March 18, 2015

Music Review: Xavier Rudd & The United Nations - Nanna

Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations, released on March 17 2015 in North and South America on the Nettwerk Label, is the latest release from Australia's multi-instrumentalist Rudd. However, unlike previous albums this CD sees him accompanied by a full band for the first time. While he's occasionally been joined by a drummer and bassist in the studio or on the road, he's been best known as a kind of one man band; playing drums with his feet, lap guitar and yidaki (indigenous Australian instrument often wrongly called didgeridoo). So the multi-national nine piece band joining him now is quite a change of pace.

What hasn't changed is Rudd's ability to create message oriented songs where the music is just as important as the lyrics without detracting from the ideas he's trying to express. At various points in his career Rudd has shown an affinity for reggae music, including a wonderful cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" on his second release Solace. So it shouldn't shock anyone that he's taken the opportunity of working with The United Nations to make what is primarily a reggae album. For those familiar with his previous discs, the themes of living in harmony with nature and respect for indigenous peoples and their beliefs expressed on this release shouldn't be a surprise either. He has never shied away from singing about what he's passionate about, however, this album takes it to a whole new level.
Cover Nanna Xavier Rudd & The United Nations.jpg
In fact some people might be a little off put by the message he's expressing. It runs pretty much counter to almost everything you read or hear in the media today. Instead of propagating commercialism or expressing a political agenda, his songs are advocating finding a better way to live. On the disc's 10th track, "Warrior", he sings, "If she could take him by the hand/and together they could change the world/abolish greed from every man/and spread their medicine throughout the world/and every sun would rise and fall/and restore complete balance on the earth/a brand new chance for one and all".

His songs aren't just about saving the planet, they're also about personal growth, and learning how to live with yourself or with others. Both the first single from the release, "Come People" (track four) and "Struggle" (track 11) express this on various levels. In the latter he says, "One two three four,/positively close the door./Five six seven eight/spread your light radiate./ I'm moving slowly/positive diligent/what other people think of you/is none of your business."

Some of you are probably squirming in your seats after reading those two quotes. What kind of new age clap trap is this guy spouting? However, step back a second, and think about what's going on in the world these days. Governments in North America and Australia are continuing their practices of expropriating land granted to their respective indigenous populations in order to exploit them for natural resources. In the process the land is being rendered unusable because of pollution and the disruption of ecosystems.

People are killing each other all over the world because of religion and the desire to impose their point view on everybody else. As a species we are rapidly descending into a place where the world is divided into those who oppose us and those who are with us. So, just maybe, a voice which pleas for understanding and unity, no matter how he says it, deserves to be listened to without judgement or cynicism.

The other thing you have to consider is the sincerity of the person behind the message. Rudd has never shied away from his indigenous spiritual roots (he's of mixed Aboriginal and European decent). The songs on this release are simply the most open he's ever been in expressing them. However, he's not saying they are the only way of being, he's just asking us to not to ignore what we can learn from people who have a close spiritual connection to the planet. As he says on the CD's fifth track, "Sacred", "I believe we are one and we are sacred", stressing his belief there is common ground between all people if we're only willing to look for it.

Something which listeners in North America and Europe may not be familiar with are the references to indigenous Australian spirituality. Even some of the language used in songs is unique to its people - in fact the language sung in the disc's title song, "Nanna", Jandai, is considered extinct. Which is ironic considering the lullaby was written and sung by Georgia Corowa, one of United Nation's vocalists.
Xavier Rudd & The United Nations.jpg
Adding the disc's Australian flavour is the fact the majority of the band are from either Australia or some its neighbouring islands in the South Pacific. Aside from Rudd and Corowa, Chris Lane, flute, Peter Hunt, trumpet, Alicia Mellor, vocals and Uncle Eddie Elias, keyboards are all from Australia, with the latter two having connections with Papua New Guinea as well. Percussionist/ drummer Bobby Alu is from Samoa originally, while Tio Lerothodi Moloantoa on bass is South African and Yeshe Reiners, world percussion and ngoni (African stringed instrument) was born in Germany. Each of them bring their own musical experiences and backgrounds to the album, and this combination is what distinguishes it from your typical reggae recording.

