she could and find out all about it. What comes clear in this book is that while Cash might have been a devout Christian he believed in every individual's freedom to find their own way.

No matter how much success Cash achieved musically he continued to remain an outsider and something of a rebel. Without a record contract in the 1990s and looking to record again he was reluctant to work with established Nashville producers. Which was when Rick Rubin walked into his dressing room and said, "Come into the studio with me and make the music you've always wanted to make. Sit in front of the microphone and sing your songs they way you want".

According to Carter Cash nobody had ever offered his father this opportunity before. When one of the resulting recordings, Unchained won the 1996 Grammy award for best country album without any support from Nashville or country music stations Cash and Rubin took out a full page advertisement in music magazines. Featuring the infamous "finger photo" the copy read "American Recordings (Rubin's label) and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville Music Establishment and country radio for your support".

Aside from his own memories of his father, Carter Cash has also solicited others close to his father for their recollections of his dad for inclusion in the book. These include friends of the family, Cash's daughters from his first marriage and friends like Kris Kristofferson and others from the music industry. Each of them comment on Cash's generosity and kindness to both them personally and others. While this was never something Cash spoke about when he was alive, both he and his wife dedicated themselves to helping others as much as they were able. Unlike others who might see these types of acts as photo opportunities, they did these things because they were in a position to do them. From giving a drunk on the street a 100 dollar bill to visiting sick people in the hospital it was all one in the same thing to them.
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The memorabilia included in this book, ranging from copies of everything from song lyrics in Cash's hand writing, examples of his home made Valentines for his wife to samples of his photography and his dabbles in painting and sketching, are more than just curiosities. Each of them, no matter how seemingly trivial, are another little piece in the overall picture that was Johnny Cash. They also add to the highly personal flavour the author has created by telling the story of his father's life as seen through his eyes growing up in The House Of Cash.

From the small boy who see's his father as a giant to be worshipped, the slightly older boy worried about the wonderful world of his father and mother falling apart for reasons he doesn't understand, to the young man and adult who realizes the amazing lessons his father taught him. Each stage in their life together is examined with honesty and while Carter-Cash never lost his respect for his father, he isn't blind to his faults. In fact it says more about Cash than anything else, that in spite of his flaws and the hard times he put them through, his children still can love him unconditionally.

Cash's legacy as a musician has long been established. In his new book about his father's life Carter Cash lets us know more about the man and the parent behind the guitar and out of the limelight. What comes clear is there wasn't really much difference between the two. What we saw on stage, for good and for bad, was Johnny Cash. As it turns out, while there were some hard times, the good won out in the end. As Carter Cash puts it so succinctly in describing his parent's marriage "Their life was not necessarily 'happily ever after', but rather 'happy after all'. Life isn't always easy and isn't always glamourous, but its what you do with what you have that makes it worthwhile. Carter Cash shows us how his father always did his best to make life for both hims and his family worthwhile.

Article first published as Book Review: House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash on Blogcritics)

December 11, 2012

Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition

I've never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simple mindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers has always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today's popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what they think is the lowest common denominator is the surest way of being a success.

So one of the nicest surprises I've had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line - A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly there after the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Eversorecords label arrived in my inbox.
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While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and depending on the level of their funding bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing singing in the intimate back room of McCabe's guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe's, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. it also includes a twelve page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.

Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn't been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier - that's the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff - but this set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn't sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it's because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don't just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.

Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn't feel like she's claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't join her club. It's a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world it stands to reason the topic will be raised.

The title song of the disc, "Revelation Road", is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital "S". However, the song is more about how we're all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what's important. "Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute/Unconscious to the choir". In fact a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne's song's are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
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"I Want To Go Back" is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past."Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I'm used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?" I don't think I've heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because its what you're used to. When you've been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.

Of course, dealing with these themes don't make Lynne's songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe's disc something along the lines of, "Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music". Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she's giving fair warning that's she's not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.

Maybe it's just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde and sort of waif like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that's not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.

Rounding out the package is the short, about 11 minute, documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice overs or any of the other things you'd normally associate with a "making of" type of thing, instead we're treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around. From her office where she's working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that's all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What's really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she's so absorbed in what she's doing nothing is going to distract her.

If like me you're not very familiar with Lynne's work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you're already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne's material make her a rarity in the world of today's popular music no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today's world. As far as I'm concerned that's what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.

(Article first published as Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics)

November 11, 2012

Music Review: Joe Stummer and The Mescaleros: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-G0 & Streetcore

It's been nearly ten years since Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect at the age of fifty. Born John Graham Mellor he took the name of Strummer just prior to joining Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in forming one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain's punk movement, The Clash. For six years they brought their politically charged combination of punk, reggae, ska, dub and pop music to the world.

In the all or nothing world of punk rock the band had remarkable longevity compared to most of their contemporaries. However, the departure of Jones as lead guitarist in 1983 marked the beginning of the end. Coupled with the lose of their drummer, Topper Headon, a year earlier to heroin addiction, the band was only a shadow of its former self. While Strummer and Simonon limped on with replacements on guitar and drums for another three years it just wasn't the same.
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For the next decade or so Strummer vanished from the public eye. He composed the soundtrack for a couple of movies, acted in a few others and stood in for Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues when MacGowan's drinking forced him out of the band. Yet when he returned to the world of pop music full time in 1999 it was with a vengeance. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were cut from the same cloth as The Clash playing high energy socially and politically conscious music. However, as the band's name implies, they were also far more a reflexion of Strummer's interests and taste than The Clash had ever been.

Over the course of three years and three albums the band's line up was constantly being shuffled with Strummer, Martin Slattery (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and Scott Shields (guitar and bass) being the only consistent members. However, this lack of a consistent line up doesn't seem to have had a negative effect on Strummer's creativity. Listening to Epitaph Records' newly reissued versions of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A GoGo and Streetcore you'll be amazed by both his ability to write in a multitude of musical genres and songs that were both meaningful and musically interesting to listen to.

While there are obvious similarities between Srummer's work with The Clash and The Mescaleros, these releases weren't an example of somebody trying to recreate the past. Instead this later body of work continues on and expands upon what he had begun to establish with the first band. Later Clash albums saw the band experimenting with different styles of musical expression. Living in London England Strummer was surrounded by people from all over the world, listening to an amazing variety of music, and couldn't help but be influenced by what he saw and heard around.

The first Mescaleros' disc, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, feels like it picks up where The Clash left off. The second last song on the original recording, "Yalla Yalla" has a groove which hints at Jamaican dub but without the heavy bass line. At the same time it has an urgency you'd never hear in reggae or any of its offshoots. It's hard to describe as on the surface the song ebbs and flows with an easy beat, but there's the feeling of a deeper current, a hint of danger, lurking just out of sight. Perhaps it's the sound of Strummer's singing voice, rasping out the lyrics, which gives these lines an added intensity. "Well so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show/not in my time/Not in my son's/And daughter's time."
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Even sung to the melodic tune of the song those are opening lines guaranteed to grab your attention. The tune almost lulls you into not noticing its a lament for the way so many wars fought in the name of freedom and liberty end up replacing one form of tyranny with another. Like all of Strummer's best work "Yalla Yalla" isn't just an issue song but is a commentary on human nature. Some might find his rather pessimistic take on the world, not giving it much of a chance of getting better anytime soon, as being a downer. However, given the state of the world in 1999 when this was written and the way things are now, I'd say he was pretty accurate in his assessment of what the future held for his kids and their generation.

Global A Go-Go saw the band's line up changed to include Strummer's old friend and musical mentor Tymon Dogg. While it might have been coincidence but this disc also saw their sound and vision become far more global. While the immediacy and intensity that was always characteristic of Strummer's music didn't change, the scope of the band's means of expression certainly expanded. In liner notes written for this reissue film maker Jim Jarmusch comments on the appropriateness of the disc's title: "Strummer's world wide musical influences and appreciation are certainly well known...Global A Go-Go deftly represents his outlook, his intuition, his enthusiasm, and his concerns."

Yet what continued to make Strummer's music special was the human qualities he was able to imbue his songs with. Not very many people could write a song extolling the virtues of multiculturalism, let alone write one that's as funny and cheerful as "Bhindi Bhagee". Simply by listing the variety of food and musical styles on offer in a neighbourhood he creates the image of a multitude of nations living side by side in harmony. "Welcome stranger to the humble neighbourhood/You can get inspiration along the highroad/Hommus, cous cous, in the jus of Octopus...Welcome stranger, there's no danger." Typical of Strummer the song has a point, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way.
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Strummer died before the release of the band's third album, Streetcore. Fortunately after a series of gigs in November 2002 the band had headed right into the studio and had recorded enough before he died the remaining band members, Simon Stafford, Luke Bullen, Shields, Slattery and Dogg, were able to finish it off and release it in 2003. This disc really shows the many and diverse musical directions Strummer was beginning to head in. From his reworking of an old British pop song from the 1950s, "Before I Grow Too Old", retitled here as "Silver and Gold", to his writing of "Long Shadow" in the hopes of it being recorded by Johnny Cash. It was the type of song that would have fit into Cash's repertoire seamlessly with its tale of a long struggle artistically couched in biblical terms. "Well I'll tell you one thing that I know/You don't face your demons down/you grab them by the collar/and you wrestle them to the ground."

Strummer ended up recording it with Smokey Hormel, Cash's guitar player. Also included on the disc was a recording he made of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" that he had made in Rick Rubin's studio (the man who produced and recorded Cash's "American" albums). It seems eerie that both Marley and Strummer recorded this song as solo acoustic numbers and in both cases it was released posthumously. However, in case you think these tracks were an indication of Strummer mellowing, the opening two cuts from the disc, "Coma Girl" and "Get Down Moses" will quickly disabuse of the notion. The first is a satiric look at the whole music festival scene while the second tells Moses he needs to come down from his mountain and check out reality before making his pronouncements.

As lead singer for The Clash Strummer had stardom and international acclaim thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. While there's no denying The Clash were a great band and Strummer did some incredible work with them, The Mescaleros and what he created for them was just as deserving of recognition. While they obviously didn't produce the same volume of material as his first band, what they did record was every bit as good as the best stuff The Clash ever made. Hopefully the reissuing of these three discs will ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-Go & Streetcore on Blogcritics.)

October 24, 2012

Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake

We hear a lot about Roots music and Americana now a days, but do we ever stop to ask ourselves whose roots people are talking about? Whenever I hear people talking about Americana music I can't help thinking of the movie Songcatcher. A music anthropology professor travels to the Tennessee hill country to record so called mountain music and discovers the people are singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over from the old country. This so called American folk music is transplanted songs of another culture sung with new accents. Of course there are other roots aside from the Anglo/Irish/Scotch in the music of the Appalachians. There were the Native Americans who were the area's original inhabitants and the African Americans who were brought in as slaves to work the land. While the former might not have contributed much directly to the music it was their land it took root in. The latter contributed the banjo, the instrument no self respecting roots music group can live without.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that a woman of Native and African descent would put out a disc of music with lyrics taken from the poems of the 18th -19th century British poet William Blake set to the sounds of all three of the region's inhabitants. The Garden Of Love: Songs Of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project is one of those wonderful meetings of minds and culture that come along once in a while that literally take your breath away. On the surface it might sound like the most outlandish thing you've ever heard, setting the words of William Blake to the music of North America. However, there's a long tradition of adapting his words to music - the British hymn "Jerusalem", taken from the short poem "And did those feet in ancient time" from the preface to his epic Milton A Poem is the best known example. Of course history has shown us there's an equal precedent for adapting the work of the British Isles as American folk music.
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There was always a very strong spiritual streak to Blake's work and while it was firmly rooted in Christianity he expressed it in terms transcending the confines of doctrine. Instead of poetry worshipping his God directly, he wrote pieces of gratitude for what he saw as the gifts given humanity by its creator. The poems Redbone has elected to adapt praise the natural world around us, love and the gift of freedom. These themes are not only universal, but are ideally suited to the unique combination of musical traditions Redbone draws upon for this disc. There's a rawness and honesty of emotion in Blake's poetry that requires it be set to music capable of expressing their ideas in an as unaffected and straightforward a manner as possible. However, it also requires the music to be emotionally and spiritually honest and powerful.

I don't know about anyone else, but as far as I'm concerned I can't think of anything more emotionally and spiritually honest than either African American gospel music or traditional Native American music. Nor can I think of anything more unaffected and direct than old time mountain music. When you listen to what Redbone and co-composers Aaron Whitby and John McEuen have come up with to accompany Blake's poems on this disc I think you'll hear just how well these work together. There's a body and a depth to the music you don't normally feel with just straight ahead country as elements of both Native and African music are interwoven with it. The arrangements are such that in those songs where all three elements come together they sound like three part cultural harmony. While the European derived music might be in the forefront most of the time, without the other two strains you just know the tune wouldn't be the same.

To pull something like this off you need incredibly skilled musicians. Thankfully that's the case here as the people playing on this disc have the ability to play at level equal to the sublime nature of the lyrics. As well as composing, co-producing and arranging, McEuen also plays banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and lap dulcimer. Well that might seem like an album's worth of instruments he's not a one man band. There's also David Hoffner on keyboards, pump-organ, accordion, hammered dulcimer and tack piano, Mark Casstevens on guitar and harmonica; Byron House on upright bass, Debra Dobkin percussion and Keith Fluitt, Michael Inge, Ann Klein and Mary Wormworth on backing vocals. Rounding out the bill are special guests David Amarm flute, Lonnie Harrington Seminole chant and rattle on "A Dream" and Jonathan Spotttiswoode recites "Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames".

Save for "Men of Thames" Redbone handles the lead vocals on all the songs and also adds traditional chants and rattles as required. While the band is important, without somebody with as gifted a voice as Redbone the whole project would collapse. In the past she has shown herself capable of singing traditional native music, R&B and soul with grace and style. However, this sounds like the music she was born to sing. She seems to only need to open her mouth and start singing the words to this music to open a direct channel to her heart and soul. Every word and every note she sings not only rings true, she also imbues them with every ounce of passion she apparently possesses. Yet there's nothing melodramatic or overblown about her performance. She makes herself the perfect conduit for the words and music so we hear Blake through the filter of the music's soul without any unnecessary garnish.
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What that means is while the lyrics retain the original meanings given them by Blake, they also take on new meanings because of the music and the arrangements. When Redbone sings the final verse in "The Garden Of Love"; (the introduction from Blake's notebook for Songs and Ballads) "And I saw it was filled with graves/And tomb-stones where flowers should be:/And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds/And binding with briars, my joys & desires"; we hear Blake's condemnation of the clergy for taking the joy out of his religion and we hear how Christianity was used as a weapon against Native people.

Redbone is able to perform this type of delicate balancing act throughout the course of the whole recording. In some cases they are rendered as African American spirituals, "I Rose Up At The Dawn Of Day", while others, "Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright" are played in a way that captures what must have been Blake's original intent with the poem. It might seem an unusual combination this mixture of Native, African and European American cultures and the words of William Blake. However, together they create music that not only crosses cultural and racial barriers but can more honestly be referred to as Americana than most. The work of Blake as interpreted by Martha Redbone and the Martha Redbone Roots Project give proof to the words of another great British poet, "John Keats""A thing of beauty is a joy forever".

(Article first published as Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake on Blogcritics.)

October 2, 2012

Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon

There are some musicians who are, for lack of a better way of describing it, in your face. There's nothing subtle about them and you know immediately whether you're going to like them or not. Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum. They are so subtle that you barely notice them but for some reason you can't get them out of your mind. There's something about what they do with their music and lyrics that keeps pulling on your heart and mind and compelling you to listen to them over and over again.

The first time I listened to Jason Collett's new release Reckon on the Arts & Crafts label, it felt like it had come and gone like a puff of wind. Something that had briefly ruffled my hair without having any lasting impact. Yet, the second time I listened not only did every song sound familiar I found myself singing along with the choruses on about half of them. Music that had seemed to run together all of sudden had become a series of distinct tunes with intricate arrangements. During the first listen there might have been a couple of points where something grabbed my attention. However the next time through I was amazed to hear songs performed in a variety of genres with lyrics both intelligent and moving.
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While I don't know if this says more about my inability to listen than anything else, I do know that most of the time if a disc doesn't grab my attention the first time through I don't bother with it again. Yet that wasn't the case on this occasion. Collett had reached inside me, grabbed my attention and held on tight without me even noticing. One of the way he manages to do this is his voice. It's not what you'd call powerful nor does it have any really distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out. Yet its compelling all the same. Old time folk and country singers appealed to their audiences because their voices were familiar. It was like listening to somebody you knew singing. Collett has something similar going on. When he sings it doesn't sound like he's up on a stage singing down at you from a great distance. Instead it sounds like he could be sitting in the chair opposite you in your living room or on your back porch.

There's also something about his voice which makes it memorable and unique. While he has the same high, lost/lonely quality, as Neil Young, his voice is in a lower register and has more of a tonal range than Young. However, what you'll really notice is his voice has character. You can tell by listening to him that he's experienced almost everything the world can throw at somebody. You can hear, heck you can almost see, both what's scarred him and what's given him hope. While there are times when he gets angry and times when he can be biting in his satire, you can hear he's neither tired of the world nor does he believe he's seen everything it has to offer either.

Of course you also hear a lot of this reflected in the lyrics of his songs. Now some of the place names mentioned won't be familiar to those outside of Canada, but the circumstances his songs describe are universal. There's the young woman in the ironically titled "Miss Canada" who moved from her home in the Maritimes when the fish stocks disappeared in the hopes of finding work in the oil fields and tar sands of the West. You have to wonder what work she thought there'd be for a woman out there. "She takes off her dress/in a Fort MacMurray motel bedroom when the boys cash their cheques in the fields of Black Gold/Back home the cannery's closed and the fishing boats don't hardly fish no more/She came out West/hoping to make the best of it/It wasn't what she planned/but who can draw a line in the tar sands/money's a fast talking bird in the hand". Obviously this isn't a song about a beauty pageant contestant, but the young woman in the song is much more emblematic of life in Canada than anybody bearing the title of "Miss Canada" is liable to be.

To me the line "money's a fast talking bird in the hand" says far too much of what people are being forced to do in order to keep body and soul together. "Miss Canada" is the first of three songs in a row which are related to what politicians euphemistically refer to as an economic slowdown. It's easy for them to talk about the necessity of cutbacks and restraint, but they're not the ones who have to suffer for it. There's almost no pause between "Talk Radio" and "I Wanna Rob A Bank" which follow "Miss Canada". You have to wonder if the latter isn't the answer to the dilemma expressed by the person in the former.

I'm sure all of us have heard people call into radio shows and talk about their lives. Well "Talk Radio" is the voice of one of those people, somebody who's obviously at the end of their rope. "What is happening to me?/I have done all the right things/I'm a Christian, God fearing/ I work hard for my family/I have a gun and I believe in the values of the country/and my life is collapsing". Spaced over just a bit more then two minutes of music that's the song's lyrics in their entirety. Delivered slowly with only basic musical accompaniment it comes across as a cross between a lament and a whine. So it catches you by surprise when before the echoes of its last notes have even completely died away the crunching guitar and opening lyrics of the next song burst upon you.
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When after the first chorus of "I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank" finishes and we hear; "I think it's only right, what's left don't even put up a fight/Someone's got to save the day/even Jesus would say it's okay to wanna rob a bank/ don't you wanna rob a bank?/Just like Jesse James/but I don't want to rob no train/ I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank." It's possible Collett is referring to Jesus throwing the money lenders from the temple, but it's equally possible we're hearing our good Christian with the gun from the previous song finding a solution to his problems. If that's the case I have to wonder how that would make anarchist types who would normally support knocking over a bank feel? Is it only okay if those doing the knocking over are "politically correct"?

On the surface Collett is expressing the frustration we all feel at the government bailing out banks while poor people are losing their houses. However I think he's also reminding us that everybody, not just the Occupy Wallstreet people, are feeling the same things. Think about the guy who genuinely believed in God, country and the flag who is all of a sudden forced to confront the fact the latter two really don't give a rat's ass for him. He's going to be a lot more angry and disillusioned than any so-called anarchist. He's going to have even more cause to want to knock over a bank than anybody else. Collett does a good job of forcing us to put ourselves in his shoes and realize his pain is every bit as real as everybody else's.

That's what I meant about Collett's stuff being subtle. There's layers of meaning in almost every song and they pick away at you, forcing you to listen to them again and again to try and track the train of his thoughts. Of course there are also songs like "Don't Let The Truth Get To You" which don't mince any words. Lines like, "the fools on television not taking any sides/modern journalism is just little tongue tied" in response to their reporting verbatim what the politicians have to say about the state of the world make it obvious what he thinks of television news. That's the sort of thing that will grab your attention and stick with you, but there's even more waiting to be discovered beneath the surface. Musically the disc ranges from folk, to rock to pedal steel country, but that's almost incidental to what's going on in Collett's head.

There's a wealth of ideas to be found on Reckon expressed in a myriad of ways. However instead of having to wade through reams of rhetoric to appreciate them, you only need to sit back and let them wash over you as gently and inexhaustibly as the tide. Jason Collett proves that intelligent songs don't have to either complicated or hard work for their audience. As a bonus the CD release of Reckon comes with a second disc, Essential Cuts, a retrospective of the best songs from earlier releases. If you buy the LP version you'll be given a code which will allow you to download the bonus disc. Either way its a great package of music from an exciting and interesting musician.

Photo Credit: Photo of Jason Collett by Victor Tavares

(Article first published as Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon 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.
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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.
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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 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.)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live

String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live 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.)

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.)

April 17, 2012

Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians

Being old enough to remember when David Bowie released the song "Young Americans", it was the title of Eamon McGrath's new release, Young Canadians, on White Whale Records which attracted my attention. Probably a stupid reason for wanting to hear a CD, especially as it was pretty obvious from the press release about the disc McGrath's music would have nothing in common with mid 1970s Bowie. However I've purchased or chosen to listen to something for stupider reasons and not had any regrets, and I could only hope this would be the case on this occasion.

Thankfully McGrath's work is not something anybody should regret listening to. For those wishing to have it classified or categorized for them, I'd guess most would say his work falls into the folk/punk genre. I'm not even sure what that means myself, but since he mixes acoustic and electric instruments and his songs range between the quiet introspection one expects from folk and the anarchic abandon of punk it would seem to fit. However I'd hazard a guess that he didn't sit down and say, "Hmm I think I'll create an album of folk punk music". I've the feeling that if it were musically appropriate to the content and context of a song he wouldn't hesitate at incorporating a funk groove or twelve bar blues. The sense I have from listening to this one album is he wouldn't limit himself or his material through arbitrary boundaries. The needs of a song would far outweigh the need to fit into an easily defined niche.

Maybe it was the title of the disc which triggered this thought, but after listening to the disc I couldn't help but remember something I had happened across years ago regarding the arts in Canada. The quote implied they were heavily influenced by the long winters so much of the country experiences and the stark landscapes which dominate its wild spaces. While that might sound like a tempting theory, the reality is the majority of artists in Canada live in urban centres far removed from the wild and its only in the far north the winters can last for what seems like ever. However, there is a quality to McGrath's work both musically and thematically that suggests both the raw energy and stark beauty of Canada's wilderness and the introspection associated with the long nights of winter.
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That's not to say his music is either depressing or bleak. Personally I don't find anything depressing or bleak about winter or the wild anyway, but I realize some would automatically make that association. Try and imagine a vista of evergreen forests brushed with snow climbing the side of a sun washed mountain and the awe it inspires. For while the songs on this album may not be safe and civilized like most pop music, they also have a far greater chance of having a lasting impact on you in much the same way the rough beauty of nature in winter will impress itself upon you far longer then a field of corn or other tame image. Like both winter and real unspoiled nature there's something a little intimidating about McGrath's work, but that's part of what makes al of them so compelling.

The disc's opening track, "Eternal Adolescence", starts off with a brief, piercing whistle of guitar feedback. It cuts out abruptly to be replaced by an acoustic guitar carefully picking out a tune and its soon joined by McGrath intoning the song's opening lyrics. While rock and roll songs in the past might have declared "I hope I die before I get old", McGrath looks at the trade off you make for the eternal adolescence of rock and roll. How do you fit a life into the lifestyle of constant touring and late nights? You can have "Eternal adolescence" but "the schoolyard is insane". What happens if you meet someone, the eternal adolescence wars with the desire for the companion and "rock and roll won't ever be the same". The lyrics are deceptively simple, the final minute of the song sees him simply repeating "rock and roll won't ever be the same" until the music ends. However, it's not hard to get the message of how the stereotyped rock and roll lifestyle doesn't really mix well with adulthood. The underlying conflict described in the lyrics is emphasized by the way the music switches back and forth throughout between distortion and gentle guitar. It creates the uncomfortable feeling of someone being pulled in two directions at once,
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Even more conventionally sounding rock songs like "Instrument Of My Release", track two on the disc, have their disconcerting moments. In this case lyrics like "I saw your picture in a magazine/how'd you end up with a man like me?/someday I'm going to trade my black holes for memory/an instrument of my release/an instrument of my release", aren't what you'd call typical for a song about regrets. Normally these songs are either full of self pity and recriminations designed to elicit pity for the person singing instead of those who have suffered through their behaviour. Not in this case, as you're left wondering what kind of stupidity did this guy indulge in that resulted in black holes instead of memories. Even the line "How'd you end up with a man like me?" which has all sorts of potential for self pity is delivered in such a way the listener wonders what somebody would have to do to another person in order to ask such a question.

Vocally McGrath is never going to win any awards for having dulcet tones or smooth as silk harmonies. Than again that type of voice wouldn't work with the music he's playing. Ironically there are probably any number of rock singers who would sell their souls to sound like him. Ever since Dylan popularized rough textured vocals as being a kind of voice of the people, singers have been trying way too hard to sound "authentic". Of course if you have to try sounding authentic it sorts of defeats the purpose, but nobody seems to have quite understood that yet. McGrath doesn't have the greatest range but he more than compensates for any technical deficiencies in his vocals with his intensity and the effortlessness of his delivery. Like other great vocalists he doesn't sound "emotional". Instead his voice simply gives life to his song's lyrics through his ability to communicate the meaning behind each word. Not just the dictionary definition either, but what they mean in the context of the song and to him personally.

As for the title song, "Young Canadians", well I'll leave you to decide what you think of it, but I was right in thinking it was nothing like Bowie's "Young Americans". In fact, while you really can't make a rock and roll album any more without sounding like something that's gone before, McGrath has created something that uses those familiar elements in ways that make them sound new again. He's taken all the best elements of rock and roll, country and folk and grafted his unique vision of the world onto the framework. The resulting album doesn't make for easy listening as it challenges the listener both musically and lyrically and forces them to pay close attention to each song. It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're like me and want something more from your music than just escapist entertainment, its the album for you.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians on Blogcritics)

November 23, 2011

Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation

Being the children of famous people can have it's advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side is the automatic recognition that comes with sharing a well known name. On the downside there's having to live up to everyone's expectations of what the name signifies. On top of that there's also having to deal with those who will whisper about people only making it because of their relations. So, in the end while having a famous name might get your foot in the door, you're going to end up having to work almost twice as hard as the next person in order to gain the respect you deserve for your efforts.

For a lot of people the temptation might be to run as far away from their family name as possible in order to prove they can make it on their own. However, there shouldn't be any reason for them to have to do that. If you have talent it will show through no matter who you are or who you perform with. When Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie released their first disc as Folk Uke a few years ago they not only proved they could stand on their own two feet as song writers and performers, they also made no secret of their family ties. Let's be real, Willie Nelson's and Arlo Guthrie's daughters aren't going to be able hide from the world who they're related to, so they might as well own up to it. So both dads appeared on the first record in support roles.
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While the first CD was fun to listen to the duo relied more on their sense of humour and intelligence than their musical abilities to impress listeners. There were only a couple of moments which hinted at the true nature of their talents. Songs like "Shit Makes the Flowers Grow" and "Motherfucker", seemed like deliberate attempts to distract listeners from the natural sweetness of their voices and how suited they were to an older style of country/folk music. Now, with their second CD, Reincarnation, being released on November 22 2011 on their own Folk Uke label, the duo, as can be seen through their choice of material, have far more confidence in themselves and their abilities as vocalists.

The opening track on the disc, a cover of Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me", tells the listener right away the direction Guthrie and Nelson have moved in. Nilsson's material requires just the right touch or it could easily slide into sentimental mush. Like a great many of his songs its deceptively simplistic while demanding a great deal from any who attempt to sing it. The temptation would be to go over the top emotionally in an effort to "make something" of the song. However, it's the song's very understatement which makes it so powerful, and Nelson and Guthrie understand that perfectly. Their vocal arrangement is simple enough to allow the song to speak for itself, while the unaffected sweetness of their harmonies captures its emotions without getting in your face.

Of course being who they are they haven't completely abandoned their rather wicked sense of humour. "I Miss My Boyfriend", with guest vocals supplied by Skeeter Jennings, is one of the most biting and non-politically correct songs about abusive boyfriends you're ever going to hear. In a letter from his prison cell an abusive boyfriend confesses to his girlfriend how he's had a wife all along. Not to worry though, for while dragging your wife around by the bra turns out to be against the law, he'll be out in a couple of years. With its sweetly sung chorus of "I miss my boyfriend/ will you hit me/give me the beating of my life/take off your belt now/leave me a welt now/treat me just like I was your wife", some might think the tune doesn't take the subject seriously enough. However, if that's the case, you need to look up the word irony in the dictionary and then listen to it again.
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Still, the lasting impression you take away after listening to this disc is that of two wonderful voices raised in song. Whether it's the country type tear jerker "Long Black Limousine" or the title song "Reincarnation" - a love song that truly crosses all boundaries - Guthrie's and Nelson's vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Even on the aforementioned tear jerker they bring an honesty to lyrics that in other people's hands would sound cliched or downright stupid. They both seem to have the innate ability to open their mouths and sing unaffectedly. Whether one of their own creations or covering somebody else's material they have the confidence in themselves to simply serve as the song's interpreters and let it speak for itself.

On top of that their voices seem to have been made to sing with each other. Listen to the way they build their harmonies on "He Needs Me" and the effortless way their voices intertwine. It's not often you have the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the sound of two voices working together so well. In fact you have the feeling that it wouldn't matter what they sang, and it would sound great. However, the music they've chosen here not only suits their voices perfectly, the songs also show their remarkable emotional and intellectual range as performers.

Both Nelson and Guthrie could easily slide over the edge into being cloying and sweet, and probably make a killing in the adult easy listening market, but thankfully they've taken a different direction and we're the ones reaping the benefits. They might have famous musical parents, but this latest release only confirms that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie are deserving of recognition in their own right.

(Article first published as Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation 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.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
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?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
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.)

October 9, 2011

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Vol. 3 - Live Around The World

Sometimes concert settings are the best places to see a band in order to appreciate them and sometimes there not. There are a ton of variables which can come into play and impact the quality of a performance, some beyond the control of the band and others which are their responsibility. The venue, the crowd, equipment problems and even the touring schedule are things beyond most band's control these days, and each of them can have a hand in determining how a concert comes off. However a band can also become complacent from playing the same music over and over again and while they might not make mistakes in their performance, the risk of them merely going through the motions instead of giving their all to a performance is always real. Finally there are those performers who can't be counted on to show up in the right state of mind, so to speak, for a concert, if they even deign to show up at all.

Now a days those who fall into the latter category are far fewer then they once were. With popular music becoming such a big business the industry has become far less tolerant of such behaviour. Performers who can't fulfill their commitments are liable to soon find themselves without recording contracts no matter how talented they might be. Unfortunately, the history of pop music is filled with stories of those whose lives ended before their time because the individuals weren't able to control their excessive behaviour. Thankfully there were also some who were able to stop before they went too far down the path of self destruction and find a way to stop the bleeding before it was too late. One of the most famous of those was Johnny Cash.

While we might never know the depths to which he sunk personally the forthcoming release, Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World, on Legacy Recordings October 11 2011, a collection of Cash's live performances from 1956 to 1979, provide a glimpse of how close to the edge he came at certain points in his career. You only has to listen to his behaviour and demeanour on stage in the early to mid 1960s compared to how he was from the late 1960s on to appreciate the difference between the two stages of his life. In fact, one of the most amazing things about this new two disc CD package is how it manages to capture the arc of his career.
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From the early days, the Big D Jamboree in Dallas Texas in 1956, when he was still young and caught up in the excitement and thrill of being a musician; the middle period, performances given at the New River Ranch, Rising Sun Maryland in 1962 and at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island in 1964, when he was on the verge of losing control, to when he turned it around and began again, a 1969 concert in Long Binh Vietnam at an NCO club, a command performance at Richard Nixon's White House with the Carter family in 1970 and excerpts from concerts as far afield as Osteraker Prison in Sweden 1972 and as close to home as Exit Inn, Nashville Tennessee 1979.

While that distinctive voice never changes through the years, and he never makes any of those mistakes you would normally associate with substance abuse, there's something awfully uncomfortable, and almost embarrassing, about listening to Cash's performances in the middle period. Whether it's because he sounds like he's trying too hard to be the life of the party by doing his imitation of a record with a skip in it during the concert in Maryland or making bad jokes while playing "Rock Island Line" at the Newport Folk Festival, or some underlying nastiness that comes through on occasion, he comes across like the drunk at the party who everybody spends the evening trying to avoid. They are especially difficult to hear after listening to the opening three tracks taken from the Texas concert in 1956, where he comes across as happy and excited, just glad to be invited to the party.

So it's something of a relief to listen to the recording of the 1969 concert at the NCO club in Vietnam to hear the Johnny Cash we're all more familiar with. For while you won't notice many differences in the quality of his performance or the sound of his voice, what you will notice is he's no longer trying to prove himself the life of the party or acting the fool. Instead of being there for his own ego he's there for the audience and it makes a huge difference. Cash's music has always spoken to people in much the same way Woody Guthrie's did because of his ability to put the things that matter to us to music. He can sing about everything from his belief in his saviour to what it's like to be a dirt farmer and on some level or another we'll all understand what he's talking about.
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In those middle years when he was more concerned with showmanship and following a path of self destruction you can hear how the stories, while not lost, were certainly diluted. All you have to do is compare the way he sings the same songs at different points in his life in order to notice the difference. When I first received my copies of this two disc set I was surprised to see how so many of the songs on the first disc were under two minutes in length, including songs I could have sworn were much longer whenever I'd heard them before. The reason is he was rushing through most of them and barely even listening to the words he's singing. The contrast between those performances and the ones in the later years, when he is taking the time the material requires, is so strong you can almost reach out and touch it.

While it's hard to listen to Richard Nixon introduce Cash for the White House performance in 1970, that concert is one of the discs highlights as far as I'm concerned. First of all there's the fact that he's joined by the entire Carter Family for all thirteen tracks, and no matter whether you agree with the Christian message of much of their music or not, you can't help but appreciate their music. It also represents a chance to hear a piece of American music history as you listen to America's first family of country music singing with one of the men who first started merging it with African American blues. Of course the irony of hearing Cash singing "What Is Truth" to "Tricky Dick" is nothing short of priceless.

Needless to say the disc contains nearly all of everyone's favourite Cash tunes including "Big River", "Give My Love To Rose", "Boy Named Sue" and "Walk The Line" to name but a few. However, I was personally more thrilled to see some of his covers of tunes like 'Sunday Morning Coming Down" Kristofferson and "City Of New Orleans" by the late Steve Goodman included. Those are tunes, especially the latter, I've had a hard time tracking down recordings of Cash singing, so to find them as well as a couple of others is a real bonus.

While the quality of some of the recordings isn't great - the two tracks recorded in 1976 at The Carter Fold are scratchy and the ones from the Exit Inn from 1979 sound like everybody, crowd included, are off in the distance - that doesn't depreciate this release's value. Most of the time collections of this sort shy away from casting the artist in a less than perfect light. Here though, whether intentionally or not, the producers have given listeners an incredibly accurate history of Cash's performance career. It's not always the prettiest of pictures, but it's an honest one, and it makes you appreciate the road the man travelled all the more. Cash himself might have winced upon hearing some of those recordings, but I'd like to think he was honest and brave enough to have been okay with them being released. He always wore his heart on his sleeve, was always honest about who he was, and this release carries on that tradition.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World 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 7, 2011

Music Review: Hank Williams 3 - Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown

Being anybody the "third", except perhaps royalty where you take a name of your own choosing upon ascending the throne, can be quite the burden. Not only do you have to live up the expectations of being your father's son, you also carry the added burden of his father's achievements around on your shoulders. I've always looked at people saddled with that type of burden with some pity, wondering what kind of life they can have carved out for themselves when somebody has tried to dictate who and what they will become right from the word go. Of course that sympathy is usually mitigated by the fact most who are bequeathed their grandfather's name also end up having a few million dollars or pounds placed at their disposal in compensation. At the very least it's sufficient to pay for any therapy they desire.

Of course some are given a far less tangible inheritance, and something harder to live up to than mere wealth - a reputation. Even those children of famous people who don't share their parent's given name have a hard time living up to the expectations generated by the accomplishments of the previous generation or generations. What most of the world fails to realize is that some talents are akin to lightning strikes and aren't genetic traits to be passed along from parent to child. Genius, in whatever form it might take, is not an inherent right. Intelligence may be something families share in the same way similar shaped noses will show up in generation after generation. But the circumstances which create a person's ability to perceive the world in a singular enough fashion that the impact of their actions lives on for generations are usually as unique as the individual who lives with them.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Hank Williams changed popular music forever. He was one of the first popular musicians to combine all the various cultural influences in popular music (Anglo/Irish/Scottish rooted country music, African American blues and French and Spanish Cajun from New Orleans) and in the process paved the way for the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and all the other early rock and roll stars of the mid to late fifties. Songs like "Move It On Over", "Hey Hey Good Lookin'", and "Jambalaya", to name only a few, not only influenced future generations of musicians, they are still being played and listened to sixty years after they were written.
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However, whatever inspired his greatness wasn't passed along to his son. Hank Williams Jr., although a capable musician, has never shown the same spark of originality nor the willingness to experiment with content and form that marked his father's work. So, when I heard his son, Hank Williams III, had in turn become a musician, I really wasn't interested. It wasn't until I started to hear rumours of something called "Hellbilly", a combination of punk, country and Cajun with occasional forays into speed metal, that he seemed to be a nexus for, that my ears perked up. Now on the surface it might appear punk and country have little in common. But at their most basic both feature bare bones music relying on a few chords fuelled by passion and production values that allow for a "do it yourself" approach to recording. Any doubts you may have about their compatibility, at least in the hands of Hank Williams III, will be laid to rest upon listening to Ghost To Ghost and Guttertown being released September 6 2011 on his own Hank 3 label. The two discs, packaged together as a double, are half of the four disc assault that Williams has planed for that day. As I gathered the other two discs represented the harder edge of his repertoire, and I have a limited appetite for speed metal, I elected to review this package, advertised as representing his country/punk/Hellbilly side.

Now, if like me, you've had no experience with this type of music, you'll be in for a bit of a surprise that even the title of Ghost To Ghost's opening track won't have prepared you for. Okay, maybe a song title like "Cunt Of A Bitch" will prepare you for the fact this isn't going to be country music of the likes you're used to seeing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. However, since that place has done more to to ruin country music than any other so called institution in America, that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. It still refuses to recognize the contributions of Hank III's grandfather to country music which ought to tell you more than enough. (Hank III has set up a page at his web site, Reinstate Hank Williams, where you can sign a petition asking the Opry to reinstate Hank - sign it if you love music) Anyway, before this turns into a rant against the country music establishment, let's get back to Hank III and Ghost To Ghost

It definitely won't be on the top ten playlist of Tipper Gore and any of her cronies who worked so hard to get warnings about offensive lyrics put onto album covers to protect innocent ears from being ravaged. But damn if it ain't music that will put the fear of god into any God fearing, hate mongering asshole. Not only will the lyrics burn the paint off most automobiles, the music is an all out assault on the ears as well. Turmoil, anarchy, the threat of random violence, cursing, substance abuse and everything else everybody pretends they don't partake in six days a week when they're sitting mouthing their prayers in the pew on the seventh is packed into the ten songs on this disc. So called American values take a well deserved beating as Williams and company rip a hole right into the heart of darkness at the rotting core of a nation caught in downward spiral. If you can't hear the greed and excesses of the last fifty years being indicted on this disc, well you're not listening. Your ears may bleed and your mind may reel, but you won't be bored and you won't ever mistake it for bullshit "New Country".
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However none of what you hear on Ghost To Ghost will prepare you for what's in store on Guttertown. For instead of the wild careening anarchy of the first disc you are immediately plunged into a world filled with the mysteries buried in the depths of fog shrouded swamps, ghost towns and other places lining the borders of the spirit world. The opening piece in this nineteen song opus, "Chaos Queen", introduces a world of "haints" and others who occupy the mythology of the South. The sounds of the night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures, mixed with just the right amount of atmospheric music serves as an overture. Slowly what sounds like a child's voice becomes audible, offering to guide us only so far to meet with somebody, presumably the Chaos Queen of the title, but no further because the woman is of an uncertain temperament and you never can be sure of how she'll take to you.

As the child leaves us to our own devices and the night sounds creep back upon us we move into the first song of the disc, "Chord Of The Organ", as fine a piece of Cajun country zydeco as you'll ever hear. While most of us are used to the upbeat and celebratory sound of the genre, Williams and band bring another element into play - the bayous and swamps where the music was first heard and played. While the cadences and patois are what we've grown accustomed to, there's an underlying element that evokes something darker and dangerous you'll not have heard before. As you listen to this song, and the other "songs" on the side, you start to feel like you've wandered into some backwoods carnival where the games are rigged and for an extra dollar you can go out behind the tent to watch the geeks bite the heads off chickens.

Meanwhile underneath it all is playing a calliope whose motor has seen better days and the music is just slightly off, either too slow or too fast, your not really sure which. Its the kind of place, and music, which reminds you the swamps were once home to more than just zydeco. This is where the gods and goddesses who travelled from Africa with slaves took root and what we call voodoo was practised. As the disc progresses, with songs interspersed with more trips back to "Guttertown" accompanied by our strange voiced guide, we feel like we are being led deeper and deeper into something strange but oddly familiar. The music is brilliantly played by Williams and his band, as they somehow manage to play wonderfully tight zydeco and create the atmosphere conducive to scaring the crap out of you.

I guess it's sort of obvious that Hank Williams III is not going to be showing up on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry anytime in the near future. Nor are you likely to see any of his videos in heavy rotation or hear his music on the radio. While some of the songs on Guttertown might be more accessible than anything on Ghost To Ghost, he's still not the kind of safe and predictable performer the music industry feels comfortable with. However, if you still believe popular music shouldn't be either of those things, rather it should upset the establishment and reflect the disquiet of the times, and you understand being a rebel doesn't mean waving the stars and bars or singing songs about beer, boobs and football, than give Hank Williams III a listen. He may not sound much like his grandfather, but he definitely inherited his spirit and his willingness to take risks with his music. He might be carrying around the weight of a famous name on his shoulders, but after listening to these two discs it doesn't seem like its been too much of a burden for him.

Photo Credit: Cindy Knoener
(Article first published as Music Review: Hank 3 - Ghost to Ghost/Guttertown on Blogcritics)

August 7, 2011

Music Review: J D Malone And The Experts - Avalon

When you write about music for any length of time there comes a point when you've become so inundated with press releases describing this band or the other you forget there was a time you actually enjoyed listening to it just for pleasure the experience brought. Part of the problem is how much of the music industry has been taken over by the celebrity mania that has gripped all of popular culture. With the huge number of what are nothing more than glorified talent shows clogging the air waves celebrating stardom and the pursuit of fame, music has become a means to an end instead of the raison d'etre for far too many so called performers.