For while the unmistakeable reggae backbeat and syncopation can be heard in most of the songs, Rudd and company do a fine job of adding new flavours to an old recipe. Some of the songs have more of a calypso swing to them, while others aren't going to be easily defined as any one particular genre. The end result is a beautiful polyphonic mix of sound which seems to provide the perfect vehicle for Rudd's lyrics.

The message on Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations is not going to be everyone's taste. Some might think it too idealistic or too radical. However, in a world full of radical problems, radical solutions which don't advocate violence or hatred shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Whatever you might think of this disc, musically or lyrically, they're can be no denying the passion and belief permeating it. This is a great album of wonderful music and thought provoking lyrics. If you come to it with an open mind, it might just change your heart.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Xavier Rudd and The United Nations - Nanna - New Release From Australia's Eco Warrior)

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.
Buddy Miller sm.jpg
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.
Carolina Chocotlate Drops sm.jpg
It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He's not trying to undermine its significance but he's letting us know he doesn't take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.

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

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

(Photo credits: Deborah Feingold)

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

November 7, 2013

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

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

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

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One contains 43 CDs including all of his studio albums ever released on the Columbia and Sony labels from 1962's Bob Dylan to his 2012 release Tempest. The set also includes six live CDs; Before the Flood (with The Band), Hard Rain, Bob Dylan Live at Budokan, Real Live (the last three newly remastered for this collection) Dylan and the Dead and MTV Unplugged. The final two discs in the box, Sidetracks, are made up of material originally intended for release as bonus features on one of Dylan's greatest hits packages; Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Masterpieces, Biograph, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 or The Best Of Bob Dylan Vol.2, but never released before. If you don't want to buy the 43 CD set, you have the option of purchasing the entire package as a limited, numbered edition harmonica shaped USB stick containing all the music in both MP3 and FLAC formats and a digital version of the hardcover booklet included in the box set. The booklet includes liner notes for each CD written especially for this package.
Bob Dylan The Complete Ablum Collection Vol 1.jpg
With the CDs listing for over $200.00 and the USB stick more than $300.00, it seems like a lot of money to be asking people to shell out. However, even simple math will tell you the sticker price is still cheaper than the cost of even downloading each title separately let alone buying the CDs one at a time. So, if you're looking to pick up the entire Dylan catalogue in one fell swoop, plus some extra's thrown in, this is quite the bargain. However, what is it about Dylan that would make you want to own all of his CDs? What did he do that merits this type of attention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

While studio albums of The Band give you an idea as to the quality of their music, it's only by listening to them perform live you come to appreciate them for what they were. For it's here you realize what it was made them so special. The raw chaotic power held together by years of performing with each other allowing them to play with complete abandon secure in the knowledge that even if one of them made a mistake, the others would be right there to smooth things over. At times you are literally holding your breath for it can be like watching a train careen down the tracks on the verge of running off the rail, but which somehow or other miraculously doesn't crash and comes safely into the station.
The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.jpg
Listening to the New Years Eve concert through the sound board, with it's raw unfiltered mix picking up the chatter on the stage, including them and Dylan deciding at the last minute which songs to play during the encore (prior to plunging into "Like A Rolling Stone" you hear Dylan say "haven't played this one together in 16 years") puts you into the centre of that ride. You can almost feel the energy bursting from your speakers as they put everything they have into each song. The soundboard mix is not what is played back through the Public Address (PA) system for the audience. Instead you hear each instrument and vocal track as a distinct stream, balanced with everything else, but not mixed down into one overall sound. (As an experiment listen to the recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" on Disc 4 from the soundboard mix then listen to the version of Disc 2 from the same concert through the regular mix and you'll hear what sounds like almost two different versions of the song, with the former being a lot rougher but infinitely more exciting.)

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

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

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

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

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.
Cover DVD Love For Levon.jpg
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.
John Prine & Roger Waters - Love For Levon.jpg
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)

June 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

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.
Cover Martha Rebone Roots Project The Garden Of Love Songs Of William Blake.jpg
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.
Martha Redbone Roots Project.jpg
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.)

September 27, 2012

Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros -Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years

The performers I've always admired the most are the ones most willing to change and or experiment with the type of music they play. As far as I'm concerned it was a willingness to experiment that made Joe Strummer a cut above a lot of the musicians who had their start in the punk era of the 1970s . From his days as front man with the The Clash to his work with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros he never stood still musically. From mixing reggae and punk to utilizing Latin rhythms, he always pushed his music in new directions. However, one thing that stayed consistent throughout his career was the emotional commitment to social and political justice that motivated the majority of what he wrote.

A recent release from Epitaph Records, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years offers listeners a great opportunity to experience the extent of his musical diversity. Put together in commemoration of what would have been Strummer's 60th birthday (August 21 2012) its only available as a digital release. However it offers an almost complete retrospective of his career. For not only does it compile material from the three Mescaleros albums on the Hellcat Records label (Rock Art And The X-Ray Style,Global A Go Go and Streetcore) it also includes close to 25 bonus tracks consisting of b-sides, live material and dub versions of songs. While they are all played by the Mescaleros, they come from various times throughout his career, including covers of songs by The Clash, The Ramones and the Specials. The last 18 tracks are taken from a concert the band gave as a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union of London in 2002. Not only are there some wonderful live versions of Mescaleros songs in this concert, but it also contains new versions of some old Clash favourites.
Cover Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros The Hellcat Years.jpg
With 57 tracks in total this collection gives new meaning to the word comprehensive. However, what I find remarkable is that not only does it manage to demonstrate Strummer's musical diversity, it also captures the energy and emotion that made him so compelling. Even better, there are also tracks which show he could be a lot of fun as well. People can't focus on changing the world all the time, and Strummer was no exception. A great example of this is a live version of the old Specials song, "Rudi, A Message To You". He starts off by teasing the crowd, asking them which of them had owned a pork-pie hat (emblematic of ska music lovers in the 1980s) back in the day, and then leads them all in a sing-a-long of the tune. In fact he doesn't really have to do much leading, as the crowd starts singing of their own volition, he just has to encourage them.

"Rudi" is sandwiched between live covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and the Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop". The three were originally released as the b-side for the single of the Mescaleros' song "Coma Girl". Listening to those three tracks one right after each other is like listening to the different sides of Strummer all at once. There's the social political statement of "The Harder They Come" followed by the still political, but light hearted fun of "Rudi" and finally the raw anarchy/power of "Blitzkrieg Bop". From reggae to ska to power pop/punk without missing a beat - it's almost his career in a nutshell.

I say almost, because while those are aspects of what he was, he was also much more. Listen to his version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or to his 17 plus minute "Minstrel Boy" and you'll hear a completely different artist. With minimal musical accompaniment he sings the former as if its a heartfelt explanation of his motivations for making music. "So won't you help to sing/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/redemption songs/these songs of freedom/these songs of freedom". He sings it so simply and honestly it's hard not to think its his way of telling people what he's been trying to do all for all he years of his career..

On the other hand "Minstrel Boy" is an instrumental, one of the few if not the only one Strummer ever wrote outside of music he created for movie soundtracks. Aside from its novelty, as an instrumental, its interesting musically as well. It shares many similarities with a Celtic folk song including rhythm, atmosphere and instrumentation, but there's also something about it that makes it markedly different. First is its length of course, far longer than most folk songs, but even more important is what doesn't happen in the song. For while a great many of these types of folk songs (think of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and songs like that) celebrate or commemorate events in history and have a certain romanticism to them, "Minstrel Boy" doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. There's no mention of any great victories or tragic defeats for people to become worked up over, its just 17 plus minutes of almost slow dirge like music. It's like Stummer wants to remind everybody there's nothing romantic about war or killing people, no matter what the cause and no amount of stirring songs will change that fact.
Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros Backstage Rockplast.jpg
While the material on this collection includes songs Strummer wrote when he was with The Clash and covers of material from that time period, all of them were recorded with the Mescaleros. So that means you have Tymon Dogg playing violin on tracks like "Rudi, A Message To You" and the Clash's "Junko Partner" and breathing new life into them. Still, it's hard not to be stirred by the final three songs of the collection where Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for the first time since he left The Clash twenty years earlier. Hearing them tear through three classic Clash tunes, "Bank Robber", "White Riot" and "London's Burning" is a treat. Yet even then, the songs aren't just faithful copies of what had been done previously as the new band puts their own take on the material.