When somebody stands up on stage and sings a song for some other purpose than serving the music the heart and soul have been torn out of it. There's only so much of this you can take before you start to turn your eyes and ears elsewhere in the hopes of finding people who at least perform the music they play with a passion born of the music not for personal aggrandizement alone. At least that's what I've found myself doing more and more over the past couple of years as I've begun looking further and further abroad in search of music as fulfilling as what I used to be able to find played in almost every local bar and tavern.

However, once in a while you get lucky and still stumble across a band or a musician who play for the sake of playing. They might just be some local bar band with more passion than talent, but there are also those out there, outside the spotlight and the limelight, who haven't forgotten what it really means to play rock and roll. A group of guys who play because they love to play and have the ability to communicate that love and remind you that rock and roll was supposed to have been about having fun. Such a band is J D Malone and the Experts, and the proof is in their first full length CD release, Avalon, on the aptly named It's About Music label. This is actually a two disc set, a CD and a DVD, with the DVD containing footage of the band doing final rehearsals in the studio for some of the tracks on the CD.
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Malone has been kicking around music for years, paying his dues, and the same goes for the rest of the band; Tom Hampton on pedal steel, baritone, twelve string electric and lap guitars as well as dobro, and mandolin, Tommy Geddes on drums, Avery Coffee on electric guitars and Jim Miades anchoring them all on bass. It would be tempting to paint these guys as blue collar musicians and give them some sort of romanticism, but that would be doing them a huge disservice. They are all dedicated musicians who have been working steadily in a field where being able to make a living at what you love is a major accomplishment in itself. We get so hung up on fame and celebrity that we lose track of what it might mean to be able to pay the bills doing what you love. Of course it's not the most secure profession, it doesn't come with health and dental or a pension plan, but only a small minority of musicians ever become celebrities and the rest of them are still doing it for more love than money.

The love part of the equation really shows through on the DVD when you get to see and hear the band. However, even on the studio tracks on the CD - the last four tracks on the CD are audio tracks from the DVD, basically live versions of songs played earlier - you can't help but be aware of how much this has been a labour of love for all of them, and especially Malone. Save for covers of the old John Fogery tune "Fortunate Son" and Tom Petty's "I Should Have Known It", Malone has written all the songs the band plays on the disc, so he's naturally the most emotionally invested in the release. Yet in spite of that, there's an obvious easy camaraderie between him and the rest of the band which allows the music to find that perfect spot between sloppy and uptight which makes rock and roll come alive.

Taking their lead from Malone the band makes it sound like they're enjoying every note they play in each song. When a band is too uptight they can give the impression they're working to finish the song without making any mistakes, The result is a letter perfect recording, but one that sounds like it could have been played by machines. Here what you have is a group of guys who are taking that extra fraction of time required to enjoy the moment while they're in it which imbues a song with life. Whether an up tempo rocker or something closer to country it doesn't matter, you can't imagine these songs being played any better.
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As for the material itself, none of them are going to be anything new or innovative either lyrically or musically. Most of them are along the lines of the traditional rock and roll song dealing with guy and gal relationships. However within that formulae Malone manages to work in some turn of phrases which take tunes out of the realm of cliche and give them their own identity. "I've seen you crashin' angry/I've seen you paper thin" he sings at the opening of the disc's title track "Avalon". The second line sticks in your head with its mix of ambiguity as to what he might mean by it and the vulnerability it suggests in contrast to its predecessor. It hints at an understanding of emotional complexity you don't usually find in most relationship songs and tells you Malone is willing to push a little deeper than normal for this type of music.

Vocally Malone occasionally falls into the trap of equating strain with emotional intensity, but if he were to stop and listen to himself he'd realize that he's far more effective when he allows himself to relax and open his throat when he sings. Listen to the difference between how he sounds on some of the slower tunes when he doesn't push as hard and you'll hear how much more believable he becomes. He just needs to trust in his own abilities as a vocalist a little more and it will make the world of difference. He has the potential for an interesting and expressive voice that would make already good music even better.

J.D Malone and The Experts aren't doing anything that's new under the sun with their release Avalon. However, what they are is a timely reminder that rock and roll was meant to be fun and that when played as well as it is by these guys it doesn't need to be anything else to justify its existence. Far too many bands today seem to think they have to do something with their music in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately in the process they end up taking themselves way too seriously and don't really sound like they're enjoying themselves. How they expect us to have fun listening to them if they don't have any fun playing I don't know, but you won't have to worry about that with Malone and his band. These guys definitely love what they're doing and you'll find that you can't help but love it too.

(Photo Credit: Picture of band Joseph Tutlo)
(Article first published as Music Review: JD Malone and The Experts - Avalon 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.)

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.)

February 24, 2011

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Bootleg Vol. ll - From Memphis To Hollywood

One of the things I dislike most about the music industry is the way the compartmentalization of popular music limits people's view of each genre to the industry's definitions. As a result most people's perceptions of each musical genre are limited to what they hear on the radio, meaning the majority only hear the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what they each have to offer. This has been going on for ages of course, which along with bad drugs and greed explains why there are still people to this day who are convinced Duran Duran are representative of music in the 1980s and have never heard of the Talking Heads.

As far as I'm concerned the genre which has been most misrepresented over the years though has been country, or, God help us, country and western, music. Each new generation of radio listeners, and now video watchers, has been presented with the lowest common denominator as representative of the entire genre. All of which means is decade after decade we've been swamped with sentimental songs about broken hearts, cheating wives/husbands and undying devotion. Kenny Rodgers, Shania Twain and a cast of assorted other slick and polished figures may have made the industry millions of dollars with their cherished cross over appeal, but they also created such a horrible misconception of the genre large numbers of us would never have discovered its real potential except by accident.
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What they call country music these days has its roots in the Anglo/Scot/Irish folk songs brought over by those who settled in the Tennessee mountains. They adopted the banjo from the African Americans, who had brought with them from Africa, and the six stringed guitar soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars brought home with them from Cuba. Lyrics of old songs were changed to suit their new lives and for a largely illiterate population it was easier to learn song lyrics than read the hymns in church each week resulting in the creation of simple devotional songs based on familiar Bible stories. With the depression in the 1920s and people being forced on the road the music spread across the country. It was only natural people like Woody Guthrie used the same tunes they had heard at home as the basis for the material they wrote out in the world, whether protesting about working conditions or describing life trying to survive the dust bowl.

Unfortunately, based on what I had heard on the radio, I knew nothing about that type of country music until much later in life. Which is one of the reason I was so late in coming to Johnny Cash. It wasn't that I had never heard of him, it was, if I paid any attention at all to him it was to simply lump him in with what I was hearing on the radio and not bother checking out his music. Of course the first time I heard him that changed. How can you hear his voice and not be affected by it? Even when he's singing some of his more sentimental stuff, the type of song in another person's hands that would have you reaching for a bucket, there's a quality of honesty to his voice which makes it impossible not to believe him or ever doubt his sincerity. For those of you who may never have experienced, or maybe somehow forgotten, what Cash's voice can do to you, the latest release from Legacy Recordings of previously unreleased or unheard material from the earlier part of his career, Bootleg Volume ll - From Memphis To Hollywood, available to purchase on February 22 2011, provides ample examples of what made him so damn special.
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The two disc set, with extensive liner notes giving the history of each piece, is divided up according to the year the material was recorded or performed. Disc one, the 1950s, is divided up into four parts. The first part is an entire radio broadcast, including Cash reading commercials for the Home Equipment Company, that was originally broadcast on August 4 1955. This show was the first recording ever of Cash and his band, The Tennessee Two, Luther Perkins on electric guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass, performing live and his nervousness shows during his in between song patter. However it's the songs that really matter, and what struck me the most is if I hadn't known these were recorded in the fifties, there was no way I could have told you by listening to him when the broadcast had taken place. Even at this early stage in his career he sounds like the voice of ages; a voice that carries the scars of having seen the best and the worst of what humans are capable of doing to each other.

The second part was for me the most intriguing, and best part of this disc, as the fourteen tracks, feature Cash accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. These are the earliest versions of some of his most famous material: "Walk The Line", "Get Rhythm", "Belshazzar" and "Leave That Junk Alone" to name just a few. Recorded between 1954 and 1957 when he was still with Sun Records they are not only an indication of the multiple directions his career would take thematically, but musically as well. Even this early acoustic version of "Get Rhythm" can't hide the fact it had all the elements required for a classic rock and roll song and Cash does an amazing job of making it move with just his voice and guitar. A couple of songs later he's moved over into gospel, and while "He'll Be A Friend" is a typical country gospel peon in praise of Jesus, "Belshazzar" is an Old Testament rocker more along the lines of what you'd expect to hear in an African American church.

What really shines through on all the demos, and on all the tracks on this early disc for that matter, is his voice. All the expressiveness he would become famous for is there, as is the rough hewn quality, if a Tennessee oak could sing it would sound like Cash, making his a voice an audience could identify with far easier than any polished pop star. Long before Dylan draped himself with the "voice of the people" mantle a la Woody Guthrie, Cash was not only singing in a voice that sounded like your neighbour's, he was singing about things you were familiar with. In rural communities across the country his was the one voice they probably heard from the outside world they could recognize as being one of their own. Yet, even today, when some of the material is dated or might sound a little hokey, these songs appeal because you never once doubt his sincerity. He's not trying to sell you a line or convince you to be who he is, he's just telling you what he believes with an integrity you can't help but respect.
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Disc two is primarily B sides of singles and other material that never made it onto albums when Cash was signed to Columbia Records in the 1960s. Some of them have made it onto records in other versions - his recording of Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings" for instance was not only on Dylan's Nashville Skyline but recorded as a duet with June Carter Cash and again with Waylon Jennings. (If you've never seen it you should really check out this video of Cash and Dylan recording "One Too Many Mornings") The main thing you'll notice about the material he's doing in the 1960s is how Cash was starting to expand his base. It wasn't just Dylan's music he was performing, he was also reaching way into the past to record American folk music by Steven Foster, "There's A Mother Always Waiting" plus contemporary stuff like "The Frozen Logger" by James Stevens and "Girl From Saskatoon" which he co-wrote with Johnny Horton. (It has to be the earliest popular music references to the town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada - of course the Guess Who raised much confusion among their American fans by naming a song "Running Back To Saskatoon" - but that was years later).

There's also an oddity on this second disc, "Shifting, Whispering Sands", featuring a spoken word performance by Lorne Greene. This song was recorded in 1962 when Pa Cartwright was riding high in the saddle every Sunday night on Bonanza. This is definitely the lowest point of the disc as far as I'm concerned, but thankfully it's not too long and easily forgotten what with twenty-four other songs on this disc. There were also some pleasant surprises as well. I hadn't known Cash had written one of my favourite sarcastic songs, "Foolish Questions", and his dry delivery is absolutely letter perfect as he pokes fun at people's habit of asking stupid questions.

Even on such stinkers as the Lorne Greene piece, Cash's presence shines through. He had a voice which probably would have allowed him to sing the phone book and still be able to keep an audience riveted. Bootleg Volume ll - From Memphis To Hollywood gathers together close to sixty demos, unreleased tracks and other material from the 1950s and 1960s which proves that right from his earliest recordings Cash's voice was unique in music in the way it allowed him to connect to his audience. There have been few artists before, and since, Cash who have been as genuine in their delivery of their material and these two discs testify to his greatness. If you've never really appreciated his voice before, this collection can't help but impress upon you just what a gift it was and how the world is a lot less interesting now that its gone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Bootleg Volume ll - From Memphis To Hollywood 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.)

October 27, 2010

Music Review: Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best Recordings

Hank Williams was only twenty-nine years old when he was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Oak Hill West Virginia. The previous night he had been loaded barely conscious into the back seat of a Cadillac. His body wracked with agony from back surgery that had never been allowed to heal properly, emotionally and physically exhausted from the break up of his first marriage and a killer touring schedule, he had passed out in the back seat of the car never to wake again. He had a history of battles with the bottle and by 1952 promoters were leery of booking him as there was no guarantee that even if he showed up he'd be sober enough to go on. However, for two years, from 1949 to 1951, he had dominated the Billboard charts with a series of number one hits and was one of the most popular performers in America.

In 1951 alone he performed 130 shows across Canada and the United States. While that may not seem like a lot to some people, you have to remember this was in the days before bands had tour buses or you could hop a plane to take you across the country in a few hours. Hank and his band, The Drifting Cowboys, did all their travel by car, which was exhausting enough on its own. However, most weeks, no matter where they were, they also had to make sure they were back in Nashville for Saturdays in order to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Aside from touring and recording, in 1951, Hank was also featured on a fifteen minute radio spot every morning that was broadcast across the midwest and the south. From 7:15 am to 7:30 am kitchens in thousands of homes would have the pleasure of Hank's company brought to them by the good people of Mother's Best Flour.
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As there was no way he could record the shows on a daily basis, each time he and the band were back in Nashville they would lay down a number of shows that could then be broadcast over the airwaves at some time in the future. Remarkably the original acetate recordings of all those old radio shows somehow survived the years. While a couple of box sets have been released in the past couple of years with highlights from those shows, for the first time ever Time Life has gathered them all together in one package, Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings. The sixteen disc set, fifteen CDs and one DVD, comes complete with an accompanying hard covered book detailing the history of the collection, details of each broadcast, letters from Hank Williams Jr and Jett Williams, and a map of the United States and Canada detailing the elder Williams' tour stops during 1951. The entire collection is contained within a replica old fashioned tube radio which plays back an excerpt from one of old broadcasts. The set is not available in stores or on line retailers and can only be purchased through its web site. While this might feel a little inconvenient, believe me when I say this collection is worth any extra trouble it might take to get your hands on it.

For while there are plenty of recordings of Williams' music out there today, these radio shows are something special. Not only do they give the listener the opportunity to hear Hank performing some of his most famous material live, they provide insights into both his character and the wide range of his musical influences. For unlike commercial radio today which serves mainly to fill empty air with noise, programs like the Mother's Best shows were often the only human contact isolated farmers would have on a day to day basis. Remember there was no means of mass communication in the early 1950s and in rural areas farmers would only see their neighbours on rare trips into town and at church. That voice, first thing in the morning for fifteen minutes, coming through the radio might be the only one outside of their family they'd hear for days on end.

So there was a casual, almost conversational tone to these shows that you'd never hear on today's radio. Williams sounds like he was just dropping by to sing some of his favourite tunes for his friends out there at the other end of the transmission. You can be guaranteed that each broadcast would contain at least one gospel or old time song that everybody would be familiar with along with one of Hank's current favourites. Often times he would use these broadcasts to try out his new material so you'll also hear versions of his hits that you'll have never heard before.
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You'll also gain some understanding of the extent he went to in an attempt to keep his first wife Audrey happy. While she had aspirations of being a country singer, she was nowhere near being in the same league as her husband. However as his fame grew, so did her resentment about his success and in an effort to keep peace in the Williams' household he included her in many of these broadcasts. Quite frankly the songs she's featured on, either singing with Hank or by herself, make it obvious that she really shouldn't have been let anywhere near a microphone. Audrey obviously didn't appreciate his efforts at trying to make her happy as when they divorced in early 1952 the settlement gave the bulk of his money to her.

The story behind how these recordings came to light and are finally being made available is almost as fascinating as the music itself. The DVD included with the set tells how Jett Williams, who was born shortly after his death, first discovered she was Hank's daughter, then her discovery that the acetates of these recordings existed. What followed after that were the extensive legal battles she and Hank Williams Jr. had to go through to gain the rights to all of the recordings, some of which had fallen into other people's hands. As well as telling the story behind the recordings, Jett also talks about what it meant to her to have this record of the father she never knew. For her they turned him from a figure of legend into a real person as for the first time she was able to hear him talk, joke around with his band, and sing songs that had special significance to him.

The DVD also features her in conversation with two surviving members of The Drifting Cowboys, Don Helms and Big Bill Lister, and one of the radio show's recording engineers Glenn Snoddy. The conversation took place in 2008 and just two weeks later Helms died of a stroke and a year after that Lister was also dead. While at first the conversation is rather stilted as Jett can be seen reading her questions off cue cards to all the men, gradually the depth of feelings that the men obviously felt for Hank starts to shine through as Helms chokes up on several occasions.

The fifteen disc collection covers the period of Hank Williams' life when he was at the peak of both his creative and performing powers. We hear every aspect of his performing career from his hit songs to the morality tales he recorded under the name of Luke The Drifter. There are also some strange oddities like the Venereal Disease public service announcement included on disc fifteen which features Hank narrating a story of a young girl who contracts syphilis. Some of the material, like that featuring Audrey, might have been better off being left to gather dust in some vault, yet they all go to helping us gain a deeper and clearer understanding of who Hank Williams was.

These recordings are also a testament to the wonders that digital technology is able to produce as the sound quality is truly remarkable. If you close your eyes and sit back and listen you can just about visualize Hank and the boys sitting around the studio on a Saturday morning swapping songs and stories just like any group of friends. Like so many who would come after him Hank Williams' life was cut short by the demands he placed on his body through hard living and his desire to create music. Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings Box Set brings a little of him back to life for us and future generations to enjoy. After listening to even one of the discs in this collection you'll soon discover what so many others the world over have come to understand, a little Hank Williams goes a lot further than a lot of anyone else.

(Article first published as Music Review: Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best Recordings 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.
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.)

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 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.

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.

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.
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 8, 2009

Music Review: Arlo Guthrie - Tales Of '69

Being the son of one of the most revered folk singers in the United States hasn't always been easy for Arlo Guthrie. It's not every child who has to come home from school and ask his dad to teach him the lyrics to a song he wrote because everybody else in his class knows the words to "This Land Is Your Land". It sounded funny at the time, hearing Arlo recount that story during a documentary television special about his famous father, Woody Guthrie. Some people never overcome the shadows cast on their lives by the deeds of their parents, and an incident like the one described above could have been a disaster. However, in this case it didn't take long for the son to establish himself as a singer and songwriter in his own right.

It was in 1966 that he wrote the song that would make him famous the world over, "Alice's Restaurant", and later released an album and stared in a movie of the same name. For those of you who somehow might have missed hearing about it, the song recounts - in detail - the story of how Arlo and some friends of his were arrested for littering Thanksgiving Day and his subsequent visit to the draft board and how his criminal record from the incident impacted on that visit. Of course "Alice's Restaurant" was only one song in Arlo's arsenal, and by 1969 songs like "Coming Into Los Angeles" and "The Motorcycle Song" had further cemented his reputation by the time he appeared at the Woodstock Muisic Festival in Bethal New York in 1969.

Now that big concert in 1969 wasn't the only gig Arlo had that year, and the folk at Rising Son Records, the label Arlo put together for his family and friends, have uncovered some old tapes in the basement from another concert he gave just before he went down to Woodstock. They've done all the usual magical stuff that can be done with digital re-mastering, and the result is Tales Of '69 which is scheduled for an August 18th/09 release, pretty much forty years to the day that Arlo would have been saying "New York State Freeway is closed man" before singing "Coming Into Los Angeles" for 500,000 people.
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As anybody who has ever seen Arlo in concert knows half the fun are the stories he uses to introduce the songs. So aside from the fact that three tracks on this disc are songs that have never been released before, if you were wondering about the attraction of buying a forty year old collection of live songs, it's for the way Arlo performs them and introduces them. Sure we've all heard "Coming Into Los Angles", his cautionary tale of trying to bring controlled substances through LA Ex, but you've never heard it introduced with Arlo giving the audience real estate advice in advance of the quake that's supposed to move the West Coast further east. Suffice to say he's talking about buying beach front property somewhere in the Mid-West.

The disc kicks off with "The Unbelievable Motorcycle Tale", probably better known to most as simply "The Motorcycle Song", and its presented in all its gory original details here; including the audience cheering when he and his bass player (who was in the side car) go off the cliff and are saved from certain death because they land on a cop car whose occupant doesn't survive. This version also includes the startling story of the undercover pickle who is working as a police informer. Something that you'll notice quite quickly when listening to this disc, is that this younger version of Arlo Guthrie is one heck of a lot more militant then the current model, and a lot more frank in his talk about drug use then what you'll hear from folk now a days.

The little asides that he gives out during some of introductions, and the content of a couple of the previously unreleased tracks, makes this pretty obvious, but it's the version of "Alice's Restaurant" he performs on this night that really brings it home. Having just seen Arlo performing the song during its fortieth anniversary tour I had assumed I knew the song intimately - heck I even used to have the whole damn thing memorized. However, aside from the tune and the chorus, I didn't recognize a thing about the version of the song he sang on this night back in 1969. First of all there was no mention of any garbage, officer Obie, or of the boys sitting on the Group "W" bench at the draft board. The story he spun on this night was all about the intrigue involving a new secret weapon - a rainbow coloured roach. (For those unfamiliar with drug parlance roach is the term given to the butt end of a marijuana cigarette, or joint as they say).
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It's a hilarious story involving spies from Russia and China discovering the secret rainbow coloured roach in Alice's Restaurant and sneaking off with it back to their countries in the hopes of creating the ultimate secret weapon - a bomb that will get the populace of the United States "bombed". Of course when American security services find out about this they send a group of agents down to the restaurant to see if they too can get their own roach - they need to devise a means of defending the red, white, and blue from this horrible threat. They not only discover their own roach, but one that's the biggest roach ever seen, some four foot long and a foot around.

Well the story goes on from there to include both the Russians and Chinese making use of tape to adhere roaches to missiles. Lydon Johnson and Hubert Humphry, (President and Vice President respectively of the United States as the incident took place prior to the 1968 election of Nixon) and everybody else running the government licking and sucking on that giant roach and getting high and devising literally blanket protection for continental United States. That image alone, of LBJ and Hubert Humphry getting stoned, makes this song worth listening to, but for those of you like me who have heard the "traditional" version countless times, it's a treat to hear a version unlike any I've ever heard before.

Tales Of '69 is not only great because of the different versions of old favourites it includes alongside songs that have never been released before, its also a chance to take a glimpse back in time to when things were a whole lot different then they are now. Hearing a young Arlo Guthrie singing some of the songs that we've all come to identify with him when they were newly written makes you appreciate even more how he's able to still keep them sounding fresh forty years later. Young or old Arlo is a delight to listen to and this disc is no exception.

July 7, 2009

Music Review: J B Beverley & The Wayward Drifters - Watching America Role By

Country music sure has changed since the days the people of the Appalachians were singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over with them from across the water. Not only does the majority of so-called country we hear today bear no relationship to any of those traditional songs, listening to it you'd be hard pressed to understand why the heck it is even called country as it has nothing to do with country life or the people who live it. What far too many of these groups, or performers, have done is use the sentimental nature of the old folk songs as inspiration for their material and wrap the result in the tinsel of pop music.

That they still seem to think they're qualified to sing songs about farmers, long distance truckers, and the beauty of trains is a bit of a joke, especially when you consider the closest most of them have come to any of the above has been passing them in their converted tour buses. It's no wonder that the majority of what you hear on the "country charts" sounds about as sincere as a politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar or an evangelical preacher with a prostitute. While recent years has seen something of a revival of interest in the traditional style of music, the chances of you getting to hear it on the radio on a regular basis remain slim to none.

However, if you're willing to stray away from the radio dial and venture off into un"charted" territory you'll have a far better chance of hearing music with a whole lot more substance. One of the bands off the map are J B Beverlry &The Wayward Drifters. They've just released their second recording, Watch America Roll By on their own, Helltrain Records label.
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Nowhere on any of the twelve tracks on Watching America Roll By are you going to hear a voice catch in order to simulate emotion as the lead singer, J B Beverley, doesn't need to resort to such fakery. He sings with a voice that sounds like its been scarred not only by what he's experienced personally, but by the empathy he feels for others and their stories. While it's important for a singer/songwriter to have been around the block a few times and had his or her share of what life can throw at you, what's just as important is how they express that in song. You can sing about yourself and be full of self pity, or you can sing about yourself in such a manner that everybody can identify with what you're talking about as you've taken the personal and made it universal.

Beverley is one of the latter, so even when he's singing a song about how he's always been alone in "Me And My Blues", anybody whose ever felt like they're destined to spend their life by themselves will feel like he's singing about them. Of course there's some songs that you're not going to identify with directly, but even on a track like "Interstate Blues" where he sings about the band travelling around paying their dues, we're drawn into the song in such a way that we can understand what he's talking about.

It doesn't hurt of course that the band plays some of the most infectious honky-tonk style of country that I've heard in ages. They swing through every song with a joie de vivre that at the least will set you toes to tapping or get you up dancing. Yet at the same time the music doesn't prevent you from listening to what he has to say either. Which is a good thing because you wouldn't want to miss some of the song's lyrics no matter how much fun you're having with the music. In particular I like "They'll Only Play My Music When I'm Dead" where he takes a few pokes at the Nashville establishment and how they regulate the music that gets played. However he's not really bitter or angry about it, as he turns the song into a bit of a joke with stuff along the lines of if he wants to support his dear old mom he needs to eat some lead, because they'll only play his songs when he's dead.
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Of course it doesn't hurt that all the members of the band can handle their instruments as well as anybody you've ever heard pick up a banjo, mandolin, guitar, or acoustic bass. While Beverley handles the lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Dan "BanjerDan" Mazer burns up leads on banjo, mandolin, and dobro, and Johnny Lawless lays down the rhythm with his double bass. As the core of the band these three are the old time equivalent of the rock and roll power trio in the way they can lay down honky-tonk country blues. While their sound is augmented by some friends on this disc, you can tell that even on their own these three would put on a great show. In fact they're so good that you don't even realize until the album's finished that they don't use a drum kit or any sort of percussion at all.

There are very few bands who call themselves country that I can stand listening to anymore, so coming across a band like J B Beverley & The Wayward Drifters is like finding a pocket of clean air in the middle of a rush hour traffic jam. What makes them so damn refreshing is the fact they aren't trying to imitate old time music by singing songs written hundreds of years ago, or singing about subjects they know nothing about like farming or hard rock mining. They sing about the world today set to music that's timeless and in voices that we can all relate to. Some of the edges might be rough enough for you shave yourself with, but that's part of what makes their sound so honest and their songs so real.

If you don't think that country music has to be accompanied by rhinestones and big hair and your sick and tired of songs written about a country you don't recognize, than you need to be listening to J B Beverley & The Wayward Drifters. This is country music that speaks to everybody, not just pretend cowboys who've never had to get their boots dirty.

June 14, 2009

Music Review: Johnny Cash Remixed Snoop Dog & More

The first time I came across what's come to be known as "remixing" was back in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The Clash's album Black Market Clash featured what were called "Dubbed" versions of a couple songs. Dubbing, like today's remixes, involved taking the tracks originally laid down for a song in the studio and restructuring them to create different versions of the same song. In those primitive times that mainly seemed to involve manipulating the vocal tracks and laying down extra bass and rhythm tracks to accentuate the already heavy beats of reggae music.

To be honest most dubbed, remixed, and extended remixes of songs have left me cold in the past as there hasn't seemed to have been any real artistry involved in the process. Nobody has written any new music or created any new lyrics, they've simply taken something that somebody else wrote and played around with it. At least that's been the impression I've had until I heard Johnny Cash Remixed. Originally released in the United States at the beginning of 2009, it's now being released as a special CD/DVD combo on the Ear Music label in England on June 15th/09. As the title suggests the collection features remixes of some of Cash's best known tunes.

Now there are those who are going to consider it sacrilege to play around with Johnny Cash's music, and the producer of this little venture, Cash's son John Carter Cash, understands this. The DVD included in this package is a documentary about the making of the CD and on it Cash jr. says that his father was all about doing things his own way and pushing the envelope when it came to music, so this project was an attempt to honour that spirit. Judging by some of the interviews with the people who did some of the remixes on the disc, they all had a difficult time in overcoming their respect for the material in order to tamper with it all. They not only realized how important the original music was to a lot of people, but they themselves had nothing but respect for Johnny Cash.
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As I mentioned earlier re-mixes are normally made by working with the individual tracks from the original recording. However in this case all the material that was being remixed had been recorded without the benefit of multiple tracks like you would have in a modern studio. When Cash cut these songs for Sun Records in the 1950's everything was recorded "live" in the studio with the whole band being recorded simultaneously. So the challenge for the guys doing the remixes was they couldn't break the songs down into their parts, but were forced to come up with ways of working with the entire song.

My original fear that the disc would end up being a collection of base heavy, dance hall songs that had little or nothing to do with the original music was thankfully unfounded as each of the teams involved with doing a re-mix found a way to hang onto the essence of the original song. That doesn't mean that they sound like the original material, for although there's a few like the version of "Big River" done by the duo Count De Money which have kept the song pretty much intact and merely added some touches, there are others where the song is virtually unrecognizable as the original. While that may shock purists, I would ask that you think about what you prefer when you hear a band cover someone else's material. Would you rather hear them do a faithful, note by note reproduction of the original song, or would you rather hear them re-interpret it?

So instead of re-interpreting the songs in the traditional way by recording them anew with new musicians, what these people have done is use technology. Some of them have laid down new vocal tracks, added in other instruments, or augmented the rhythm with beat boxes and drum machines, but they've all stretched and pulled the original material like toffee to change the sound and texture of the material. What I found especially interesting was the number of ways in which they found to carry out this process, and how they were able to make each of them work as well as they did.
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I'm sure one of the last people most would expect to hear doing a Cash song would be hip hop performer Snoop Dog, but not only did he contribute a version of "Walk The Line", he was also co-executive producer for the project. He set up his version of the song as a duet between himself and Cash, so that he'd rattle off lines that he built based around the song, and then cut to the original version with Johnny singing a verse. There are some wonderful shots of Snoop Dog on the DVD out at Cash's cabin looking both completely incongruous wearing his LA Lakers singlet, but somehow also looking right at home at the same time.

Which pretty much sums up the whole recording; somehow each of the individuals or groups working on the songs have managed to find a way to make something that really shouldn't have worked, work. It's hard to remember now that Cash has become such an icon that he was once something of an outsider and his material wasn't considered acceptable by a fair bit of the country music establishment. People like Snoop Dog and Pete Rock, who does a great version of "Folsom Prison Blues", struggled, and still do struggle, to be accepted by the mainstream, and have no problem identifying with Cash. Musically they may be miles apart from what Cash was doing at Sun Records in the 1950's, but on another level all of these guys have more in common with Johnny than most of today's so called country stars.

When you listen to Johnny Cash Remixed you're not going to hear covers of his songs. What you're going to hear are some classic tunes taken apart and put back together again in ways that may not be instantaneously recognizable but that have the same intent as the originals. I'm sure there are going to be those who won't be able to get there heads around the idea of anyone messing with Johnny's music. However if you approach this with an open mind, and your ears wide open, you can't help but appreciate the work of all those involved. In fact, you might just gain an even deeper appreciation for the original tunes hearing them performed in ways you've never heard before.

June 8, 2009

Music Review: Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism In Vintage Music And Photography 1890 - 1950 Various Performers

It's not a sight you're liable to see that often anymore, at least not in big cities in the northern United States and Canada. A congregation of people gathered by a river, stream, or other body of water deep enough to submerge a person in. Ritual, mass public baptisms in a natural setting, like the banks of a river, are as foreign to most of us these days as the rites carried out by distant cultures in far off lands. Aside from practical matters like finding a body of water clean enough near a major population centre that you'd want to be immersed in it, the whole deal seems like a relic from the past.

Now I'm not saying that full immersion baptism isn't still practised today, there are too many Christian denominations and sects that see it as an integral part of their practice. However, I can't see the practice being as wide spread now as it was in the earlier parts of the twentieth century and before simply because people in general don't have the time for such elaborate rituals when it comes to their religion. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I'd say as the practice was always limited to the Protestant denominations, specifically the various Baptist churches, that the actual number of people who participated in these rituals was always a minority. As times, and people's attitudes towards religion, have changed, I'd think that minority has gradually been reduced.

All of which make Take Me To The Water, a CD of baptismal music and sermons from the first half of the twentieth century released by the Dust To Digital label, as important as it is intriguing. As their name implies Dust to Digital specializes in rescuing pieces of Americana from the dust of history and restoring them as much as possible. In this case they have gathered together old recordings of sermons and music associated with full immersion baptismal celebrations on a CD and reproduced a collection of seventy-five photographs of+ baptisms from the same time period.
While listening to the music and the various sermons on their own gives you some indication of what these ceremonies meant to those who participated in them, listening to them while looking at pictures of people gathered for, and participating in, baptisms gives you an even deeper appreciation of just how significant these events used to be. While the posed images with everyone standing solemnly facing the camera are an indication of how important these occasions were to people, it's the images of the actual baptisms that communicate the joy experienced by those taking part.

Let your eye wander away from the focal point of those shots, the minister and the person being baptized, and look at the faces of those observing. Their eyes are glued to the action in mid-stream as if it were the centre of the universe. In some of the photos you can even spot those caught up in the throes of ecstasy as they have thrown themselves into the passion of witnessing a loved ones affirmation of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons these ceremonies are uncomfortable for us, as we aren't used to open displays of passion when it comes to our religious practices. Compare that scene to the average Christening held in a church in front of the font where the priest or minister sprinkles a few drops of water on an infants forehead. Aside from the involvement of water, the two ceremonies have almost nothing in common.

While the pictures tell one part of the story the twenty-five songs and sermons on the CD give us an even better idea of the passions generated by participating in an outdoor baptism ceremony. It begins right from the opening track with Rev, J. M, Gates, recorded in 1926, leading his congregation in singing "Baptize Me" and introducing it with a sermon about how anyone who is born again needs to be baptized. Aside from the fact that the good reverend is a powerful speaker, it's the sound of those listening to him shouting out their agreement that drives home the intensity of the feelings that are generated during one of those events.
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While a great many of the tunes and groups performing them are liable to be unknown to anybody but an avid collector of Americana, there are still some recognizable names among the performers and song titles gathered together on this collection. What collection of early twentieth century gospel music would be complete without a contribution from the Carter Family? This is no exception as they perform "On My Way To Canaan's Land". While they don't match some of the African American choirs in terms of passion, there can be no doubt at the depth of their sincerity when they sing about being "Baptized in Jesus' name"

Both the musical recordings and the pictures in the book show the effects of age as the former are full of hisses and pops, while the latter are stained or even ripped in places. Not only does their condition do nothing to reduce their impact upon us, it gives them an air of authenticity that makes them all the more powerful. Original source material of this nature allows us to experience events without anyone's opinion or viewpoint obstructing our view. It's the difference between reading a history of an event written long after it took place, and reading an eyewitness account of the same incident. What you lose by having a slightly narrower focus is more than compensated for by the vividness of detail generated by its immediacy.

The Dust to Digital label has done a magnificent job of putting together packages that bring very specific periods of the past to life. Take Me To The Water lives up to the high standards they have established with their previous releases. It offers the opportunity to experience, as much as possible without actually being there, the old time public baptisms that were once an integral part of the fabric of life for a great many North Americans. This package gives us all an opportunity to appreciate just what a wonderful thing faith can be, and the joy and pleasure it can bring. That's a lesson we could all stand to learn, as we have somehow managed to twist faith into being weapon these days instead of the celebration it once was. Who says we can't learn anything from the past?

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.

May 15, 2009

Music Review: Casey Driessen - Oog

When you're told that someone plays the violin, or even the fiddle, you would be forgiven for thinking a recording of theirs would most likely either be of classical, country, or bluegrass music. Sure there're occasional recordings of jazz music done by violinists and you'll sometimes hear a violin as a featured instrument on a popular music CD, but those are exceptions to the rule. Therefore, when I was sent the newest Casey Driessen CD, Ogg I wasn't expecting anything much different from what I had heard from other musicians.

However, nothing you have heard before can quite prepare you for the experience of Casey Driessen. For although he's playing the same instrument, more or less, that other violinists have played in the past, what he does with it, and the music he records, is altogether unique to him. Listening to Oog the first time was like stepping into a maelstrom; at first the music pushes you one way, and the next moment it's pulling you another, so you don't ever quite get your bearings. He even denies you the comfort of anything like a discernible genre which would help you get your bearings.

However, a quick read of the extended liner notes provided at his web-site goes a long way towards helping you find your bearings. "I wander and wonder with open eyes and ears..." he writes, and then continues to explain how he finds his inspiration in the work of other artists, both visual and musical, the forces of nature, and "that difficult to pinpoint personal inner well where emotions and experience become one." Listening to Oog (the Dutch word for eye by the way) with this in mind at least gives us a context within which we can place the material, while the notes for each song give specifics as to what inspired him to create it.
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"Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets", the third track on the disc, would appear at first glance to be one of the more obvious examples of how Driessen has turned his observations into music. For in the note about the song he tells us how he spent time one afternoon observing a gang of yellowjackets and hummingbirds competing for the nectar contained in a hummingbird feeder. However he cautions us not to expect to hear something literally representing the two creatures, for the majority of the tune had been written prior to him having witnessed the conflict, he merely finished writing the tune while watching them.

Well so much for the liner notes being of any help in deciphering the music, I don't think he could have been any more obscure if he tried. What the heck is he doing calling a song "Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets" if its not about the creatures in question? However, he does say is that it was written in harmony with them, which means the music should at least reflect something about the experience in general. The funny thing is, that when I listened to the track again keeping what he had written about it in mind, I immediately visualized myself sitting outside in a backyard on a brilliantly lit sunny day, the type of day where both hummingbirds and yellowjackets would be out and about.

While there's none of the angry buzzing that one might expect from a conflict between angry insects and other creatures, the atmosphere Driessen creates with the music brought to mind the environment where the situation could exist. If you've ever stretched out in a backyard on a lazy afternoon where trees cast pockets of shade that contrast with bright patches of sun, and bumblebees float from flower to flower getting drunk on pollen, you'll begin to understand what he's talking about when he says the music is in harmony with the activities of the title creatures.

Of course this is only one piece of fourteen on the disc, and only begins to tell the story of Casey Driessen and Oog. He's also an avid experimenter in both form and style as can be seen with what he does on track seven, his rendering of Bill Monroe's bluegrass tune "Ashland Breakdown", and the approach he took for recording the ninth track "Lunar Cages". Instead of being merely satisfied with covering another's tune, Driessen takes "Ashland Breakdown" apart and literally puts it back together backwards. He learned the melody of the tune backwards and after recording it flipped it around and played it back "forwards".
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What he ended up doing was recording both backwards and forwards melodies and rhythms for the song and then playing them back together. It had to be one of the weirdest listening experiences I've ever had, hearing the same bit of music being played backwards and forwards at the same time. It felt like you were standing on a train track listening to the sound of two trains approaching, as you could actually hear the music moving in two directions at once. You can't help but be impressed by the mind that came up with that idea, and like he says, "everybody likes a backwards solo". Although you're not going to hear any hidden messages in this one.

"Lunar Cages" uses an old cajun fiddle technique known as "fiddlesticks" where the instrument is set to an open tuning and a rhythm is tapped out on the strings using small sticks. While his percussionist, Matt Chamberlain, established the initial beat on one fiddle Driessen wrote a melody that would float on top. The song itself was inspired by watching the lunar eclipse of February 2008, while the "Cages" of the title is a nod to John Cage and the pieces he created by rapping on the strings of pianos with a hammer. This time the piece is not only inventive in form, but the quality of the music is equally impressive. The thrum of the violin strings as they are being tapped by Chamberlain creates a beautiful harmonic sound that forms a backdrop for the other instruments to gradually build over while they simulate the slow eclipsing of the moon.

Casey Driessen is not what anyone would call your average fiddle player, and by no stretch of the imagination is Oog your average collection of fiddle tunes. On the other hand, if you come to the disc with an open mind and a willing imagination, I can guarantee you an experience unlike any you've ever had before listening to someone play the violin. While you may not like everything he does, you can't help but admire Driessen's intelligence and the spirit of creativity that drives him to explore his instrument's potential to its fullest. Music would certainly be a lot more interesting in general if there were more musicians as willing to take risks like Driessen.

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.
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 17, 2008

Music DVD: Merle Haggard Legendary Performances: Merle Haggard

One of the things that I've never liked about country music is its predilection for sentimentality and cheap emotional appeals. There can't be anything more annoying then listening to someone wearing six thousand dollars worth of clothing and jewellery singing about their poor but happy childhood. Or, how the person they admire the most was their dear old Ma because she was a God fearing Christian who could feed six kids, the cow, and her no good drunkard of a husband, when there wasn't any food in the cupboard or money in her purse.

Not only do those types of songs make me want to gag, but they also romanticize the reality of poverty and living with an abuser, which is a disservice to anyone who actually has had to live through those experiences. Thankfully there are some country music performers who have lived through these types of experiences and would never trivialize them. That doesn't meant they always escape falling into the trap of resorting to appeals to cheap sentiment or manipulating simplistic emotional responses from their listeners, but at least they can be counted on to deliver the occasional nugget of reality unlike the majority of their contemporaries.

I don't think this dichotomy is more obvious in anyone than it is in Merle Haggard, as one minute he can be signing a song that genuinely talks about the difficulties faced by a person released from prison, and the next he'll be singing some sentimental slop about a family of musicians led by a blind guitar playing father and their deaf mother. This was really brought home to me watching a new DVD just released by Shout Factory and the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Legendary Performances: Merle Haggard.
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Culled from television appearances that Merle made between 1968 and 1983 the fifteen tracks on this DVD do a nice job of showing how his music evolved during the fifteen years he was at the top of his game and providing an overview of the type of material he does best. For those of you who're only familiar with songs like "Okie From Muskogee" that managed to get some cross over play, this disc will give you a much better understanding of the type of music Merle first became famous for in country music circles.

"Branded Man", which is taken from a 1968 appearance that he made on Country Music Holiday hosted by Wally Fowler, was his second number one hit record and also one of him most directly autobiographical. Haggard had spent ten years in and out of jail and detention centres up until 1957 when he was arrested for a robbery attempt that went bad. It was three years after he was paroled in 1960 that he recorded his first album. When you listen to "Branded Man", you can hear Merle talking about those years after he was released from prison, and the mark that everybody who has ever done time carries with them for the rest of their lives.

Songs like "Mama Tried" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" from the same time period are based enough in reality that they ring with authentic emotion especially with Merle's unaffected delivery. At that stage of his career he voice was smooth and rich, almost a baritone, and unlike others of the time he didn't have a noticeable accent or attempt to make his voice sound more country. Perhaps because he was from California he didn't feel the need to make himself sound like a hillbilly, but whatever the reason, his delivery is part of what makes these first songs as effective as they are.

Some of the other songs like "Daddy Frank (Guitar Man)" (the one about the blind guitar player) and "I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am" show that Haggard was as susceptible as anyone to writing songs that sentimentalize people instead of telling a true story like he had with other material. Listening to them, and songs from later in the disc like "The Roots Of My Raising" from a 1977 Porter Wagoner Show gives you a different view of Haggard. With these songs it feels like he's pandering to the Nashville establishment and giving them what they want to hear. The last song especially as it extolls the virtues of family and the simple life which is the bread and butter of country music.

The same could be said of one of Merle's biggest hits, "Okie From Muskogee", and the less widely known "The Fightin' Side Of Me" as they are in step with another of Nashvilles' favourite themes, my country right or wrong. While "Okie" extolls the virtues of being a Redneck -"We still fly "Old Glory" down at the court house" and "We don't wear our hair long and shaggy", "Fightin' Side" contains such admirable sentiments like "Love it or leave it" when referring to America. For someone who was supposedly an "outlaw" as far as Nashville was concerned, these two songs are amazingly conservative, especially as they were written in 1970 in the midst of the Vietnam war.