The concert at Acton Town Hall in London England from which these live tracks were taken was on November 15 2002 and turned out to be the second last live appearance Strummer would ever make. On November 22 2002 the Mescaleros played Liverpool and Strummer died of a congenital heart disease December 22 2002. Strummer was fifty years old when he died and there's no telling what he would have gone on to do if he had lived. The final Mescaleros recording, Streetcore, was released almost a year after his death in October 2003. As you can tell from the tracks included on this compilation it was classic Strummer. A mix of the hard driving and political; "Get Down Moses" and "Coma Girl", the introspective; "Redemption Song" and folk music; "Long Shadow", written for Johnny Cash and recorded with Cash's guitarist Smokey Hormel.

Joe Strummer is still probably best remembered as the lead singer of The Clash, but his career continued for almost fifteen years after they disbanded. The new digital only collection Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years is not only a compilation of material from his post Clash career, its a reminder he was much more than just a punk rocker. His work with the Mescaleros was as political and socially conscious as anything he did with The Clash but he also continued to take risks musically as he aged. It's probably about time his work in this second part of his career is recognized as being equally important as anything he did as a member of The Clash. If listening to this collection can convince even a hard core Clash fan like me of the truth of that statement, it should convince anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years on Blogcritics.)

September 12, 2012

Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering

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

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

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

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

Listen to a song like "After The Bean Stalk", a delta blues type ode to Jack's life after successfully pilfering from the giant in the sky three times, and you'll hear what I mean. Both Kim Wilson, harp (which I have to assume is harmonica since there's nobody credited with playing harmonica) and Tim O'Brien on mandolin, have their instruments featured far more prominently than anything Knopfler does on this song. You'll also notice as you listen to the disc how this track is emblematic of the release's theme of there's no easy ride in this life. There aren't any magic beans that will magically make your troubles all vanish: "Oh, Mama what's the matter now/Oh Mama what's the matter now/I'm still up in the morning to get behind the plough." Even after three trips up the bean stalk you still have to get up and work the fields if you want to eat.
Mark Knopfler by Fabio Lovino.jpg
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.)

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.
Cover DVD We Walk The Line.jpg
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.
Encore From We Walk The Line DVD.jpg
Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

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

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

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

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

July 7, 2012

Music Review: The Beat - The Complete Beat

Great Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was an extremely polarized society. Upon its election Margret Thatcher's Conservative Party government had instituted a deliberate policy of isolating and attacking those it deemed to be its enemies. It was pretty much open season on everyone from trade unionists to minorities. While it was never official government policy to target immigrants like it was to break the coal miner's union, when unemployment started to escalate and the poor and working class began to suffer, scapegoats were needed and visible minorities were an easy target. The National Front, a British neo-Nazi political party, took advantage of the hard times to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. The result was increasingly violent altercations between their followers and the large South East Asian and Jamaican populations in London, which cumulated in race riots that were running battles between both sides and the police.

This was the backdrop against which a new type of music was born. Ska and reggae had come to Britain along with calypso with the post WW ll wave of Jamaican immigration but they had never really spread beyond their native communities. That all began to change in 1970s with the emergence of reggae stars like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff who garnered mainstream attention in England. While bands like The Clash incorporated reggae into their sound, others were attracted to the higher tempo sound of ska. Bands like The Specials, Madness and UB40 blended ska and reggae with punk to create a high energy, somewhat politicalized, dance music. However it was a group from Birmingham, the second largest city in England after London, which had been really badly hit by Thatcher's policies, who really caught lightning in a bottle and created a perfect marriage of ska, R&B, pop and punk.
Cover The Complete Beat Box Set.jpg
The Beat, or The English Beat, as they were known in North America, only released three albums. (The original band broke up in 1983 and have recently reformed as two separate bands, The Beat in England and The English Beat in the US hence the two web sites) While they may have not been around for very long they blazed through popular music like a comet. Infectious, intelligent, fun and exciting their music had people on both sides of the ocean dancing. A review published around the time of their first album, I Just Can't Stop It, called them the perfect antidote to the riots plaguing England at the time. Just set The Beat down between the two factions and start them playing and people will have to stop fighting as their bodies will force them to start dancing the reviewer implied. If you didn't have the opportunity to experience The Beat the first time round, or if you're old vinyl has been worn out by repeated playings, you're in luck, for on July 10 2012 Shout Factory is releasing the box set The Complete Beat.