While the picture quality of this DVD is dependant on the quality of the original television show, so at times its not going to be as good as you're used to, the sound quality is very good throughout. While there are no specifications listed for the disc, the picture is fullscreen and I can only assume the sound is regular stereo. There's no mention of whether or not any of the sound was re-mastered, so I assume you're getting everything exactly as it was on the original television shows. As far as special features go, they've included an interview with Merle and his second wife while on board their tour bus that was done in 1981 and footage from his induction into The Country Music Hall of Fame. The best part of that was his thank you list, which looked like it was written on toilet paper, and the fact that he made sure to thank his plumber and his pest control person.

If you are a Merle Haggard fan Merle Haggard: Legendary Performances will be a treat for you as it presents a well put together retrospective of some of his favourite songs performed around the times when they were written and first popular. Merle's music may have at times veered over too far into the sentimental mush and jingoism that is the bane of modern country music, but he also wrote some genuinely compelling songs that talked about realities few others had the nerve to write about at he time. You'll see both sides of him on this DVD, and it says a lot about him that the latter is strong enough to outweigh the former.

November 25, 2008

Music Review: Hank Williams Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings

For the longest time I could never understand how anybody could like country music. The problem was that it took me nearly forever to realize there was a huge difference between the music that's performed by people like Shania Twain, and country music. Growing up in urban centres the only type of country music I heard for the longest time was the former, as someone must have decided that city audiences were too sophisticated to want to hear any of the old time, or more traditionally styled, examples of the genre.

Not having any incentive to search out country music it took a series of accidents for me to stumble across the good stuff; walking into a record store and hearing my first Graham Parsons duet with Emmylou Harris, listening to my brother's Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson albums, and learning about Hank Williams by hearing a guy named Sneezy Waters singing his music. Waters had been cast in the role of Hank in the original production of the play Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, when it played the bars and theatres in and around Ontario Canada back in the late 1970's. Hank Williams died in the back of his Caddilac on the way to a New Year's Day performance in 1953 from a combination of booze and drugs, and the premise of the play was that he made it to that show.

During the course of the play Hank became progressively drunker and more morose, until by the end he was barely standing. What really made the play work though was Sneezy Waters' ability to reproduce Hank's songs down to that distinctive catch in his throat when the emotions of what he was singing about began to overwhelm him. Having heard another performer singing Hank's music made me want to hear the original article, and in spite of Sneezy Water's remarkable performance, nothing he did had prepared me for the raw emotional intensity of Hank Williams.
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Hank Williams wasn't around very long to enjoy the spotlight, as he didn't come to the public's attention in a big way until 1949 and was dead four years later, so there has never been a huge library of his recordings available for fans to listen too. However, back in 1950-51 he recorded a series of radio shows that were sponsored by Mother's Best Flour, and because of his extensive touring schedule he was forced to pre-record the shows on acetate discs. It's these recordings that Time Life have used as the source for their new release Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings. The three CDs come handsomely packaged in a tall hard cover package that opens like a book. On the inside front cover are the first two CDs, followed by thirty-eight pages of photographs and text giving the history of the recordings and Williams' biography, with the third disc on the inside of the back cover.

The attention paid to detail in the packaging, how often are CD booklets made large enough that you can read the text without the aid of a magnifying glass and you can see details of like a subject's eyes in the photographs, is a reflection of the quality of the whole package. Previous experiences I've had with collections of "Unreleased Materials" have led me to believe there was a really good reason for the material not to have been released. Either the sound quality is so bad that there's no point in listening to the songs, or the songs themselves are an embarrassment that nobody would have dared release while the performer, or any of their next of kin for that matter, was still alive.

That's not the case here as not only is the quality of the sound is almost universally better than any studio recordings of Hank Williams music made from the same time, they were made during the period in his life when he was able to keep the same band together for the entire year. So even if Williams decided to drop a surprise on them, say like playing "On Top Of Old Smokey" like "my gran'ma used to sing it", he'd only have to give them a chord and they'd follow his lead. As these were recorded for radio shows, quite a number of the tracks also include Hank's introductions to the songs, which are almost as much fun to listen to as the songs themselves.
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He and the announcer for the show, Cousin Louis Buck, would introduce the songs in the form of having a conversation that was meant to include their early morning audiences. The show was broadcast in the Mid-West for fifteen minutes, Monday to Friday, at 7:15 am which meant that those listening to it were primarily farmers and their families either working in the barn or sitting down for their second breakfast. This could explain why a great many of the songs Williams performed were older songs or gospel numbers as they would be the material his listeners would be most familiar with.

He also used it as an opportunity to try out some of his newer material that he and the band hadn't even recorded yet. Disc two opens with him introducing a song that 'has never been performed on-air before', "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)". Yet while there are other familiar songs included in the collection, the majority of them are ones that I've never heard him sing before. To be honest there are a great many of them that I've never even heard of before; "The Prodigal Son", "From Jerusalem To Jericho", and "Lonely Tombs". Some of these gospel tunes, like the last one, originated nearly a hundred years earlier, but Williams makes them sound as fresh as if they'd just been penned the day he recorded them.

What really comes clear in these recordings is just how good a singer Williams was. Somehow his voice seems to stand out more on these old radio shows then it did on his studio albums and we hear nuances and shadings that I swear I'd not heard in his voice before. Williams always wore his heart on his sleeve in his recordings, and the songs in this collection are no different from any of his other material that way. In fact due to their clarity, there's even more emotional power to these performances than others, and you can't help but realize how much pain he lived with on a constant basis.

Unlike the mawkish sentiment that passes for emotion in today's popular and country music, Hank Williams' songs sounded like they were torn from his heart. You know when listening to him that the catch in his voice isn't artifice but the real thing and he can make you feel so lonesome that you want to cry. The material gathered together for Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings is not only a wonderful opportunity to hear him sing songs that you've never heard him sing before, but reinforces the fact that country music has yet to produce anyone who comes close to matching him for the emotional integrity of his songs and his performance. The anti-Hank may reign in Nashville and Las Vegas, but true believers can find solace in this collection, as it reminds us what country music really sounds like.

November 10, 2008

Music DVD Review: Alison Krauss A Hundred Miles Or More: Live From The Tracking Room

I never thought there would come the day that anybody would be able to replace Emmylou Harris in my affections. From the first time I saw her singing "Evangeline" with The Band in the movie The Last Waltz I've been in love with her voice, a love that was only cemented over the years by listening to her earliest recordings with Graham Parsons, and her subsequent solo work. No one, I was certain, would ever be able to match that combination of angelic sweetness and grit that made her voice so special.

Then along came the movie O Brother Where Art Thou and its accompanying soundtrack, which included three tracks featuring Alison Krauss. It used to be that I thought the only music that stood a chance of making a Christian out of me were certain Black Gospel choirs and the "Ode To Joy" by Beethoven. That was before I heard Alison Krauss singing "I'll Fly Away" and "Lets Go Down To The River And Pray" during that movie. Of course when I heard her singing "Don't Leave Nobody But The Baby" along with Emmylou and Gillian Welsh, a song of a decidedly more secular bent than the previous two, a little later on in the movie, it, I confess, sent my thoughts in directions other than churchly matters.

In spite of my immediate infatuation for her voice, somehow or other circumstances or whatever have prevented me from obtaining any more of her recordings. I know that she and her band, Union Station, have released more than a few albums, and she's done some exciting work with completely unexpected partners like former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant (Raising Sand) since that time, but they've never made it into my hands. So when the opportunity presented itself for me to get my hands on a copy of her new DVD being released through Rounder Records, A Hundred Miles Or More: Live From The Tracking Room, it was like an unrequited love finally being reciprocated.
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Okay, so that's a little over the top, and sounds just weird enough to probably warrant a restraining order. However, there are so few female vocalists these days that actually sound like human beings or who play music that doesn't sound like it was either computer generated or mass produced in some Las Vegas factory, that hearing somebody as real as Ms. Krauss does tend to send me for a bit of a loop. Whoever decided that female pop singers should either be melodramatic divas or teenage sex kittens should be drawn and quartered for the assault they've unleashed on the our ears.

A Hundred Miles Or More: Live From The Tracking Room was originally recorded as a television special and features Alison Krauss, her band Union Station, and various guest stars performing nine tracks taken from her solo album A Hundred Miles Or More. Filmed in a recording studio that is set up like a comfortable living room, it's the ideal atmosphere for an intimate performance and to hear Ms. Krauss perform. On the original television show the songs were interspersed with interviews featuring the various musicians appearing in the special and Alison.

While her guests mainly talk about how wonderful it is to play with Alison, they also talk about the specific songs they are appearing in. For her part Alison talks about the songs, and the people she is working with. To be honest the conversations are pretty much forgettable, for in terms of quality they are about what you'd expect from one of those mindless "Entertainment News" shows. Thankfully on the DVD you have the option of watching the music with or without the interviews, or if you're feeling particularly masochistic you can watch only the interviews.

Naturally the sound and picture quality on this recording are superlative, in fact I don't think I've heard or seen anything quite as well done as this disc. Unfortunately few of the songs lived up to either the quality of the recording or my expectations. Perhaps I had built Ms. Krauss up to being something she wasn't based on hearing her performances on the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou. For while there was no denying the beauty of her voice and the honest simplicity of her delivery, a good many of the songs could have done with an infusion of energy as they were far too close to fitting into the play list of an adult easy listening station for my liking.

While the first two tracks, "You're Just A Country Boy" and "Away Down The River" were impeccably done, they seemed to be lacking the spark in her voice on the recordings I had heard her do previously. The third track, "How's The World Treating You", is a duet with James Taylor, and unfortunately it reminded me of everything I hadn't liked about a great deal of Taylor's music from his solo career in that it was mellow to the point of being vacant. Allison tries vainly enough to generate some enthusiasm for the material, but she was having to carry Taylor on her back and he ended up dragging her down.

Fortunately the next two songs, "Sawing On The Strings", a duet with Tony Rice, and a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Shadows", show her talents in a better light. She and Tony generate a gentle energy on the former that is more than sufficient to bring the song to life and reminded me once again what it was that I had been infatuated with when I first heard her sing. That same warmth and genuine emotional commitment was also present in the latter song, as she took one Lightfoot's better songs and made it into something quite poignant.

Unfortunately, none of the other material on the recording manages to rise up to the same level. I've heard Alison Krauss sing soft material before and in those instances she was able to give them life while respecting the gentle nature of the song. Here though the spark she usually infuses her music with seems to have gone missing on too many of the songs. Perhaps it's the setting, or the fact that it was being recorded for television and they were forced to do multiple takes on occasion, I don't know. Whatever the reason something is definitely missing from her performance.

While A Hundred Miles Or More: Live From The Tracking Room has impeccable sound quality and great visuals, the overall performance from Alison Krauss and her guests is somewhat static. It's a lovely opportunity to see her perform, but except for one or two cases a great deal of the warmth and passion that makes her singing so special seems to have been lost in the recording process.

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 18, 2008

Music Review: Carrie Rodriguez She Ain't Me

There are some images that are nearly impossible to shake, and one of the ones that's been stuck in my head since back in the dark days of the 1970s is that of the typical female country singer of the time. Hair piled on top of their heads, held in place with enough hair spray to create its own personal hole in the ozone layer, and wearing long sweeping dresses of either lime green or bright pink with a high neck, they'd sing with a mournful voice that was sure to crack when they reached the part about the guy who left her at the alter for his pickup truck.

In spite of the efforts of people like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krouse, Gillian Welsh, and others those visions of polyester and bee hives are still the first thing that comes to mind for me when someone mentions country singer and woman in the same breath. If I'm really honest I have to admit that the number of people who I actually saw fitting that description were probably only a few, but such was my general feeling of animosity for country music in those days it became forever welded to my imagination.

Then along comes someone like Carrie Rodriguez, who has just released her second CD, She Ain't Me on Manhattan Records, who not only looks the complete opposite of those Bride of Frakenstein clones of my memory, but sings songs that don't make mention of pick-up trucks or hard drinking men and you want me to believe that she's a country singer. Sorry it just doesn't compute. Sure she was born in Austin Texas and plays fiddle and electric mandolin, which are definitely prerequisites for being a country singer, but have you listened to the lyrics of her songs or heard the quality of her voice?
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Okay I know that's really unfair to a lot of people, but I've always had a love/hate thing with country music. Some of my favourite performers are considered country music singers, but the genre itself, what with the whole God and America thing and the stink of hypocrisy that holier than thou closet drinkers give off, has always repelled me. So when I hear a recording as thoughtful and interesting as She Ain't Me I automatically don't want it to be lumped in with the music of the anti-Hank Garth Brooks and his ilk. I just can't see Carrie Rodriguez stooping to writing a sentimental song about God, country, the flag, and the need to kill people who look different.

Okay now that we've established who she ain't, what is Carrie Rodriguez? Going by this release, that's thankfully not an easy question to answer. You can start by saying she's a songwriter, as she had a hand in writing ten of the eleven tracks on the new disc, and of course she's a singer as well as being a multi instrumentalist. However, there are plenty of people out there who can say the same thing so that's nothing really to go by. What is something to go by is the fact that she's not easy to pin down musically and doesn't fit nicely into anybody's, including mine, square pegs of where she should belong.

Lyrically her songs range from those that deal with the physical world around her, the metaphysical, to the world of emotions and thoughts that normally stay stuffed inside your head. "Infinite Night", which opens the disc, tries to impart a sense of the perspective that's required to deal with the chaos of life in modern times: "Well the sun is just a star/It reminds us where we are/Just a little part of the infinite night". Instead of telling us what or who we should believe in like far too many would do, Rodriguez just gently reminds us that no matter how crazy it might get down here on earth, there's more to existence than what we see in front of our eyes.

From the outer reaches she switches to the internal with "Rag Doll" in which she dissects a relationship without any of the usual accusatory bullshit that accompanies this type of song. Sure he might make it "hard to love you" but than again "I make it hard to love me/When every time you do I lose my head". Unlike so many other singers these days, male or female, Rodriguez has the good sense to point out that relationships are two way streets and that both parties are more often or not equally involved in what goes on.

My favourite song on the album is the hauntingly beautiful "Absence". In it she shows a beautiful understanding of imagery and describes the empty place in your heart when someone you love has vanished for, whatever reason, in a way that anybody can understand. "Snow, sleet, wind, and rain/Breath on a windowpane/Absence tells the hardest truth". Austere and bleak, just like how your feel when you're dealing with the grief of loss, the lyrics of this song speak to their subject matter both in their literal meaning and the imagery they generate. It's rare these days for a songwriter to achieve the kind of poetry with song lyrics the way Rodriguez manages with this track.

Rodriguez's voice is not only expressive, but it has character as well. Not only does her singing reflect the emotions of what she's singing about, but she sounds like a human being as her voice catches on a tear, rises in anger, or sinks back in resignation. She also exhibits wonderful control, so unlike some singers who believe you only have the option of either shouting or whispering, she can modulate her breathing and find the real places in between extremes where so much of life actually does happen.

Musically She Ain't Me follows the example Ms. Rodriguez sets by knowing when to crescendo and when to pull back and leave her voice front and centre. It's hard to say what the music is because it's crafted to work with each individual song so well. So on the opening track there's a hardness to it that befits the urgency of the lyrics while at the other end of the spectrum the introspective "Let Me In", near the end of the album, is close to minimalist as notes and beats are carefully picked out by Carrie and her fellow musicians.

Speaking of musicians, it's easy to forget while you're listening to her sing, that it's Ms. Rodriguez playing the violin on this recording. Yet that is her playing those really interesting sounding fiddle lines on various songs that all of a sudden pop out from the background. You can hear her classical training in her playing, as there's a control to it that is often missing from people who've only ever played fiddle. To my mind it makes her playing stronger and more passionate then is normal for violin in popular music.

Like other strong and independent female vocalists before her Carrie Rodriguez is not going to be easy for people to pin down and label. Unlike most of what flutters around the pop charts these days she sings about real life with the voice of a human being. I don't think I've been as impressed upon hearing a female vocalist for the first time since I first heard Iris DeMent. If there were justice in the world She Ain't Me would have been the disc to scream to the top of the Billboard charts when it was released, not the latest piece of pabulum from the drama queen.

October 5, 2008

Music Review: Various Performers All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash

I was in high school when the first wave of punk rock hit Toronto Ontario in the mid 1970's. A couple of friends had family in England and they had picked up copies of Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols and the first Clash album while on vacation and brought them home for us to listen to before they were readily available over here. It took me a bit to warm up to the Pistols, but I was soon hooked. My buddies and I soon took to trolling through the small, alternative record shops in Toronto that sold imports from England, and between us we soon built up a collection of music that you definitely weren't going to hear on the local radio stations.

What really surprised me about a lot of the music these bands were playing was how familiar so much of it sounded. What most of the bands had done was simply returned to basics and stripped the music back to its rawest and most elemental form. Short, two to three minute songs, played fast and furious and fuelled with the energy of youthful rebellion, anger, and the excitement that the music itself generates. The other thing that separated must punks from their immediate predecessors was their attitude of defiance and their easy acceptance of their outsider status. They were a reminder that at one time rock and roll hadn't been acceptable music, and had been the topic of many a sermon from the pulpit for its potential to be the ruination of young people; a path to the devil.

As befitted their outsider status, the punks sang about people and subject matter that went beyond the usual silly fodder of pop music. You weren't going to hear any whining about my girl friend left me for another guy, or I wish I were prettier songs from these folk. They sang, and still sing today, about the people that get left behind and fall through the cracks to be forgotten about by the rest of us. They look at the world and see that not only isn't the emperor wearing any clothes, his throne is made of bones and his palace flesh and blood. The real punks are the ones who express their anger and outrage over the way our society treats people and the world through their music, which is why its hard and mean with lyrics full of so-called obscenities.
So when I first read about All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, being released by Anchorless Records on the 21st of October/08, and that it was to feature fifteen tracks performed by various contemporary punk bands and performers, it made perfect sense to me. Who did Johnny spend his life singing about? Prisoners, guys who shot their girlfriends after getting loaded on cocaine and booze, people from the wrong side of the tracks, and the sad state of the world.

Think about the lyrics to his song "Man In Black": " I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town". He doesn't stop there either as he goes on to say that although we think we're doing good, with all our fancy stuff, we need to be reminded of the ones worse off then us; "Up front there ought to be a Man In Black". Punk rockers have continued that tradition since they first started back in the seventies. They have been the men and women "in black" in spirit and attitude for thirty years now. It didn't come as any surprise to me how easily they identify with Cash's music.

Some people might think that the punks would have a hard time with Johnny's Christianity, but if you look at most of his songs, he talks about Christ and his teachings in a way that few others do. Instead of just blithering selfishly about how Christ saved him, he talks about the Jesus who preached we must love each other and treat everybody with compassion. It's a Christ who doesn't seem to come in up in conversation very often anymore, you know, the guy who said something about ridding yourself of material possessions if you wanted to get into heaven.

If you had any doubts as to how well the punks were going to be able to handle the music of Johnny Cash they're dispelled from the first song as far as I'm concerned. Now I'm not familiar with the punk scene anymore so none of the band's names meant anything to me, but I'd lay odds that all of them captured the true spirit of Johnny's music better than most of today's so called country music singers could. While The Bouncing Souls opened the disc with a great version of "Man In Black", complete with the traditional punk guitar attack, what surprised me most about the disc was how many bands chose to use acoustic guitars for their songs.
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Yet even though they went that route there was no way you're going to mistake this for being anything other than a punk album. Energy crackles from each track on this disc like sparks from someone standing on the third rail of a subway line. Even songs like "There You Go" (performed by The Sainte Catherines) become statements of defiance and real anguish. I'd only ever heard insipid covers of that song before and never really liked it, but after hearing these folks do it, I've gained a far better appreciation for the depths of the feeling expressed in it.

While the disc contains versions of some of Cash's classics, "I Walk The Line"(Russ Rankin), "Folsom Prison Blues" (Chon Travis), "Wreck Of The Old '97" (Chuck Ragan), and "Cry, Cry.Cry" (The Flatliners), one of the ones I liked most was one I wasn't familiar with. "Ballad Of A Teenage Queen", performed by The Dresden Dolls and featuring Franz Nicolay, stands out for the way they played it as a nearly straight country song, but added an edge to the vocals and the music that removed any potential for cheap sentimentality the song might have had. Instead it was a genuine expression of a person realizing the hollowness of fame and the importance of having someone who loves you for who you are, not what you are, in your life.

All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash isn't just a great collection of music either. All the proceeds from the sales of this recording are being donated to Syrentha Savio Endowment (SSE) a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to underprivileged women who can't afford the cost of fighting breast cancer. Since its inception the SSE has awarded gifts to organizations in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles California that help women in struggling neighbourhoods find the means to fight the disease. Not only does the music reflect the spirit of Johnny Cash, but the disc is taking care of some of those that Johnny wanted to make sure wouldn't be forgotten.

You can pre-order copies of All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash at the Anchorless Records' web site either as a CD or if you hurry, a special, limited edition, pink vinyl LP. No matter what format you purchase, you're guaranteed receiving fifteen songs (the LP contains a bonus track, an alternate version of Ben Nichols' version of "Delia's Gone") that will have you appreciating the genius of Johnny Cash all over again. Mainstream country music may have tried to co-opt Cash as one of their own, but this recording will remind the world that Johnny walked his own path, one that more of us could stand to follow.

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.
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 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 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?
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.

August 28, 2008

Music Review: Christopher Hedge Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint

Ninety percent of the time the music for a movie soundtrack really has nothing to do with the story of the movie. Most of the time it seems they use the music in a movie to manipulate the audience's emotions. Just in case you didn't get that a scene was supposed to be emotionally heavy, like a son returning home from war to his family, the strings swell in an attempt to pull one more tear from your eye.

On the other hand there are the occasional movies where the composer and the director have made an effort so that instead of reflecting the emotions the music works to reflect certain themes in the film. It still might be a little on the obvious side - look here come the Vikings and there's their theme music just in case you didn't recognize them - but at least it's not assuming you don't know when something is supposed to be happy or sad.

Once in a while though a composer will create music that is designed to reflect more than just the themes or the emotions of a movie and the music become another means of telling the story instead of just being augmentation. That's the case with the music that Christopher Hedge composed for the PBS production based on the life of the American President Andrew Jackson Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint. When you listen to the CD, The Atrocious Saint, you are hearing a reflection of the times portrayed in the movie.
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In order to do his job properly Hedge has brought in musicians that can reflect the various peoples who made up the population of the United States at the time. From the tribal drums that formed the basis for the music of the slaves, the Irish/Scots roots of the early settlers in the Appalachian mountains, to the sounds of the Native Americans who were displaced by the new comers. Joining him as featured performers are Titos Sompa, a drummer from the Congo, R.Carlos Nakai, one of the most renowned performers on the Native American Flute, David Grisham, of the David Grisham Bluegrass Express, on mandolin, and David Brewer playing the pipes, penny whistle, bohdran, and Irish flute of the old country. These four are joined by other musicians, including the Eighth Regimental Band from Rome, GA. supplying the needed military band, to recreate various highlights and low-lights from the life and times of Andrew Jackson.

The title of the movie, Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint, comes from the contradictions that the man and his times were subject to. On the one hand he fought for the freedom of his country and helped write the documents that have defined the rights of man for the past couple of centuries; The American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. On the other hand he owned slaves and thought nothing of ordering thousands of Cherokee people to be forced marched across America with no supplies and little chance of survival. While he proclaimed freedom for people who lived within the borders of his own country, he didn't think twice about imposing American rule upon those who might not have wanted anything to do with it, and was a firm supporter of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine. Both of which have been used as excuses for American incursion anywhere in the Western Hemisphere as recently as the invasions of Panama and Grenada. Basically they say it's America's Manifest Destiny to rule the Western Hemisphere, and that nobody has any business telling them what to do over here.

In 1812 the British in Canada learned that the American's meant business about this, and were barely able to repel an invasion with the aid of various Native Americans who realized they would probably be better off under British rule than American. While the British troops did successfully burn Washington DC and the first White House to the ground, and defend Canada, the Americans were able to beat them in New Orleans. If General Jackson and his troops hadn't been able to make that stand, the American revolution might have come to a very quick and nasty end. For the British would have been able to seize control of all shipping travelling up the Mississippi and not only would have prevented supplies from being transported throughout the Union, would have been able to send troops all through the country and become the invaders instead of the defenders.

So it should come as no surprise to hear a certain famous bluegrass tune celebrating the defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1814 incorporated as part of the score for the movie. In fact scattered throughout you'll hear bits and pieces of tunes that are familiar as we wend our way through history. Yet, no matter how nice it is to hear something you recognize on occasion, that's not what really distinguishes this effort. What I found most remarkable was how the music represented so many different aspects of life from the time period.

I've not seen the movie, but I can only imagine how vivid a picture this music must have been able to draw when it was joined to whatever images were being shown on the screen. Just listening to what was being played evoked strong visuals and gave you a deeper understanding of what the events being depicted might have meant to those involved at the time. The two pieces of music that I personally found most moving were Nakai's "Trail Of Tears" and Titos Sompas' "Work Song". Perhaps not being an American I identify more with the people who were run roughshod by them, but in any event they were the songs that I found most distinctive.

For "Trail Of Tears" R. Carlos Nakai sat in the studio surrounded by images of Cherokee people when they were forced to march from the hills of Tennessee over to Oklahoma and improvised the entire song. Nobody knows how many thousands of men, women, and children died on that march, and Nakai's flute is the perfect instrument to capture that sorrow. To be honest I've never been a big fan of his playing before, I've always found it a little too insipid as compared to other flute players, but here he really taps into his emotions and delivers something brilliant.

I'm not sure how Titos Sompas was able to capture so much with so little in his "Work Song", but if you can listen to that song without gaining any understanding of how horrible it must have been to be a slave, than your heart is made of stone. I don't know any of Sompas' previous work, but after hearing his contribution to this soundtrack I'd be very interested in hearing some more.

Of course it's Christopher Hedge who is responsible for pulling all the disparate elements together into a cohesive picture and he does a remarkable job. There aren't too many people who are capable of telling a story with just music, but he has accomplished it with the soundtrack that he composed for Andrew Jackson: The Atrocious Saint. What's even more remarkable was the fact that this is completely instrumental, yet still is able to speak clearer than many a history book talking about the same subject. Movie soundtracks don't normally stand the test of time as unique pieces of music, but I think Christopher Hedge's composition will be an exception to that rule.

August 11, 2008

Music Review: Dale Watson From The Cradle To The Grave

Country music is one of the most maligned genres around these days as a lot of people, myself included can't resist taking shots at it. Of course with the big hair, the rhinestone suits, and too many songs about pick-up trucks and the girl running away with the dog and getting killed by a run away train, it kind of lets itself open to it. The problem is that because of this there's a tendency to forget some really important information and ignore some really great talent.

One of the things that most of us forget about is that people like Bob Dylan owe as much to country music as they do to anything else for shaping the direction their music went in. Bob's great idol, Woody Guthrie, might have sung songs about dust bowl survivors and building strong unions, but his musical roots were firmly in the hills of Oklahoma. Country music originated with the descendants of Irish and Scottish settlers singing their versions of traditional folk songs of the British Isles, and grew from there. It was only in the sixties, with the commercialization of folk music, that country was relegated to a second class citizenship.

However the really good country musicians like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Jeff Walker never lost sight of their origins and kept singing and writing music that was firmly rooted in the communities they came from. Now while the big hair set still get most of the publicity, some of today's performers haven't completely forgotten where they came from. Listening to Dale Watson's most recent release on Hyena Records, From The Cradle To The Grave, reminds you that country music, in the hands of the right person, can be every bit as real as any other music.
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Of the ten songs on From The Cradle To The Grave only one, "It's Not Over Now" clocks in at over three minutes in length. When I popped the disc into my CD player and the read out said ten songs in under thirty minutes I was really taken aback. In these days of digital music it's rare for a new release to have under forty minutes of music what with discs now being able to hold over an hour's worth of information. Yet once you start listening to Dale you are so taken up in the songs and his delivery that considerations like that become irrelevant. He's able to accomplish in under three minutes what very few people can in twice the time.

First of all he doesn't fool around with his lyrics, they are direct and too the point without being simplistic or trivial. He has an amazing ability to communicate complex thoughts and ideas with a very few words, while still managing to maintain a certain poetic elegance. The first song on the disc, "Justice For All", is a great example of this as it presents both sides of the capital punishment argument succinctly and fairly.

"An eye for an eye would leave the whole world blind" versus "Vengeance is mine says the Lord, the Lord is one lucky guy". I can't think of anyone else who would be able to compare the need for impersonal, blind justice, with the emotional desire for revenge as succinctly as Dale does on this song. Not only does he give both sides of the issue their due, you're never quite sure which side of the issue he comes down on. For although he sings "I'd gun that bastard down with a smile on my face" he also says "When on a journey of revenge be sure to dig two graves". When you can pack that much into a song in under three minutes what need is there for long winded epics that don't really say much of anything.

Dale delivers all his songs in a rich and smooth baritone, that's saved from being too polished by the forcefulness of his delivery. He doesn't make any attempt to hide the debt his voice owes to Johnny Cash, and even points it out when he inserts the line "I hear that train a coming" at the very end of his song "Runaway Train", the last song on the disc. Of course the fact that the song reads like a homage to the late Mr. Cash could also play a part in him adding that line on at the end, but it takes a brave man to draw such an obvious parallel between himself and an icon like Cash.

You run the real risk of being taken to task for doing something like that, being accused of exploiting memories or whatever, but after having listened to the first nine songs on the disc you know that Dale Watson has far too much integrity for that to be true. This is a man who sings songs that are rooted in the concerns of real people and doesn't discolour them with mawkish sentimentality or make cheap attempts at exploiting emotions, so you can trust the choices he makes with his material as being honest and sincere.

If you've been wondering if there's anyone out there in the glitzy world of country music whose worth mentioning in the same breath as some of the old guard like Nelson, Kristofferson and Cash, well you don't need to wonder anymore. Dale Watson is a reminder that country music can speak with a voice that we can all recognize when its performed with heart and integrity.

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 17, 2008

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.
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 24, 2008

Music Review: Feufollet Cow Island Hop

On December 20th, 1803 the government of Thomas Jefferson agreed to pay Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte $15 million dollars for the Louisiana territory. The Louisiana Purchase, as this transaction came to be called, gave the U.S. control over access to the mouth of the Mississippi River and all the benefits that came with control of and use of that waterway. The transaction was also one of the earliest examples of a real-estate flip in North America, as the French had only just taken over the territory from the Spanish twenty days prior to selling it off to the new American Republic.

Ten years earlier Louisiana had been part of an agreement reached with the Spanish, as Napoleon dreamed of a Western French Empire with Louisiana as its lynchpin. But when the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Dominque succeeded in expelling French troops from the Caribbean, he found himself with a swath of territory in the middle of nowhere and no means of defending it. Making the best of a bad deal he unloaded it for cash that he needed for his attempted conquest of Europe.

Thirty or so years earlier, a few thousand miles north and east of Louisiana, repercussions from the American war of independence were being felt in what are now Canada's Maritime provinces. The British government needed to re-settle troops and civilians who had remained loyal to the Crown in what remained of British North America. Thousands of French speaking Maritime residents were thrown off their land in order to make room for these new arrivals. With no place else to go, a large number of these Acadians headed down to Louisiana - the only non-
British controlled, French speaking colony in North America.
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Like the majority of French settlers in New France, the Acadians were originally from the Normandy and Brittany areas of France, and had brought the cultural traditions unique to those areas with them. When they headed south to Louisiana, their music and unique French dialects came with them. (French Canadian films today are still sub-titled in parts of France as the language spoken in Quebec has remained relatively unchanged and is still a version of a 16th century Normandy dialect) When they arrived in Louisiana they were absorbed into the all ready existing French community, but made enough of an impact that an abbreviated, phonetic, version of their name has become permanently associated with the culture of the region: Cajun.

Today, while the sound is somewhat muted, you can still hear the echoes of those "Cajuns" who came down south looking for a home. Most of the Cajun music these days contain lyrics written in a pastiche of languages, that include French, English, and Spanish, while the Celtic sound of Brittany and Normandy has been diluted by the myriad influences it has been exposed to. So it was quite a surprise to listen to a CD by a group of young Cajun musicians with not only a great many of the lyrics in French, but the music redolent of the reels and jigs of their forefathers.

Don't get me wrong, Feufollet's forthcoming CD, Cow Island Hop, on Valcour Records, is not some dry and dusty historical restoration piece that will only be of interest to musicologists or folklorists. It's vital, alive, and very much contemporary, but it's also the first Cajun disc that I've heard in a long time that harkens back to the French roots of the colony. That doesn't make it any better or worse than other Cajun music, it just makes it different and distinct.

Cow Island Hop is a mix of traditional tunes arranged by the band, covers, and a couple of originals. What's most impressive is that it's next to impossible to tell which tunes are which merely by listening to them. Not only does this mean they have understood the music well enough to create it, they play it with an honesty and passion that makes it live for today's audiences. It's one thing to play an old song note for note like it was played a hundred years ago, or to imitate a style of music when you write a song, but it's another altogether to make the music your own.

Listening to Feufollet play songs like "Femme L'A Dit", "Cow Island Hop", and "Jolie Fille"; a traditional, an original, and a cover tune respectively, you get swept away by the, (forgive me for this), jois de vivre that they bring to the music. The joy of life; that's what music is all about isn't it? An expression of the joy at being alive. Part of that joy means feeling things, and that's not always going to be an easy experience, as it's going to involve occasional heartbreak and anger as well as happiness.

On Cow Island Hop you're listening to music where the musicians feel what they are playing, and play what they feel. So instead of just hearing some nice tunes, played in a quaint old fashioned style, you're listening to songs that are alive. Fiddles and accordions have been playing tunes like these since the seventeen hundreds in North America, and for who knows how long in other places in the world. Feufollet makes the music on Cow Island Hop sound like they've been playing it for centuries, but only wrote the songs yesterday.

Everything else aside though, the best thing about Cow Island Hop is just how much fun it is to listen to. You can be as authentic and passionate as you want, but if nobody is going to enjoy what you're doing, there's really not much point in doing it now is there? There are plenty of great Cajun bands out there today and they are all worth listening to for the various things they bring to the music. What make Feufollet distinct is how far back they've reached for their inspiration when it comes to making their brand of Cajun.

Cow Island Hop is being released on July 1st/08 and if you're a fan of Cajun music you won't want to miss it.

June 22, 2008

Music Review: Watermelon Slim And The Workers No Paid Holiday

You ever wonder what people are implying when they refer to a band or a performer as "hardworking"? I mean don't all bands work hard in one way or another? Sometimes I think it's almost an insult implying that the act in question doesn't have very much talent but they sure do try hard. Other times I wonder if it's an attempt to make them sound like "regular folk", who, like the rest of us, have to work for a living instead of leading the life of glamour that so many associate with being a professional musician.

The irony is that the majority of musicians don't lead anything remotely resembling a glamourous life style. If they're lucky they make enough money that they don't have to take a second job in order to make ends meet. Even to do that means spending large amounts of time being away from home, living out of motel rooms, setting up and taking down their equipment for each gig, and spending long hours on the road driving between gigs. Sometimes that will mean not getting to bed until three in the morning after a gig and only getting a few hours sleep before having to spend hours driving to the next town.

On the other hand there are some bands, and some individuals, who are able to to connect to their audiences in a way that other's can't because of the feeling they generate of "being one of us". Sometimes it's the topics of the songs they choose to sing about, sometimes it's the way they sing the songs, and even rarer still are the ones who feel like they are singing with the voice of the audience. It's not much of a surprise that most of those who fall into the latter category are also Blues musicians, as a great many of those performers have lived the hard scrabble lives that give them the experience required for that voice to ring true.
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William P. Homans, better known as Watermelon Slim, front man of Watermelon Slim And The Workers, is a veteran of the Vietnam war who worked as everything from a journalist to a truck driver. He's not some pretty boy rock star, in fact you'd be generous to call him road weary and shop worn. His voice isn't what you'd call melodious, but it is the voice of a man who has experienced any number of ups and downs on the road that's carried him to his current destination, and the voice of a man you feel you can trust.

From the first to the last song on No Paid Holidays, his new CD on the Northern Blues label being released Tues. June 24th, Watermelon Slim shows once again why his music is able to reach out and touch people hearts as well as their minds. It doesn't matter whether or not you are familiar with the topic or if he's singing about something you've experienced, he sings in such a manner that it becomes something you can identify with.

You're usually going find one or two songs on his discs that you'll be able to identify with, and No Paid Holidays isn't an exception to that rule. I'm sure at one point in time everybody has been in the same predicament as the one described in "Call My Job". Staying out too late, and drinking too many the night before aren't a combination guaranteed to make you bright eyed and bushy tailed for work in the morning, and "Call My Job" put's that experience into perspective. I don't know about anyone else, but the times I did that, were when I had a job that I wasn't that keen on, and was feeling frustrated with my life. Listening to this song I could hear all of those feelings reflected in the lyrics and in the way the song was being delivered.

While all the songs on No Paid Holidays are worth listening to, the one that stood out the most for me was Slim's version of the Laura Nyro tune "And When I Die". Years ago David Clayton Thomas and Blood, Sweat, & Tears had a hit with this song back in the 1970's, doing it as an up-tempo, pop song with a full horn section. It was very dynamic and uplifting, much in the same way really good Gospel music can carry you away. Instead of trying to compete with that, Slim has gone the opposite route and performs a nearly acappella version that is just as powerful in it's simplicity.

I can't really put my finger on what it was about the way he sings it, but from the very first note to the last he had my complete attention. Unlike the Blood, Sweat, & Tears version which was very slick and polished, Watermelon's version is rough hewn and raw, It sounds like each word is costing him, as he struggles to express what he needs to say about a subject that none of us really like to talk about. Yet, at the same, time you can hear the dogged determination in his voice that says how important it is for him to say what needs to be said. He sounds like anyone of us would sound trying to deal with something particularly difficult.

Watermelon Slim And The Workers may or may not be a hard working band, but I do know that they are musically one of the tightest bands you're liable to hear in any genre. On No Paid Holidays they are joined by special guests Dave Maxwell on piano for a couple of cuts and Lee Roy Parnell on electric slide guitar for "Bubba's Blues". Yet what makes this band, and Watermelon Slim in particular, so distinctive isn't what they do, but how they do it.

In the early days of modern theatre, back in the middle ages, they used to do performances of religious plays featuring a character called "Everyman" who represented all of humanity. It's a ridiculous conceit to think that one person can represent the experiences of a whole species, but a person can speak with a voice that is familiar enough that we all recognize at least some of what he's saying. No Paid Holidays proves once again that Watermelon Slim can sing a song in such a way that nearly anybody can identify with it. He and the Workers can rock the house and break your heart, and do it in a way that we can all understand.

June 17, 2008

Music Review: John Dee Holeman You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time

It was a couple of years ago that I first heard about the work that Tim Duffy was doing with the Music Makers Relief Foundation. Initially he started out with the simple goal of recording some of the older musicians who lived in and around the area of North Carolina where he was living in order to preserve some great music that he feared would be lost otherwise. This soon evolved into trying to parlay the recordings into a means to raise money to assist those same musicians, who time and fashion had forgotten.

From those humble beginnings the Foundation took shape. Yet this isn't just some charity giving handouts; most of the men and women Tim met while making his initial field recordings were quite capable of still getting up on stage and performing, or going into the studio and cutting sides like they did forty years ago. Sure when someone's in dire straits from medical bills or other such calamity the Foundation is there to lend a hand, but a good many people are being helped by being given the chance to work again doing what they do best - making music.

The Music Maker performers have now played festivals across Europe and down into Argentina, and released numerous CDs and a collection of DVDs. The early recordings were pretty raw, having mostly been culled from Tim's time out in the field from recordings made on a two track machine. As the foundation became more established they built their own studio and were able to bring the musicians in and record them with proper equipment in a more controlled environment. Now it appears they've reached the stage where they are making the leap to the next level and are no longer content to just preserve the music, but inject some new life into it as well.
John Dee Holeman has been one of the stalwarts of the Foundation's roster. He's recorded three discs for them already, two solo releases and one where he was paired up with the Australian alternative folk group The Waifs. Now, for his forthcoming release, You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time, John is backed by a full band, and a slew of special guests adding finishing touches to his music that range from Wurlitzer solos to pedal steel guitar fills.

John plays an old time County/Blues style that has more in common with the simplicity of backwoods music than the modern electric Blues that most of us are familiar with. In fact you're as liable to hear traces of the Carter family in his style as you are Mississippi or Chicago. So when I read in the press release about what they had done with this disc, I was concerned that in their attempts to add to John's music they might have ended up diminishing it through over production. Make something too gaudy with decorations and it loses the integrity that made it attractive in the first place.

Well, as it turns out I needn't have worried, producer Zeke Hutchins has taken the same amount of care working with these songs as an art restorer would take working on a masterpiece. He never once lets any of the additions do anything but augment John Dee's voice and playing, or accentuate the distinctiveness of his style. Of course it doesn't hurt that the key musicians include the president of the foundation, Tim Duffy, on acoustic guitar, and core Music Maker players like Cool John Ferguson on electric guitar, and Jay Brown on bass.

Anytime you get a group of like minded people together working on a project you know the results stand a good chance of being special, and that's the case here. Take the three traditional songs that John arranged for this recording; "Early Letter Blues", "One Black Rat". and "John Henry". I've heard other people record versions of these songs before, heck I've heard John do versions of "John Henry" and "One Black Rat" before, but I've never heard them performed so they sound as alive as they do on this disc. The addition of mandolin and fiddle, plus harmonizing from Ellen Stevenson and Taz Halloween, on "One Black Rat" fills out the sound in such a way that it adds another dimension to the song while still allowing it to maintain its core identity.

When John made his original recordings with Music Makers, they had the comfortable feel of having been recorded on the back porch one night when everyone was gathered around to listen to some tunes and have a few drinks. Listening to them you could feel the atmosphere and the environment that was responsible for creating this style of music all those years ago. Not only does You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time retain that atmosphere, it actually improves on it. Instead of just one man playing for some friends on his back porch, it's now a community barn dance, where all the musicians from miles around have brought their instruments.

John Dee Holeman has been playing the Country/Blues of the Carolinas for decades, and at nearly eighty years old, he was born in 1929, he still brings energy and spirit to his music than most musicians half his age. Not only does You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time showcase John's talents, it does so in a way that brings new life and vigour to his material. It just goes to show, that which was old, can be made new again.

You can pick up a copy of You Got To Lose, You Can't Win All The Time by going to the Music Makers Relief Foundation web site.

March 27, 2008

Music Review: The Wilders Someone's Got To Pay

Probably most people don't remember the days when K. D, Laing used to show up for gigs in a wedding dress and claim to be channelling the spirit of Patsy Cline. She wasn't doing the middle of the road drivel that she passes off as music now either, she was playing a high energy country music that was the forerunner to what people a would eventually call alt-country. Basically it was country music with a punk sensibility; everything was played a little faster and there was a healthy disrespect for the "traditions" of country music as represented by folk like Garth Brooks and all the other cross over stars.

Something really wonderful started to happen because of that alt-country movement, people started to become interested in the real sound of country music from the days before it fell into the hands of the studios in Nashville and being played by people in bad leisure suits and cowboy hats. The movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was the high point of that resurgence and people like Alison Krouse and Union Station, and Gillian Welsh began to receive widespread recognition.