Not only does it contain all three original releases (I Just Can't Stop It, Wh'appen, and Special Beat Service) remastered and with extra tracks you'll also receive two bonus discs. The fourth disc of the set collects together all the extended remixes, twelve inch singles and dub versions of songs that they released during the course of their career. Dub is of course short for over dubbing and was a widely used technique in Jamaican dance halls for years. The original song is taken, and then overdubbed with effects usually with the intent of extending the track and giving it a funkier groove. To be hones when I had heard some of these tracks when they were originally released I found the idea of overdubbing The Beat somewhat redundant as they were already a great dance band. However, that being said, their overdubs do have the added bonus of being more than just simple remixes with a new rhythm track.

Vocalist and "toaster" (another term from the Jamaican dance hall lexicon equivalent to American rap) Rankin' Roger adds new "toasts" to quite a few of the tracks and he's always a treat to listen to. His soliloquies seem positively innocent compared to what you hear on the average rap record, but they're inventive. intelligent and fun. They usually involved taking the main lyric line and extemporizing, genuinely adding a new dimension to any song that he worked on.
The (English) Beat .jpg
The fifth disc is comprised of versions of their songs recorded for the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) renowned "John Peel" show. Some of the most famous bands in British pop from the 70s and 80s have had their music released under The John Peel Sessions imprint. Recorded live in BBC's studios for radio broadcast they are rawer and more immediate than the versions which appear on a band's releases and give the listener a better idea of how they would sound live. With a band like The Beat, while studio versions are great, it's only live when they're all feeding off each other's energy that one really begins to appreciate what made them so special. The inclusion of the Peel recordings in this set gives listeners an inkling as to what that experience would have been like. Having seen them twice in concert back in the early 1980s I know nothing can capture that magic, not even a live recording, but these John Peel Session recordings come close.

The last four songs on this disc are taken from their 1982 North American tour during their Boston gig in November of that year. If you thought the studio version of "Twist and Crawl" on Just Can't Stop It was high energy, wait until you hear what they uncork live. It also contains the never recorded combination of their song "Get A Job" and their plea for Margaret Thatcher to do everyone a favour and resign "Stand Down Margaret". Originally paired with "Whine & Grine" "Margaret" takes on an even bigger bite when combined with "Get A Job". Remember this was the government that did its best to destroy Britain's industrial base for the sole purpose of putting union members who voted against them out of work and then proceeded to say the poor only had themselves to blame and anybody who really wanted to could "Get A Job".

Maybe a song like "Stand Down Margaret" is dated (however it still remains the one and only song I've ever seen develop into a full scale sing along while the audience is dancing itself silly) but listening to The Beat itself will never get stale. While there were other talented ska bands like The Specials, The Beat were something special. They fused the best of R&B, soul, punk, reggae and ska into a sound that was unique to them. Listen to their cover of the old Motown hit "Tears Of A Clown" and you'll hear what I mean. What was once sort of a catchy, but basically insipid pop tune, has been turned into something with meat on its bones. Tighter, tougher and with twice the energy of the original it, like all their music, makes you want to throw your body around in ways you never thought possible.

In the years since The Beat broke up we've seen the rise of various different types of dance music. Yet for about six years or so a band existed who created music that inspired thousands of people to forget about whatever else was going on in their lives for hours on end and dance like there was no tomorrow. Their music might not have been as political as the Clash's or as cerebral as the Talking Heads, but The Beat - or The English Beat if you prefer - were in some ways just as important. For even today they remind us that music doesn't have to have a message or be selling anything to have a positive impact. They were a reminder that life can and should be a celebration, and all during a time when things were looking really quite ugly. If you think about it, that's a message the world could stand to hear more often. The songs in this collection might be thirty years old, but they still have the same impact they did when first recorded.

For those who aren't sure if they want to invest in the box set The Complete Beat Shout Factory is also releasing a fifteen song greatest hits disc, Keep The Beat: The Very Best Of The English Beat on July 10 2012. They are also offering a special incentive for ordering the box set directly from their web site as they will throw in the never before released CD/DVD recording of the Beat's appearance at The US Festival in 1982 and a signed booklet with every purchase. I've no idea of the DVD's quality - but I remember the US Festival was televised by the music networks of the day so it will probably be the television feed which means it will at least have been professionally shot - but the chance to see them perform live even on tape is something not to be missed. However, no matter which recording you choose to buy, you'll soon discover there was and is no other band like The Beat.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Beat - The Complete Beat on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2012

Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird

As a reviewer or critic you're supposed to provide some sort of objective opinion on whatever it is you're writing about. You look at a group or person's work within the context of the genre they work in and ask yourself how they stack up against others like them. After a few years of doing this you get so it becomes almost rote. However the difficulty comes when you come across somebody who won't let you be objective. You start gushing all over the page about how damn amazing somebody is and nobody is going take your review seriously, it will dismissed as the ravings of some fan. Well, even music critics can be fans. I know that sounds like a stretch to some of you. It's cool to think critics hate music and only exist to run down your favourites or to say nasty things about people you like. Well I can be as nasty as the next person - ask me how I feel about the music industry in general or some of the so called celebrities/singers who somehow are referred to as artists and watch me go - but I also genuinely love music.

Normally I find a way to list the reasons I like someone's work without crossing over the line so the review becomes a fan letter. However, for some reason when it comes to Xavier Rudd all I can ever come up with is "holly shit this guy is fucking awesome". While that's a lot shorter than my reviews tend to run, and according to some that's a positive, it doesn't really tell you much about him, his music or why I think he's so great. The problem is Rudd is one of the few musical artists around these days who I react to on a purely emotional level. I've been listening to a downloaded copy of his latest release, Spirit Bird coming out on Side One Dummy records June 5 2012, for about a week now and I still haven't been able to figure out how to put into words the effect the CD has on me.

I could tell you that Rudd is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist who plays slide guitar, regular guitar, percussion, drums and the indigenous Australian instrument the yidakis (referred to as didgeridoo by Europeans). Not only does he play all these instruments, but when he appears in concert he is set up so he can be playing as many as possible as once. Pictures of him on stage show him siting in the centre of of a construct literally bristling with instruments - a row of yidakis in the front, top hat snares off to each side, stomp box and bass drum pedals at his feet and assorted percussion scattered around within easy reach. Then he begins to sing.
Cover Spirit Bird Xavier Rudd.jpg
His vocal range is equally impressive as he ranges from a forceful alto right up to almost falsetto on occasion. Yet, unlike others, when he forges up into the higher altitudes of his scale the quality of his vocal expression doesn't change. In fact it seems to have the opposite effect. Most people have enough difficulty obtaining the high notes they are satisfied merely with reaching them and usually end up sacrificing expression in the attempt. With Rudd the higher he goes the more he seems to be opening himself up emotionally and spiritually for his audience. It's like his connection to the heart and soul of what he is singing intensifies with the further up the scale he goes. In some cases when people reach into the higher ranges it starts to become uncomfortable to the ear and the sound makes you wince. Somehow Rudd seems to bypass the ear and heads directly to your heart the further up the scale he climbs.

In the past there has been a decided reggae influence to Rudd's music and traces of that can still be heard on Spirit Bird. However, over the course of his career as he's evolved from being the accompaniment for surfers and late night beach parties (Not only were some of his songs featured in the movie Surfer Dude he wrote parts of the movie's score) with an environmental conscience to singing about having a spiritual bond with the planet and the compassion required to create it. While every song on Spirit Bird is related to this subject in some manner or another, not once does it feel like he's preaching to his listeners or even telling them this is how they should live. Instead he give us his vision of the potential for a better world.

From songs like the almost completely instrumental "Lioness Eye" which opens the disc and captures something of the beauty and power of nature in its wild abandonment to the haunting simplicity of the disc's first single, "Follow The Sun", and its description of the life cycle, he does his best to show us the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day. The closest he comes to being political is the brief mention he makes of Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, the environmental protection group who exposes illegal whaling and other maritime piracy being carried out in the name of cosmetics and fake natural health care products, in the song "Creating A Dream" which closes the disc.