After years of hearing sentimental songs about truck drivers, cold women, and warm beer that were as real as the rhinestones and sequins that decorated the performers costumes, hearing the old gospel tune "I'll Fly Away" played on real instruments and sung with sincerity was like a breath of fresh air. Of course the novelty wore off pretty quick, but not before it became obvious that there was a market out there for bands who were willing to play music in the old style on acoustic instruments.
You can see that connection still alive and kicking in a band like the The Wilders with their high tempo music that gets its roots from the Ozarks and its soul from a honky-tonk. They make no bones about being a country band, their only concession to modern music is the use of an electric bass and a couple of overdubs on their forthcoming Someone's Got To Pay CD on Free Dirt Records. At the same time that doesn't mean they can't burn the house down with speed and energy that would put the Clash to shame.

Nearly half of Someone's Got To Pay is turned over to a series of songs based on the experiences one of the band members had serving on the jury of a first degree murder case. The defendant had shot and killed his ex-wife out front of her apartment block in front of her sister, and as he was listening to the testimony Phil Wade couldn't help but notice how the whole thing sounded just like one of the old murder ballads come to life.

While some other songwriters might have just written some tear jerker "story-song" about love gone bad, what Phil and the rest of the Wilders have done is create a song cycle based on the trial. Four of the songs are short piano instrumentals with titles like "I Raised Up My Right Hand", and "An Old Murder Ballad Come To Life" that serve as bridges to the other parts of the disc, while the other five detail the different aspects of the trial. By doing this is ensure that they don't make the murder out to be something it's not.

There's nothing romantic about some asshole shooting his ex-wife. By keeping it in the court room, where all that matters is the facts of the case, not idle speculation about the guy's broken heart or motivations that make it look like there was any justification for what he did, they are able to avoid using any of the standard "Country & Western" cliches about how I loved her so much that I had to kill her. Shooting someone in cold blood is not an act of love- it's an act of violence. The song cycle that the Wilders have written about this case, and about Phil Wade's involvement as a jury member, make sure we know that.

Listening to the music on Someone's Got To Pay one quickly realizes just how talented a group the Wilders are. Unlike a lot of bands that can play fast and furious, the Wilders can also slow down and taste a song. Their vocal harmonies and playing are such that they prove that energy in music doesn't translate as only speed. Energy is the passion that you bring to what you're singing and playing; and passion is something the Wilders have in spades.

There are lots of Bluegrass bands out there that can play really fast, who get boring real quick because every damn song they play starts sounding like the one they just played. The Wilders aren't that kind of fast band as each song they play has its own distinct character or feel. Whether they accomplish it through the vocals or the instrumentation, or a combination of the two, one way or another they make sure that none of their songs sound the same.

Soneone's Got To Pay is being released on April 15th, and if you've never heard the Wilders before this is a great opportunity to check out one of the finest examples of "real" Country music going today. This is a talented, skilled, and passionate band who know how to bring great music to life.

February 16, 2008

Music Review: Climax Golden Twins Victola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days

How long has there been recorded music? Well we know there are wax roll recordings that date back to the late 1800s as we have records of them still either in their original forms or transformed over to vinyl in attempts to preserve them. But the majority of our knowledge of early recordings comes from music that was recorded to be played on the old windup Victrola machines.

I'm sure most of you have seen at least a picture of those old gramophones, or Victrola as they were called, with the huge speaker trumpets that looked like a cornucopia horn. I remember being amazed at how heavy the tone arm on one of those things was, and that the weight of it, combined with a diamond needle, didn't dig holes in the records. Of course if you've ever held one of those old 78 rpm records you'll know they were built for punishment; thick circles of vinyl that could be used as throwing weapons if you really wanted.

Yet in their day the 78 and the equipment used to make them were as much a technological breakthrough as the CD burning process is for us today. While computer technology has allowed anyone who wants to turn their home computer into a recording studio, the 78 equipment not only allowed people to record, it made music available to the general public on wide scale for the first time. While not many people would have owned a wax tube player, a gramophone was another matter.
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Rob Mills and Jeffery Taylor are the Seattle Washington based experimental music group Climax Golden Twins. In the past they have composed music for gallery and museum installations, film soundtracks, worked on documentary films, and contributed soundscapes to NPR radio shows. Their latest project, Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days available on the aptly named Dust To Digital label is a multi-media project that celebrates the diversity of music that was recorded for playback on the Victrola.

The two CD set comes in a 144 page 6" X 9" hardcover, cloth bound book, that is crammed full of pictures of memorabilia of old 78 records. Photos of old record labels, are blown up to fill a whole page, while old, full page newspaper advertisements have been reduced in size to easily fit the confines of the page. It's like some sort of strange pressed flower arrangement where the act of preserving the material changes the original image to suit the needs of it's medium.

Therefore an image of an old tin of German made gramophone needles is blown up to a size where only a portion of the image is seen on the page while an old British postcard that included a record (Tuck's Post Cards by appointment of the house of Windsor) has it's front and back displayed in full on another page. Yet the first image in the book, which you might overlook as its hidden beneath the first CD is of neither a record nor the paraphernalia that accompanies them.

Lifting the CD out of its slot you could be forgiven for squirming a bit as it reveals the image of a multitude of insects crawling around. Even though they are by no means realistic in appearance, I still managed to feel like you would when lifting a rock and finding the earth under it alive and moving. Anyway the little creatures revealed are a type of beetle that secretes a resinous substance called Lac. When the substance was purified it was used to make the old shellac records.

Which I guess explains the brittle nature of the old 78 records, they weren't vinyl at all. While it sounds sort of organic and natural to make records from the secretions of an insect, I'm betting the process was not only time consuming and labour intensive, but in the long run very environmentally damaging. Consider that the resin secreted was left behind on the leaves of trees by the insects, and who knows what chemical reactions occurred when the stuff was processed into shellac. Still it's fun to think of the old records being made from what sounds like the trail of an insect as it crawled through a tree.
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The music that's contained in the two discs are pretty much examples of every type of recording that you can imagine. You're taken on a journey around the world with stops in India, China , Japan, Africa, Thailand, Persia (now Iran), Greece, Portugal, Hawaii, Mexico, and the US. Everything from sound effects, "Sounds Of London" is a recording of church bells ringing in that city, to the sound of the Chinese Buddhist Nuns "Chanting The Ten Vows" in a recording made in Hong Kong, can be heard.

It really is a case of travelling from the ridiculous to the sublime in some cases, when one second you can be listening to an excerpt from classical Chinese Opera and the next something called "The Insect Powder Agent" which I'm not sure was a commercial or a piece of strange radio drama. Needless to say there are some pieces which will appeal to some people more than others, and in my case I was particularly interested in the recordings of early Blues musicians like Blind Boy Fuller or Noble Sissie and his Orchestra.

Some people might find the seemingly haphazard nature of the music disconcerting as it really doesn't follow any noticeable pattern. Some of the juxtapositions, like the Seven Galleon Jug Band's recording of "Wipe Em Off" followed by the Mozmar Caire Orchestra from Egypt playing "Raks Baladi Hag Ibrahim" are even jarring in their sudden changes of sound and tonal quality.

I don't think there really is any deep hidden meaning behind the way the songs are laid out, anymore than there is a pattern to the arrangement of the accompanying pictures. If you ever have made a compilation cassette tape or CD of some of your favourite music, you'll know that you usually have your own reasons as to why certain songs go together, and I'm sure that's the case with Victrola Favorites: Artifacts From Bygone Days. and its creators Rob Millis and Jeffery Taylor. I can't believe that they would have done anything accidentally. Even a decision to be completely random is a deliberation after all, and they would have known it would result in a certain amount of disorientation on the part of the listener. In any case, part of what made this such an interesting experience to listen to was the not being able to anticipate just what you'd be hearing next.

One thing that is for certain, no matter how confusing the sounds might sometimes become, this is a fascinating musical voyage around the world, and one that anybody with an interest in the history of recorded music won't want to miss.

February 5, 2008

Music Review Willie Nelson Moment Of Forever

While the majority of musicians make an impression on me due to their abilities, there are some who have become even more indelible because not only are they talented but I associate them with certain periods or specific people in my life. The late Joe Strummer of the Clash, for instance, will forever be associated with the late seventies and early eighties of the twentieth century and my burgeoning political activism, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull will always be the first rock concert I ever went to.

Yet the person who I associate with someone in my life more than anyone else wasn't even someone I listened to with any particular interest until later in life. I've always know about Willie Nelson and had listened to him sporadically through out the years, but it wasn't until I met my father-in-law that I began to go out of my way to find his music. My father-in-law used to tour throughout North Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec in Canada with his band, playing hotel bars and taverns in logging towns, farming communities, and mining towns. At the drop of a hat, or on occasion the toss of a beer bottle, he'd have to be able to play any song that the crowd demanded. In those days, early seventies, and in those places, that meant knowing one hell of a lot of Country music.

Now by the time I met my father-in-law he had stopped touring, but he still plays locally in the legions and small taverns in the city we live in. He no longer has to worry about flying beer bottles (he actually played in a place like that bar in the first Blues Brothers movie where he was behind fencing to protect the band from the patrons and objects they might throw at the stage) but he still does quite a lot of the music that he used to perform from those days, and one of his favourites was always Willie Nelson.
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Hearing him sing various songs that Willie wrote, or perform songs that Willie made famous, started getting me interested in hearing more of his music. There's only so many times you can listen to "Good Hearted Woman", "Momma Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys", "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain", and a couple of others after all. It quickly became apparent that those few songs of Willie's that everybody was always demanding to hear my father-in-law play, didn't even come close to representing an iota of the man's talent.

From his work with his fellow Outlaws of Country music, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, a collection of old standards that he released back in the seventies, to the songs he wrote for other people (Patsy Cline's 1961 hit"Crazy" was written by Nelson) you'd be hard pressed to think of any musician who has been as prolific and consistent in the past forty-five plus years period as Nelson. In a profession that's not really noted for longevity, not only has he survived, but judging by his brand new release on the Lost Highway label, Moment Of Forever, his talent and his stamina show no signs of waning.

The distinctive voice is still as strong as ever, the sense of humour still gentle and intelligent, and in an age where self-absorption predominates he has an awareness of the world around him that's as refreshing as it is rare. Willie has always seemed to me a kind of every-man singer with the uncanny ability to take almost any song and have it appeal to almost everyone. At the same time he never seems to make any compromises in his music or change his approach to life in order to please anyone.

It was that attitude in the ultra conservative Nashville and the even more conservative Country Music establishment that gave him Outlaw status back in the early part of his career. If the folk who used to run Country music hoped to ensure his career tanked with their actions, all that they did was turn him into an icon for everybody who felt like they didn't belong or who weren't comfortable with the straight laced hypocrisy of the Country establishment

Moments Of Forever is as strong a new release from anybody that I've seen in ages with a great mix of songs that represent a wide range of topics and emotions. One of the great things about Willie is the way he can get across a message or an idea without having to preach or get all worked up about it. A great example of this is his decision to record Randy Newman's "Louisiana" for this disc. Newman wrote that song about the hurricane of 1927 that did exactly what Katrina did a couple of years back to the low lying levels in the state where all the poor people lived and farmed.
Willie sings the song in his usual manner, without once succumbing to histrionics, simply allowing the song's lyric to do it's job and tell us the story of how the more things change the more they stay the same. Funnily enough he uses that very line in the song "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore" and he's got to be the only man who can sing something like that and not have it sound like a cliche.

Of course it all depends on the context doesn't it, and this song is a bittersweet little piece that Willie wrote about not changing or growing until even you get to the point where you find you're own act has become tired. "Even I don't think that's funny anymore" is a feeling we can all relate too when it gets to the point that we're just going through the motions of living.

Thematically, Moment Of Forever is an interesting mix of material, as the songs seem to be contrasting two ways of living after you've been around for any length of time. You can either let the past control you with regrets and memories of missed opportunities and an inability to let go as is expressed in the opening song "Over You Again" or you can cherish individual moments of pleasure like the title song, Kris Kristofferson's "Moments Of Forever" suggests or Willie's own "Always Now" advises.

Willie is the voice of experience, when it comes to life and when it comes to the music industry. He's lost friends to drugs, drink, and age; his conflicts with the IRS are well known, as was his championship of the family farm with his Farm Aid concerts. Yet whatever his situation he's always been there to sing his songs in a voice that's grown to be almost as familiar as our own, and that's become one of the great narrators of our times. Moment Of Forever sees Willie picking up the story of our era again and filling in the parts that nobody else thinks are important to write about, the parts about you and me.

January 24, 2008

Music DVD Review: Kinky Friedman And The Texas Jewboys Kinky Friedman Live From Austin Tx

Country music is an oft maligned creature, and quite often for good reason. The big haired women, the men in the rhinestone suites, and the songs about truck drivers, railroad trains, cheating wives, and prison all make it an easy target for people's ridicule. During times when other forms of popular music have been actually taking risks and doing something new, Country always seems to deliberately become even more conservative.

Perhaps because of its roots in the mid-west and the bible belt of the United States, Country music seems to be quicker than most to wrap itself in the flag, call upon God, and believe in my country right or wrong. I have to admit that attitude has alienated me more than anything else from the music. Quite a lot of the old time country music really appealed to me actually, but all that talk of Jesus and America was a little off putting to a Canadian urban Jew.

"Will The Circle Be Unbroken" and "In The Sweet Bye & Bye" are great tunes, but lyrically there wasn't much there for me to relate too. Even guys like Kris Kristofferson turned into Sunday morning, hangover Christians. One moment he'd be singing "Me And Bobby Mcgee" and "The Pilgrim" and then the next guilt ridden stuff like "Why Me Lord".
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It wasn't until well after the heyday of his career was behind him, that I discovered the one man who could have reached out to me, and helped bridge that cultural divide. Even when I did finally hear the name Kinky Friedman his playing days were well behind him. I never had the opportunity to see Kinky Friedman And The Texas Jewboys during their heyday, but they left behind a catalogue of song titles, including the likes of "I'm Proud To Be An Asshole From El Passo", "Ride 'Em Jewboy", and "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore", that not only intrigued me but has kept my curiosity piqued for the last twenty years.

Thirty-two years ago, in November of 1975, Kinky and The Texas Jewboys recorded an episode of the famed television show Austin City Limits. Unbeknown to anyone at the time they created history that night - it is still the one and only concert filmed for the show that has never aired. For reasons that have never been explained, the powers that be decided that the delicate sensitivities of the American public wouldn't have been able to handle the performance. But somehow or other a tape of that show has managed to survive, and the good folk at New West Records have just released a DVD version of Kinky Friedman: Live From Austin Tx.

For those of you like me who never had the opportunity to experience Kinky and the gang in full howl, and believe me I do mean howl, it's like nothing you'll have ever seen before or are likely to see again. Those of you who have had the pleasure of reading any of Kinky's detective novels will have experienced his brand of humour and will be somewhat prepared for what for you are about to witness. Everybody else, well, just sit back and hold on tight because you're in for the ride of your life.

Right from the get go you know that you're in for something different from your standard country, country/rock, fare that's usually served up on Austin City Limits when you take a quick gander at the way Kinky and the rest of the band is dressed. From Little Jewford (Jeff Shelby) Shelby on piano to Skycap Adam on bass the boys are decked out in a mixture of clothes that make them look like a cross between a parody of every Country band you've seen and a travelling Medicine Show.

Then of course there's the material and Kinky's in between song patter. It's not often you'll hear a song about Amelia Earhart, let alone a country song complete with yodels, but "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight" is just that. Now there's not much about that song anybody would have considered offensive, and aside from Kinky's comment about a couple of departing audience members coming down with a case of the "Hebe Jeebies", there hadn't been much of anything said that could have upset anybody - of course that was only the first song.

Things sort of went uphill, or downhill depending on your point of view, from there. Double entendres and inferences began flying, both during and between the songs, and behaviour became more and more outlandish. "Men's Room L.A." is a tribute to the bounty of the Lord and his graciousness in allowing his image to be used when nothing else is available and you're caught with your pants down and an empty toilet roll. "Carryin' The Torch" is in honour of the upcoming bicentennial celebrations, and includes patriotic flag bedecked drum sticks and a tear in your eye, catch in the throat, tribute to Lady Liberty.
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Songs like those and "Miss Nickelodian", featuring the band decking themselves out in faux Indian headgear and dancing a mock war dance, are so over the top and ridiculous that it's hard to believe anybody taking them seriously. At the same time they're very deliberate in their satire and attacking most of what mainstream Country music holds dear. This becomes very clear when they get down to near the end of the night's festivities.

"Asshole From El Paso" is sung to the tune of Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee", and turns it into an attack on the same attitudes and values that Merle was defending. Lines like "And the wetbacks still get twenty cents an hour" probably didn't make Kinky any friends that night with the producers, but most of the audience, being from Austin, seemed to approve. "They Don't Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore" is a great anthem of fighting back against racism, as it talks about not turning the other cheek and beating the crap out of a racist. Of course lines like "We Jews always believed it was Santa Claus that killed Jesus" might not go over so well with certain members of society.

Musically, these guys are one of the hottest bands I've seen play in a while. Of particular note is Ken "Snakebite" Jacobs (now with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers) who plays alto, tenor, and soprano saxophone with equal proficiency, as well as playing flute, and piano when Little Jewford Shelby was called upon to play accordion. Kinky's voice is quite extraordinary; he'll be cruising along sounding like your typical cowboy country singer with a catch in his voice and a drawl, when all of a sudden he'll kick into a Frankie Vali type falsetto that's letter perfect. It's a little disconcerting to start with, takes you by surprise, but he uses it beautifully and sparingly enough that's it effective.

Thus it's even more surprising when he sneaks in a straight song, like "Get A Long Little Jew Boy", a beautiful tribute to both people who died in the holocaust and the history of the Jewish diaspora. Not only is the song very moving, but it also gives you a glimmer of insight into why Kinky did the whole Jewish cowboy shtick. In a few words he draws a connection between the wandering, homeless cowboy and the homeless Jew drifting from place to place.

I don't know if there's a television station out there that would air Kinky Friedman: Live From Austin Tx today, so I can understand the producers reluctance to air it back in 1975 when it was recorded. It's unfortunate, because Kinky Friedman And The Texas Jewboys are not only one of the best satirical bands to come down the pipe, but musically brilliant too. Take advantage of this opportunity to catch them live and in their prime, because who knows if there will ever be another chance.

November 25, 2007

Music Review: Cootie Stark & Friends Christmas With Cootie

I think if I wander into another store and here some pop star, with a trembling voice they think makes them sound sincere, singing a Christmas song, I might vomit. Not only do they sound awful, they always pick some of the worst excuses for Christmas music that exists. Why people must associate the sickly sentimental with Christmas I don't know, but they do.

Although when you think about it, it makes sense. Advertisers learnt long ago that a message triggering a sentimental reaction would guarantee sales more effectively then anything as messy as real emotions. One of the biggest ironies about Christmas, a supposedly religious holiday, is the lack of religious iconography associated with the holiday anymore.

The closest you'll come to something even remotely religious are pictures of Mom, Pop, and Baby Jesus surrounded by cute farm animals passing themselves off as representations of the birth of the Christ child. Or even worse, one of those angels who are popping up everywhere like hives. But even they are in the minority, because the last thing retailers want people remembering is that it's a religious holiday.

If they did, they might wonder about the need to spend thousands of dollars on material possessions. Especially when celebrating the birthday of the guy who said something about giving up material wealth to enter into the kingdom of heaven, and who had all the merchants and bankers tossed out the Temple for besmirching its holiness with business. All in all it's better that people see pictures of dogs in red bow and red cheeked children playing in the snow, Jesus was right, religion and sales don't mix.
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All the more reason then to heap blessings upon the people at the Music Makers Relief Foundation for providing some antidote to that attitude with the release of the CD Christmas With Cootie. Cootie Stark is one of the many old time Blues singers from the South who had their careers resuscitated by the Foundation as part of their programming for assisting them financially. For decades, he had earned his living as a street performer, but through his association with Music Makers, he began a successful second career on touring and performing.

A number of the men and women who are produced by the Music Makers label, no longer have any family, and the studio in Hillsborough North Carolina where they record and jam, has become their home. So, in 2005 when Cootie turned up for Christmas it was no surprise that the guys in the neighbourhood would drop by to wish him well and to celebrate Christmas with their extended family.

It was only natural that they would sing a bunch of songs together, and since they were hanging out in a recording studio, it wasn't that much of a stretch to set up some microphones and flip a couple of switches so they could make a record of the event. What's ended up on CD is a mix of Christmas and gospel music making it sound like you keep moving back and forth between a revival meeting and a family Christmas party.

Although such great singers and players like John Dee Holman, Cool John Ferguson, Macavine Hayes, Whistlin' Britches Thompson, and Captain Luke all showed up for the party, it's Cootie the action is centred around. With a voice permanently hoarse from singing on the streets in all kinds of weather, and imbibing who knows what over the years, no one is ever going to accuse Cootie of sounding saccharine sweet. But that doesn't prevent him and his friends from singing versions of "Silent Night" that send shivers up your spine because the emotions are so real.

Revival meetings and Gospel music of that type make no concessions, or apologies. They are Christian songs for Christian people sung with a passion and belief that's far too in your face for mass-market consumption. This isn't the music of some highly polished choir sanitized for consumption on Oprah where everyone is stepin' and fetchin', but the real thing as it's been sung in clapboard churches throughout the South for over a hundred years.
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Even with just the group of them sitting around the studio there's the exhortations to "Let me hear you say amen" happening in a way that sounds like second nature to these men. None of them are preachers, in the sense of being ordained ministers by any church, but I'm thinking you'd be hard pressed to find much difference between how Cootie and his friends performed "My Lord Died On The Cross" and how it would be sung in a church with a minister leading the way.

Can you imagine going into a store around this time of year and even hearing them playing a song with the title "My Lord Died On The Cross"? Now I'm not saying that I'm particularly enamoured of the song myself, but I can respect and admire the passion that has gone into recording and singing that song far more then whatever is being performed by the generic pop singer being piped into stores these days.

Of course it's not all just serious "gospel hour" on Christmas With Cootie. You can't put that collection of people together without some silliness and good times happening. Then there's the last track on the album. A recording made of Guitar Gabriel back in 1994 singing "Let's Have Christmas Together for which Tim Duffy has mixed down with some newer tracks as accompaniment. It's only fitting that Gabriel shows up here like a benign spirit of Christmases gone by, as it was through him that this "family" was brought together under this roof.

Gabriel died before the foundation had really begun to take off, but it was through him that Tim Duffy was introduced to all the people who appear on this recording. Shortly after this recording was made Cootie Stark left the world as well, meaning the Christmas get-together's at Hillsborough are going to be a bit quieter and smaller from now on. These recordings of Tim Duffy's become even more special when you consider them in light of how each year the possibility exists that one of those voices won't be around come next year.

For all of you, Christian and non-Christian alike, who are heartily sick of the pap that passes for music these days at Christmas Christmas With Cootie isn't a complete cure, but it doesn't hurt. Real music sung by real people goes a long way to removing a great deal of the bad taste surrounding this time of year. Boycotting spending more then $25.00 on Christmas presents, per family would do the rest, but that's not going to happen so let's be grateful for the blessings we do get.

On that note – why not spend that $25.00 at Music Makers and buy someone you love Cootie Stark and his friends for Christmas. Not only is it a great gift, you get the satisfaction of knowing you've done your part to preserve an endangered species – real people singing real music. It would also be a fine way to show some appreciation for the work of Tim and Denise Duffy and all the other people who bring us the gift of the Music Maker Relief Fund.

November 24, 2007

Music Review: Pura Fe' Hold The Rain

When Hiawatha brought his message of peace to the original five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, it was with an eye to the future. He knew that if they wanted any chance of surviving in the days after the arrival of the Europeans, they would have to stop fighting amongst themselves and unite. (He is widely credited with being the first person in North America to use the bundle of sticks being harder to break then each stick individually allegory).

The original five members of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) were the Nundawaono – People Of The Great Hill (Seneca), Gueugwehonono – The Mucky Land People (Cayuga), Onundagaono – The People On The Hills (Onondaga), Onayotakaono –The Standing Stone People (Oneida), and the Ganeaganono – The Flint Place People (Mohawk). As events began to turn out like Hiawatha predicted, and the Europeans picked Indian nations off one at a time, a final tribe sought sanctuary in the Confederacy's territory.

The Dusgaoweh – The Shirt Wearing People (Tuscarora) were being pushed out of their traditional territory in the Carolinas and were perilously close to being exterminated, when they petitioned to be allowed to join the Haudenosaunee and be ceded land to live on and cultivate. So in 1722 the majority of them made their way to upstate New York to join up with the Confederacy, but some stayed behind and tried to survive as best as possible.
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Pura Fe' Crescioni (most often simply referred to as Pura Fe') a mixed blood Tuscarora, Deer Clan on her mother's side and Spanish on her father's, she grew up in New York City. She is the seventh generation of successive families of seven sisters; all of who are singers. On the enhanced portion of her most recent CD Hold The Rain, released by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, there is a video interview with her. In it, she talks about her memories of growing up with her mother and Aunts singing all the time. As the Tuscarora are matrilineal, it's only natural that she'd follow in the footsteps of these women and sing.

Initially she focused her energies primarily on performing traditional native music with the women's acappella trio Ulali. Somewhere along the line, she began feeling the pull of her roots and ended up in the ancestral territory of North Carolina. It didn't take her very long to understand the unique cross-pollination that music had experienced in this part of the world, traditional Native music and the African American Blues of the Carolinas.

We're not just talking about modern times either, but a cultural exchange that's been ongoing since the two people first had contact. Unlike European history where first contact with Native people refers to Europeans only, the oral histories of the Tuscarora and other nations speak of trade between the Americas and Africa long before the Santa Maria made a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in the Bahamas instead of India. The logic of sailing due West when you wanted to go South/East has always escaped me, but some how a guy who didn't know how to navigate became a famous explorer.

Whatever the heritage or the roots of the music Pura Fe' plays she has a voice that could call the birds from the skies and rains from the clouds. For starters, her range is phenomenal; a low throaty bass growl, that I'm sure could make the earth tremble with enough volume. Her high notes are as pure and clean as the sound of an iced over lake singing on the coldest, stillest morning of winter as the sun is gently kissing the earth's surface.
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If that sounds unreasonably poetic, I only ask you to reserve your judgement on my flights of fancy and sanity, until after you've listened to her. Of course, she can also play a mean lap – slide guitar, and uses a beautiful Hawaiian steel string that she makes sing. But on Hold The Rain she's overshadowed, and I'm sure she would be the first to admit this, by her lead guitar player Danny Godinez.

Pura Fe' refers to him as Seattle's best guitar player, and that's not hard to believe after listening to him play. He plays acoustic guitar, and makes it sound just as exciting as almost anybody else playing an electric guitar. Not only are his leads wonderful, he also provides the perfect support to Pura Fe's bottleneck slide. I think once people get a chance to hear him play on this CD, Seattle won't be allowed to keep him hidden away much longer.

As for the music on the disc, the songs are a great mixture of the modern and the traditional both in content and in style. The opening is a short piece performed by the Drum Pura Fe' sings with; The Deer Clan Singers, but as the echo from that is still resounding within your head, "If I Was Your Guitar" begins. I first heard a version of this on a MusicMaker's compilation disc where she dedicated it to Cool John Ferguson a, very sure fingered guitar player, and the innuendo of the words was hilarious. Not much has changed about the song since then, except that she's added a couple of voiceovers that will make you pee your pants laughing if you're not careful.

Personally, the highlight of the disc is her version of the old Gershwin tune, "Summertime" from the opera Porgy and Bess. (For some reason they credit Rogers and Hammerstein with writing the song when it was Ira & George Gershwin who wrote it – perhaps the other two own the rights now) I've always loved the song, and her adaptation, with an up-tempo, bluesy, second verse is great. It captures the true essence of the song without being welded to the original version.

Pura Fe' is one of the living treasures of the south, and in her music she captures two of the significant cultures from the Carolinas; African American and Native American. But this isn't some dusty anthropological recording, it's a living, breathing, and vibrant slice of music that's alive and kicking. Hold The Rain is a great album, by a great performer. The only regret you might have in picking up on this disc is that it ends too early. Ah well you can't have everything, but sometimes what you do get is pretty good.

November 21, 2007

Music Review: Various MusicMakers Relief Fund Performers Blues Sweet Blues

We live in horribly cynical times that make you second-guess everybody's intentions. What are they getting out of it, has become the typical response to altruistic behaviour, as if nobody ever does anything any more because it makes them feel good to help others. Unfortunately it's an attitude that's understandable, and one I freely admit to sharing, due to the barrage of press releases we are subject too, outlining just how wonderful some star is because of their gift to some cause or other.

The funny thing is that when the genuine article does come along it's remarkable how easy it is to recognize them. From the moment I first came in contact with the folk behind the Music Maker Relief Foundation,
Tim and Denise Duffy, through one of their CDs, I knew they were for real. Since then I've turned into one of those tiresome people who keep going on and on about the same subject at any chance I get; The Music Makers Relief Foundation.

I can't help it; in a country like France where they honour culture they would be awarded the legion d'honor by their government for the work the foundation does. What had started out as way of helping elderly musicians take care of themselves has become one of the most important programs, out side of the Smithsonian Institute, working to preserve American popular culture of the past and keeping it alive today.

According to how Tim tells it, it was his 1990 meeting with Guitar Gabriel that got him started on the work he's doing now. At first, he was content to simply play the Blues with Gabriel at festivals throughout the Southern States and even Europe. Gabriel gradually introduced him to other musicians, and Tim saw how they were forced to live, barely surviving on their social security checks.
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The men and women who he met and recorded were not only some of the most talented Blues musicians he had ever heard, they also represented a significant period in American music history. Initially he strove to find them as many gigs as he could so they were getting little bit more money each month. At the same time he continued to make recordings of all the people he knew and tracking down those he was told had played music at one time or another.

It was this collection of field recordings that got the ball rolling for The Music Makers Relief Foundation. In one of those happy coincidences that occasionally actually happen in real life, a friend of Tim's late father ran a high end audiophile equipment business. When Tim went to ask him his advice about what he could do to transfer his field recording to CD, the man went a step further and helped him produce the first CD.

From there, it's been a long, steady climb up the hill towards fulfilling Tim's dream of bringing his new friends to the world's attention. Through recordings, and tours to South America and Europe he's been able to both raise significant funds towards supporting more individuals and continue to develop new projects featuring the music of some of the best traditional Blues and Gospel performers you are liable to ever hear.

This year they've come out with Blues Sweet Blues a two disc set that features the talents of those who have been recorded and are still recording with the Music Makers Fund. Unfortunately, the only reason most people stop recording with Music Makers is that they have passed on or their health has failed them. But, while people like Guitar Gabriel, Etta Baker, and a few others are no longer around we at least have their music to remind us of what they meant to the world.
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I've raved about the voice of Captain Luke on other occasions, but that's not going to stop me from doing it again. It's just so rare to hear a pure baritone anymore that hearing him sing for the first time can stop you cold. Tim Duffy once described how Captain Luke came out on stage in Argentina, in front of thousands of people, and the second he began singing you could hear a pin drop.

Sitting on stage in his chair with just a single guitar for accompaniment, this deceptively frail looking elderly gentleman opens his mouth and something amazing happens. With seemingly no effort on his part at all the room fills with the sound of a lush summer twilight as the sky turns that particular shade of dark sapphire blue. Captain Luke's is easily the most amazing sounding voice I've heard in ages.

Of course, he's not the only one on the discs, but he certainly is a highlight. He's joined on the first song, "Let The Good Times Roll", by Willa Mae Buckner, and the late Cooties Stark, and the second song he goes it solo on "One Of These Days". Then there's Drink Small singing his creation "President Clinton Blues" who's followed by...If I'm not careful I'll just end up naming all the songs on both discs. Every one of them are important and good for their own reasons, but I guess you'll just have to follow the link above to the Music Maker's site and buy yourself a copy if you want to hear how good the are.

Tim Duffy and Denise Duffy might not have had any real idea of what they wanted to do initially aside from helping out some musicians who they liked and believed deserved better hands then what fate had dealt them. However, it's almost like the music was waiting for someone to come along and take an interest. The overwhelmingly positive response from audiences all over the world is proof of that. The Music Makers Foundation has done all of us a valuable service – not just he artists it represents.

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Without Tim and Denise Duffy the world would have missed out on some truly amazing music and performers. If you have a few extra dollars this year you might want to consider sending it their way. There's always more they can be doing to help somebody out, and new music to be recorded as well. Use the link above to get to them quickly.

November 3, 2007

Music Review: The Art Of Field Recordings Volume 1: Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music Documented By Art Rosembaum

One of my prized possessions is an old Vinyl LP put out by the Smithsonian Institute as part of their Ethnic Folkways Library. The picture on the cover couldn't be more incongruous if they had tried; it shows a woman dressed in typical fashion for pre World War One middle class, a large Edison Roll player, and an elderly Indian man in full Plains Indian Regalia. The Healing Songs Of The American Indians were recorded in the field by Music Ethnomusicologist Dr Frances Densmore between the years of 1908 and 1927.

When she started out in 1908 she would have easily been working with men from the Sioux, Chippewa, Yuman, Ute, Papago, Makah, and Menominee nations who were remnants of the last non-reservation Indians; the last generation that knew a life other that of being at war or conquered. Whatever her reasons at the time for making these collections, they are now an incredibly valuable resource not just for non-natives, but natives too who are looking to find traces of the culture that less enlightened people tried to destroy after Dr. Densmore so steadfastly worked to preserve it.

But Dr. Densmore wasn't doing anything new, music anthropologists had been tracking down music and recording ever since Edison's wax rolls made it possible to record sound. It's one of the sadder commentaries on the nature of our society that there always seems to be something valuable on the verge of vanishing if it weren't for one or two people taking it upon themselves to do something about it.
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In North and South Carolina you have the Music Maker Relief Fund not only recording the music but arranging the means to keep some of the original Blues artists alive and thriving with concert bookings and recording contracts. Document Records in England has been putting together hours and hours of programming tapes that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had devoted to early Jazz and Blues music. While in Chicago Delmark Records continually reaches back into its fifty five years of archival recordings to find performers who otherwise would undeservedly be forgotten.

But when it comes to individual efforts there are few who can match the dedication of painter, folklorist, musician, and musicologistArt Rosenbaum who did his first field recordings among migrant workers in Michigan when he was a teenager in the 1950s and hasn't stopped since. Now the label Dust To Digital has taken on the task of compiling and releasing these miles of tape, whose quality ranges from mono to digital, in some sort of digestible format.

At some point in time Art's hobby began to be taken seriously and since he's become a painting instructor at the University of Georgia they have properly archived all his materials. It's been from these archives that Steven Ledbetter (I'd be interested in knowing if he was related to the late Hughie Ledbetter aka Leadbelly the blues singer) of Dust To Digital has pulled together the material for the first four cd set of Art Of Field Recording Volume 1: Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music

Along with the four discs, containing 110 tracks of music, is included a remarkable 96 page book with photographs of the various performers taken during their recording sessions, or sketches done by the artist of what it was like to record them if no photo was available. The photos were taken for the most part by Art's wife Margo, while all the illustrations are by Art himself. Art's drawings and illustrations are amazing for their attention to detail and the feeling of capturing a moment as it is happening; look at the picture in this review of him recording the Eller Brothers for a good example of that.

But it's the music that's important here and we should talk about that for a bit. First of all the four discs are designated as: Disc One: "Survey", Disc Two: "Religious", Disc Three: "Blues" and Disc Four: Instrumental and Dance. Think of the first disc as a sampler of all the action to get your mouth watering for the main courses and you'll get the picture clear enough. Although the "Survey" disc contains some gems you won't find anywhere else, including a couple of recordings he first made in 1957 when he was a teenager.
One is of a group of Mexican migrant workers singing an old revolutionary song called "Carabina Treinta-Treinta (30 –30 Rifle) recorded in a general store. The other, a young migrant white worker Ray Rhodes, aged seven, sang "Fred Adams" in the traditional English/Irish Ballad style that had been practiced in the Appalachians since the first settlers set up their farms.

From there on disc one does a survey of all the various types of music that Art has recorded over the years; banjo pickers, gospel singers, harmonica players, fiddlers, and almost any other type and style of what is called Americana music (in spite of it being Anglo/Irish, Scottish, African, and Canadian in origin). Disc two maybe called "Religious" but it focuses entirely on Christian music so it might just a well be called Gospel, save for the fact that some of it just doesn't fit into any Gospel music you'll have heard until now.

For me one of the most interesting tracks was the recording done by the Sacred Harp Singing Group, with their unique style of singing and performing that has to be heard to be really appreciated. Their style of syncopated rhythms counted out by a chopping motion of the arm and replicated by voice is as elaborate as any choreographed dance

What became obvious to me after listening to all four of the discs is the amount of care that has been taking in assembling the tracks to ensure as broad a representation of styles, voices, and people as possible. The decision to include some of the before and after dialogue on most of the tracks helps increase the sense of them being performed by folk playing the music they either learned at their parent's or grand patent's knees.

Equally as impressive is the dedication shown by Art Rosenbaum when it came to meeting and recording the various folk included on this disc. Some folks might not leave home without their American Express card, but he doesn't leave home without a tape recorder and a microphone. For of those of you looking to start your collection of traditional folk music in America Art Of Field Recording Volume 1 would be a great place to start.

For those of you who have already started to establish a collection, Volume 1 can only enrich your experience. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm already looking forward to the release of Art Of Field Recording Volume 2 , who knows what great surprise awaits us there?

October 1, 2007

Music Review: Deering & Down Break This Record

I have to confess that when I think of Alaska, Blues, in any shape or form, are not something that first comes to mind. Than again there are those endless nights when the sun barely works up the nerve to stick his nose above the horizon line because the temperature is so damn cold. What else are you going to do 'side from singing the Blues?

Have you ever heard Inuit throat singing? Those songs are some of the deepest shades of Blue around. So if the Inuit are singing the Blues and they've lived in the country for thousands of generations, it only follows that transplanted souls from South of the Tree Line are going to be doing the same. It's a full moon, the temperature hasn't been above minus forty in weeks; I don't know about you, but I'd be howling at the moon with the dogs after a while.

Deering Down might have you howling at the moon, but that's only because they play a mean Memphis style Blues that harkens back to the days when country and rock and roll weren't separated by charts and business. If there were ever a Sun Record sound that permeated down through the generations, then this pair from the Northern reaches seemed to have been able to tap into it.
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Lahna Deering and Rev Neil Down came to Alaska independent of each other, and came together through their mutual love of the Blues. After recording two critically well received albums on their own, Coupe de Villa and When A Wrong Turns Right, their third album Break This Record has been released on the new Diamond D. Records label. The disc was recorded in Memphis at Yella Brick Studios, and will go on sale in the United States nationwide on October 2nd 2007.

One of the first things you're going to notice when listening to this disc is the "Voice". Lahna Deering sings like she swallowed every great female voice of the past hundred years, mixed them in her soul, then projected them through vocal chords scrapped raw by passions thousands of years older then her twenty some years. Your going to hear a lot about her voice in the days to come, with people comparing her to everyone from Stevie Nicks to Janis Joplin, but that's not going to tell you squat until you hear her for yourself.

At first listen, the hard edged "Finally Found The One" that opens Break This Record, you might be a little disquieted by what you hear. Well that's not too surprising considering how rare it is to hear honesty at all anymore in pop music, let alone in life. But don't worry, like any other new and valuable experience, you'll soon find yourself wondering how you've survived this long without it.

If there is a more perfect accompaniment to Lahna's singing than Rev Neil Down's stripped down guitar wizardry I'd be surprised. Even with a full band behind them, you can still tell how well they compliment each other. There is a fine art to playing sparse lead guitar, instead of playing sixty-five notes a second and hopping to find the right one, you play the right one every time to far more affect. Ry Cooder, the late Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin' Spoonful, and Keith Richards when he's on, are masters of this, and Rev Neil Down is cut from the same cloth.

While Lahna's voice is in full roar, Rev Neil's guitar runs underneath filling in the blanks in a song's melody. It's almost like the guitar is singing along with her, but instead of harmonizing, it works as a counterpoint to emphasise her phrasing and emotion. Not many can carry this off, probably the only reason they succeed is because of all the miles they've traveled together, but when a guitar and voice come together like this, it's a beautiful duet.

Break This Record takes full advantage of this rare combination by showcasing all its possibilities. From the previously mentioned hard edged "Finally Found The One", the soulful "Richard Of Los Angeles", to the Country flavoured Blues of "City Cow Girl", Deering & Down show they can handle anything the Blues can throw at them.

Deering's voice becomes even more effective when she slows down, especially evident on "Richard Of Los Angeles" and "Abbey". The latter is a deceptive song; I was shocked to see how simple the lyrics were when I read them over after listening to it. Deering had been able to suggest so much meaning with her voice, that I heard more then what was actually being said.

To be able to communicate a sub-text is a remarkable accomplishment for any singer, and on reading through the lyrics of other songs on the disc, I saw that this was the case on more than just "Abbey". Not only does that indicate a singular vocal talent, it says volumes about the talent involved in creating the songs and the production of the album. There are subtleties at work that only incredibly skilled people can bring out, and that is a nod to the talents of Rev Neil Down, who took the lead in producing this disc.

The days of the Gold Rushes to Alaska and the Klondike might be long over, but that doesn't mean you still won't find the occasional treasure buried up above the Tree Line. On Break This Record Deering & Down prove there is still gold up in the tundra, you just have to look for it different places now.

September 27, 2007

Music Review: Jerry Jeff Walker Jerry Jeff Walker

He was born in Oklahoma/His wife's name is Betty-Lou Thelma Liz

It took me a while to warm up to country music although I'm sure a lot of that had to do with timing more then anything else. When I first started to seriously listen to pop music in the seventies Country was going through its very heavy Rhinestone phase while trying to appeal to the popular music crowd at the same time.

As a kid I remember Glen Campbell having a variety show, Hee Haw was still a staple, and in Canada every Friday night for the longest time was the The Tommy Hunter Show. Tommy's show was probably the worst of the lot as far as I was concerned; big hair, rhinestones, and stiletto boots – and you should have seen what the women were dressed like!

Okay so that's cruel and unfair, but to be honest I almost couldn't tell any of the songs or people apart. It seemed like Country music on television at that time was a never-ending procession of Cowboy Hats, slow mournful dirges about broken hearts, and people talking about Jesus all the time. There's nothing wrong with any of that I suppose, but it wasn't my idea of entertainment at the time, or now either.

You know he loves to drink that Lone Star beer/Chases it down with that Wild Turkey Liquor

My first inkling that there might be something more to Country music than what I had been seeing on television was my older brother's record collection. In amongst the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and The Band albums were mixed in stuff by Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and one album recorded live in Luckenbach Texas by this guy named Jerry Jeff Walker.
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When I listened to the Kristofferson records, I didn't notice that much difference between him and some of the folk music I liked to listen too. I was surprised to see that he was referred to as Country music. This made me wonder about what was on that really country looking album by Jerry Jeff Walker.

He's got a '57 GMC pickup truck, with a gun rack and I'd rather step in shit than smoke it bumper sticker

Well what I heard on that record just blew me away. Side one was mostly studio music and featured one of my favourite songs of Jerry Jeff's to this day "Desperados". It was only years later that I found out he had also written the song "Mr. Bojangles", which had been a hit for him on the pop charts. The thing was, that alongside of those country folk songs, he was also playing music that sounded suspiciously like Rock and Roll, but with a hearty country twang.

Now as part of their Vanguard Visionaries series Vanguard Records has released Jerry Jeff Walker with ten songs reflecting all aspects of his repertoire. Although he only released two albums originally with Vanguard, the material on them provides examples of every type of music that he has recorded over the course of his career. From the more typical folk/country sound of "Morning Song To Sally" to the highly unexpected "Lost Sea Shanty" with it's very San Francisco Bay area sound, complete with jangling guitar, pop vocal harmonies, and incessant tambourine.