In some ways this song lies at the heart of the whole album. It's simple chorus of "Please, patience please, patience please, I'm creating a dream, Please, patience please, patience please I'm creating a dream", follows lists of things he asks us to imagine ("Imagine industry just had to obey') that would make the world a better place. The lists don't just deal with issues either, he also includes "Imagine the heart could just shed its skin" and other lyrics which talk about the human condition and freeing ourselves from the need for confrontation and over thinking everything. Simply reading quotes from the song you might be tempted to dismiss it as over simplified utopian idealism, but you have to hear his voice to fully appreciate it.
Xavier Rudd Recording.jpg
He knows he's wishing for the impossible, that these things can't be accomplished just by wishing, which is why he asks for our patience. He's taking a moment to dream about a better world and expressing the vision that sustains him in the face of the overwhelming opposition, and in some ways even worse, the apathy, that most feel towards and about change. If you don't have a dream than you have nothing to shoot for, and if you're going to dream you might as well dream huge.

The press release sent out for Spirit Bird talks about its hard hitting environmental message. I think that misrepresents the nature of the recording. It makes it sound like its a collection of uncompromising politically motivated tunes when nothing could be further from the truth. This is merely a guy using every tool at his disposal to pour out his hopes and visions for a better world. His songs aren't ringing denunciations of anybody's lifestyle or of corporate greed destroying the earth. He's not preaching to the converted to make them feel good about themselves or trying to make anybody feel guilty because they drive a car. Instead, without any false sentimentality or whinging, he opens his heart to listeners to let them hear and see his vision of the potential we all share for creating a different world.

So, there you go, I tried. But that's the best I can do and I don't know if I was able to capture what it is about Rudd's music and songs that work such magic on me. My wife says he's one of the few artists today who has the ability to crack her wide open, to break through the shell we all wear to protect us against having too much hope or from having our dreams crushed one too many times. It's not like he waves a magic wand or anything. He sings with compassion and love and it shines through in every song no matter what's its about or whether he's playing electric guitar and rocking out or creating instrumental magic with his yidakis. Listen to his music and find out for yourself. You might end up thinking I'm full of shit, or hopefully, you'll come away with the same feeling of contentment at finding somebody out there able to articulate those dreams for a better world you'd forgotten and had buried away in the deepest recesses of your soul.

(Article first published at as Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird)

April 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
John Lomax 1940.png
Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

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

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

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

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

April 19, 2012

Music Review: The Grifter's Hymnal

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

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

Now I hadn't heard anything of him in recent years so when I found out he had a new recording, I decided I owed it to him to give it a listen. Hubbard may be a few years older and his hair a lot whiter then it used to be, but after listening to a The Grifter's Hymnal, released March 26, 2012 on Bordello Records, I knew what was essential to his musical soul hadn't changed. He's as irreverent as he ever was when it comes to the bullshit in the world and still able to impart more feeling into songs about stuff that matters to him than folk a lot more famous than he is.
Cover A Grifter's Hymal Ray Willey Hubbard copy.jpg
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.
Ray Wylie Hubbard.jpg
"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.)

November 25, 2011

Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones

Once in a while a pop musician comes around who makes little or no impact on the public but earns the respect and admiration of their peers. In most cases these are individuals in possession of an exceptional talent who have ended up outside the public eye of their own volition. Usually it's because they have no desire to play the game required for commercial success. Either they've been badly burned by the industry and want to have nothing to do with it anymore or they've decided their independence is more valuable to them than success.

In the late 1970s Willie Nile was on the verge of international stardom. The industry was dubbing him the next "big thing". After Springstien he was going to be the next Bob Dylan, the voice of a new generation and all the expectations that went with the designation. It wasn't just hype either as fellow musicians quickly recognized he was something special. Pete Townshead specifically requested Nile as the Who's opening act for their 1980 North American tour while more recently Lucinda Williams has said if there was any justice in the world she'd be opening for Nile not the other way around.

Instead of cashing in on his accolades in the 1980s, Nile chose to walk away to preserve his independence. Going almost a decade without a record contract, but never stopping writing and performing, he put out two releases in the early 1990s and then nothing else again until 2000. It was another six years before he released Streets Of New York, which was then followed by three live recordings in quick succession in 2007, Live In Central Park and 2008, Live at the Turning Point and Live From The Streets Of New York (also on DVD). This was followed by 2009's House Of A Thousand Guitars on his own River House Records label.
Cover The Innocent Ones Willie Nile.jpg
It's obvious having his own record label has agreed with Nile as he's now released his third new studio disc in the past five years. The Innocent Ones made its way into stores in North America on November 22 2011 after enjoying a successful release in Europe in 2010. The eleven cuts on the disc are Nile's usual mix of power pop anthems, thoughtful ballads and rock and roll for the sheer fun of it. There aren't many popular artists these days who are capable of doing a credible job of any one of those types of material let alone all three. Yet Nile seems to have no difficulty in switching gears from one mode to the other and performing each with equal ability.