He's not responsible for what he's doing, his mother made him what he is

I'm quite sure how I feel about that song but it doesn't seem to have played a big part in his career. Thankfully, the disc gets back onto more recognizable ground soon enough and you start to hear the country boy in his voice start coming through. "No Roots In Ramblin'" is a definite precursor to later material like. But, it's on "North Cumberland Blues" that we hear the Country/Rock sound that would become his signature.
There's the obvious comparison that can be made with Gram Parsons and The Flying Burritos, but Jerry seemed to have a lighter attitude towards the music then Gram ever did. Than again perhaps he wasn't carrying the personal baggage that Parsons lugged around with him until it ended his life. Walker's influence seems to have been overshadowed by Parson's glamorous death, which was unfair for both of them.

Perhaps people held Jerry Jeff's commercial success against him, as if somehow scoring a hit with "Mr. Bojangles" (included on this disc and still a great song as far as am I concerned) excluded him from exerting an influence on the music that followed in his wake. But listening to the diversity of sound and the quality of the music that's on Jerry Jeff Walker it's hard to see how anyone could make that case.

However, that doesn't stop me from feeling that Jerry Jeff Walker gets unfairly overlooked and often forgotten about when people talk about the various influences on popular music today. He paved the way for people like Hank Williams Jr., and most of the Country/Rock bands that have played since that time. He may not have been the first to do things, but he was the one who provided the valuable transition between the pioneers and people like Charlie Daniels.

Besides, without Jerry Jeff we would have never met:

It's up against the wall you Redneck Mothers/Mothers who have raised their sons so well/He's thirty-five and drinking in a honky-tonk/ Just kicking hippies asses and raising hell/ M is for mother/O is for the oil she gave me for my hair/T is for T-bird/H is for Haggard/E is for the eggs she serves me for breakfast,/and R is for "Redneck". "Redneck Mothers" by Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker is a unique figure in the annals of popular music in that he has successfully managed to have a career while playing music that never was easy to drop into any category. He was too Rock and Roll for Country purists and who ever heard of a pedal steel guitar in Rock music. The thing is that there turned out to be a huge audience for that type of music and he's never looked back since.

Like any true visionary he's carved out his own path to success and it suits him just fine, and it's given music fans all over something to be grateful for. The songs on Jerry Jeff Walker in the Vanguard Visionary series will give you a good enough indication of what type of music he plays today that if for some reason it is the first of his albums you buy, I can pretty much guarantee it won't be the last.

September 18, 2007

Music Review: Buffy Sainte-Marie Buffy Sainte-Marie

I know everybody hates pop quizzes, but here's one for you anyway. Who is the only Naive American/Canadian to win an Academy Award? Give up, I'll give you some clues (if the title of the review hasn't given it away yet), she's a Cree Indian from Saskatchewan Canada originally who had a very successful career as a folk/country artist in the sixties and early seventies.

She was an Indian before it became fashionable to be one and sang about Native issues when nobody else was. She also wrote and performed songs about the state of the world, and people's emotions. She's also never recorded her award winning song, "Up Where We Belong", leaving that to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warrens.

Buffy Saint-Marie has been singing her songs of peace and respect for years now, although her lyrics and her voice have never been the type that would send her up the pop charts. The fact that she sounds like she's always on the verge of picking up a gun and heading off on the war-path to exact some revenge for all the indignities visited upon her people never made her the flavour of the mouth among record executives either.

It's people like her that make you give thanks for a label like Vanguard Records. Back in the sixties and seventies they were the only ones who would release music by performers who sang the overtly politically music that wouldn't be touched with a ten foot pole by the more conservative labels. Now some forty years after some of these original recordings were made they've put together a series of compilations for a lot of those same performers under the name of "Vanguard Visionaries"
If you've forgotten about Buffy and don't really recall what could make her entitled to be called a visionary then that makes this disc all the more important. Not only is it a wonderful greatest hits package of the music she did while she was with Vanguard records – it serves to remind us all of her unique voice and unwavering strength of character.

But it's not just vocally and lyrically that she was so distinctive. Think about other single female folk acts that you know of from that era and what comes to mind? Simple melodies plucked out on a guitar and basic arrangements about as threatening as the flowers they wore in their hair. At the same time, Buffy was using electronics and overdubs to stretch and distort her voice in the harmonies on songs like "God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot", and "The Vampire".

Still, what she was then and remains today, was a fierce advocate for the rights of Native Americans. She was the lone public voice singing about the centuries of mistreatment incurred by the first peoples of North America and probably the first person to use the "G" word, genocide, publicly regarding government policies towards the American and Canadian Indian populations.

Most people's first knowledge about the horrors of Residential schools, and blankets infested with small pox, all part of the war that continues to this day against Indians across the continent, came from her songs. (A war that is world wide: Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Indonesia, Viet-Nam, Japan, Siberia, and anywhere else where there is an indigenous population the story is simply a variation of what happened here) Instead of on the battle field, the war today is conducted by people behind desks in the offices of multinational corporations and government bureaucracies.

Songs like "Now That The Buffalo's Gone" and "My Country 'Tis Of Thy People You're Dying" spelled out in detail for those willing to listen the atrocities committed in the name of civilization and progress. She even gives answer to those who would say, "Well they lost the war, what do they expect" by asking why Germany and Japan were left with their land and dignity intact when the Indians of North America weren't when they were defeated?

She didn't just talk about what was wrong in her songs, she also made sure to sing about being proud to be who she was, and for others to take pride in their heritage. "Native North American Child" is a great example of that with it's tongue in cheek chorus of "Sing about your Ebony African Queen, Sing about your lily white Lili Marlene. Beauty by the bushel, but the girl of the hour is a Native North American Child".

In the days when nobody was saying anything positive about Indians, and the only images people had of them originated in either Hollywood or Madison Avenue, positive reinforcement in a song was just as important as protesting wrongs. While folk like James Brown, Isaac Hayes, and others were extolling the virtues of Black Power, the only voice at all singing about Indians was Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Of course she didn't only sing about Indians, she sang other music as well, and included on this new Vanguard Visionaries disc is her cover of Neil Young's classic "Helpless". It must be something about the song, but it really only sounds right when sung by a person with a voice up in the near falsetto range. Her version is every bit as evocative and chilling as Mr. Young's original.

You might not know very much about Buffy Saint-Marie anymore, she semi retired from music a while back to start work on an arts program for young Native Americans across North America. I think her last studio album was back in the early nineties, and it was just as powerful and potent as ever. Listening to this disc will make you wonder how you ever missed hearing such a distinctive and passionate voice.

Some music when you listen to it thirty years after it was originally released loses its impact and power. That's not the case here with the music of Buffy Sainte-Marie; it's just as potent and powerful as it was when first released. If you missed it then, make sure you don't miss this second opportunity to experience one of the most original female pop vocalists of the past forty years.

September 17, 2007

Music Review: Levon Helm Dirt Farmer

A while back, I was watching one of those " the making of an album" documentary discs. This one was about the year The Band made their self titled album The Band. I thought it was a hoot to hear all these music critic types talking about how this album represented the beginnings of a rebirth of interest in "Americana" music.

Here's a group of musicians, four-fifths of whom hadn't been further south then Ontario Canada until they started playing professional music and they're being credited with being the focal point for the rebirth of interest in American folk music. It's not as if their early professional career had much to do with it either. They started off playing behind "Rompin" Ronnie Hawkins ("The Hawk") who was pure Rock & Roll.

Heck, he was so un-American that he left Arkansas and moved to Canada where's he lived since the sixties. He was the undisputed King of the scene in Toronto, and anybody who was anybody stayed with him out in his suburban home in Mississauga on the outskirts of Toronto. In 1969 when John Lennon showed up, he stayed out there, as did Janis Joplin and other luminaries of the era.
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Since the old time music influence didn't come from that Good Ole Boy it must have come from the fifth member in the band who just happened to hail from Ronnie's home state of Arkansas, Levon Helm. After all it was Levon who wrote "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and his was the only voice that sounded like it should be singing "The Weight". With all due respect to Rick Danko, but an Ontario accent just doesn't cut it for something that sounds like Southern Gospel music.

As I tend to be out of touch when it comes to news about people's personal life, it was only upon watching that same video that I found out Levon was in recovery from throat cancer. He had never been the biggest of men, and now he looked almost cadaverous. His voice, not the most dulcet of instruments in the first place, could only have sustained God knows what damage from chemotherapy, surgery, and cancer. I never thought I'd hear him sing again.

Then last year I reviewed a Holmes Brother album, and lo and behold, there was Levon and Amy Helm singing vocals on one song. The voice might have sounded a bit thin, and even rougher around the edges than ever before – but it still had the same character and emotional depth that I remembered from his days in The Band and his sporadic solo career. It was great to hear him again, but I still didn't think there would be an album forthcoming anytime soon.

Never have I been so glad to be wrong; Vanguard Records has just released Dirt Farmer Levon's first disc since his diagnosis and treatment for his throat cancer in 1998. In honour, and probably with a whole bunch of gratitude, of being allowed to come back again to health and a career, he chose to make this disc in homage to the people who first got him interested in music – his parents.

Dirt Farmer is a mix of traditional songs that he learnt from them given new arrangements by Mr. Helm, and original songs that are written by various friends which fit into the overall sound and feel of the disc. If there was ever any doubt about where The Band's Americana roots came from, a listen to this disc will dispel them. The roots of this disc run deeper into the soil of rural America then any old oak in the Appalachians.

A year ago when I heard Levon Helm sing, his voice was still a far cry from what it used to be when it was the power behind some of The Band's most potent songs. Truthfully, that hasn't changed any, but power isn't the only test of a singer's quality. Sometimes what matters most is an ability to communicate with the listener in as honest a manner as possible. Given the nature of the music that's being played on Dirt Farmer that ability is by far a greater asset than being able to break the sound barrier.

Levon Helm has always had an incredibly expressive voice, and on Dirt Farmer that comes to forefront. Maybe it's in compensation for his lack of volume, but I think it was always there and he's now trusting in its ability to carry a song. However you want to look at it, the result is the same – wonderfully sung renditions of emotionally powerful songs by one of the most distinctive voices in popular music.

There is an inherent honesty to his voice that ensures songs that in another's person hands, the title track "Dirt Farmer" for instance, could have become sentimental pap. But when Levon sings about the trials and tribulations of the sharecropper whose nowhere even close to getting by, he sounds like he's actually lived that life.

Of course there's more then just Levon Helm on this disc, and it would be criminal not to mention the incredible vocal harmonies that his daughter Amy and Teresa Williams provide. Not only do they smooth out some of the rougher edges to Levon's lead vocals, they also compliment them. Instead of making whatever lack of refinement his voice might have these days stand out, they work with him to bring out the best in the material.

The best thing about Dirt Farmer is that its not a good album for a guy coming back from throat cancer; its a good album period. It might be the first solo disc that Levon Helm has put out since he started going through treatment for his illness, but what I heard was a recording made by a man with a great deal of integrity, and a love for the music that he sings.

That makes it a heck of lot better then most discs being released in this day and age.

Although the disc isn't officially on sale until the end of October, Levon is selling it through his web site for those who can't wait.

September 12, 2007

Music Review: J. J. Cale Rewind: Unreleased Recordings

Quick, what songs from the seventies do you think of first when I say Eric Clapton? I'd lay odds that at least one, if not two of them, would be either "After Midnight" or "Cocaine".

Back in the early 1970's there was a great trivia question you could ask, and very few people would know the answer. Who wrote the Eric Clapton hits "After Midnight" and "Cocaine"? Of course everybody knows the answer now, but back then hardly anybody had ever heard of a guy named J J Cale.

You could make a pretty convincing argument that Clapton's solo career wouldn't have taken off quite as quickly if it hadn't been for J J Cale. A casual fan of Clapton's music from that time period, like me, probably couldn't even tell you the name of another song that he had a hit with during that period. (Oh yeah, his cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff" got airplay around the same time) Nine times out of ten if they played an Eric Clapton song on the radio (FM radio, you'd never hear any of his stuff on the AM dial – far too risqué) it would be one of those three, but more often one of the former two.

I've never been a big fan of Clapton, but to give him credit where credit is due, he was always quick to mention this great guitar player from California who was good enough to let him play a couple of his songs. Gradually people began to get to know the name J J Cale until you'd hear his version of "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" on the radio about as often as you'd hear Clapton's.
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Mainly because he couldn't be bothered to play the game, and he preferred to stay at home and play guitar over going out on the road, (the story goes that he said if I can't get home to my own bed after a gig I'm not interested) Cale has always remained on the edges of the limelight. He's known by those who care to seek out fine guitar playing and a rough hewn voice, but for the majority he's just a name on the credits of a couple of Eric Clapton songs.

J J Cale did a lot of recording on his own and released far more albums then most people probably realized. But a number of tracks he laid down just never got released. An album might have been full, or the song didn't fit with the rest of the material; whatever the reason fourteen tracks that had been recorded in the late seventies and early eighties have been laying dormant in the vaults for all this time.

Finally Time Life Music, who released the DVD To Tulsa And Back: On Tour With J J Cale last year, have managed to pry the tracks from the grasp of Cale's late producer's wife. Rewind: Unreleased Recordings will be hitting the streets on October 2nd/2007 and I think Cale fans everywhere will be delighted with what they hear.

One of the nice ironies of this recording is that the man whose music has been covered by so many other performers, hardly ever covered another person's song. Yet on Rewind he covers songs by Waylon Jennings, his buddy Leon Russel, Randy Newman, and... wait for it... Eric Clapton. It's funny to think of Cale recording a Clapton tune around the time, let's say, "Cocaine" was being recorded, and I wonder what would have happened had they both been released at the same time.

In the end, it doesn't really matter who wrote any of the fourteen songs on this record, because they all sound like vintage J J Cale. In fact, like any good vintage, they have aged nicely and are still as fresh as when they were recorded. Not only do you get Cale's melodious guitar work and distinctive vocals, you also get all the great musicians who were always clamouring to play with him showing up on these tracks.
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People like Richard Thompson lays down guitar tracks, and Neil Young's bassist Tim Drummond teams up with Jim Keltner, who played drums for Dylan and Lennon, to form one hell of a rhythm section. But, you don't buy a J. J Cale album to listen to the other players, it would be like buying an opera to listen to the orchestra and not Pavarotti.

Listen to his voice on Randy Newman's "Rollin'", the sad irony he manages to imbue the lyrics with while singing about how the booze keeps him rolling along, serves as a contrast to the their light hearted content. Then there is his fine country picking on the Waylon Jennings tune "Wayemore's Blues" that sounds like it came from the heart of Hank Williams. None of this new country shit for either Waylon or J. J., but none of that truck-driver, women, and cowboy pain crap either.

Popular music in the 1970's worked really hard to smooth away the rough edges of rock and roll to create something slick and polished for easy mass consumption. Thankfully, some people remembered what the words heart and soul really meant. Listening to Rewind: Unreleased Recordings lets you know that J. J. Cale was one of those people.

If you were to compare the music on this recording to music he recorded before and since, the only differences you might be able to hear are how in recent years his voice has become somewhat rougher. Rewind: Unreleased Recordings is J. J. Cale playing and singing only as J. J. Cale can. It's not often you can refer to someone as a genuine original anymore, but like any masterpiece, J. J. Cale is as unique as they come. This recording serves as a reminder that he has been since day one.

August 30, 2007

Music Review: Various Performers Song Of America

It's said you can tell a lot about a country by its music, and while that is true, you can tell just as much about a country's mood at any moment in time through its music. As an extreme example, I'm sure the music of Nazi Germany was far different from that of both before and after Hitler's rule. The history of America is of course not that coarsely divided, but there were still periods of trouble and unrest.

The great depression of the twenties and the thirties brought about the first wave of music with conscience, for lack of a better word, that talked about the plight of the poor and working class and strove to articulate a vision of how America's potential as a cradle of modern democracy could be fulfilled. World War Two saw an end to that with an upsurge in patriotic music; propaganda aimed at encouraging the war effort and inspiring nationalism.

The 1950's saw the beginnings of the successful marriage between white and black music with musicians Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly mixing country music with black gospel and blues rhythms. While the recording of the music was a statement – white people playing black influenced music marked an unprecedented crossing of the colour line – the music itself did not offer any real social commentary.

It wasn't until the 1960's that American musicians broke out of the chill imposed on creativity by McCarthy and his witch-hunt that forced writers and musicians to work under assumed names and risk blacklisting if their material was found inappropriate. It was the successors of writers who wrote during the depression who began singing about social change and offering an alternative view of how America could fulfill its potential.

Of course that's only a small slice of history for the landmass that has become known as the United States of America. There were people living there prior to the arrival of the European settlers who had their own musical traditions. It's a testimonial to the efforts of the people behind the new three disc set, Song Of America, to be released on September 18th 2007 that they have opened their extensive collection with a song from that pre-contact period, a Lakota "Dream Song".

Song Of America is an exhaustive effort featuring new interpretations of songs dating back to the earliest music through to the 2001. From pre-revolution America's National Anthem, "God Save The King" sung by the band John Wesley Harding up to Shortee Wop updating Grandmaster Flash's breakthrough rap single "The Message", the diverse voices of America are nearly all represented.

A troubling part is the omission of Hispanic and Franco American voices that were surely as much a part of the musical spectrum in the early going and in the present as the English/Scott's/Irish music that predominates the first two discs. Surely, it would have been more appropriate to include a Cajun or Hispanic influenced song than the sentimental, "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?"

The three disc set is divided into three eras; disc one (Red) is for the period covering settlement and colonization up to 1860, disc two (White) is from the Civil War to the end of World War Two, and disc three (Blue) is the post war period until the 2001. (It says until the present, but the most recent song is an adaptation of Alan Jackson's post September 11th 2001 recording "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?"– five or six years ago, which omits any of the music written about Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq)

Each disc contains songs that will be familiar to almost every American, and some that are slightly more obscure and mark the first time you may have heard them. But even the songs you thought you knew, like "Yankee Doodle Dandy" for instance, might be a surprise. The lyrics of that song are quite a bit more risque and filled with adult double entendres then I had ever heard before, and I doubt are the ones they sing around campfires at Scout camps. "Yankee Doodle keep it up/ Yankee Doodle Dandy/ ride the music and the step/ and with the girls be handy" were not lyrics I was taught as a kid.

While the first disc contains songs like "Peg And Awl", "The Old Woman Taught Wisdom", and "Let Us Break Bread Together" that are not going to be known by a great deal of people, the same can't be said for discs two. The majority of the music is well known tunes like "John Brown's Body", "Battle Hymn Of The Republic", "Over There", and "Rosie The Riveter". While there has been some attempt to include songs that deal with the harsher realities of life; Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" and "Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat", the majority are patriotic songs from the two World Wars and earlier.

A huge body of music that represented the labour movement and the fight for the rights of miners and workers across America has been omitted, and songs dealing with the dustbowl and the other trials faced by people in the twenties and thirties are limited to two in total. There was also a good chunk of America that were singing the Blues during this time, and not including at least one song in this period from that genre is a serious failing. It would have been more representative to include a Robert Johnson song instead of something like "Happy Days are Here Again".

Disc three is far more representative of time and place, save for a lack of songs dealing with the Civil Rights movement. "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)" is less a civil rights song and more a statement of Black Power. It's great that it is included, but if you went by history according to this songbook there wasn't a Civil Rights movement.

But the inclusion of songs like "Ohio", "The Times They Are A Changin'", and "The Message" do provide more of a indication of the different peoples and the changes that occurred from the 1960's until the early 1980's. I do wonder about how it was decided to include songs like "Get Together" while not having anything representing Disco or Punk, both of which were significant parts of the musical landscape, but in this the producers are at least consistent in going for the safe pop music over more challenging fare.

While I may have disagreements with the some of the choices made in this collection, the interpretations offered by the contemporary performers are without exception quite extraordinary. Highlights for me included Harper Simon's rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", "Go Down Moses" by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, "Deportee" by Old Crow Medicine Show, "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud) by The Dynamites with Charles Walker, Ben Harper's version of Neil Young's "Ohio", and Shortee Wop's take on Grandmaster Flash's "The Message".

While each performer found some new way of approaching the song that made it their own, they also kept in mind they were still honouring someone else's material. Each song was done in a manner that was both inventive and respectful, a very difficult thing to accomplish. The performances provide sufficient reason to purchase this disc alone, in spite of what I've perceived as shortcomings in the selection of material.

The compilers of Song Of America were faced with the formidable challenge of selecting music from a span of five hundred years. While the music they have selected is wonderfully performed, it gives a very narrow view of America's history and her people. The title might be Song Of America, but whose America are they referring to?

August 25, 2007

Music Review: Stacy Mitchhart Gotta Get The Feeling Back Again

In recent days I've started to receive unsolicited review material in the mail from various music companies and promoters. I guess I should be taking that as a compliment that people think highly enough of my work, or highly enough of the sites that publish me anyway, that they think it worthwhile to seek my opinion of their product.

The problem is that more then three-quarters of the time I listen to one track of the disc and know that there's no way I can listen to the whole thing and retain my sanity. In those cases I merely write the company back and say, "I don't think I'm the person best suited to reviewing this product and I'm unfamiliar with this type of music". The hard part is trying to think of a tactful way to tell them to stop sending me stuff unless I ask for it. What it usually comes down to is saying, "Stop sending me shit unless I ask for it".

But once in a while I get lucky and a company, generally not the ones I've told to stop sending me stuff, will send me something that I would have regretted missing out on. Earlier this week a disc showed up in my mail box from one of my contacts who nine times out of ten sends stuff she knows I can review, and this one was no exception.
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I'd never heard of Stacy Mitchhart before, which of course means nothing as there are probably a million or more acts out there who would meet the same criteria, but my attention was caught by the fact that he plays a resonator guitar. I have a soft spot for resonator guitars and willing to give anyone who claims to play one the benefit of the doubt that they know what they are doing with it.

After listening to Stacy's forthcoming release, (Sept. 18th 2007), Gotta Get The Feeling Back Again there are no doubts in my mind that this man knows what he's doing not only with a resonator guitar, but with anything to do with the Blues. I'd never thought of Cincinnati Ohio as a hot bed for Blues players before, but if Stacy is an example of the quality of musician that comes out of there they could give Chicago a run for it's money as a breeding ground for great players.

There are people who play the Blues who are technically fine, but lack the intangible quality of heart and soul that elevates them beyond being merely a player. It's a feeling you get when listening to someone, the feeling that each note they play or sing is costing them something emotionally, that makes the difference. It's like the difference between the person who asks you how you're doing as part of a meaningless salutation and the person who really wants to know how you are feeling

If Stacy Michhart were to ask you how were doing, you know that he'd mean every word of it. His music is the real thing with each note he plays on anyone of his guitars, and each note that he sings sounding like it's coming straight from his heart. He incorporates all sorts of styles into his music, Country, Soul, Rhythm and Blues, and early Rock and Roll, to build his own unique sound. But at its core it's the Blues.

The other thing about him is that you can tell that he has a great time doing what he does. It comes through in the sound of his voice and in the arrangements of his songs. It's especially true on what for me is the highlight of this disc; his medley/interpretation of the old Led Zeppelin tunes "Black Dog" and "Whole Lot Of Love". I'd never been a fan of the hard rock school of Blues that Zeppelin practiced so I was a bit tentative about listening to covers of their music.

That was before I read the notes the publicist sent out including Stacy's cut-by-cut analysis of the CD. "I've never been a big Led Zeppelin fan personally..." were the first words he'd written about his version. But everybody at their gigs was always yelling out for them to play their music. What he did was take the songs and rework them back into Delta Blues numbers, much like the music that originally inspired the songs in the first place.
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His versions of the songs are nothing short of amazing as he plays them on his resonator guitar and turns them into old "Hollar" style Blues numbers. When his voice breaks in "Black Dog" its from genuine emotion not because he's some rock and roll Prima Dona. Underneath everything, the music, and the singing, you can almost hear a thread of laughter running as he's performing the song. It finally breaks through when he comes to the line "I don't know, but I've been told/ Large legged women ain't got no soul".

He stops the song in order to read out the lyric as if to say can you believe this shit, and says something like, "That ain't right", then moves back into the song again. On the enhanced part of the CD, which you can access by playing it on your computer's CD/DVD drives, a video of the recording of the song is included. Stacy introduces it by saying when he does it live he has to be reading off a lyric sheet because he doesn't know the lyrics that well.

The video cuts back and forth between him and his band recording in the studio and them doing the song live. When he gets to the point in the lyrics where that line comes in the live show, he reaches out and throws the lyric sheets away. It's a beautiful, little, and funny gesture, that fits right into the tone and mood he set for the song. On the one hand he's created an amazing delta blues number that he plays with absolute seriousness, and on the other hand he gently teases Led Zeppelin.

Stacy Mitchhart is a gifted, eloquent, and heartfelt Blues musician who plays some of the best down to earth Blues music I've heard in a long time. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour, when Gotta Get The Feeling Back Again is released this Sept. 18th pick up a copy, you won't regret it.

August 17, 2007

Music Review: Johnny Irion Ex Tempore

It seems that most pop musicians these days find a sound that works for them and stick to it. Whether it's because that's what their label wants from them, or because they don't believe it's necessary to keep trying out new things if people already like what they are doing I don't know. But any time you turn on popular radio it is increasingly difficult to tell one singer from another.

I admit that in many cases in life the policy of it ain't broke don't fixt it is a good one. The desktop computer my wife and I have is a great example of that as we bought it in the year 2000, and have only added a better sound card and doubled the RAM. In the same time we've known people who've bought new systems on a regular basis, and watched as they have had to continually replace parts and spend the equivalent of another system in repair costs all because they've insisted on messing around with something that didn't need replacing in the first place.

But that philosophy doesn't apply when it comes to being creative. If you're serious about what you do then you need to be constantly experimenting with new ways of doing or your work will get stale. When you consider that the music business does not encourage risk taking or experimentation due to its dependence on the bottom line for existence is it any wonder that the history of pop music is dotted with one-hit wonders? Folks who found a winning formula that worked once, but was allowed to go the way of the Dodo once they had been milked for what they good earn.

So when you're looking for examples of experimentation or risk taking in the field of contemporary music you need to look further a field then what you'd normally find on the Billboard top forty or signed to a major label. It used to be that individuals and groups unsigned by major labels, independents, were a source for most of this sound, but even they have been co-opted with the creation of music chart categories like "alternative" or "alt. Rock"
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Now they have become just as formulized as any other chart oriented stream of popular music. The majority of the bands, or individuals, have all begun to sound alternative in exactly the same way, and what they call alternative is primarily just a revisiting of musical styles from earlier eras.

So the times when I do find someone showing evidence of being willing to experiment are a real treat. When the experimentation works, and they release something interesting, and good it's a reminder of why rock and roll can be such great music. Such is the case with Johnny Irion's latest release Ex Tempore.

As the title suggests the songs have a wonderful off the cuff feel that gives them a feeling of genuine spontaneity. It's as if you can imagine Johnny and the rest of the musicians in the studio making creative decisions on the spot based on what's just been played prior. From the choice of instruments in some songs, and the arrangements in others, each track contains something that makes it distinctive.

The only time I had heard Irion previously was on his duet album, Expoloration with his wife Sarah-Lee Guthrie. That album was much more along the lines of what I'd come to associate with contemporary folk music since the 1960's. Any expectations I might have carried over from that disc about the sound of this CD were quickly dispelled by the first song.

Although the opening track "Take Care" is not a Rock & Roll song in the traditional sense of the word, it has an edginess of sound that distinguished it from the more melodic songs on Explorations A lot of that was due to the harsh quality in Irions almost falsetto voice. It's very easy to listen to that voice and make comparisons with Neil Young, which admittedly is understandable considering their similarities in pitch, but Johnny has his own distinct expression that upon careful listening distinguishes it from the other.

To be honest if there were going to any comparison with another performer or group that I'd make while listening to Ex Tempore it would be Robbie Robertson and The Band. There is more then a hint of the Americana feel to the music on this disc that The Band perfected in its earliest recordings. Perhaps that a reflection of Irions marrying into the premier Folk Family in North America and the fact that he wrote most of this album while during a stay at the Guthrie family home in rural Massachusetts.
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Sarah Lee Guthrie lends vocal support on this disc and it's a pleasure to hear them harmonizing again. As someone else said, and I concur completely, not since Graham Parsons and Emmylou Harris sung together have two voices meshed together so easily. Aside from Sarah Lee there are other standout musicians on this disc who make the music come alive.

From the near psychedelic sound on some songs, complete with swirling Wurlitzer Organ played by Johnny, to haunting melodies augmented by flute, the disc walks that wonderful knife-edge between loose and sloppy without once disintegrating into the latter. Impossible to really pigeonhole the music on this disc, the closest I can come is to say it has a rock and roll feel with a folk sensibility.

In the end what really matters is that Ex Tempore is a fine example of a musician whose willingness to take chances with his craft has allowed him to produce a collection of music that's intelligent and individual. This is not your standard pop music CD and for a change is a genuine alternative to what everybody else is doing. For that reason alone it's worth a listen, that fact that it's damn good is icing on the cake.

July 26, 2007

Music Review: Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding It's Now Or Never

It seems like an eternity ago now, but it was only thirty years, when this beanpole guy with a great voice put out an album of rockabilly music. It was so bare bones that if not for the fact it had a full drum kit in play, the album could have been easily recorded on a four track recorder and the sound quality would have been fine.

Robert Gordon accompanied by the late great Link Wray on guitar came out of nowhere to remind the world where Rock and Roll came from. They put out two great albums, Robert Gordon With Link Wray and Fresh Fish Special. "Red Hot", the single from the first album, was actually released in and around when Elvis Presley died, which made the song take off like a rocket.

Comparisons between Elvis and Robert were probably inevitable due to the coincidental timing of the first album's release and their similarities in vocal ranges and musical styles. Robert never denied that as a youngster Elvis' music had been a big influence on him, but none of his tunes would ever be confused with Elvis' music. They were harder edged with an undeniable punk influence in sound and attitude.

Link and Robert only lasted two albums together, mainly because the label that put out Fresh Fish Special went under leaving them high and dry. So his third album didn't come out until 1979 on RCA. Rock Billy Boogie was the first recording that Robert made with guitarist Chris Spedding and it had four songs on it that broke the top 100.
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Now for the first time in twenty years, and more importantly thirty years since the death of Elvis, Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding have joined forces again for the release of It's Now Or Never on the RYKO label. The thirty-year anniversary is significant because every track on this disc was recorded by Elvis at one time or another during his career.

Since they are accompanied by Elvis' former backup singers, The Jordanaires, one could be excused for thinking that this is some sort of Elvis impersonator's album. Well you couldn't be further from the truth. If you haven't heard Elvis in a long time, than you might think that Robert sounds like him, but in reality it's only the style of the music and the fact they both are baritones.

At worst this is a tribute album, but in reality its interpretations of some of the classic rockabilly and country blues songs that were recorded by Elvis during his hay day. Looking over the track list there's only one song that Elvis even gets a writing credit for, "Don't Be Cruel" and only three others that he even held the rights to. Remember Elvis' first big hit "Hound Dog" was written by Big Mama Thornton, so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that most of the songs that we associate with him were written by other people..

Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding have recorded the fifteen songs on It's Now Or Never as pure undiluted rockabilly without any of the augmentations or concessions to modern audiences that groups like the Stray Cats used to do in the early eighties during the so called rockabilly revival. These songs sound like they could have been recorded at the old Sun Records studio in downtown Memphis back in the 1950's they are so pure and authentic.
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You can't fake the sincerity in the voice of Robert Gordon when he sings any of the songs on this disc. Even something as potentially cloying as the old country gospel tune "Peace In The Valley" works because he so obviously means what he sings. He still has wonderful control over his voice, as he's able to dip down into the baritone on "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" and reach up high when needed on "It's Now Or Never".

What's truly amazing to me when it comes to his singing is how melodious his voice still is. He's been singing for close to forty years now and there's nothing to suggest that his voice has suffered any damage at all. He never sounds like he's straining for a high note or volume. If at the start of the record you had thoughts that he was trying to imitate Elvis, by the time the disc ends you've completely forgotten about Elvis and are only thinking about Robert Gordon's voice.

I can't think of any other guitar player who would compliment Robert Gordon in this type of music better than Chris Spedding. Not only is he an amazing rhythm guitar player when it comes to this style of music, but he is a totally unselfish lead player. His rockabilly leads are incredible, with each note sounding out individually and echoing a time when guitar leads weren't about speed but what you could make a note say.

When the voice of Robert Gordon is joined with the voice of Chris Spedding's guitar and they are backed up the Jordanaires it is to hear what made Elvis and rockabilly so special. People of my generation really only saw Elvis when he had become the parody of himself doing those horrible shows in Las Vegas. Thanks to It's Now Or Never we have a real opportunity to appreciate the music and understand a little better why people would refer to Elvis as the King.

If he sang anything like Robert Gordon does now, then he must have been something wondrous to behold.

July 14, 2007

Music Review: Amy Nelson & Cathy Guthrie Folk Uke

Back in the mid to late seventies, when I had no hope of ever getting into bars, I was fortunate that a few of the old coffee houses in Toronto still hung on. Though long past its hey day when Joni Mitchell and Neil Young played there, The Riverboat on Yorkville Ave was still the flagship around which the survivors rallied.

I loved the music and enjoyed the atmosphere of these places; but the things I liked about them most, lack of drunks and intimate space, were probably the very things that doomed them. Unfortunately these places also provided proof that people don't need alcohol to act like pompous twits too in love with the sound of their own voices to notice that nobody gave a damn what they thought or had to say.

It was my first meeting with the bizarre creature whom I've since come to call folkmusicseriosus. Male or female, I think they are interchangeable, believe that its not music unless played on an acoustic guitar, songs have to be about something that "matters", and the proper place for emotions is on stage at the point in the song where you close your eyes to show how affected, (sorry effected) you are by world events or the disintegration of a relationship.

The species was driven to the edge of extinction with the loss of their natural habitat, the folk club, at the end of the seventies, but managed to hang on at the fringes of local folk societies making a royal pain of themselves. Unfortunately with the recent surge of interest in traditional music their population seems to have stabilized and even started to grow.
All of which makes the arrival of Folk Uke on the scene all the more timely. You'd be harder to come by better credentials for a folk duo then Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie considering their parentage and heritage and their debut album, Folk Uke, does nothing to dispel that belief.

For starters they sound like they've been singing together forever, as their vocal harmonies are wonderful. They also have a good ear for what songs will work for them, and the covers they have chosen are ideally suited to their talents and their style. The opening song on the album, "Tonight You Belong To Me" is an old standard written in 1926, which they perform straight, but with just enough tongue in cheek that you know their not taking it too seriously.

But they also take the old Johnny Cash song, "I Still Miss Someone" from 1958 and do a beautiful rendition with achingly pure harmonies and an understanding of how this type of song needs to be sung. But they aren't their father's daughters for nothing and they have inherited both men's sense of mischief and sly humour.

If you didn't know the title of their second song and began by listening to only the sound of their voices you'd be expecting something along the lines of the first song, until you hear the lyrics. "Shit Makes The Flowers Grow" gives answer to the question every woman has asked at one time or the other of a particularly useless boyfriend: what purpose do you serve?

The vocals and the harmonies are as pure and sweet as any nice country girl could make it and the lyrics are hysterical (Listen for Papa Willie supplying a very specific vocal harmony on this number – it's one word only so if you're not careful you could miss it) This song is only the beginning as Amy and Cathy demonstrate time and time again that not only are they wonderful singers and clever songwriters they have a wicked sense of irony.
But what really makes songs like "Motherfucker Got Fucked Up" work isn't the crassness of the language but their ability to play everything straight. You can't tell from the tones of their voices or the sound of the music whether the song you're going to be listening to is a sweet song like "Try To Say Goodbye" written by Jackie Guthrie or the satirical "In Case We Die".

While the former depicts the break-up of a relationship in real terms, the latter pokes fun at the idea being scared of the future with lines like "We could trip over our own feet, or how about the psychos we could meet". In view of all those potential hazards it only makes sense to "kiss me one more time before you go".

Country music has long been the butt of people's jokes but usually they are sung by people who don't have the affection and respect for the music that Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson have. These are intelligent and well-crafted songs that show respect and admiration for the genre and that makes the songs twice as funny. Of course Folk Ukeis also the first folk album I've seen that carries a parental advisory warning on the cover – so don't let your parents listen to it until you think they can cope.

June 25, 2007

Music Review: Terrance Simien Across The Parish Line

When the British wanted land to reward the soldiers who had fought on their side during the Revolutionary War in the United States they weren't too fussy about where they found it. In fact it was for better if it was already settled; how much nicer for the soldier not having to clear a field and finding a house already built for him and his family.

Which is how the French Canadian settlers in the Maritimes found themselves homeless at the end of the 1700's and looking for a place to live. Instead of staying put and suffering the sight of soldiers living in their houses on the land they cleared, they packed up and moved themselves to the closest thing to France outside of Canada – Louisiana.

They brought with them their fiddles, their music and a strengthening of the French culture that had taken root their years ago. They were welcomed as part of the mix of cultures that was fermenting into what we know today as Creole: French, Spanish, freed slaves, Native American and anything else that washed up on the shores of the Barbary Coast and the Mississippi that needed a place to stay.

Aside from a penchant for burning the food (well they call it blackening) and making weird stews out of fish they've also given the world Zydeco; music that's a party just looking for an excuse to break out. Somehow or other this music stayed their own little secret until the 1980's when the cat was let out of the bag with the release of the movie The Big Easy and it's soundtrack made up of Zydeco music.
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One of the names that reappears on the soundtrack credits over and over again for that movie is Terrrance Simien. Scion of a family line that dates its landing in Louisiana back to 1700, it's safe to say that Terrance's roots run deep into the soil of Cajun country (In case any of us missed the Canadian connection, the word Cajun is a bastardization of the French version Canadien where the d and i are slurred together forming almost a "j" sound. Can-a-dj'en can quickly become Cajun)

Twenty-five years ago at the age of seventeen he left his home to see the world and spread the word of Zydeco, and considering that in 1982 it was just him, Buckwheat Zydeco, Clifton Chienier, and Queen Ida Guillory even playing the music professionally thing have gone pretty well in the interim. To celebrate that anniversary the AIM International label of Australia has released Across The Parish Line.

This is not a greatest hits package as it contains music that hasn't released before, but it does feature a couple recordings Terrance hasn't been able to find a home for until now. That doesn't mean this an album of obscure B-sides either as most of the songs were written by him or recorded by him with this disc in mind. Across The Parrish Lines celebrates many of the things that Terrance set out to do twenty-five years ago, and the people he has met on the way.

From the opening track, "You Should Know Your Way By Now" where he confirms his pride in being Creole and reminds people how important it is to discover your own heritage. "Knowing Your Wary" can as easily mean knowing the way your people do things, as knowing where you are going in life. It's much easier to know either way with a good understanding of where you came from.

The song itself is a classic example of Zydeco with its lilting tempo and the sound of washboard and accordion chugging through like an express train. There's an exuberance, joi-de vivre if you will, about Zydeco that has to make it one of the most life affirming forms of music I've ever heard.
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When you hear a player like Terrance Simien hit full throttle and putting his heart and soul into driving the beat with his voice and his accordion it's impossible to keep from being affected. Bob your head, tap your feet, do anything because if you try and stop your body from moving you could cause yourself serious damage. Perhaps it's because of Zydeco that the myth of zombies came about, as this is truly music that can get the dead up dancing.

I want to draw attention to a couple of tracks on this disc that stood out especially for me. I know some people are going be interested in the track, "You Used To Call Me", that was recorded with Paul Simon during the Graceland recording sessions that never made it on the album, and others his cover of Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind" featuring the beautiful voice of Marcia Ball. But for me the two covers that are most captivating are "Twilight" by Robbie Robertson and "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman.

Terrance recorded "Twilight" in 1999 with Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, Robbie's former band mates in The Band. Listening to Rick sing a Robbie Robertson penned tune was compelling enough because it sounded for all the world like any number of songs that could have been on a Band album. But then you remember that Rick has been dead since 1999 and this could have been the last thing he recorded and it made me feel a little haunted.

Recording the song with a Zydeco band, and having it sound so right, made me once again realize how much the Band had been able to recapture the sound of early Americana music. It just felt right for Terrance to be recording this song with Rick and Garth, and I can't think of a more fitting denouement for Rick Danko's life and career then singing on this album.

On my first listen to the disc on hearing "Louisiana 1927" I thought that Terrance had written a great song about Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't until the second time that I caught the name of the President as being Calvin Coolidge and began to recognise the familiar cadences of a Randy Newman song. I can't remember when Newman wrote that song, but it could have been easily written for Katrina so little seems to have changed in the attitudes and reactions from politicians to the aftermath and the extent of the damage. Hearing Terrance sing the song in his Louisiana accent it was difficult to think of any song that so poignantly depicted the plight of people after the recent devestation.

Twenty-five years ago Terrance Simien crossed over his Parish line to go out into the world and offer up Zydeco as a gift. He not only has become one of its most active ambassadors, but he hasn't been afraid to experiment with other forms of music and incorporate them into his ound with amazing results. Across The Parish Line is a great example of all that and more and would make a great introduction to the work of this gifted musician for those who aren't yet familiar with him, and a wonderful addition to everybody else's collection.

May 14, 2007

Interview: Watermelon Slim

Four weeks ago I had barely heard of him, three weeks ago I read about his album The Wheel Man in a newsletter I get delivered in my email inbox and was interested enough to request a copy from his label Northern Blues.

The CD came in my mail along with another on Thursday of last week. From the moment I put The Wheel Man in my player on Friday I haven't let a day go by without listening to it. On Sunday after I decided to contact his publicity people and see about an interview. They emailed me right back telling me to contact Watermelon Slim and the send him the questions I wanted to ask him.

After a quick flurry of emails between the two of us I sat down and wrote of the questions you're about to read and sent them off to him first thing Monday morning. By five thirty the answers you're about to read were waiting in my in box.

Talk about your whirlwind romances. It's not often a musician, will excite me that much as both a person and a musician that I will take those steps that quickly. The fact that Watermelon Slim responded so quickly says to me that my timing was right and this was meant to happen this way.

Slim says he doesn't believe in coincidence, neither do I which means everything you're about to read is just the way it should be, the questions and the answers. Two days from now I might have asked different questions, or he might not have been so available to answer so quickly. Who knows and who cares what happened today I what matters and what happened was that I was privileged to ask a person of integrity questions about himself and his art, and because of that we are all going to lucky enough to hopefully get to the man called Watermelon Slim a little better.

Sometimes the force of a person's character is so strong that you can hear his voice through the words on the page. Maybe it's because I've been listening to him sing these past three or four days on a regular basis but I swear each time I read these words you're about to it's like I'm talking to him in person his voice is so clear.

There are very few individuals left in this cookie cutter world that we live in as more and more it's becoming controlled by marketing executives and image consultants. Which make people like Watermelon Slim all the more damn precious.

The only editing done to Slim's answers was out of necessity for html mark up and to change the spelling of a few words so that Queen wouldn't be offended. Thank you Watermelon, and thank you Chris of Southern Artists management for setting this up so quickly.

1) Can you tell us a little about your early years; where you were born, family size etc.

I was born William P. Homans, like my father and grandfather before me-- an eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son. My family line survives in a daughter, Jessie McCain Dandelion Homans, the reason for me to continue to achieve anything in this life. She is a sweetheart whose personal horizons are unlimited. She has inherited just enough of her mother's (the Blues woman Honour Havoc, from whom I have been long separated, but on legal advice, not divorced) more delicate European features (Scandinavian probably, maybe Jewish) to go with my old-line Anglo-Saxon cragginess with an admixture some generations back of Wampanoag (Massachusetts) Indian. Both dad and grandpa showed the Native American blood strongly. Family members would say that I favor my mother more than my brother does.

As I understand, I was almost dropped on a doorstep on Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, but my mother held me in and we got to the hospital a couple of miles away in order to schloop me out in an organized fashion, so to speak. I have one full brother, Peter, who is a world-acclaimed classical composer, a half sister and brother from my mother's second marriage to Robert A.Totty, a successful small businessman from Petersburg, Virginia, and two half sisters from my father's second marriage,
to Libby Hayes, a socialite from Boston.

My father, to whom I dedicated my first major release, Big Shoes to Fill, was one of the most eminent attorneys in American jurisprudential history. He was a criminal defence lawyer, and his cases include the Boston Strangler, the Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial, the unbanning in America of English author Henry Miller's books (Sexus/Plexus/tropic of Cancer/etc.), the first test of Roe v. Wade, the Dr. Kenneth Edelin abortion trial, and the defence of Freedom Riders in the 1950-60s in Mississippi and Alabama. He was a colleague of William Kunstler and an instructor, at one point, of F. Lee Bailey. His manual on criminal jury selection remains the state of the craft ten years after his death in 1997.

He was also the only civilian attorney ever allowed to go to Viet Nam to defend in a capital case, which he did in 1971, the year after I returned. He fought in two navies for all 7 years of World War II, dropping out of law school at 17 1/2 in 1939 to join the Royal Navy against the Nazis, then in 1942, when the U.S. had declared war, returning from Europe and fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. His friend John F. Kennedy held me in his arms when I was an infant, in 1950. He was, besides, a workaholic who was also completely, paradoxically, incapable of handling finances.
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Big Bill (he stood 6'4 1/2" at 17, when the English wouldn't let him fly Spitfires because of his gangly height, so he joined the Navy instead) was a man who cared deeply, almost, some would say, obsessively, about each individual who came to him for help. I shall never fill his giant shoes, not if I win 20 Handy Awards.

2) Were there any indications at that time that music would become such a big part of your life – were your family musical or were you exposed to a lot of music as a young person anyway?

All correct. We had no professional musicians, but my mother played some piano, and me and my brother were always strongly encouraged to sing in choirs and glee
clubs in church and school. My first starring gig was as a boy soprano soloist, singing the Bach-Gounod Variation of "Ave Maria", at age 9. I can sing you dozens of hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal of 1940, dozens more "Negro" spirituals, and various show tunes from musicals down through the years. My mother and Bob Totty, and the black woman who worked as our "maid", in those last years of Jim Crow segregation, Idell Gossett, and her grown children and their husbands, kept a wide variety of music in our various houses in Asheville, North Carolina-- we moved about a fair amount.

I first heard the blues, though I didn't know that's what the music was till nearly a decade later, in 1954, when Beulah Huggins, the first "maid" I remember, used to sing snatches of John Lee Hooker hits-- "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer", and "Boogie Chillen" are the two I remember-- as she did her work. It was the first live music I ever heard besides my mother singing me lullabies, and one trip I remember to Ringling Brothers
Barnum and Bailey, with 5 rings, which I can reliably date in 1952.

People sometimes remark that I sound "black". Well, if I do, I come by it naturally. Black women helped make me who I am today. And any "white" person who denies that
he or she has been profoundly influenced by "black" music and culture in the United States is in terminal denial. I suppose I have a bit more in me than most,
considering my father was a Freedom Rider. Indeed, growing up, I got called "n____r-lover" more than once, and once fought over it. Fine, bring 'em on. I heard myself say the word "gook" once too often in Viet Nam, and that was the beginning of my real getting hip to the universality of racism.

3) This is one of those questions you may choose to ignore and that's cool, but I'm curious as to what made you decide to leave school to volunteer in Viet Nam.

A combination of the extreme naiveté I have just alluded to, and a complete lack of motivation to do well in college. I somehow failed ever to have received any vocational/professional guidance throughout what was otherwise an outstanding education, so I had no real idea why I was in college, in 1968. I did poorly, dropped out, and since I had no real job skills (I'd never worked at anything but landscaping, greenhouse work, and janitoring, with a couple of stints as summer camp counsellor thrown in), and not even an outstanding athletic team in my strong sport to be a part of (I was a national-class epee fencer in high school, finished second in the Connecticut State Championships to a former Olympian and went to the Nationals in 1968. Give me a sword and I'll face a black belt...),

I did what any son of such a father would do, I joined the Army and volunteered for Nam duty. I wasn't a very good soldier; I was discharged with the rank of Private, E-2, one rank above Buck Private, or E-1. But I did my time and my discharge is honourable.

4) In your bio it says that you were laid up in hospital in Viet Nam when you made yourself your first guitar. Was there some specific incident that inspired that act, or what was it that made it so important for you to make music at the time?

I did not make my first guitar. I obtained a balsa-wood Vietnamese-made acoustic guitar for $5 from a local small concessionaire, and began playing it at the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, where I was recovering from whatever unknown herpes-like disease I had caught in Long Binh. the guitar, an opportunity to sit with it for a few days and get started with it, and the other necessary tool-- a slide, which was my Zippo cigarette/doobie lighter-- and my growing knowledge of blues music all came together. Coincidence? I am a phenomenologist, and there ARE no coincidences.

5.) For a time after you returned from the war you worked as a musician. You had some success with people like Country Joe Macdonald recording some of your songs. What made you turn your back on music as a career at that time? Did you keep playing while you were working your other jobs, or did you stop completely?

When I came back I worked as a lot of things: grunt labourer, forklift operator, political investigator, musician, and small-time criminal among them. I was really learning my craft, and my gigging during the 1970s was sporadic, wherever I could catch on, and I probably played more solo than band gigs over those years. I was listening to all the live and recorded blues I could find, and did sit in with people like John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt-- teaser gigs, in retrospect-- made my cult item, Merry Airbrakes, in
1973, and eventually produced another cult classic, Richard Phillips's folk record Endangered Species, in 1980.

In the 1980s, I gigged semi-regularly, especially in Oregon in 1984-87, with various groups and people, including the late Canned Heat guitarist, Henry (the Sunflower) Vestine. I tried to establish myself in Europe in 1987 but without any backing, flopped, and was literally smashed up in Amsterdam, both in a fight and a motorcycle-bicycle accident (I was on the bicycle), and returned to the US and started trucking, playing with my Boston/Cambridge group the Old Dogs, including Washtub Robbie, for several years, and sometimes working with my old friend and later producer of Big Shoes to Fill, Boston's top-gun guitarist and all-around bluesman, Chris Stovall Brown. Bruce Bears, "Sax Gordon" Beadle, and David Maxwell were three of the outstanding musicians I worked with in that period of the late 80s-early 90s.

I was mostly inactive from about 1993 to 1998, just woodshedding while trying to keep my little family together. But after quitting a scuffling trucking career for the first time in 1997 to go to graduate school in Oklahoma, I began making the long push towards getting truly on the musical radar screen. I'm a very late-blooming musician, and I'm a scads better guitarist, in particular, than when I was doing my first Fried Okra Jones gigs around Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1998.

So I've never really given up the idea of making my living as a professional musician. Cursed myself for following a dream until I was battered and half-toothless, sometimes. But after three-plus decades I have achieved some degree of mastery over my own styles, and I think that and my age are why people are taking me seriously now. And, I've lived what I play and sing. Not everybody in the blues can really say that today.

6) While we're on the subject of music, you are credited with being involved with writing a majority of the songs and Michael Newbury with their arrangement. When you write a song for the group do you come up with the lyrics and then all of you contribute to the music in rehearsal, or do you and Michael hand out charts for each of the parts?

I do hand out some charts when we're first learning new songs, but we don't use 'em very long-- the guys are quick studies. Michael Newberry often determines the beats and tempos, and is usually the lead man on putting together beginnings and endings. He also plays guitar, so he can pass on helpful input to Cliff Belcher, the bass player, and Ronnie Mac McMullen, on guitar. But everyone contributes creative input, both in arranging and song writing. Michael so far has been my main song-writing partner, and Ronnie Mac has a couple of numbers that may appear on our next studio release.

7) Would you say that there has been any one musician who has had a significant influence on your music? What was it about him, her, or them that inspired you?

No. too many to pin it down to one, or ten. But John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy, Howlin Wolf, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton, Paul Butterfield, Chris Stovall Brown, my only real hero from my own generation (Musselwhite was born during WW II, not after), Ry Cooder, and my mentor, Earring George Mayweather-- only Brown, Cotton, Cooder, and Musselwhite survive-- hold some of the highest spots. I've gotten vocal influence from literally hundreds of people, including Oregon soul-singer/harp player Curtis Salgado. Some of these play guitar, some harp, but all have been an influence to me-- I've watched and played with Brown and Mayweather more than any of the others-- in overall showmanship. Robert Cray has been something of an influence in song writing; he's one of the best of the last 20 years. William Shakespeare might be my greatest overall influence as a poet.

8) Where does the music come from for you? Do you sit down with intent and write or do songs just come to you like bolts of lightning?

Remember, I'm a trained poet, journalist and all-around writer. I live, therefore I write. I am a trained observer and phenomenologist. My writing "axe" is well known to be much stronger than any instrument I play. I have no problem sitting down and writing songs, when the necessity hits me, in minutes. Sometimes, though, songs percolate within me for years, such as "Blue Freightliner", from my 2004 CD Up Close and Personal. I didn't record the song until 11 years after a couple of verses came out of me while I was driving a semi westbound through Memphis in 1993. Sometimes-- more often in the last 4-5 years-- the music, or just a riff, come to me first, but most of my songs were text before they became music.

9) In my review I compared you to Woody Guthrie because of your ability to sing about and depict the life of people who do the type of work you used to do; working in a sawmill, hauling industrial waste, etc. Is that something you've striven to do – giving voice to the lives of people who nobody ever really thinks about?

Yes, that's a valid way of looking at my musical development. I have a song called "Winners of Us All" that I will release on one CD or another soon that deals with exactly that issue. One verse reads:

"And I'm sitting in this dirty old dumpster rig
writing/Knowing the chance you'll ever hear me is
small,/But I'm doing it for everybody who don't draw
that bottom line/And I'm hoping one day to make winners
of us all."

I know the Guthries, by the way. I played for Arlo's sister Nora at my appearance, with Pete Seeger, Barbara Dane, and other peace-activist musicians, in the teeth of the Iraq invasion of 2003, at the Vietnam Songbook, in New York City's Joe's Pub, on March 1. I hung around Alice's Restaurant a few times as a schoolboy in 1968. And I have lectured on Woody Guthrie in an Oklahoma History class in which I was a teaching assistant in 1999. My best friend in high school, Josh Bauman, was a neighbours and best friend with the Guthries in Stockbridge.

Arlo and I are, indeed, two musicians who were making protest music during the Viet Nam War, and now speak truth to power during our even more disastrous misadventure in Iraq. If you run across him, give him "dap" and solidarity from me!

10) In your bio it says that it took a near fatal heart attack to get you to return to the music business. How did one lead to the other- most people have a heart attack and settle down to a more sedate life but you went the opposite route and chose to start working at one of the most demanding jobs, a touring musician. Doesn't that ever strike you as perhaps a little odd?

I had already released my 2001 self-release, ,Fried Okra Jones, and my first (2002) Southern Records release, Big Shoes to Fill, by the time I had my heart attack in November of 2002. I was a full-time trucker, and continued to do that into 2004, but I was already working on my current phase of career development. So I would say, rather than changing my path, it just made me focus. It's not a bit odd, for a person who, though well educated, has always used his extraordinary physical endurance as a main calling card.

We must all die, and I just finally got the idea that it might be any time now. My songs "Immortal", on Big Shoes to Fill, and "the Last Blues" and "Got My Will Made
Out", from Up Close And Personal, most directly reflect this development in my consciousness.

11) I actually asked this question to Arlo Guthrie, but both of you are in the unique position of having been singers during the Viet Nam war and now during the occupation of Iraq. What are the major differences that you see between the United States then and now? For example what have been reactions like to the line about spending a son on a war you don't see a reason for?

As I tell people, when I came back from Viet Nam, it became my hope that what I had done as a soldier, and afterwards as one of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War (VVAW; I'm a proud Life Member, and Oklahoma VVAW contact person), would save some others from subsequent generations from fighting and dying in other useless and misdirected foreign wars.

It didn't work out that way. My generation-- some of us, anyway-- wanted to "..change the world, rearrange the world," as CSNY sang. But America mostly didn't listen.
We are making the same shortsighted, provincial, naive mistakes we made then. America cannot be the world's policeman, even if we are the only nation that can project overwhelming military force anywhere on the globe.

As the historian and social critic George Santayana said in 1919, those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of history are committed to relive them.

12) Oh yeah the obligatory stupid final question to ask a musician – what are your upcoming plans – swimming the English Channel or playing some Blues?

I am a strong swimmer, but I shall not be swimming anything like that anytime soon, he he. I have a friend, fellow VVAW Billy X. Curmano, who swam the entire Mississippi River, Minnesota to New Orleans!

We just made a live Workers DVD 4 nights ago in Clarksdale, with guest stars Big George Brock, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimbo Mathus. Jimbo has become a semi-regular guest in Watermelon Slim and the Workers' gigs. I will be recording a country-blues CD with Mississippi Blues man Robert "Nighthawk", "the Gearshifter", Belfour this year. And the Workers will make another studio CD this year also, which may include
Ry Cooder or Willie Nelson. Add 135-150 gigs this year, and we are busy as hell!

I can't remember who it was, but there was some musician that used to call him self the hardest working musician in music. Well it's a damn good thing he never said anything like that around Slim and the Workers. They play a gig every third night, spend weeks in the studio, and do stuff like exchange emails with guys like me answering questions they must be getting sick of.

We left out some of the more oft repeated questions (so if you want to find out why Watermelon Slim go to his web site. But it you really want to get to know the man, buy his music. What you hear is truly what you get.

May 4, 2007

Music DVD Review: The Charlie Daniels Band Volunteer Jam

Back in the early 1970's there was a rebirth of sorts that happened in Rock and Roll music in the United States. Rock and Roll got its birth in the United States in the South when people like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis started to combine the country music they grew up listening to, with the Blues music that Black people were playing all around them.

The resulting Sun Records recordings were nothing short of revolutionary in the impact they had on popular music in the States. In those days the business of Rock and Roll was still pretty innocent. There weren't many marketing executives around then packaging performers and pasting label on their music. I mean how could you have a cross over hit between Country and Rock and Roll when that's exactly what you're playing, Country and Rock and Roll.

I don't think those original Sun Record touring shows of Elvis, Jerry Lee, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Johnny Cash, and whoever else they crammed into the cars and buses that took them around, were even called Rock and Roll shows. If anything they toured under the banner of Sun Records and the name of the sponsor.

Even though all of them were from well below the Mason Dixon line, calling what they did something like Southern Rock was as alien to them as calling it Afro-Cuban. Twenty years later one could see how much the industry had changed when a group of bands who had far less in common musically then the groups from Sun Records did, were lumped together as Southern Rock.

Charlie Daniels, of The Charlie Daniel Band, in an interview done this year for the release of the DVD of his 1975 Volunteer Jam, made the same point. He said that while they may all have been born in the same part of the world, The Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and Z. Z. Top never played music that could have been call similar. He could never understand why they were all called Southern Rock.

That being said, because they were all from the same part of the world, friendships struck up between the bands. So when the Charlie Daniels Band was doing its second "Volunteer Jam" in 1975 the invited guests included The Marshall Tucker Band, a couple of friends from the Allman Brothers and a variety of friends from other bands like Wet Willie.
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In 1974 the Charlie Daniels Band had needed to record a couple of songs for an upcoming album in a live situation, so they rented a small hall in Nashville Tennessee, invited some of their friends along to have fun after they had laid down the tracks they needed for the album. They called it Volunteer Jam in honour of the state of Tennessee whose slogan is, The Volunteer State.

That first one was so successful, that they decided to do it again in 1975, this time in their hometown of Murfreesboro Tennessee. The concert was made into a feature film and released in 1976 called Volunteer Jam. Now twenty – one years later it is being released on DVD for the first time.

In 1975 Charlie Daniels and his band were riding high on the strength of their hits "Long Haired Country Boy", "No Place To Go", and "The South's Gonna Do It (Again)" and were able to attract large audiences, especially in the South. So when the Volunteer Jam was announced it quickly sold out a 14,000-seat arena

For anybody who wants to see the epitome of good classic 70's rock roll, watching the DVD Volunteer Jam should be required viewing. Multiple guitars, keyboards, elaborate bass playing, and lots of drum, were all staples of the period. The music is loud, rowdy, and live; you won't see any sign of a drum machine or tape loops on this stage.

The only costume anybody is wearing is blue jeans and the occasional cowboy hat. There's no elaborate stage show, only stacks and stacks of speakers. The music is being played by people who love what they're doing and it shows in how much they appreciate each other's efforts and the amount of pure fun that they're having.

What was even better was that nobody fell into the Rock God trap that was too common in those days and went off into twenty-minute solo. Everybody, including the special guests, played like they were members of a band, and the band's performance was the priority not their own egos.

It doesn't mean that these people aren't gifted players, because they are, in fact I had forgotten how good the members of The Charlie Daniels Band are. From the bass player who can play any style demanded of him, the guitarist who can somehow make his instrument sound like a fiddle without a synthesizer so he can do a fiddle duet with Charlie, the piano player who plays piano not keyboards, the drummers who can keep time and be elaborate, and Charlie who plays an amazing violin and not bad slide guitar.

If there's a drawback or an unfortunate part of this disc it's the fact that it was originally shot on film back in 1975. There's only so much you can do with digital transfer techniques for sound and picture quality, so occasionally neither are what you'd what them to be. But considering the fact that it was a live concert twenty-two years ago you can't really complain.

The one thing that did bother me was that nowhere on the packaging, or on the disc are there band credits. They list the names of all the performers, but I couldn't have told Dru Lombar from Jimmy Hall if my life depended on it. At the least they could have supplied a song-by-song breakdown of who did what in the liner notes, or added on credits at the end of DVD to that effect.

But aside from that there isn't much to complain about with Volunteer Jam; it may not be Southern Rock, but it sure is a great example of classic 1970's Rock and Roll.

February 5, 2007

Music Review: Kevin Coyne Carnival

It's always a risky thing when you come across a musician or author who you've not been familiar with before. I don't know about anybody else but I have a tendency to overindulge on their output if I like the first piece I hear. Sometimes this will lead to the inevitable; familiarity breeds contempt, or at the least tedium.

But in the case of exceptional performers and writers, those whose output can legitimately be called art, each piece is unique onto itself. Everything read or listened to is a new experience to be savoured for it's own merits and whatever feelings it stirs within you.

In the past week I've offered two reviews of Kevin Coyne's work, Sugar Candy Taxi and Room Full Of Fools, and have noted the amazing range that he demonstrated over the course of those two albums. I sat down and listened to the third of the albums he released through Ruf Records,( I believe it was the last album he went into the studio to record), Carnival and was once again drawn into the world of Kevin Coyne.

If you wanted you could say that Carnival has a theme to it, and you wouldn't be far off because all of the songs relate to love in some way or another. Love with a capital L for the love of the life love; the love we try and maintain with friends; and the insecurity that love and need for love brings out in all of us.
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The whole mixed bag is here in fifteen songs that range musically from hard rock blues of "Stop Picking On Me", to the almost dance beats of "Party, party, party" and almost every other form of Blues, pop, and rock you can think of in between. As in his other discs the music is the vehicle he uses to drive the emotions of the songs.

Discordant blasts of harmonica over squawky guitars and broiling keyboards can do more to create an unsettled atmosphere than two lines of lyrics. His lyrics on the surface aren't apparently emotional; how emotional can it be repeating a simple phrase like "was it you?" five times over again without much change of inflection?

But those simple words, and the very fact that they are repeated with barely any change, in the context of the song gives them more emotional weight then the posturing of any of the supposedly sensitive pop stars of the day. There is something lurking just below the surface of Kevin's voice that can't be easily articulated. But this something creates a dynamic, coupled with whatever music is accompanying the lyric, either in contrast or harmony generates a tension that commands the listener's attention.

Part of it is the feeling that whatever Kevin is singing about he has lived through. In the song "All My Friends" you know that at some point in his life he was alone. Friends ask why don't you write, but the implication is that they don't write him unless he precipitates the conversation. He doesn't exist for them without constant reminders, so he might as well not have any friends.

There are certain people whose voices can't help but to express the lives they've lived through up to that point in their lives. Kevin was on such a person, and whether he knew it or not the sounds of his survival echoed like a ghost refrain behind his lyrics.

But of course he still has fun with at the same time or proves that he's not immune to sentimentality completely. "The Wobble" is just a funny little song where he tells a girlfriend who's shy about dancing that she just get up an wobble. She likes it so much that she wobbles everywhere she goes from then on and then the whole world wobbles because of her.

On "Sweet Melinda" he sings the praises of a girlfriend from when he was a teenager and love was so much less complicated. It's not so much Melinda he is yearning for, in spite of her picture in his wallet, it's what she represents. Innocence and fun are a far headier brew to drink a cup of then most nostalgia and are definitely far less sweet to the taste. No artificial substitutes sugar coat life in Kevin's songs but that doesn't make them all bitter to the taste either.

After listening to the disc Carnival and the previous two over the last few days it's hard not to admire the creative and imaginative mind that generated these pieces of art. The playful and slightly twisted cartoon figures that adorn the covers of these discs are Kevin's work as well. He also had three published books to his name before he died aside from the numerous discs that he and his bands over the years had produced.

If you have never listened to any of Kevin Coyne's music you owe it to yourself to do so without fail. But be warned, if you go into his world once, you may find yourself drawn back in again and again and opening up emotionally to the world around you just a little more then prior.

January 17, 2007

Music Review: State Of Grace The Holme Brothers

When you've been reviewing a lot of music in one genre in a short space of time you start to run out of ways of saying the same thing over and over again. Just how many ways are there to describe how good a harmonica sounds or adjectives are there available, and applicable, to blues music?

So I have to admit to a little trepidation when I slipped my copy of the latest Holmes Brothers' release State Of Grace into my disc player. I had listened to the disc once about a month ago and had liked it, and now that it was time to review it I was going to need find ways of saying so without feeling like I was just spouting clichés.

Thankfully the Holmes Brothers made that easy, because they aren't simply a blues band, or any such easily identifiable label. Their music contains elements of the blues, but also the easy flow of the soul/jazz music that could be called be a New Orleans sound; more then a smidgen of Gospel influences in some of their arrangements and definitely Soul and Rhythm and Blues.

They've distilled three or four genres of African American music to make a flavour that's uniquely their own. They're not afraid to cross over genres as well and tackle music that you would think wouldn't fit into the repertoire of a band of their make-up and turn it into their own.

There are far too many bands out there that have been promoted as "defying easy definition" and when you hear them they're no different from six hundred other bands that have defied definition in the past. But the Holmes Brothers genuinely make it difficult to place them neatly anywhere.
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What are you going to do with a band that is as comfortable doing a cover of Cheap Trick's song "I Want You To Want Me" and George Jones' "Ain't It Funny What A Fool Will Do"? Call them a Blues band? I don't think so.

Now they obviously don't do direct imitations of either old George or Cheap Trick, and unless you knew the lyrics you'd be hard pressed to recognise "I Want You To Want Me" as the same song that Cheap Trick had so much success with. Which only serves to make their version all the more impressive. To be able to take such a distinctive song and make it your own is an accomplishment in it's own right.

None of the songs they cover suffer any for their Holmes Brothers treatments. Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding" has never sounded so good, and as they prove with their rendition of John Fogerty's "Bad Moon Rising", which they perform more like a jug band then anything else, they know how to put zest into something you've heard done by a million other bands over the years.

While the Holmes Brothers are great to listen to they have augmented their sound on this disc with some voices that couldn't compliment them better if they had been chosen to be in the band from the start. Roseanne Cash adds her sweet tones to Hank William's "I Can't Help It If I’m Still In Love With You", Joan Osborne lends a hand on the old Bill Monroe number "Those Memories of You" and on "I've Just Seen The Rock Of Ages" Levon Helm and his daughter Amy sit in. (this marks Levon's first recording since his recovery from throat cancer)

But this is still a Holmes Brother album; Wendell and Sherman Holmes and Popsy Dixon, make music that's both soulful and sweet. They're not going to fit anybody's definitions of what their music should or shouldn't sound like except their own. But there aren't many bands out there that can make you want to spontaneously start to dance just listening to their music because it seems more natural than standing still or walking when you hear it..

State Of Grace might just describe the state we're in when we listen to a Holmes Brother's CD. It went on sale in stores yesterday so do yourself a favour and pick it up. In this day and age all of us could use a little grace.

January 13, 2007

Music Review: Drink House To Church House: Songs & Stories From The Roots Of America Vol. I & II Various Artists

There are fewer and fewer living connections to our musical past still alive today. Of those that are many are living lives of quiet desperation, struggling to hang on with meagre social security pensions and no medical insurance. Some months that might mean having to choose between having their electricity shut off and eating.

These aren't people to whom retirement planning was a serious consideration. You show me a musician who thinks beyond their next gig even when they're in their sixties and I'll be surprised. It's just not in their nature to believe they'll ever stop playing, because they don't want to. Music has defined their existence for so long that living doesn't seem possible without it.

Tim Duffy, founder of the Music Makers Benefit Fund, said something in an interview on the DVD part of their recent release Drink House To Church House: Songs & Stories From The Roots Of America Vol. l that confirms that. He talks about the artists on their label that haven't performed sometimes in forty years, getting up on stage and blowing away the other acts.

It won't matter how long it's been since they've played in front of an audience, that's what they were born to do is make music, and given even half a chance that's what they would do until they are carried off the stage with their toes in the air. I've had the privilege of knowing one or two people like that in my life, and watched one of them grow despondent when his health has prohibited him from playing.

It can be a vicious circle for these people when they can't perform; the longer they go without being able to perform, for whatever the reason, the worse they feel. The worse they feel the harder it is for them to get up and do the very thing guaranteed to make them feel better – perform music for an audience. Any kind of music for any kind of audience, but in the case of the artists working with Tim and Denise Duffy of the Music Makers Relief Fund primarily the Blues.

The Music Makers Relief Fund has given numerous musicians the opportunity to not only get back on stage in front of audiences but to record their music as well. While anyone of us can get our hands on these recordings either through Amazon or the Music Makers web site very few of us are probably every going to have the chance to see any of these artists in concert.

Thankfully there is a partial solution to that problem parts one and two of Drink House To Church House: Songs & Stories From The Roots Of America. If I've understood things correctly these are the first two of a four part CD/DVD series featuring the artists associated with the Music Maker record label.
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Some of the performers, Captain Luke for instance, on Volumes I and II of the series have already gained some notoriety around the world through tours of Europe and Argentina. But some of the others aren't even known in their own backyards or been seen performing by anyone but their neighbours and friends in the last twenty years.

So these discs work both ways; for the performers letting people know who they are and for us letting us see the people whose voices we've been listening to on CD. How else am I ever going to get a chance to see Drink Small perform, watch John Dee Holeman play his guitar, witness a performance by the incomparable Adolphus Bell (you haven't lived until you've seen the leader of a one man band introduce the band), Pura Fe sing Gershwin's "Summertime" accompanied by Cool John Ferguson and his band, or Haskell "Whistlin' Britches" Thompson too name just a few of the amazing talents crammed within these two sets of music.
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Of course some images are stronger than others; there is no way I'll ever forget the feelings that were generated the first time I watched Captain Luke sing "Rainy Night In Georgia". Looking at this small black man and wondering where that smooth as silk baritone voice is coming from and almost crying from the beauty is not something I want to forget to be honest. Thankfully I now have a permanent record of it that I can watch over and over again.

And that's the thing really that makes these discs so special; they are permanent records of one time only moments. None of the recordings on either the CD or the DVD are done in a studio, they are all done on location, and all live. No shots from three different angles with multiple cameras, just one camera, a microphone, and whoever is going to be performing at that moment.

Sure on occasion the sound quality might suffer on both the CD and the DVD, but the compensations far out weigh that drawback. In some instances it's like the camera, and by extension the viewer, are another guest at a jam, hanging out and playing some tunes. I mean how many times are you going to get invited over to watch Pura Fe play and sing outside in a clearing in the woods? Or go to a dance where the above-mentioned duet of Cool John and Pura Fe takes place?

Moments like these are treasures that can't be replicated or replaced by anything. Listening to the Alabama Slim recounting in story/song how he and Little Freddie King escaped the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is a piece of modern American history that will never be written down in books. But it relates the reality of so many people's experiences far more accurately then any book could ever hope to.
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Some people when they see or hear about these collections, Drink House To The Church House: Songs & Stories From The Roots Of America Volumes I & II may just think of them as a collection of music and videos. But I think they are of far more cultural importance then that. These productions are oral histories of the Southern United States from before the turn of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Each day that these people are among us and singing about their lives another day of America's history is being told whether anybody is listening or not. Drink House To Church House is one way we can at least attempt to hear the that story.

Music Review: Bishop Dready Manning Gospel Train

Over the years we've often heard of the African-American musician who got their start singing in the church choir. Aretha Franklin started off by singing in the church choir doing gospel music as did half or more of the recording stars who became big in the blues, funk and rhythm and blues genres in the sixties and seventies.

But how often have we heard it going the other way round? Okay sure there was Bob Dylan's much publicized stint as a Born Again Christian, and other musicians might have found God after they stopped shooting another version of enlightenment into their arms. But those who have had such a life change that they've opened their own church and become a full-fledged pastor? There can't be that many.

One man who has made that journey, and who is very sincere about it, is Bishop Dready Manning. For the past thirty-nine years he has been ministering to African American churchgoers in North Carolina's Halifax and Northhampton counties and playing the Bluest Gospel music you've ever heard.

Up until 1962 he had been a hard drinking, hard living,Blues musician playing joints all over the area. Then one day he started bleeding out of his nose and haemorrhaging. He says to this day he would have died if not for the intervention of prayer on his behalf by some neighbours. As he puts it "I had a converted mind right then"
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But being a preacher didn't mean he had to stop playing the blues, he's just taken his music and begun to use it in the service of the Lord. And serve the Lord is just what he does too. Not only does he play in his own church, but in churches across the region, at prayer meetings and at revivals. He's set up his own little studio where he produces any number of home made cassette tapes, forty-fives, LP albums, and his Sunday morning radio show over Weldon's WSMY –AM.

Until now those of us who have wanted to hear Bishop Dready Manning and haven't been up to making the trip down to the Carolina's have been out of luck. But now the good people over a the Music Makers Relief Foundation have put together an album of Bishop's music on CD so we can all hear it.
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Gospel Train is a collection of eighteen of the songs that he's been playing in the church houses and meeting places of the Carolinas. The band that plays with him is his wife Marie and their five children when they tour, but for the album its just his wife helping out on vocals, his son Zacchaeus on piano and what looks to be his grandson, Marquis, on drums.

Listening to them you realize you're not hearing what we'd call "professional musicians" because it's just not that fancy, more serviceable then anything else. The exception to that is Bishop Dready himself. He's as smooth as silk when it comes to his guitar and harmonica work. He could just be laying down a rhythm for his wife to sing to, or playing the lead to one of the songs he has written for himself. These songs have the simplicity and emotional wallop of Country Blues.

Although none of them sound anything like what we have come to expect of gospel music, there is something about the sound that makes you wonder why nobody has used this style for the church before. Listen to any of the tracks on Gospel Train and you'll see what I mean..

The first song on the disc, "What Was I Doing, When The Saints Of God Found Me?" is a Blues "testify" song where he tells of his great conversion moment. Using a talking/ singing style of vocals he recounts his former life and the moment he saw the light. It's this low-key personable style though that gets people to pay attention when they hear it.

Some of his songs are short little sermons about a specific issue dealing with what's wrong with the world; "Hard Headed Children" who won't listen to the good advice their momma's give them or "People Don't Pray', which aside from the title's regret lists a whole bunch of other problems facing the world; men with long hair, women with short skirts, and of course insincere preachers.

That's the benefit for the preacher when he uses the blues to sing to the faithful, the message comes through loud and clear. Unlike other types of gospel where it's easy not to listen to the lyrics and just enjoy the music, here you have no option but to listen to what you're being told.

Unlike so many other musicians who started their career in the church, Bishop Dready Manning was a rough and ready Blues musician of the old school right from the word go. It took a life threatening experience to change his life around and turn it in the direction of preaching. People say there's not much difference between being a good pastor and a good entertainer, in both cases you have to be able to hold the crowd's attention.

Judging by the quality and power of the music on Gospel Trains Bishop Dready Manning won't have any problem keeping his audience's attention. Getting them to stop cheering at the end of the sermon will be another problem all together.

Gospel Train is produced through the Music Maker Relief Foundation's label Music Maker. According to their mandate they are dedicated to helping the pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern Musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. They affirm to these artists that the gifts of inspiration and music they brought to the world are valued still. Through the production of records like these and financial aid programs their mission is to give back to the roots of American music.

January 12, 2007

Music Review: John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band

You and the rest of your band have just traveled half way around the world to tour across the United States. You count yourself lucky because you've been given the use of a studio for the week you want to rehearse before heading out on tour. What you'd really like to do is play some Blues music, but no matter how hard you try, what arrangements you work up, it just isn't coming together.

It turns out your host at the studio happens to know a bunch of old time blues musicians, they record right here in this studio all the time. So when he says how would you like it if I invite some of them over to jam with you, you might be a little intimidated but you still jump at the chance.

John Dee Holeman turned up…he picked up an old guitar and started to play… well like he'd been doing it all his life…All week we had been going over songs, arrangements…Arguing over this and that…When John Dee picked up that guitar and started playing it was the most natural thing in the world…as natural and easy as taking a walk …John Dee Holeman took a walk with his guitar and the Waifs tagged along… Vikki Thorn lead singer of The Waifs

The Waifs are folk group from Australia who have started to make a name for themselves at home and abroad. The last time Bob Dylan toured Australia he sought them out so they could open for him throughout the tour. But all it took for them to be reduced to awe struck children and students again – as evidenced from the quote above by one of the Thorn sisters who lead the group – was to spend the afternoon with John Dee Holeman recording the eleven tracks that have been released as John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band

So who is this John Dee Holeman who can reduce a group of young professional, successful musicians to awe struck fans? Well obviously he's an old time Blues musician: his birth certificate and the way he knows his way around a guitar prove that. John was born in 1929 in North Carolina and was playing guitar by the time he was fourteen.
He learned the basics from his older brothers, but his real education came from listening to the music of Piedmount Blues player Blind Boy Fuller on records. Piedmount Blues is a smoother, more country flavoured sound that came out of North Carolina and areas similar. It probably came about as a result of the cross pollination of the spirituals sung by the black slaves and the Irish and Scottish folk music being sung by the white farmers.

However it was born it's sound is as smooth as silk and leaves lots of room for finger picking on the part of the guitar player, or just about any type of plucking, strumming, and or worry of strings that a player wants. John Dee will sometimes play with a claw hammer style, echoing the days he used to play banjo, but then again John has evolved his own way of doing just about everything to do with the Blues in the years he's been playing.

All you have to do is start listening to the music the Waifs and John Dee recorded and you'll see how special a player and singer he is. (He can't dance while playing guitar anymore, as he's had a couple of strokes and they've slowed him down a little, but he used to also be a pretty mean tap/clog dancer) From the opening track, his version of "John Henry" you just know you're in for a treat.
First off, for all Ms. Thorn's protestations, the Waifs are all pretty damn good players themselves, and provide some really sweet accompaniment all the way through the disc. I've always had a weakness for a well-played snare drum with acoustic music, so I personally appreciated the sound of brushes scrapping rhythmically during some of the swingier or mountain influenced tunes.

"Looking Yonder Comin'" (If you can't hear "Orange Blossom Special" or "Hear My Train A Comin'" in that song you need to get your ears checked) is a perfect example of a great meeting of musical styles. It starts off sounding like it could be country gospel, then John's voice starts moving into another emotional pitch and we're now in Blues territory.

Then they move into their final song which is a rousing version /jam of "Baby Please Don’t' Go". It becomes an extended jam of guitars, harmonica, base and brushes slapping across the surface of a snare drum, until John decides they've had enough and winds it down. Remember this is a very relaxed informal gathering, a group of talented musicians hanging out in the studio with the tape just happening to be rolling. (I thought I had imagined it the first time, but during a second listen I definitely hear a baby cry on the song "Country Gal", which makes sense as it's as mournful a blues heartbreaker as you're liable to hear anywhere this side of the Mississippi or the other.)

Everyone can say all they want about the fact that the Music Makers organization is preserving pieces of our past with their recordings. But as far as I'm concerned when I hear something like this disc and the music sung with such passion and played with such enthusiasm there's nothing remotely "old fashioned " or dated about this music. How can music that comes from the soul and speaks to heart have a date stamped on it?

John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band is one of those rare occasions where you feel like a fly on the wall sitting in on a private jam sessions between musicians playing just because they've got the chance. Maybe there's a mistake or two that would have been eliminated if they had been "recording" but the immediacy and sheer enthusiasm for the music at hand more then compensate for any slip-up.

Take some time in your busy day and put this disc in a player and forget your troubles for close to an hour. It's easy when you hear people playing like this. It will make you feel that all is right with the world. I'm sure The Waifs do after that afternoon in the studio.

January 11, 2007

Music Review: Pura Fe Follow Your Heart's Desire

A lot gets written about the early music of North America and its influences on today's music. We talk about old time holler songs that the slaves would sing in the fields and the Scottish and Irish roots of the music sung by the white settlers in the Tennessee Valley and the Carolina hills.

But all of us seem to forget that there was a third group of people living in the same area, who had been living there actually for quite some time before either the white people and their black slaves showed up. That would be the Native Americans, First Nations, Aboriginals, or whatever label you feel like affixing to them.

In the Carolinas it was no exception and the original people were the Tuscarora. Now for most people who have even heard of the Tuscarora it's only because they are known as the nation that was the sixth of the Six Nations to join the Iroquois Confederacy. The truth of the matter was that they were on the run and looking to escape white encroachment on their lands when they joined up with the Iroquois.

But for the Tuscarora who weren't able to make good on the escape up north to what's now New York state, they ended up sharing a lot of the same experiences as the black slaves, including being made into slaves right beside them. So there was a fair bit of co-mingling of music going on right from those earliest days of settlement. In fact according to singer songwriter Pura Fe the two people's shared so much in common that when the Tuscarora were free they became an integral stop on the Underground railroad helping slaves escape to Canada.

Pura Fe should know about things like this because she can trace back her maternal Tuscarora line far enough to know that she's the fourth generation in a row of seven singing sisters. So the singing style and music she learned from her mother, goes back to the time of her great-grand mother, which even at a conservative estimate would be the late 1800's.
When you listen to her sing on her latest album, Follow Your Heart's Desire on the Music Maker label, you can understand how she ties into their mission of supporting music that is in danger of being lost. You can hear elements of almost every kind of old time music wrapped up in her songs, but there's also an underpinning of something distinct.

I don't even mean the obvious inclusion of Tuscarora language lyrics, or even native instruments like turtle shell rattles or drums; unfortunately you can find those instruments a dime a dozen on new age CDs these days. (Although finding anyone speaking the Tuscorora language would be a lot more surprising as its one of the tongues that was almost successfully made extinct by North American government assimilation programs. You can probably count of your hands and feet the number of completely fluent native-born Tuscarora speakers left in the world, current generations are having to be re taught to speak it as a second language) It's more like there is a certain quality to her singing or an undercurrent to her music that makes it distinct from anything else you've heard before.

What I noticed first was her voice, one moment it would sound just like any other woman singer's voice that played around in the higher registers, the next moment there would be an almost rumble or growl in the back of her throat as some passion began to overwhelm her.

It may not be a traditional Blues voice singing a traditional Blues songs, but it’s a voice, and a song, born out of the same emotional base that inspired the men and women from that area to sing the blues and the stories of their lives and families. Pura Fe does much the same thing as those who came before her, singing about love and betrayal, about wanting the right person, and being with the wrong one.

But she also sings the stories of her people, and I don't mean the cute little folk tales you read in the anthropology books either. But of the heartbreak of being different and the hatred directed against them by those too scared to do anything but hate and envy. The song "Della Blackman Pick and Choose" is about her great aunt who was killed and raped by the Ku Klux Klan for daring to try and go see her family after marrying a white man.

Then there are the songs specifically about her nation the Tuscarora and how she first came back to the Carolinas, meeting her cousins for the first time in the song "Goin' Home". Like all good Blues songs these are full of pain, happiness and longing. But unlike so many songs the longing is for the land – to reconnect to where the spirit of her family resides.

On Follow Your Heart's Desire Pura Fe shows a remarkable talent for both song writing and singing. For those of you who have never heard her before this is an ideal opportunity. Not only is she in fine voice on this disc, but she is joined by some really fine musicians who provide both Native and Carolina style backing for her.

For those of you who know her from Ulali, the acappella group she founded, you will recognise the versatility of her voice if not the musical styles she is exploring here. For those of you who have heard Pura Fe before Follow Your Heart's Desire will be an experience you'll not soon forget.

January 10, 2007

Music Review: Expressin' The Blues & A Living Past Various Artists

Well I'm now going to do something I've only done a couple times before and that is combine the review of two discs into one piece. The times I've done it in the past has been when I've had multiple discs by the same band to review at once or there has been sufficient similarities to make two reviews redundant. That's pretty much the case with the two releases,A Living Past and Experessin' The Blues, under review here. They are so interconnected that it makes more sense to review them as a unit.

Both discs are among the first compilation albums released by the wonderful organization The Music Maker Relief Foundation a non government charitable group offering financial assistance to the generation of musicians who have been forgotten by the winds of time and through the capriciousness of fate have fallen through the cracks.

Well into their eighties a lot of them aren't looking for handouts, but just a chance to keep making the music they love and the ability to earn their own keep. But some times in order to do that they need assistance; whether it's to keep the car on the road, buy a lightweight amp they can carry to gigs, or to have enough of their own CDs to sell at a concert.

From the inspired genius and obsession of Tim and Denise Duffy to not let the music of that generation die unnoticed was born a collection of initial field recordings. Like a latter day songcatcher, Tim travelled the length and breadth the Carolinas. Instead of wax cylinders and a notation book he carried with him his guitar, two microphones and a DAT recorder in the hopes of at least preserving these songs before the musicians passed away.

But fate wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily, and in the shape of Mark Levinson, founder of Cello Music and Film services, sent him not only the means to turn his rough field recordings into high quality saleable songs, but his first fundraiser. Mark took it upon himself to circulate the tapes among the audio equipment maker and designer community to raise the seed money necessary to establish the Foundation.

If there was one musician among the many that Tim has worked with that had the biggest influence on him it was the late Guitar Gabriel. Gabriel shows up on both these discs and he's the heart and soul beating and pulsing throughout the both recordings. It was through Gabriel that Tim was introduced to the majority of the players and was able to record them in the early days of the Foundation's work back in the late eighties and early nineties.

You'll meet people like the late Preston Fulp, whose falsetto renditions of old traditional country blues songs eerily presages any number of male singers who work the upper registers, but Roy Orbison in particular. The only difference being that Preston's voice has a heartfelt quality that none save Roy, of our recent crop could achieve in their wildest dreams. With the death of Orbison, I'd say there was no one left who could have matched Preston Fulp for integrity and honesty of tone. He contributes "Careless Love" to both CDs and on A Living Past he adds "Farther Along"
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One of the mainstays for the Music Maker foundation, especially since the passing of Gabriel, has been Capt. Luke. Born Luther Mayer he's been living and entertaining folk in the Carolina's since 1940. He sings in the most awesome baritone voice you've ever heard and near stops your heart the first time you hear it on record. I've never heard a voice that could be said to ring like a bell before, and now I know what it means.

But the Capt. is not just a singer; he's an entertainer, which means he does just about anything to amuse the people that have come see him. He plays a mean jaw harp and tells the funniest stories you've ever heard. It's not so much the stories are all that funny, but his characterization is right out of vaudeville and can have you in tears or worse if you're aren't careful.

On Expressin' you only hear the beauty, but on A Living Past you can hear him in full storytelling mode with "The Kingfisher Story" and "Dog and Cat Fight". If any of you have read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, I'm sure you'll see the resemblance to the storytelling God from Africa. It sure seems the old Spider is alive and well in the form of Captain Luke.

Now I'm not going to be able to go through each and every artist on these discs, heck I couldn't do that if I were only reviewing one of them, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention two more names: Richard "Big Boy" Henry and Willa Mae Buckner, a.k.a. "The World's Only Black Gypsy", "The Princess of Ejo", "The Wild Enchantress", "Snake Lady", or even "Billie Raye Buckner". For entirely different reasons they both made a lasting impression on me.
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The word irrepressible must have been invented with Willa Mae in mind, if there isn't a picture of her next to it in the dictionary there should be. Just judging by the variety of her stage names should be enough for you to go by, but if that isn't enough for you her two tracks on A Living Past, especially the traditional "Peter Rumpkin" which is repeated on Expressin' should tell the whole story.

You can hear the wink in her eye and smirk on her face as she sings these songs. You've got to remember that she's singing them into a microphone probably sitting in her living room or kitchen not on stage, but it still sounds for all the world like she's playing the room for all her might.

There aren't too many people who can get away with singing this type of bawdy song and not sound embarrassing, (think of Chuck Berry's "My Ding – a –Ling" without wincing) but she can. She doesn't even sound like a cute old lady being dirty with a coy hand over her mouth. She still sounds like she's living up to the titles of her past; you can definitely see why she would have been called "The Wild Enchantress"

Richard "Big Boy" Henry is almost as far from Willa's world of Burlesque as you can get without being in a Church. He does the old Hollar type of Blues, which were based on the call and response shout songs the field hands would sing in the fields to each other. You forget that the Carolina's are on the coast occasionally, but Richard was born in Beaufort a fishing village on the North Carolina Coast.

He typifies so many of the performers that Tim Duffy unearthed at this time in that he's worked tirelessly alongside his musicianship to get by in the day to day world. So many of these men and women have made some of the most beautiful music of the last century, creating the foundations for any of the popular styles you might listen to today on your I-pods or whatever, but have gone completely unrecognised. There is an air of authenticity and honesty to Richard's performances that no amount of electronics or publicity can manufacture.

Both discs fittingly take their names from Guitar Gabriel. "Expressin' The Blues" is the title given to a track featuring Gabriel trying to define what exactly the Blues are and when they happen. What makes it so darn important to be "Expressing'The Blues" in other words.

One of the things he does say that's so special about what he does, what compelled him until almost his death bed to keep singing and playing, was that singing the songs he did made him feel like he was part of "A Living Past". When he says that you realize why these records can't and shouldn't be looked upon as just mementoes of another time, because the past is living everyday in the music that is played everywhere.

If you deny the past, you deny part of yourself and a part of your heritage. These people and their music no more belong in a museum than anything you hear on the radio today, (although it does deserve to be remembered far more then 90% of what is played). Most of the performers aren't content just to be singing the songs they used to sing, and are continually writing new material to perform.

A Living Past and Expressin' The Blues are simply reminders that this music is worth listening to, no matter when it was written. If no one else is willing to play it, well there are over three hundred musicians now being supported by the Music Makers Relief Foundation and any one of them will be more then happy to sing you one of their songs or tell you one of their stories.

The world is little bit brighter a place for it.

January 4, 2007

Music Review: Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales

It's been referred to as the last noble cause, or the last heroic war. It's also been said it was the war that if the British and the Americans had bothered with it could have prevented World War Two. The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 through 1939 and by the end Fransico Franco had overthrown the democratically elected government.

The election prior to the outbreak of the war had seen a coalition government formed among moderate and socialist parties. The Republican government's goals were to reduce the power of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church and try to redress the economic disparity in the country.

Needless to say that went over like the proverbial ton of bricks with those who were going to have to surrender their power. Calling themselves The Nationalists they formed an army under the leadership of Francisco Franco to overthrow the Republican government.. They were supplied with weapons, air support, tanks, and troops by the governments of Italy and Germany almost immediately.

The Republicans received little or no official help from any government, save some assistance from the Soviet Union that was too little and too late. In some ways the Republican side was a typical venture of the left and centre in those, and even these days, where internal fights over power, took precedence over an enemy out to destroy you all. Soviet aid only became available after a faction acceptable to Moscow controlled a goodly portion of the doomed government.
The Spanish Civil War was also notable for two other reasons. It was where the Nazis first put into effect their practice of targeting strictly civilian targets for the sake of the effect on morale. First Guernica, rendered forever immortal by Picasso; then Madrid suffered through bombings.

The other was the fact that in spite of their own government's refusal to oppose Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco (Until Hitler signed his infamous non-aggression pact with Stalin, he was actually seen as a bulwark against the Red hoards by far too many Western pundits) young men and women from around the world came to Spain on their own to fight for the Republican cause.

The International Brigade was composed of German, American, Canadian, and others from across Europe who came to fight the fascists. The American soldiers served in what became known as the Lincoln Brigade and became part of the 15th International Brigade. Since there own governments had refused to aid the Republicans, and in some instances had tried their best to prevent people from doing so, it wasn't very surprising that the returning soldiers at the end of the war were ignored in their own countries.

Some of them, like the Germans and the Italian of course, had to become refugees because they couldn't go home again. When it became obvious that nothing was going to be done to honour their efforts, and in fact official policy has been to ignore the veterans of Spain almost entirely, Pete Seeger and the Almanac singers recorded seven songs that had been sung by the Lincoln Brigade while marching. In 1943 they were released as part of an album called Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade.

For the longest time it has been next to impossible to find this and other music of the Spanish Civil War. But now thanks to the Spanish label, Discmedi, they and other music of the war has been released on a great CD called Canciones De Las Brigadas Internacionales (Songs Of The International Brigade).

The first seven songs are the aforementioned tracks from Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade which have been beautifully digitally re mastered so they sound great. The six songs that follow that were originally released in 1940, but had been actually recorded during the war. The German actor Ernst Busch, who was already living in exile from Hitler due to his politics, recorded six songs with a chorus of soldiers called Six Songs For Democracy

They were recorded in the men's barracks so if you listen closely you can hear background noises of wartime activity. Again the sound is great, and it's really nice not to hear these songs like they're being sung to you via a sewer pipe. The only previous recording I had heard of them was so full of echoes it was almost impossible to hear what was being sung.

Following these thirteen tracks, the producers of the disc have gathered together some performances of these and other songs of the period by different performers as bonus tracks. Six of them are by Ernst Busch again and are Spanish versions of some of the songs that had been performed by Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers on the Songs Of The Lincoln Brigade album. Again he has recorded them with soldiers serving during the war, and in fact this recording was interrupted by Franco's bombing of Barcelona. On occasion you can hear where a brown out is occurring as the sound starts to fade away: life during wartime indeed.

Ernst's voice may not be what a North American audience would expect from a musical theatre actor, but he had been working with Bertolt Brecht in Germany, and they had a different attitude towards what sound they wanted on stage. Brecht wasn't interested in pretty, or in polish; he wanted the audience to listen to the words being sung to them, not to just sit back and enjoy the music.

After Busch, we have a brief visit with Woody Guthrie as he sings his version of "Jarama Valley". What's great about this song, as you will have noticed in The Almanac Singers' version earlier on the disc, is that the tune is "Red Rive Valley". The soldiers who wrote these songs had done what was fairly typical for the day, and just changed the lyrics of songs they were already familiar with to make them suit there needs.

The last four songs on the disc are from what I consider two of the United States' finest treasures; The Weavers and Paul Robeson. Paul Robeson was a star football player, Broadway and Hollywood actor, and amazing singer. He was also Black and left wing, which in the 1940s and 50s meant he was considered a threat to society.

He had his passport revoked by the American government so he could no longer travel to do concert tours in Europe. This pretty much guaranteed the end of his singing career, as very few venues in the States would book anyone who was blacklisted by Joe McCarthy. But here we find him in full beautiful voice singing two of the songs he learned from the soldiers when he went to Spain during the War to lend his support to the cause. His version of "The Peat-Bog Soldiers" has to be one of the best I've ever heard even to this day.

The last two songs included are by the Weavers. Somehow or other the Weavers were able to play the music of the Spanish Civil War during the 1950's in places like Carnegie Hall without people really twigging to what was going on. Included here are two of those songs; both were recorded in Carnegie Hall but one in the fifties and one in their reunion concert in the eighties.

The producers have also included a very good informative booklet with information about both the Spanish Civil War and the musicians who sang the songs on the disc. It is one of the best of these types of booklets that I've seen in a long time; nicely laid out with text that is not impossible to read. If you are multilingual you can read it three times, in Spanish, English, and German.

In Spain today the soldiers who fought in the International Brigade are still considered heroes of the country, in North America where they came from they've either been almost completely forgotten, and even worse some were treated like criminals by their own governments. Canciones De Las Brigades Internacionales is wonderful tribute to men who have been ignored for too long.

December 30, 2006

The Music That Rocked My World In 2006

Talk about having an over inflated sense of my own worth! I've got the absolute gall to put out a list of my favourite music recordings from the year 2006. As if my opinion actually might have some importance in the scheme of things.

My rational is that I reviewed more music CDs and DVDs then I can remember in the past year (Thank you Blogcritics for your writer's page and archive. Without that I would have had no way of knowing what I had reviewed) and from that ton (or tonne if your on metric) of music there have to be a few that I could recommend that some people would find interesting.

A lot of the music I reviewed over the past year was stuff that was mainly off the beaten path and not what you're going to hear on your radio very often, if at all. I'd give good odds that the music you see on my list is not going to find its way on to too many other such creatures that you happen to read in the next week or so.

The least you can say for me is that I'm different, although strange, odd, and downright weird also seem to be popular as well. (I've even heard beady eyed Canadian with a head full of lies on occasion but considering that the source of that comment has been known to have his way with goats, and is a former candidate for the United States Senate you can take it with as many grains of salt as you'd like) The music that appears on this compilation of discs probably reflects that peculiarity through its complete lack of popularity. I can't see any of the performers I've recommended being invited to perform at the half-time show of the Supper Bowl in the near future.

Of course given the fact that probably at least a third of them are dead makes it difficult for them to be getting up on stage anywhere these days. My stipulation for this list was that it had to have been released this year, and that I had to have reviewed it. Since so many companies are involved with re-issuing and re-packaging these days, a good many "new" releases that I reviewed might have first seen the light of day at least forty years ago.

Anyway enough of the excuses, the explanations, and the justifications, here is my list, in no particular order save the date they were reviewed, with earliest in the year first and travelling on down until we end up near today's date. I hope you see something on this list that piques your interest enough that you'll at least give it a listen.

Bob Brozman Blue Reflex
To say that Bob Brozman is an original puts a strain on the word, but it's hard to think of any other word to describe a man who can play the music of The Solomon Islands as comfortably as that of the Mississippi Delta. Playing Resonator guitars that he builds himself he is a one-man world music encyclopaedia and one of the most spectacular guitar players I have ever heard. Flamenco to Polka to Blues and any stops in between are what you can expect to hear from this amazing performer.
Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music During The Segregation Era
For those wanting a history of the Blues as told through song you need look no further than this two disc set of music. From early recordings of field hands singing holler songs to the late fifties electric blues of Muddy Watters and a young B. B. King they have them all. The music has been compiled by Paul Oliver from the series of radio shows that he broadcast on the BBC in England starting back in the 1950s. It was these songs and shows that influenced the young Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton.
Richard Wagner Der Ring Des Nibelungen
This is a wonderful live recording from the Bayreuth Festival in 1953 of Wagner's complete Ring Cycle. Not only is the sound quality amazing the performances are stunning. In a highly unusual move the director used the same cast for all the operas, making for a consistency of performance that is not often seen in full recordings or performances.
James Brown (DVD)Soul Session
Even without the "Godfather" dying on Christmas day of this year, this was going to have made it on to this list. There have been very few broadcasts of James Brown on video or TV that I've seen capture the dynamic energy of the man in concert. This one, perhaps because it was staged for the cameras, manages the trick. James is also joined by a couple of friends, and you've not lived until you've seen him perform with Aretha Franklin.
Willy DeVille (DVD) Live In The Lowlands
For those of you who can remember the late seventies and the band Mink DeVille, this DVD concert from 2005 by the former front man Willy DeVille will be a real treat. For those of you who haven't heard him before, this is the ideal time as he and the band are in top form. A must have for fans of Willy DeVille and the uninitiated.
Rory Block The Lady And Mr. Johnson
Rory Block is one of the best slide blue guitar players out there. Here she sits down and plays the music of the man whose record inspired her to pick up the guitar in the first place. For Rory this is an appreciation and a thank you; for us it's a pleasure.
Bob Brozman (DVD) Live In Germanyl
Well look there he made it onto the list a second time. Reason being is that listening to him is one thing, but watching Bob Brozman perform is like watching a small self contained Hurricane. If you've heard his music but never seen him, you have to own this. There's also a really nice interview included where Mr. Bronzman is almost too honest for own good.
Steve Goodman Live At The Earl Of Oldtown
The man who wrote the song "City of New Orleans". If that's not enough to get you interested in listening to this disc, then how about because of him John Prine started recording. Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of him, Steve died in 1985 just as he was starting to come to the public's attention and becoming well known. A great singer, songwriter, and guitar player, this recently discovered live concert is a treat that shows off all his extraordinary talents when he was at the peak of his prowess. Only a few months later he would start chemotherapy treatments for the Leukemia that would take his life in 1985.
Big Bill Broonzy Amsterdam Live. Concerts 1958
This two disc set was recorded over two nights of concerts that Big Bill gave in Amsterdam. They had never been released before this year because the owner of the tapes wanted to wait until the technology was good enough to do them justice. They had been originally recorded using film recording hardware ensuring that the sound quality is of the highest quality. These are amazing recordings of one of the greats of the acoustic Blues genre and make a fine addition to any collection,
Steve Goodman (DVD) Live From Austin City Limits and More
This is a compilation of a couple of concerts Steve gave on the famous television show, with a few other tidbits thrown in for good measure. One is a rather poignant interview with him just a year before his death, and there are also interviews with Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, both men who were great friends of Steve. Watching this DVD reminds you how much energy one man and his guitar can generate if they are totally involved with what they are doing. Anything I say about this disc will sound like an exaggeration I think it's so good, so I'll settle for saying it's almost a fitting memorial for a great performer.
John Prine Fair and Square
One of my old favourites John Prine has never disappointed me with any of his releases and Fair and Square is no exception. All the usual great elements are here, biting sarcasm, intelligence, social commentary, politics, and the real world of people whose lives aren't going to be profiled in People Magazine any day soon. A great antidote to the world of Paris and Brittany is to play this disc and forget they exist
Ruf Records Anthology (CD & DVD)12 Years Of Blues Crossing Over
The CD of this two disc set features the songs from each year that Ruf Records has existed that Thomas Ruf, owner of the label, considered the best song of that year. With songs from people as diverse as Walter Trout and Jeff Healy performing a duet, to the late Kevin Coyne's improvisation the CD/DVD set gives a really good indication of what Ruf Records is attempting to do. From the world music inspired work of Bob Brozman to the barrelhouse boogie of Omar and the Howlers, Ruf Records lets people know the many different shades of Blues available.

Well how about that, turned out to be twelve discs, one for each month of the year so that's okay. The link with each of them leads to my full review of the disc at Blogcritics so if you're felling masochistic you can read in detail what I had to say about them. You can tell that I spent a lot of the past year listening to the Blues, but I find it's still some of the best and most emotionally honest music out there.

I've gotten too old and cranky to put up with the posing of Rock and Roll and the pretentiousness of those folk who take themselves far too seriously. Of course you can always interpret my snobbery as a form of pretentiousness too if you want, it does cut both ways.

However you want to look at it these are twelve recordings that made a difference in my world over the year, and helped change the way I look at music in some cases. If you're looking for something more then a little off the beaten path that's still fun to listen too than any one of the discs I've listed here is worth checking out..

Happy listening everybody and see you in the New Year with a whole bunch more obscure music.

December 28, 2006

Music Review: Bahamut Hazmat Modine

The past ten years or more has seen a renewed interest in what's come to be known as "Roots Music". In other words the musical styles that have shaped American (North American) pop music. From the holler songs of the slaves in the field, old country versions of Scotch and Irish ballads, Rag Time piano, Carolina Blues, Gospel, and well the list is as long and divers as the people who have settled in one part of the continent or another.

By now there's pretty much a hard fast definition of what "Roots Music" is. Usually acoustic, and most often a variation on either early blues or country music, it is played on guitars, drums, banjos, and other "traditional" instruments from our rural pasts. It usually conjures up images of families gathered on the back porch playing, or old ramshackle bars in the south.

Although the harmonica was originally a German import to the country it was quickly adopted by both black and white musicians into their respective music as an alternate to vocals or using more complicated wind instruments in simpler songs. It was adapted from its original usage to fit the needs of the various styles of music, as it could be both a rhythm and a lead instrument.

But as seems more often the case then not when it comes to the arts, and music in particular, like the harmonica "Roots Music" has more to its history then just being how we hear it played today. In pockets all over America music has been made on instruments that have not withstood the ravages of time or the whims of popularity. Different ethnic groups would bring their instruments and their music with them, which wouldn't ever achieve the popularity of Blues or Country, but in their playing, would influence the musical styles of a region.

The harmonica has remained, but the same can't be said for the claviola, the cimbalom, the contra bass saxophone or the lute guitar. But all of those instruments have been played at time or another across North America. Now the band Hazmat Modine has recorded an album of "Roots Music" utilizing some of these, and others, forgotten instruments, and their first album, Bahamut, kicks over all our preconceptions of musical history.
Before we go any further, this isn't some sort of anthropological music album that we're talking about here. The music is just as alive and vital as any of the other albums of traditional Country, Blues or Gospel albums being released today. It's also every damn bit as good as what we've been listening to.

"Steady Roll" is the precursor to Chuck Berry style Rock and Roll; "Dry Spell" could easily be a New Orleans jazz song; and "Everybody Loves You" could easily be a hard driving Blues song from the Mississippi Delta. But America's roots are as European as they are African and so why shouldn't any of these songs include tuba solos, or reflect our Asiatic roots as the harmony vocals in "Everybody Loves You" do?

Okay so maybe throat singing from the plains of Siberia is not something you'd expect to find on a Blues track probably ever. The fact that the four piece band Huun-Huur-Tu not only sings on the song "Everybody Loves You", and that it doesn't sound like some weird novelty act, but a sensible contribution to the song, shows you how much our definition of roots music needs to be broadened.
Huun - Huur -Tu.jpg
I'm sure to some of you this is beginning to sound like a dreadful mishmash of music where a bunch of artisies have gotten together to try and sound cool. But you couldn't be further from the truth with that sort of guess. They haven't just done things for the sake of being different; they are trying to find a sound that is inclusive of all the musical sources that have made their way to our continent.

While these instruments may not have come here for the purposes the band puts them too, they are striving to create "American" music and these instruments are now American. The sound of the wind instrument Claviola may sound alien to our ears, but the music it is playing is familiar. When it is introduced into the mix with instruments we do recognise, it is no longer as jarring as it was initially.

The same goes for the vocal harmonies and instruments played by the men of Huun-Huur-Tu. Throat singing has a wildness to it that at first makes you wonder how in the world is this going to fit into any style of music that I'm familiar with. But in the end we lose track of the exotic nature of the sound and accept it as an important element of what is being performed.

Aside from the diversity of music being performed on this disc, Bahamut is distinguished by the virtuosity of the players involved in Hazmat Modine either directly or as a guest. But there is an intangible quality to this music beyond it merely being a bunch of skilled musicians playing neat instruments really well.

There is a hint of that in something that Wade Schuman, leader of Hazmat Modine, says about Country, Blues and Jazz music having a certain directness and simplicity that's very moving, and that's hard to understand. That simplicity and directness he says comes from a place deep in the soul of America that you have to tap into.

Hazmat Modine on their debut album Bahamut show that they are fully capable of taping into that simple and direct part of the American soul; the part that can cut through the shit and peel back the essence of a feeling or a moment and put it to music with courage and conviction.

The music of Hazmat Modine on the album Bahamut is some of the best music I've heard this year period. No one serious about knowing the potential that lies within traditional American music should miss listening to the disc. It will open your eyes at the very least, but hopefully also you ears and your heart.

December 18, 2006

Music Review: White Trash Girl - Candye Kane

When it comes to music I can still appreciate a good surprise. Most of the time I'm quite content with my life being fairly uneventful, when the majority of surprises in the past have been unpleasant you gain an appreciation for anything resembling mundane. But with an overwhelming amount of music these days being predictable to the point of nausea almost anything even a little bit surprising is like a breath of fresh air.

Although I had already heard the title track of Candye Kane's 2005 release White Trash Girl and enjoyed it immensely, listening to the entire album was an eye opener. I already knew that she was more then capable of singing big and brassy blues' tunes but what I hadn't foreseen was the diversity of song styling she was capable of rendering and her refreshing attitude towards life.

If you go to her website or buy her disc you can find out about her life in detail, but in a nutshell she's managed to raise two children on her own, find the courage to risk following her dreams, and retain a healthy understanding and respect for who she is and where she came from. If half the so-called celebrities who claim to be musicians had an iota of the of this woman's integrity they might have enough respect for themselves and their music to be more than cogs in a marketing director's wheels.

Her music reflects both her honesty about who she is, and her amazing ability to laugh at herself while never once diminishing herself as a person. From the title track "White Trash Girl', where she laughs at all the stereotypes about poor single women, her admonishment to her fellow women to make the best of their situations and the gifts they were given in "Work What You Got", to her cover of Bull Moose Jackson's "Big Fat Mamas are Back In Style" where she glories in the fact that she's definitely not a petite.
Candye Kane.jpg
But what I found most impressive about her, and which was the pleasant surprise, was the variety of music she not only performs, but also has the ability to write. She sites Jerry Lee Lewis as one of her old favourites, so "Work What You Got" being reminiscent of "Great Balls Of Fire" isn't too surprising, though her masterful delivery and timing during the song make it a whole lot of fun. It's her ability to do the non-traditional blues/rock and roll song that makes her disc much more interesting then the average disc of this type.

"It Must Be Love" is a great example of her ability to do Big-Band/Show tune type music with more panache and style then I've heard in ages. From the swing of the music, the horn section, and right down to the call and response of the background chorus of male singers, it sounds like it was written in another era. But she also makes it work as a contemporary piece with the lyrical content and the power of her personality.

For those types of songs to work the singer has to be able to "sell" it to the audience. They involve a lot more work then just standing up and making sure you sing in tune and on key. A singer has to be willing to perform the song like she was acting a role on stage, (hence the term "show tune" even if they aren't associated with a play), in order for it to work. To be able to carry a tune like that off as Candye does is an amazing in of itself. The fact that she also wrote the lyrics to work with the music is even more of an accomplishment.

It's an unfortunate reality that most ballads or slow songs today are ruined by the lack of sincerity in the performer's presentation. They swoop their voices up and down the scales with no real attention to what their doing other then trying to distract the audience with vocal pyrotechnics. On "I Could Fall For You" Candye shows them how it should be done, worrying more about the content of the song and ensuring the lyrics are sung with genuine feeling when it matters instead of beating them to death with a stick for the length and breadth of the song.

Of course she can also cut loose with the best of them, and on her barrelhouse type numbers like "Misunderstood" or her cover of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "I Wanna Be More" it's impossible not to get caught up in her enthusiasm for the music and the song. Speaking of covers, she takes the old John Sebastian tune "What A Day For A Daydream" and makes it her own while preserving the original whimsy.

It's not often that we get performers anymore who have the combination of ability and strength of personality to carry off the types of songs and music that Candye Kane performs. Pick up a copy of White Trash Girl and be pleasantly surprised by what you hear, and how much you enjoy it. There's a lot more to this girl than just one dimension of the blues.

November 28, 2006

The Music Maker Relief Foundation: Helping Restore The Blues

Throughout the month of November myself and other Blogcritics writers have been reviewing and talking about Blues music. Something that's become clear from writing some of these articles, and from reading them, is the universal appeal of the Blues. Guitar players from Finland and record labels in Germany only confirms the fact, everybody does indeed get the Blues.

But no matter how far flung the Blues has become, there's no doubt in anybody's mind where its roots lie. When Thomas Ruf of Ruf records in Germany wanted to give some of his young European Blues musicians a deeper understanding of the music they played he took them to Mississippi and Memphis to record.

They hung out and played for hours a day with the people who have lived and breathed the music and the life circumstances that created it. Ruf understood that it's one thing for these young people to play the music on a daily basis, but another altogether to experience it. In Europe they lacked the resource that would enable this, the people who've been living, breathing, performing, and creating the Blues for the past few generations.

The roots of Blues music run deep in the Southern United States, and are closely intermingled with the social history of that region. To play the Blues without an awareness of the people and the places it came from is to rob it of the very vitality that has kept it vibrant and alive long after its originators have passed on.
Etta Baker.jpg
When Thomas Ruf took his musicians to record Pilgrimage: Mississippi To Memphis they were only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is floating hundreds if not thousands of musicians who contributed in one way or another a little piece of the story of the Blues.

These men and women, who ought to be at least recognised for their contributions to the creation and development of American culture, have been living their lives in obscurity and, in most cases, poverty for many years. Unfortunately many still are, but because of the l efforts of one couple a very exiting change has taken place over the last fifteen years.

The way Tim Duffy tells the story of the Music Maker Relief Foundation it sounds like such an obvious thing to do you wonder why no one thought of it earlier. In 1990 he had met Guitar Gabriel, and they began playing together. Through Gabriel Tim began to get to know other older musicians and learned about the harsh realities of their lives.

Initially he tried to organize gigs and recording deals for these musicians in order to help them keep body and soul together. After three years of this he realized that without help he wasn't going to get anywhere. He had made some rough field recordings of many of the performers and in the end they were what started the ball rolling.
Jack Owens recording.jpg
Tim had sent out a general plea for help to people who had been friends of his late father, and one of the first to respond was Mark Levinson a pioneer in the world of commercial stereo equipment. He was the one who got the ball rolling for the Music Maker Foundation by promoting an initial compilation disc through his showroom.

A chance meeting between Mark and Eric Clapton resulted in Eric's interest in the project and the initial bump that the project needed to get publicity and a small distribution deal with Tower Records. They were now able to start generating some funds and booking shows for the artists. It was only the beginning.

Now seventeen years since his fateful meeting with Guitar Gabriel (who ironically died just as the foundation began to bear fruit) The Music Maker Relief Foundation has come quite a distance. With an Advisory board that includes Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Sue Foley, and B.B. King, and Taj Mahal serving on the Board of Directors public awareness is growing which assures the continued growth and expansion of the programming offered by the organization.
Drink Small At The Piano.jpg
Not only are they now able to provide grants for individuals in need of financial assistance, they are able to produce records, arrange gigs for individual artists, and promote international tours under the Music Maker banner. Slowly but surely they are not only bringing the people who made the music out of obscurity, but generating interest in some of the lesser known styles of the music as well.

There is always the danger that when some performers die that a style or type of music could vanish with them forever. Producing groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, three young Black musicians who play the Country Blues of the Carolinas, ensures that music is prevented from becoming either only a memory or a dusty museum piece.

The Music Maker Relief Foundation is not just about recognising the achievements of those who came before, or even just preserving their music like fossils in amber. Now that they have successfully started their grant program to artists in need, their next step is to ensure the music's continued vitality and bring it to new audiences everywhere.

The Chocolate drops are one step in that direction, but Tim Duffy envisions a day when the foundation has its own facilities for recording, performing, and celebrating the people who create the music. He's well aware of how fickle fad and fashion can be, so he knows it will take a permanent effort beyond what he and his wife Denise are capable of as individuals to maintain what has been started.

Not only is the music that the foundation strives to preserve important, the work of the foundation itself must be preserved beyond this one generation for it to be successful. Initially it may have been founded with the humanitarian goal of caring for those who pioneered the Blues, but it has outgrown that impulse. Now it is fast becoming a means of preserving an important aspect of the United States' cultural heritage.

With the permanent location of Tim's realized it will be possible for the music and the people who perform it to have the means to always be a part of the nation's awareness. Nevermore will they become out of sight and out of mind and risk being relegated to the scrap heap of the forgotten.

If you have even the barest of interest in the Blues and the people who were responsible for keeping it alive over the years in all its glorious shapes and sizes than you may want to consider a way in which you can support the efforts of the Music Maker Relief Foundation. They are one of the best and brightest hopes for keeping the Blues alive today.

October 28, 2006

Music Review: Fair & Square John Prine

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A few years back I ran across an acquaintance of mine who I'd almost forgotten about. Well he's not really anyone I know personally, but John Prine has been around for most of my adult music listening life. He feels like one of those folk you'd see everyday on the bus on the way to work or school, who'd you'd not be friends with but whose company you had come to accept as part of your life.

Then one day you change jobs, or leave school and you stop seeing them. Years later if you happen to run into them, no matter what the circumstances, they provide a comfortable feeling of familiarity in a world which might not have turned out the way you expected it. So it is with John Prine and his music.

I had been listening to him all the way through the seventies, starting with his first release on Atlantic Records John Prine (The album with the three songs he's still probably best known for: "Hello In There", "Illegal Smile", and "Sam Stone",), Sweet Revenge ("Christmas In Prison" and "Dear Abby") and anything else he put out in those first ten or twelve years of his career. There was even one memorable concert experience during that time before his voice started to deteriorate in the late eighties and early nineties.

It wasn't until 1996 that it was discovered John had a cancerous growth on the outside of his neck. The first doctor he went to told him not to worry about it, and it wasn't for another year that anyone bothered with it. When it was discovered to be malignant the doctors did their best to shield his larynx from the radiation to preserve his vocal chords as much as possible and he's come out the other side with his voice only slightly deeper.

When he was fully recovered from the treatments John wrote an open letter to those who liked his music and songs indicating he was ready to go back out on the road again and feeling better then he had in a long time. The casual informality of his relationship with his fans, like that fellow passenger I talked about earlier, allowed him to say that he hoped "… my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders" as much as he was to getting back to singing.
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It was the Billy Bob Thornton movie Daddy And Them ( a movie that's worth watching just to hear Andy of Mayberry worry about being "corn holed") that brought John Prine back into my life. Not only did he play one of Billy Bob's dysfunctional family members in the movie (he turns out to be the one willing to push the family to pull itself together) he provided a song for the movie, "In Spite Of Ourselves", a typically bittersweet love song about a couple similar to the one portrayed by Billy Bob and Laura Dern in the movie. Somehow or other, despite all the strikes against them, they are able to love each other and find a way of making it work.

It was the title song from an album John had done where teamed up with a variety of women vocalists, to record some of the classic duets of country music. After watching the movie I rushed out and picked up a copy of it and rediscovered the joy of listening to John Prine all over again. The interesting thing about that, was he had only written the one song, "In Spite Of Ourselves" of the fourteen tracks recorded, but he is so distinctive in style and presentation the songs became his.

Except perhaps for the duets with Iris Dement, the rest of the tracks were John Prine accompanied by someone else. That has nothing to do with him hogging the spotlight or lack of talent on the part of the other singer, but more to do with the strength of his personality. Just singing and playing guitar he has presence that people with twice his fame and notoriety can only dream of.

But to really appreciate John you have to listen to him singing his own music and you need look no further then his most recent release on Oh Boy Records (his own label) Fair & Square to experience that treat. In fact if you're like me and still relatively new to coming back to listening to him you'll be happy to know that he seems to have a obtained a comfort level that was absent for the longest time.
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His songs are still matter of fact with only some poetic flights of fancy to soften the edges of reality, but it's that unsentimental nature of his material that gives it such universal appeal. Songs like "Glory Of True Love" sings the praises and itemizes the merits of true love in terms we can all relate to, but without being simple or melodramatic. The tune is so up-tempo and cheerful that you wonder why everyone else makes such a meal out of the subject.

His biggest strength as a songwriter has always been his ability to make his listener empathise with his subject matter; the old couple in "Hello In There" is a perfect example. He shows he hasn't lost that touch on Fair & Square with songs like "Long Monday" with its lyrics about the feelings of longing generated by missing someone you care for deeply and "Some Humans Ain't Human" with its description of the ways in which people can be mean to each other and some folk, including Presidents of the United States, just don't get it.

Although his other recent works, Missing Years and Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, have been good discs (His duet on the latter with Marianne Faithful is not to be missed) the Grammy award winning Fair & Square from 2005 seems to have recaptured the intangible elements of his song writing and performing that made his earlier work so memorable.

If that person you used to see on the bus all the time began to sing you his songs and managed to make it feel that of all the people on the bus he was singing only for you, that would go some ways in describing Prine at his best. Although Fair & Square wasn't written for you alone, it sure feels like it was, and there's no finer feeling than having a CD performed just for you.

October 13, 2006

Music Review: Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits...And More

In a documentary feature included in the DVD Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits… And More Kris Kristofferson tries to explain what Steve was like by citing a poem by a South American poet. The Poem talks about a man who scales a high mountain and looks down upon all the people on earth and sees them each like a spark of flame.

Some of the flames simply burn, others waver, but some are so bright and hot that you can't even look at them. Kristofferson paused then, and you could see him struggling to control his emotions, and he said that Steve was like that; full of so much energy inside of him that it was almost too much for one body to contain. Kriffstofferson laughed then and said that it took him a while but he finally learned to stop having Steve open his shows for him. He got tired of the critics saying that Steve would blow him off the stage.

From 1969 until his death in 1984 Steve lived with the knowledge that his days were numbered. For fifteen years he fought off the Leukemia that would eventually cause his kidneys and liver to fail in a Washington State hospital, writing and singing songs that made people laugh, and moved their hearts. He never received the popular acclaim that his songs did, Arlo Guthrie had the hit with "City Of New Orleans", but those who knew him or heard him sing understood the wealth that he had to offer.

For those who never had the privilege of seeing Steve Goodman perform live while he was with us, or if you're like me and only managed to see him once many a long year ago, finding out that a DVD was made of two of his concerts is like discovering the sunken treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean. Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits… And More was released in 2003 by the label he founded, Red Pyjama Records, and as usual with Steve's stuff flew under everyone's radar.

The majority of the material is taken from two concerts he performed on the inestimable television show Austin City Limits, the first in 1977 and the second in a show he recorded in tandem with his buddy John Prine in 1982. Sandwiched between the two halves of Austin is an interview given by Steve in 1983 overlooking Wrigley Field from the roof of one of those apartments you always see people watching games from.
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Steve said no and explained he wrote it like he would write any song; he was bored and travelling on a plane and needed something to do. Since he was flying into Chicago for a concert for the first time in a while he was thinking about Chicago and that made him think about the Cubs, and that made him think about this guy lying their dieing.

The public never knew about Steve's illness until it became impossible to disguise it anymore. When that time came, instead of lamenting or whatever, he laughed in its face, giving himself a new nickname, "Cool Hand Leuk" and releasing an album called Artistic Hair. The album cover featured a picture of him with a post chemotherapy hairstyle standing in front of a barbershop and a big idiot grin on his face.

Watching Steve perform, especially in the first half of the DVD, is like watching a firework splutter and spark all over the place. Sometimes he'll just simmer with an interior passion as on songs like "My Old Man", a song for his father, or "Old Fashioned". Other times he explodes like a Roman Candle and you'd swear this little five foot two inch Jewish guy from Chicago was imbued with the spirit of a revival meeting leader.

On the song "The 20th Century Is Almost Over" he stops strumming on his guitar and stands back from the microphone and shakes and shimmies so much that his feat leave the ground; his arms flail about him and the vocals drive out of him with such force that the audience is forced to start clapping along spontaneously. There's nothing forced or artificial about the moment, it's as natural as breathing for Steve to become that passionate about his music.

No set in Austin Texas would be complete without the inclusion of "You Never Even Call Me By My Name" which was a song that Steve and John Prine wrote together with the sole object of cramming every last Country and Western cliché into one tune. When they realized they still hadn't mentioned, trucks, mothers, jail, Christmas, trains, and the dog dying, Steve wrote one last verse including all of them.

In an interview on the documentary part of the DVD John confesses that he was so embarrassed by the song that he told Steve to leave his name off it when he recorded it. When the song became a hit for someone else, Steve phoned him and asked if he wanted to reconsider so he could share in the profits, John said no he would stand by his word. The next day Steve showed up at his house with an antique jukebox from the 40's worth around twelve thousand dollars as a present.

The 1982 concert excerpts are slightly more subdued than those from 1977, but they show Steve's wit and empathy as a performer to their fullest extent. The opening song "Talk Backwards" features him doing just that, singing half the song lyrics backwards, in a hysterical piece of nonsense reminiscent of the pieces he wrote with Shel Silverstein of Dr. Hook fame. "Elvis Imitators", his peon of praise to those folk who make their living pretending to be Elvis, offers a hint of his former ebullience as he does a brilliant Elvis imitation himself, complete with guitar and hip gyrations.

One of the biggest ironies of Steve career was the song he probably received the most recognition for was one he didn't even write. "The Dutchman" was written by Michael Smith, but for me and probably quite a few others, it's Steve's version we will always hear in our heads.

Steve was joined by Jethro Burns, mandolin player extraordinaire, for "The Dutchman" and two other tracks. An instrumental called "Tico Tico" and this little tune you might have heard of called "City Of New Orleans". For those of you who are most familiar with Arlo Guthrie's version of the song, it will be something of a shock probably to hear it in its original bluegrass version, but that's how Steve wrote it.

I'm sure all the usual clichéd metaphors have been used to describe Steve's short life and none of them probably do justice to what he accomplished. But watching and listening to people like Marty Stuart, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Arlo Guthrie in the documentary portion of the DVD trying to find the right way to describe their late friend, and stumbling around at a loss for words, I don't feel so bad knowing that anything I say won't be sufficient.

Watch the DVD Steve Goodman Live From Austin City Limits…And More and maybe you'll be able to find the words in your heart that work for you. I know that for me it managed to remind me of the fact that one human being can light up a city with the power of his or her convictions, and that the light given off by that energy can be a shining example for others.

Steve Goodman's ashes are buried beneath home plate at Wrigley Field.

September 29, 2006

Music Review: Live At The Earl Of Old Town Steve Goodman

The biggest danger with nostalgia is the way it can distort your perceptions of quality. That which you remember as being oh so wonderful from years gone by when seen, tasted, or heard today turns out to be not only not as good as you remembered thinking, but actually damned awful.

The matter gets even more complicated if emotions are involved: I lost my virginity to that song makes a piece of music loom large in your life. You've carried the song and the memory around with you for years as a cherished moment until one day you hear the song again and find out it was a piece of shit, which also causes you to remember that your first sex was actually quite bad.

So it's a dangerous thing to go messing around with the past when it comes to music, sometimes these things are better left as memories, vague, warm and fuzzy. But sometimes the risk is worth taking because the memory or the song, or the person singing it, is just so vivid that you want to hear him or her singing just one more time. Even if it ruins the song for you it won't matter because at least you'll be able to resolve how you feel about it.

I had all these feelings running through my head, and heart, when I put a long lost recording of a live concert of Steve Goodman in my CD player. The fact that it was from the same year, 1978, that I had last seen him performing myself made the nostalgia even more thick on the ground. Putting Live At The Earl Of Old Town in my player was an extreme act of faith on my part.

Thankfully my faith in Steve Goodman was rewarded. He was and truly is still amazing to listen to. Unfortunately the only way you are going to hear him in concert anymore is on discs like this, because Steve has been dead since 1984. In fact he was already suffering from the Leukemia that was going to kill him in 1978 when he gave those concerts.

It is one of the horrible ironies in life that just as he was finally gaining recognition outside of his hometown of Chicago that this would happen. But that night in the Earl of Old Town, a club in Chicago, there is no way you could have told there was anything wrong with him. The performance that came through my cheap little CD player was as an energetic and exhilarating gig as I've heard on any live disc before.

The people who call themselves folk musicians these days have forgotten how to have fun. They take themselves and their material all too damn seriously, and they seem to have forgotten the "folk" who it was written for. Nobody needs another song about hardship.

Woody Guthrie wrote a bunch of great hardship songs, so did Oddeta; sing us a couple of their tunes if you're so intent on crying about the state of the world, because they got it covered. Why do you think that Arlo Guthrie only writes one or two songs a year? There are thousands of wonderful songs out there waiting to be sung that tell the stories that need to be told. Most anything written now will just be redundant.

But songs that make people happy, or songs that bring a smile to a face; we can always use more of those. That doesn't mean live in denial, what it means is recognise that being a folk singer doesn't mean you have to be full of doom and gloom all the time, or singing about your feelings every other song. Look outside of yourself for a second, at the folk who folk music is for.

Of the seventeen songs on Live At The Earl Of Old Town only eight are Goodman originals, and one of them he co-wrote with Shel Silverstein. ("What Have You Done For Me Lately") Throughout the set he's sprinkled songs that he likes, classics and otherwise. I mean what social significance is there to singing "Red, Red, Robin" by Harry Woods, "Rockin' Robin" by Jesse Thomas, or making up silly lyrics about the Chicago Cubs and singing them to the tune of "When The Saints Go Marching In".

None whatsoever, except to give people something to enjoy, to bring a spark into people's lives with music about topics they can identify with. Sure there's room for songs about emotions in there, but they have to be universal, and you can't inundate people with them. That's not what's it all about. Steve understood that; he could write a song that would break your heart, and his very next number would lift your spirits up high into the sky.
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In the hands of a person who is more concerned about being a Performer instead of a singer it has the potential to become sugar water. But Steve just lets the words speak for themselves, doesn't try to increase their emotional impact through any extraneous emoting, and it's a beautiful little song because of that.

Steve is also a gifted guitar player, and that comes across on this live disc a lot more than it usually does on his studio recordings. That seems to be the one indulgence he allows himself when performing, showing off some hot licks. He takes an old favourite of his "The Lincoln Park Pirates" (a song about a car towing company with visions of power – hauling the planes parked at O'Hare airport into impound is a little extreme) and makes it an upbeat flamenco number complete with flourishes and staccato beats. But it doesn't detract form the song, just makes it that much more enjoyable.

Probably the song of Steve's that everyone knows is the song made famous by Arlo Guthrie, "City Of New Orleans". Arlo used to introduce it by giving updates on Steve's battle with Leukemia, but since Steve died he now tells the story of how he first heard the song. Steve had approached him in a bar and asked if he could sing him a song. Arlo said buy me a beer and I'll listen as long as I'm drinking. He played him "City Of New Orleans" and Arlo, as he puts it, feeling like an asshole, asked for the rights to play it.

What's amazing about hearing Steve sing it is that I always forget that he wrote it as a bluegrass song. So aside from the lyrics, the song is almost completely different from the way Arlo sings it. I wouldn't say that either version is better than the other, because I like them each equally well for different reasons.

On this night, Live At The Earl Of Old Town Steve was joined by some truly wonderful players who you might have heard of (I hadn't before this recording): Corky Siegle on harmonica and percussion, Hugh McDonald on bass, Jethro Burns on mandolin, and David Amram on pennywhistle and percussion.

Half the time they haven't rehearsed the songs, they just pop up on stage to play, but you couldn't tell that from listening as they soar right through all the songs with precision and grace. Jethro Burns in particular is amazing on mandolin, making the strings sing and the notes dance.

Sometime in early 2007 there's a biography of Steve Goodman being published, Face The Music is the projected title I believe, and I'm sure it will be a great project as the writer has done extensive research and interviewing. But for me when you're talking about a musician, the true story of their life is written in their music and how well it stands the test of time.

Steve Goodman's music has managed to stay on it's own feet now for close to forty years without anybody's help. This release of Live At The Earl Of Old Town confirms that. If you're not familiar with Steve's work, or the work of a good modern folk singer, then this is one disc that you should give a listen to. If you are a fan of Steve' from before, buy this – it's like having him stop by and giving you a personal concert.

Pretty good for someone who has been dead for twenty-two years.

August 29, 2006

Music Review: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion Exploration

I have a confession to make, although it might not be much of a revelation since most have you probably guessed a while back, but I'm a folkie. Oh sure I shaved my head in the late seventies and early eighties and listened to The Clash and called myself a punk. But I must have been one of the only shaved heads in attendance at the Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie concert at the Ontario Place Forum in the summer of 1980.

The only relief I had from classical music being shoved down my throat at home as a kid was to listen to my parent's collection of The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Talking Union albums. Pride of place was of course given to Songs of the Lincoln Brigade, a collection of songs from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

Maybe it was because the majority of the songs were in English and sung so they could be comprehended, or the fact they were played on instruments no more complicated than a guitar made them appealing. But the fact remains that I've listened to folk music through all the different fads that popular music and I have gone through. It was like a constant friend who I could be sure of when everyone else was just a little too screwed up to make sense or offer any comfort.

So it goes without saying that when I saw there was a third generation of Guthries striking out on her own following in Arlo and Woody's footsteps I was intrigued and wanted to hear some of her music. Sarah Lee Guthrie performs in a duo comprised of herself and her husband Johnny Irion and their most recent release was 2005's Exploration. The good folk over at New West Records were kind enough to send me along a copy of the CD so that I could give it a listen and tell you about it.

I'm having a hard time staying focused on the disc, I keep wanting to circle away from it whenever I get close, and talk about things like folk music, blah de blah etc. etc. Every time I walk up and approach mentioning it I feel like a career single "A" player stepping up to home plate, with Roger Clemons on the mound, totally unprepared for the task at hand.

Just jumping out over the plate and saying holy shit their great before losing consciousness from having my brains being splattered all over the backstop by a 100mph fastball doesn't really constitute an effort. So I'm going to go down swinging trying to tell you why you're life will be so much better for you owning this CD.

I could tell you how incredible their voices work together in harmony. That they are so seamless that on occasion you can't tell which voice belongs to which person as they twine in around each other like a closely knit vine wrapping itself around the trunk of a tree. Or that her voice soars in the stratosphere, it makes you think of the wind in the treetops that doesn't come down to earth but you know it's there by the way the trees bend before it. But it can also plummet back down to earth in the blink of an eye and leave you guessing at where she's been and what she's seen only to have her tell you all about it in the next line.

I could tell you how his voice has that eerie quality that Neil Young's can take on occasionally without him sounding a bit like Neil Young. Or maybe I could say that when I listen to him sing I think of the world laid out stretched around me; an endless panorama of sights and sounds travelling in all directions and cutting across time and place. Not necessarily of this time but so current that it breaks your heart while at the same time giving you hope of a better tomorrow.
SarahLee and Johnny at Merlefest
I could tell you that they sing songs about love, relationships between couples and between peoples. That their songs speak of dignity, respect and the wonders of the universe; that they are by turn, angry, sad, happy, and hopeful no matter what they're singing about. I could say that some of their songs sound country, some sound like rock and roll, and some sound like old time country songs like Sarah Lee's granddaddy wrote.

I could tell you all that shit that we normally put into reviews and in reality I wouldn't feel like I'd told you the first thing about them or their music. It's too real and personal an experience listening to Exploration to simply dissect it easily with mundane sentences of praise or critique.

To merely say I liked the CD would be an obvious understatement; it moved me, it made me think, but most of all it involved me. For me that's always been what its come down to for music to qualify as folk music, the amount that it is able to involve me on a personal level that often escapes more complex arrangements of pop music.

That way I'm able to preclude those who would otherwise qualify as "folk" musicians because they happen to be solo performers who play an acoustic instrument but sing facile songs of cheap sentimentality. It also opens the door to allow music of a more complex nature into the genre based on its ability to connect with "folk" rather than what instruments are being played.

Although Sarah Lee and Johnny are all over the map musically they are just as much folk music as their solo performing predecessors were. Stylistically they may be worlds apart from the old Talking Union and Weavers records of my parent's record collection, but emotionally and spiritually they are among friends.

Listening to Exploration is not always a comfortable experience nor is everybody going to find themselves in agreement with all of the sentiments expressed on the CD. But that is only a reflection of the honesty and integrity of the artists behind the project and their love for what they do. Listening to this album is to be assured that the spirit of American Folk music is alive and well and continuing to grow and develop, just like the folk it speaks to.

August 16, 2006

DVD Review: Gram Parsons Fallen Angel

When Gram Parsons died of booze in pills (natural causes said the coroner's finding) in 1973 his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman lived up to his end of a deal that they had made earlier. He stole Gram's body and burned it in the desert; at Joshua Tree, California. It was a moment typical of Gram's desire for the big moment, the flamboyant gesture that would set him apart from the rest.

There's a mystique that has built up around Gram Parson's since his too short life came to an end that has been fuelled mainly by the amazing body of work that he left behind and haunting sound of his voice that lives on even after he's been dead for more then thirty years. But who was this man who has inspired more posthumous tribute albums than people who achieved far more fame then he ever did, and is credited with being the influence behind the whole country-rock genre which birthed bands like The Eagles.

Gram Parsons Fallen Angel, a documentary film by Gandulf Henning attempts to answer the enigma of Graham Parsons by interviewing the famous, the family, and all of those who knew him during his brief, meteoric passing. Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman and other musical luminaries talk freely and candidly about their times with Gram and his influence on them and their careers.

Going back into his childhood they attempt to find out the causes of his self-destructive behaviour. As Chris Hillman of the Byrds and latter The Flying Burrito Brothers said, " it was a classic Tennessee Williams play". Now Southern Gothic may be all right to watch on stage, but growing up in that atmosphere sounds like it wasn't the healthiest of upbringings.

His father shot himself when he was still young, his mother was an alcoholic and died in mysterious circumstances in the hospital when she had been admitted for alcohol related problems. Her second husband, Bob Parsons, whose name Gram would bear for the rest of his life, was known to have been in her room just prior to her death and had been sneaking her booze and pills up until she died. He latter remarried – his adapted children's baby sitter.

The picture that emerges of Gram from these early years, up until the end of his one-year stint at Yale University, was of the poor little rich boy who could have anything money could buy, but no love. When he became interested in music in high school his parents converted a room in the house into a music room for him to rehearse in. He obviously loved the music, but he also saw it as a ticket to being famous.

The film makers follow Gram's career from his early days in New York City, followed by his joining the Byrds, the birth and death of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and his short lived solo career where he worked with Emmylou Harris. At each stop along the way the people he played with say the same thing; when Gram was together he was the best.
His voice was the quintessential "high lonesome" which could make you feel the sadness of the world and rip your heart right out. Creatively he could be without equal as well. Hillman credits him with being the driving force behind Sweetheart Of The Rodeo one of the Byrds' best albums. Songs like "Drug Store Truck Driving Man" with its country sound but socially conscious lyrics were part of his distinctive sound and the change he wrought on the Byrds.

But even then, according to the film, he was more interested in fame and the rock star lifestyle than the work involved with achieving it. Through Chris Hillman he met Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones for the first time, and that began his fascination with them and what he saw as the glamour of their career.

The Byrds had come to London England as a prelude to going on tour of South Africa, and Gram had asked Keith Richards to explain what the situation was like there. Keith laughs about the conversation in an interview saying that if he knew that it was going to cause him to leave the Byrds he might not have told Gram about apartheid.

For Gram used the situation in South Africa as an excuse not to make the trip with the Byrds, telling them two hours before the flight was to leave. But in Chris Hillman's opinion he didn't want to go, because he wanted to hang out with Keith Richards instead.

This pattern of abandoning his own work because he was attracted to the lifestyle of fame and adulation continued with his own group the Flying Burrito Brothers. According to Hillman, who obviously didn't stay mad at Gram, as he became part of the Burrito Brothers, Gram wrote some of the best music of his career during that time.

The filmmakers have pulled together old promotional clips from the time period of the Burritos performing together, and Gram's voice is amazing even in these battered old pieces of film. But it was also him that suggested the band go out and buy the really expensive Nudie suits (the rhinestone cowboy outfits associated with Country and Western music in to this day) they wore on stage and in promotional shots.

Everybody had their own personal suit designed and Gram's became as infamous as him, covered, as it was, with pills, booze and marijuana plants. In an interesting little interview with the tailor who made the suits, he says he thought it interesting in retrospect that Gram would ask him to cover the suit with all the things he'd use to kill himself.

But even while everybody being interviewed is painting a picture of a totally irresponsible, almost selfish individual, they are all talking about him with love and affection. Even when Hillman talks about punching a hole in Gram's guitar one night, on stage, he's laughing as he recalls Gram, in all innocence asking, "Why'd you do that Chris?"

Everyone, from Gertrude his wife, to the guys that played with him, talk about him like he was a miscreant child who didn't know any better. He genuinely didn't understand why Chris was frustrated with him for not rehearsing and nobody seemed to make the effort to tell him.

Part of it was the fact that he had never needed to work for anything in his life, and still didn't. As a child and teenager he had all his material needs fulfilled by his mother's family, and as an adult he had a trust fund which according to who you listen too ranged from $20,000 - $50,000 a year. Even the low end of that scale in the late 1960's was more then most people's annual salary, so he was without a financial care in the world.

The Burritos dissolved after the night Chris put his fist through Gram's guitar and the other band members went on to other gigs. Gram and Gertrude were invited to visit Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones in the South of France for a summer, as the Stones prepared for their next album. While neither Keith nor Gertrude mention it, it's implied by another that Gram became involved in Heroin at this time.

It was when Gram got back from France that he embarked upon the final stage of his career and life. He managed to convince a record company to fund him for a solo album, and this was when Emmylou Harris became his backup vocalist. Like everyone else she adored and respected him, but at the same time recounts at how frustrating he was to work with.

She talks about being amazed that the album G.P. was ever released because she never saw anyone else actually do anything. When they prepared for their tour they never actually rehearsed a song from beginning to end, and it wasn't until they were fired from their first gig for not being able to play one song that she took matters into hand.
She ended up becoming the road "mother" making everybody sit down and rehearse properly and ensuring that they could all begin and end a song at the same time. After that she claims the tour was a huge success with audiences loving everything they did. I don't know it you've heard Emmylou and Gram sing together, but it sounds like their voices were designed for each other.

There are some grainy clips included in the film of the two of them from this tour; they would stand at right angles to each other so that Emmylou was sideways to the audience but looking at Gram. In a voice over we hear an old interview with Gram talking about singing with Emmylou. He says that all he had to do was make eye contact with her and she'd know exactly how to harmonize a song, even if she'd never heard it before.

The filmmakers have done an amazing amount of research and the interviews included in this documentary are with people from all aspects of Gram's life. The one thing everyone agrees upon is that he was a musical genius whose time ended far too soon. But even those who loved him the most – Chris Hillman, his wife Gertrude, and Emmylou Harris are all too aware of his failings as well.

Something else that becomes clear in this movie is that nobody ever really did anything to get him to change. The first person that seems to have been able to exert any sort of authority over him was Emmylou Harris, when she imposed her will on the band to make them rehearse for that tour. Up until then everybody else seemed to be content to suck what they could from Gram and than discard him when he became too difficult.

Maybe nobody could have done anything for him; perhaps the seeds of despondency had been planted too deep by the deaths of both his natural parents. His sister Avis who grew up in the same circumstances ended up spending years in mental institutions because of what they survived as children.

While this movie was an attempt to show who Gram Parsons was it and try to answer questions about why he did what he did, it also raises questions about the people who were around him. Why would they let him continue stuffing himself with booze and drugs in the last six months of his life when they knew he was so self-destructive?

Sure he always said he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory – hence the funeral pyre in Joshua Tree – but how could they let him have the means to his destruction so readily. He had separated from Gertrude and was living with friends for his own protection at the time, which in her opinion was a joke, as they were as big as users as he was.

Gram Parsons Fallen Angel fills in a lot of holes in the biography of Gram Parsons the person, and for those of you who didn't know that much about him before, this is a great introduction and summary of his all too brief life and career. There is a real sense of loss and waste that pervades the whole movie for what Gram could have been if he ever fulfilled his potential consistently.

What I found most disturbing about the movie was the image it left of a lost little boy who everybody continued to indulge no matter what. Everybody was just happy to be along for the ride, and with a few exceptions, sat back and let him self-destruct. These same people still seem content to bask in his reflected glory to this day.

This is a great documentary in that it reveals things that I don't think the subjects being interviewed realize are being unveiled. Their own sense of self-importance is more damning them more as accomplices in his self-destruction then anyone's accusations.

Gram Parsons Fallen Angel is a great documentary in that doesn't shy away from anything in regards to its subject matter or the circumstances of his life and death. This is a must see for any fan of Gram's because even with its warts and all portrayal it does nothing to diminish his musical accomplishments, and in some ways makes them seem all the more remarkable.

August 11, 2006

DVD Review: Johnny Cash Live From Austin Tx.

He was one of the most instantly recognised performers in the world. From the clothes he wore to that incredibly distinct voice there was little chance that anyone was going to either confuse him with someone else, or not recognize him when he got up on stage. But that never stopped him from opening his show every night with the same four words: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash".

I'm sure by now there are few people in the world in who don't know the story of the Man In Black; his struggles to overcome his personal demons, his love for the woman who would become his second wife, June Carter Cash, (somewhere else I referred to their marriage as on again off again which was wrong, it was their relationship before the wedding that was difficult due mainly to Johnny still being married for part of it and his drug and alcohol dependency) and his astounding ability to turn almost any song ever written into his own.

So in spite of being more well known for more years then probably any other popular musician of out time, the first words out of his mouth, save for song lyrics, were always the same. Delivered with a huge grin and a laugh, especially if he'd opened with one of his signature tunes before he said hello. It was part of the show and could never be changed, Johnny letting his voice drop down to it's deepest register and rumbling out those four magic words that let the world know he was still standing and ready to go another round.

It had been years since I'd seen Johnny Cash perform before I saw the biographical movie that was released, Walk The Line, and the physical traits that Joaquin Phoenix (the actor playing Johnny) demonstrated during the performance scenes seemed to border on caricature. But watching New West Records' release of Johnny Cash Live From Austin Tx. put that physicality into perspective.

Johnny Cash was a much more physically imposing person then Mr. Phoenix and when he hunched his head back down into his shoulders it was like he was preparing to counter punch an opponent in the boxing ring, or a bull setting himself up for that charge across the arena to take out the matador. But Johnny wasn't fighting any individual, he was standing up to those things that he saw wrong with the world.

He wasn't wearing black as a symbol of being cool or tough, but as mourning for all the people who life had dealt raw deals. His songs and music were his way of fighting back, and making his declaration to the world that he wasn't about to back down from the good fight. Perhaps that "Hello I'm Johnny Cash" at the beginning of each show was his throwing down the gauntlet, letting the world of hard times and misery know that here was a champion that was going to fight back and his songs were his weapons.

Johnny Cash Live From Austin Tx. is another of New West Records' re mastered releases from the television show Austin City Limits. This was originally broadcast in 1987 and it shows off the advantages of a concert specifically shot for television over the larger venue performances. The most significant difference is the degree of intimacy that the televised showing has to offer.

It's true there are now cameras that can bring you right on stage with the performer even if the concert is in a 100,000-seat stadium. But intimacy requires there to be a rapport of some kind with somebody. It's kind of hard for a performer to develop any sort of relationship with people in those large venue settings. It's a far easier task to accomplish when you're performing in a television studio.

Watching this DVD it truly felt that Johnny and his band were giving a command performance for both his studio audience and us at home. Each song was being sung especially for individual listener and you could feel the intensity of emotion and depth of his caring like I've never felt from a concert disc before.

It was being able to watch Johnny Cash with such detail that made me realize what Mr. Phoenix had been doing his best to emulate. When I was able to feel the concentration and passion that Mr. Cash was bringing to each song; he would draw back into himself during somebody else's solo, then uncoil like a snake to strike out with the next lyric and press home its point; the actor's characterization made far more sense.

Whether a highly personal song like "I'll Go Somewhere And Sing My Songs Again" or his cover of John Prine's tale of the wounded veteran "Sam Stone", almost every song is delivered with that fighting spirit and defiance. A notable exception was his duet with his wife June Carter Cash, "Where Did We Go Right" which has just the right combination of humour and sincerity to make it a truly beautiful affirmation of their love.

Here again the intimacy of a televised concert increases the impact of the performance by allowing us to witness the spontaneous gestures of affection between the couple. Their hands would continually be searching out each other's, for all the world like two young lovers still in the first blush of passion for each other. Moments like these are when it is possible to believe somebody when they say the words "the magic of television".

Johnny Cash Live From Austin Tx. is an opportunity to see one of the great singer songwriters of our time in a concert situation like you may never have seen him before. I don't know why but the sound quality was far superior on this disc compared to the other one in this series that I've reviewed (Kris Kristofferson) in spite of the fact that I was unable to use the 5.1 surround sound because it is DTS only.

If you had ever wanted to spend some quality time with Johnny Cash listening to him perform in the intimacy of a small club and never had the chance, than the next best thing is to get yourself a copy of Johnny Cash Live From Austin Tx Owning this disc is too good an opportunity for any Johnny Cash fan to let slip away – it will make an amazing addition to any Cash collection.

DVD Review: Kris Kristofferson Live From Austin Tx.

There are some performers who you just can't be ambivalent about; whether it's the sound of their voice or the subject matter of their songs there is something about them that makes people either really like them or not like them at all. Sometimes I can have more respect for a performer I dislike entirely than one I'm ambivalent about, because they at least have a quality that causes me to form an opinion about them one way or another.

A singer/songwriter who falls into the category of people either loving or leaving him is Kris Kristofferson. I've found that there is usually two reasons that people get their backs up over Kristofferson, his voice or the material he performs. As I don't fall into either of those two camps I can't pretend to understand the reasons behind either feeling, except to say that Mr. Kristofferson is probably the only person, save perhaps Johnny Cash, who can get away with singing the particular type of material that he writes.

A great many of Mr. Kristofferson's songs could easily slip across the border from a genuine expression of emotion to saccharine sentimentality in the hands of a lesser performer. There is just something about his delivery and the genuine quality to his voice that allows him the license to sing or write a lyric which another person either couldn't get away with or would mangle and cheapen.

Perhaps it is his almost monotone and laconic vocal expression, with no attempts to embellish the songs with unneeded accents or pyrotechnics, which keeps them honest and real. When he sings his material they appear to be an expression of his own life and the losses or wins that he has experienced. Songs like "Help Me Make It Through The Night" and "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" are statements of fact and need, not self-pitying moans of "woe is me I'm so hard done by".

Big concert venues have never served this type of performer's needs very well, because the intimacy that is required for a rapport to be developed with the audience is not possible. In the past, for me anyway, it has been far more satisfying to listen to a CD of Kristofferson's then feel frustrated by the inadequate experience of watching him perform in some large concert format.

I say in the past because New West Records has just released a series of DVDs that are re masters from early broadcasts of the Public Broadcasting Station's television show Austin City Limits. Since the early 1970's Austin City Limits has presented one hour concerts every Sunday evening of the best that Country, Southern Rock, Texas Blues, and American Roots music has to offer in an intimate setting.

Unlike films of concerts these shows have been produced and directed specifically with a television audience in mind, so they are far more intimate then anything else recorded at the time, or even since. As a means of watching a performer like Kris Kristofferson this type of format is ideal.

In spite of the fact that this concert is from 1981 and the technology for filming was far less sophisticated then now; not a hand held camera to be seen only the huge studio cameras, the camera work is every bit as good as anything from today. In some ways the absence of hand held camera's is a plus because you don't get millions of cut away shots as the director bounces around from camera to camera and you feel like a jumping bean on speed.

Of course it's more then a one-camera static shot of the band dead on with no wavering in focus. There are sufficient cameras to provide plenty of diversity in the focus, and to centre out individuals as they do their leads. The close ups were clean and crisp enough for my wife to be able to drool over Kristofferson's blue eyes, so that ought to tell you they were doing a fine job that night.

As for the concert itself, it is Kristofferson in his prime. By 1981 he'd been sober for a few years so his voice had become mellow again and was still rich and strong. He and his band at the time, including Billy Swan and Glen Clark, were tight musically but loose enough with each other to be having fun on stage and enjoying the songs.

They did the songs you'd expect them to do, "Silver Tongued Devil", "Sunday Morning Coming Down", "The Pilgrim" and of course "Me and Bobby McGee" and a whole raft of others. What was interesting was to hear some of those old favourites done in ways different from what I was used to.

Anyone who's heard the original version of "Bobby McGee" will remember his spoken intro to the effect of "if this song sounds Country that's because it is". Well he must have been doing a tribute to Janis Joplin that night, seeing as he was in Texas that would be appropriate, because he does a rocking version of the song that sounds great.

While none of the other songs have been so radically changed, they all sound fresh, not like they're songs that Kristofferson had been playing for years to that point. The seventies had been a turbulent period in his life what with beginning a movie career, his marriage to Rita Coolidge ending, and his struggles with the bottle. It almost looks like coming back to his music is a return to a time when things weren't quite as complicated.

He certainly looks and acts like a man whose quite happy in his own skin. This comes through especially in the authority and assurance of his performance. This is the work of a man who is at the top of his game.

The idea of packaging old episodes of Austin City Limits is a brilliant one, and a quick glance through the New West catalogue shows that the first batch of concerts they've released are a good cross section of the variety of performers that were featured on that show. The only quibble I have with the production is the decision to re master the sound only in DTS 5.1 and High Definition PCM and not regular surround sound as well. Not having a system set up for either one of those puts you at a slight disadvantage. I'm not sure whether it was the original quality of the sound, or the fact that my system wasn't compatible to those formats, but the sound was somewhat muddy in places.

But that's just a minor quibble, and aside from that this is a great concert disc. If you are a fan of Kris Kristofferson and felt that your collection has lacked a concert movie to round it out, this is the one for you.

July 12, 2006

CD Review: Underdog Wishing Chair

Quick, name me a women folk duo. What did you come up with, The Indigo Girls; no one else? Well let me add another name to that very short list Wishing Chair. What you've never heard of them? Well guess what, until I'd heard their latest CD Underdog neither had I. And if this disc is anything to go by they've been doing just fine without us and we've been missing out on something great.

Who and what are Wishing Chair? Well in the simplest terms they are a folk-roots partnership made up of Miriam Davidson and Kiya Heartwood based out of Kentucky but seemingly touring all the time. Since 1995 they have produced seven CD's including this one, Underdog which was released in 2005.

It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing the names of two women in a folk band and steeling yourself for oh so serious songs, that young intellectual university womyn will sit around and listen to and discuss seriously deep into the night. It's perfectly possible that this could happen to Wishing Chair, but the rest of us can also enjoy their music and their songs.

It's not that I'm dissing the Indigo Girls here, it’s just that sometimes you feel like you have to belong to some sort of club or society before you're allowed to "really understand" them. It's like they've been claimed, as the exclusive preserve of one group of people while the rest of us are too insensitive to get the message.

No one is going to claim Wishing Chair as their own because this music is far too independent and frees spirited to allow it to be tied down that way. Sure Miriam and Kiya sing about political issues, and pour emotions into their material, but it feels like underneath it there is a huge amount of laughter waiting to escape.
wishing chair
Unlike so many issues oriented groups you never get the impression the Miriam and Kiya have an axe to grind or making any claims to moral superiority because of their opinions. They sing about the things they believe in and what they care about true enough, but what makes Country and Folk music interesting is when the performers can put their hearts into the song and music.

On "One Real Song" they sing about what keeps them going, on the road, in the studio, and in music. They're singing about things that anybody who has ever tried to create something that make it all worthwhile can identify with. It's about the search for the perfect written word, or the perfect picture as much as it is the search for the perfect song.

It's not often that a song about a wedding can be termed a political song, although I'm sure incidences will continue in the near future where songs about two people loving each other and being joined together, like "Outlaw Wedding" will become the norm. But I think they are going to have a hard time living up to the standards established by it. Not only does it deal with issue of same sex marriages in a subtle manner but it's also a wonderful endorsement of marriage and family.

For those of you who are supportive of the war in Afghanistan and the current administration's foreign policy, the song you are least likely to enjoy is "Bully Circus" What I found particularly appealing about this song aside from the lyrics, which are far more intelligent then usual, is the wonderful feel they have created with the music in this song.

Circus music has a very particular style, and if who ever is performing starts to distort it even slightly it begins to sound awfully sinister and makes what ever one is singing about dangerous and evil. What truly separates "Bully Circus" from other protest songs, is the singer does more then just whines about how bad the government is, but offers some idea that they can and will do something, where they are able, to make a difference.

Social responsibility shouldn't be a novelty coming from people who sing about it, but so many of them are of the 'do as I say not as I do' attitude that finding a sincere voice that just wants to do something positive is a refreshing change. There's also something about a country music protest song that is that much more effective than other genres. Maybe it's because I associate country music so much with pseudo patriotic stuff that anytime we hear someone using that genre for a protest song it becomes all the more potent for it's familiarity of style but difference of content.

Miriam Davidson and Kiya Heartwood as Wishing Chair are a revelation of both style and content. For those who like their folk music with a country twang, and their country music to be about more than cars, truck drivers, and pain Wishing Chair's new disc, Underdog is the answer to your search. Not since Holly Near, Ronnie Gilbert, and Ferron joined together have I heard as powerful and intelligent music from a woman's folk/country group.

July 5, 2006

CD Review: PovertyNeck Hillbillies PovertyNeck Hillbillies

Sometimes I think we forget what rock and roll music is all about, or even worse we place far too heavy a burden of expectations on it, expecting it to deliver something it's not meant to do. This is not highbrow music folks, it's supposed to be about the simple things in life and a lot of fun, but somehow it's been turned into this thing where the performers are now called artists and everyone takes themselves oh so seriously.

Have you tried listening to some of the lyrics out there? Some of them are so obscure that I don't even think the guy that wrote then knows what they mean. Everybody is trying to be so damn meaningful that they've forgotten how to have fun. It almost seems like they've forgotten who they are supposed to be writing for, the people who listen to the music, and are only trying to feed their over inflated egos.

Thankfully there are still bands playing who remember that rock and roll is good time music to be listened too on a Saturday night when your trying to get as far away from your troubles as possible. There is a fine tradition of roadhouse music in the United States that seems to fall in and out of fashion in the big urban centres, but continues to thrive out in the rest of the world. It's where Graham Parsons and his Grievous Angels, Commander Cody and his Airmen, and countless others used to play and keep people happy.
Carrying on that tradition comes a band out of Pennsylvania, the PovertyNeck Hillbillies. These guys may have all grown up physically in southwestern Pennsylvania, but musically they sound like they grew up in the juke joints and honkytonks a lot further south and west. They play a rollicking version of what a friend of mine used to call "foot stompin', beer drinkin' music", that has no pretensions other than to show you a good time.

While the PovertyNeck Hillbillies are being billed as a country band they owe a greater debt to Elvis then Conway Twitty. Sure they make great use of pedal steel guitar in their self titled album PovertyNeck Hillbillies but a lot of the great roadhouse bands before them have done the same. I don't know, maybe I'm just old, but when people say country band to me I think of the Sons Of The Pioneers not what these guys play.

So what do they play? After the first song on there new release, "The Night That Changed My Life", I was prepared to say they were like Hank Williams Jr., but more interesting. The further into the disc I got I realised that was a disservice to them (no offence Hank) as their sound shifted gears into that melodic country rock feel perfected by Blue Rodeo.

I don't mean the commercial, Southern California, Eagles type, mellow stuff that so many people seem to think of as country rock, but something with a genuine bite to it. They can hoot and holler with the best of them, but they can also bring that same intensity and emotional strength to a slow song.

When I listen to "She Rides Wild Horses" it evokes an image of an older biker, his long white hair tied back in a ponytail, dancing with his old lady at the end of the night while the bar empties around them. It's tough music and real, not caving in to cheap sentimentality that is the easy out for so many bands these days.

These types of bands usually have a hard time translating onto recordings. Whether it's because the atmosphere of a packed bar full of sweaty, laughing, half drunk people, dancing and having a good time is absent and takes away from their energy, or because it's the type of music that only works under the above conditions I don't know. But in the past I've found unless it's a live recording the disc doesn't live up to expectations.

Now I've never seen the PovertyNeck Hillbillies live, and maybe that's a plus for listening to them on disc, but I have a feeling there isn't going to be much of a let down for those of you who have. It wasn't hard while listening to picture them on stage in a huge old bar room with a throng of people just below the stage filling the dance floor.

Somehow they've managed to capture the feel of playing live while in the studio. That they've done this without sacrificing anything musically or technically is a significant accomplishment. It says a lot about the individual skills of the people in this band that they can be loose enough in the studio to generate a live atmosphere and still be musically tight as a band.

It's that type of playing ability that separartes the PovertyNeck Hillbillies from being just another roadhouse attraction that's a forgettable good time, and a band that you won't be able to forget after listening to. They have that little extra depth and soul to their music that goes a long way towards lifting them out of the crowd and into the spotlight.

Roadhouses and honkytonks have been home to and given birth to some of the best and most genuine pop music in North America. You can add the name of the PovertyNeck Hillbillies to the list of bands keeping that tradition alive.

June 8, 2006

CD Review: Texas Roadhouse Favourites Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen

For most people San Francisco and the 1960's are synonymous with flower power, drugs and psychedelic music. While the perception may have been that all the bands bore names like Strawberry Alarm Clock, or Quicksilver Messenger Service and played songs with names like "Incense and Peppermint". Trippy lyrics, and strange soaring guitar noises that featured lots of feedback were supposed to be typical of the song that was born on the streets of San Francisco.

But there was another guitar, and another sound that was being explored at the same time. The guitar was pedal steel and the sound was country rock. Of course there was nothing new about country rock; that was the sound of Elvis when he stepped into the Sun Record studios in Memphis, but a label was needed to differentiate this sound from either the psychedelic or the heavier blues base of straight ahead rock and roll.

This tag was slapped on groups ranging from The Eagles to The Byrds. It was The Byrds in 1968 that became the first big name band to foray into country rock. After one of their major line up shuffles they ended up with Graham Parsons on keyboards, and he picked them up and dragged and them down to Nashville where they became one of the first group of long hairs to perform on the stage of the Grand Ol' Opry.

Parsons left the Byrds for the Flying Burrito Brothers and continued along in a pure country vain utilizing the instruments previously always associated with the sound of Nashville not Ashbury. Pedal steel, fiddles and mandolins became acceptable instruments to show up in songs then.

While people like Parsons were going pure country and other bands like The Eagles would veer towards a more popular sound, a third option was being exploited by a group of guys who had moved out en masse from Ann Arbour Michigan. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were one of the first honky-tonk country rock bands from that period.

Covering both country and classic rock and roll hits, they would give them their own bluesy, roadhouse treatment, turning almost any song into a rollicking good time. Their first big hit was a cover of the song "Hot Rod Lincoln" that had been a rock-a-billy hit in the 1950's.

George Frayne was the prime mover behind the band and took the name of Commander Cody. He has led the band through various incarnations and a multitude of line up changes. The Commander and his boys were never a huge commercial success, but that doesn't stop their music from being a rollicking good time.

As with a lot of bands like this, high energy and infectious, their live performances would probably have far outdistanced their studio albums in terms of energy and listener appreciation. Therefore the release of Texas Roadhouse Favourites on the Music Album label is a treat for both new and old fans of the Commander.

Back in the mid – seventies they released Deep In The Heart Of Texas which had been recorded live at the famous Armadillo World Headquarters bar. The band wanted to release all the material recorded as a double album, but their label at the time didn't like the idea. While now, close to thirty years after the fact, those left over tracks have been released as new collection.

There's nothing second rate about the material on Texas Roadhouse Favourites. It's not like these songs weren't good enough technically or musically to be released originally, just the label hadn't liked the idea of a double live album. The sound is good and clear, occasionally a vocal is lost, but that's more the singer missing the microphone than anything else and the material is awesome.

Texas Roadhouse Favourites starts off with a great rocking version of the old Carl Perkins tune "Blue Suede Shoes" and doesn't once lose momentum. Even the slower, purer country tunes like "What Made Milwaukee Famous" and "Wine, Wine, Wine" don't let the energy sag. As a band the energy they exude is not dependant on speed or loudness but on their commitment to playing great music with as much heart and soul as they can muster.

What made the studio to decide to exclude "Hot Rod Lincoln" from the original recording I don't know, but their loss is of course our gain. Having heard this song so many times growing up, listening to it live makes it all the more fun.

Fun. How long has it been since you have just had fun listening to a disc? When was the last time you just plunked something down in your disc player for the sheer fun of bouncing around the room with an idiot grin on your face? Song titles like "Milk Cow Blues", and "Nothin' Shakin' (But Just The Leaves On The Trees" can't help but make you smile before you even listen to the tracks.

It's funny how you hear about all these bands who feel like they've made this big discovery by playing what they call roots music when thirty years ago Commander Cody were playing the same stuff. Listening to these guys cut it up at the Armadillo World Headquarters on Texas Roadhouse Favourites is as close as most of us will come to hearing the Commander and his crew live. This is an experience not to be missed.

June 6, 2006

CD Review: Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs Of The Coal Miner's Struggle Various Artists

Who would be a coal miner? Your world consists of seeing daylight twice in the day; once before descending to the pit face in the morning, and once again when coming up for the return home at night. Aside from that you live your life underground in bad air, doing backbreaking work, and risking sudden death from trapped gases or a sudden cave in.

How much has really changed for the mining communities in the last seventy years is hard to quantify. The miners still go down into the pit everyday, to chip away at the pit face and load up the carts with coal. Maybe the mines are better ventilated now than before, and their safety is a little more assured, but disasters still happen.

Miners still get trapped below the surface and families still gather at the pit head waiting for news of their loved ones as teams of their fellows descend in sometimes fruitless attempts to dig them free before they suffocate, or simply starve to death. Of course, now instead of it being a private community affair it gets telecast across the world as camera crews enjoy the death watch for their viewers.

Black lung is still a cause of death among miners, as their lungs slowly fill up with coal dust and iron filaments form working in the pits. But the world still burns coal, and as long as we do we will keep sending people down into the depths of the earth to bring it back to the surface.

The history of the American trade unions is irrevocably linked to the coalmines. If there was ever an industry where the workers needed someone to stand up to their bosses it was the miners in the early part of the twentieth century. What some of us would consider horrendous working conditions today, are light years away from what the miner's life used to be.

Old folk songs like "Sixteen Tons" aren't just cute lyrics, they were an accurate description of the miner's life. They lived in houses owned by the company, they bought their food and goods from stores owned by the company, and they could very well at the end of their days die owing money to the company that they worked, and probably gave their life, for.

In the United States a small county in Kentucky, Harlan County, has come to symbolize the coal miner's fight for rights and safety in the eyes of many people. Not only is it smack dab in the middle of coal country but in 1976 Barbara Kopple released her documentary Harlan County U.S.A. which depicted a protracted and bitter coal miner's strike.

A miner's strike doesn’t' just affect the folk in the pit; it's the whole community. Sometimes it's the wives who are the strongest advocates because they're the ones who face the reality of having to live with the fear of losing their husbands to the earth and disease.

They're the ones who are left behind with nothing when the pit caves in because the company owns the house they live in and the company owns the store they buy food from. They can either leave town or sell their family into indentured servitude by mortgaging their children's future to the mines by living on credit, until their children can work it off.

First the movie and now the soundtrack CD Harlan County USA: Songs Of The Coal Miner's Struggle emphasise the role that women have played over the course of the years in the fight for miner's rights. The seminal union song "Which Side Are You On" was written by Florence Reece while she sat in her house with company thugs outside waiting for her husband to come home so they could kill him.

When you listen to this CD of music both from the movie and related to the topic of striking miners, you won't hear the organizing songs that you may be accustomed to. These haven't been smoothed out by urban folk groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary to sound nice and polished to the ear. These are songs sung by people from Kentucky and the Appalachians, singing about their husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, and neighbours.

People like Jim Garland who went to work in the mines although he was legally blind is recorded for the first time singing his song "The Death Of Harry Simms". Harry Simms was a young union organiser who stayed with Jim and his family until he was murdered. Shortly after that Jim was blacklisted by the mines and moved to New York City at the invitation of the miner's union to tell the story of Harry.

His sister Sarah Ogan Gunning and half-sister Molly (the folk singer Aunt Molly Jackson) worked as a duo singing at rallies and organizing meetings. She eventually had to leave the mining life when brown lung and tuberculosis forced her to move away from the pit life. This CD features her singing her sister's adaptation of the traditional "Hard Working Miner"

"Coal Black Mining Blues" is sung by Nimrod Workman who was born in Kentucky in 1895 and survived four decades of working in the mines in the days before health care, safety, and proper pay. His songs bore witness to the history of the miner's struggle from the days when the union was the miner's best friend and their subsequent corruption and betrayal of the people they were supposed to represent. In spite of black lung he lived until the age of 99, and passed in 1995.

Not all the of music on this disc is performed by former miners of course, but most all of them are native to this region. Merle Travis, who wrote the earlier mentioned "Sixteen Tons", the song that has become the most synonymous with the miner's live, was born in Kentucky. Doc Watson was born in North Carolina and even if you know nothing about blue grass music or the Appalachians his name will probably be familiar to most of you. His contribution is a haunting rendition of the traditional tune "And Am I Born To Die"

But it's the women whose voice rings loudest on this disc. The voice of Phyllis Boyens, daughter of Nimrod Workman, appears on a couple of songs, including the aptly named "Dream Of A Miner's Child", but the woman who sings the harmony vocal on that track, Hazel Dickens, sings the loudest and clearest of them all.

Hazel Dickens has been a force in traditional bluegrass and old-time music for the last forty years. As a native of West Virginia she was well acquainted with the lives led by the coal miners and their families, so it wasn't a great leap to include her music in the soundtrack of the original Harlan County U.S.A. movie.

To those of you used to the prettified music that passes for country and bluegrass these days her voice will sound unspeakably rural and unrefined. But it’s the voice of the people of that region, and speaks both for and to them. She is part of that unbroken line that leads back to Woody Guthrie's songs for the Appalachian farmers and workers during the dust bowl.

It's when you listen to people like Hazel, that you can hear who Bob Dylan was trying to sound like when he first started out. That burr in the throat and the high nasal twang, that is so distinctive among the singers from this area even today. It's different from the Nashville country twang like a dirt road is different from a paved highway. They both do the same thing, one's just a whole lot rougher and it takes a while to appreciate its particular beauty.

The songs Hazel sings, whether her own or another's, on this disc couldn't be sung by anyone who didn't have all the elements that go into being a mountain singer without them losing something of their power. These aren't just protest songs, they are the stories of real people who have lived and died under the ground, been killed for fighting to make life better for their fellows, or have chocked away their lives unable to breath because of black lung.

Coal miners have always been the dirty secret of industry that nobody wants to know about. They live and work in conditions that even today border on the insane. When that elevator drops, they still don't know whether or not it will come back up at the end of the day. How many coal mine disasters have there been this year? Every year we still get at least one that will leave a community devastated.

The songs on Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs Of The Coal Miner's Struggle maybe union songs and protest songs, but they are also a reminder of the cost that is paid on a daily basis by a segment of our society so that we can have electricity to read at by night, or watch our televisions, or write reviews like this. These songs are a history that most of us will never read or hear about in school or on the news. You may not agree with the politics espoused by the music, but you can't deny the strength of the people they portray.

One of the things I've always admired about Americans is their ability to stand up and fight for what they believe in. To me this CD epitomises that spirit through the words and music recorded that depict the struggles and the lives of these brave people called coal miners. If it serves no other purpose than to remind people of the fact that to stand up for yourself isn't a bad thing, and that the people who do are what make a country strong, than Harlan County U.S.A.: Songs Of The Coal Miner's Struggle will be a success

May 26, 2006

CD Review: Dark Bar And A Jukebox J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters

Brethren, it's with a heavy heart and a leaden soul that you see me standing before you today. For my eyes have borne witness to the coming of that which is known as the beast; Beelzebub. Oh the signs have been building for a long time my friends, but they have been subtle and insidious. He and his many minions have wormed their way in amongst us with all the guile of their breed.

These succubae of spirit, these debasers of all things sacred and holy, harbingers of doom and destruction have been amongst us nigh on twenty years; twisting, tantalizing, taunting, and tormenting us until we can no longer tell right from wrong. They are a plague upon this land unlike any seen since the days of the Pharaohs.

Numbering less than the locusts of old, what they lack for in numbers they make up for in distribution. Ubiquitous! That's what they are. You can't escape their foul presence, not for one minute. No matter how hard you try and how far you travel, everywhere in this great land of ours they will have got there before you, waiting with their seductive ways to entice you, lure you, until finally they have you when you least expect it.

I'm sure you've seen their victims; those blank faced millions with their faces creased with simple smiles, their heads nodding vacantly, and their toes tapping incessantly. Those hapless, hopeless individuals who have been rendered incompetent from exposure to the beast and his minions can be seen everywhere. From all walks of life, all backgrounds; the beast knows no boundaries, cares nothing for sexual orientation, religion, creed, or colour. He just wants your soul!

My Brethren, we must face up to the truth of this matter, for it can no longer be denied, the time of the Anti-Hank is upon us. The forces of homogenization and cheap sentimentality are on the rise everywhere, threatening to swamp us in as flood of easy listening and "New Country".

With the halving of the Outlaws, only Willie and Kris survive; Jerry Jeff not seen or heard from in any number of years; George and Tammy finally separated by the only thing that could stop her from standing by him; and Kinky throwing his hat at politician's heads, we seem bereft of hope.

Who is there that we can turn to in our hour of need? Who will help us see the light and lead us back to our state of amazing grace? The circle has been broken, and needs to be re-forged. But, I hear you say, how can we do this, we are so few and they are so many? Well I say to you, all that is required is a willingness to go into unfamiliar territory.

The music is out there waiting for you, but nobody is going to bring it to you, you will have to go out and get it. Make the effort to find it and you will be amazed at who is waiting to help you loosen those fetters around your heart and soul. You might not hear them on your radio, but you can still buy a CD, and take them home with you.

Let me tell you about one such group of men who are fighting the good fight. J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters. They have read the writing on the wall and are doing their best to bust that wall down with all the tools at their disposal.

Songs that sound like music written by a person not a marketing team are a good place to start if you're going to make a record that will reach into a body's heart and soul and shake them free of their saccharine induced comas. Dark Bar And A Jukebox, their first CD, is as far from WalMart music as a person can get and not leave the Americas.