With the exception of "Sideways Beautiful", which he wrote on his own, all the songs on the disc were co-written by Nile and his long time musical cohort Frankie Lee. The two men have a knack for creating songs deceptively simple musically and lyrically. You don't need to be needlessly complicated to write an intelligent song. Far too many people these days seem to feel that their music won't be taken "seriously" unless they clutter it up with convoluted lyrics that a cryptographer would have trouble deciphering or complicated tunes which nobody really has any fun listening to. If you have something to say doesn't it make more sense that people understand what you're talking about and enjoy listening to you say it? Lee and Nile are not only masters at writing intelligent lyrics that speak directly to their listeners, they've not forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. Who decided that the only way pop music could be taken seriously was by sucking all the life out of it anyway? Thankfully Lee and Nile weren't listening to whoever made that decision.

When was the last time you listened to a CD and found the music so infectious that you caught yourself singing along with the chorus of a song the first time you heard it? How many times has a song's lyrics caught your attention so vividly you were able to pay attention to what they were saying without making any effort? Not only are the tracks "The Innocent Ones", "Song For You" and "Rich And Broken" from this disc capable of doing this, they do so without you feeling like you've been manipulated. Too often songs rely on cleaver "hooks", catchy arrangements or melodies, and cheap sentimentality to capture our attention. That's not the case with any of the songs mentioned above, or the rest of the material on the disc either for that matter.
Willie Nile on stage by Christina Arrigon.jpg
Aside from the fact they are well written and intelligent, what makes them so compelling is Nile's abilities as a performer. By no stretch of the imagination would you say he has a beautiful voice, but it has the rough hewn honesty so many strive to emulate but which can't be faked. Whether he's excited, happy, sad or just having a good time, as listeners we can always tell because his voice doesn't lie. The compassion in his voice when he sings, "For every heart that's broken in two/I'm speaking your name, I'm lighting a flame/ I'm singing a song for you" during "Song For You" is so genuine that you can't help believing him. He isn't just singing these words, he lives them, and if he could he'd find a way to comfort the lost people of the world he would.

He's not just compassionate either. In "Rich And Broken", he not only sings about the wasted lives of young starlets like Lindsey Lohan and the other party girls with genuine regret, he accepts the fact that our society, our craving for celebrity, has to accept some responsibility for what's happened to them. "She's oh so rich and broken/There's part of her that's yet to be awoken/She's rich and broken...and she's mine"..."With first name recognition/She's a walking fashion fiction getting high/Bye Bye Bye". Not only does he mourn the lost potential all these people represent and how our cult of celebrity has taken away their identities by reducing them to a meaningless name, the three words "and she's mine" are him accepting his share of the blame for being part of a society that thinks celebrity worship is normal.

Willie Nile is that rarest of musicians, a true independent. He's turned his back on record contracts twice because of the compromises involved working with studios and forged his own path for the last two decades. The result is pure unadulterated rock and roll music and lyrics sung from the heart with more genuine emotion in one song than most people can squeeze out of themselves over the course of a career. Like the bards of old, Nile seems to have found a way to tap into the human condition and create songs that are both topical and timeless. He finds universal themes and imbues them with his own unique blend of compassion and intelligence in the hope that he might make a difference. So when he sings "So if you get knocked down you gotta' take a stand/For all the outcast, dead last who need a helping hand" on the song "One Guitar" he gives you hope that maybe if people do raise their voices together they can make a difference. It's at least worth trying anyway don't you think?.
(Photo Credit: Christina Arrigoni)
(Article first published as Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones 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.
Cover Johnny Cash Bootleg Vol. 3 - Live Around The World.jpg
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.
Johnny Cash, Luther Perkins & Marshall Grant.jpg
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.
Cover Note Of Hope A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie.jpg
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.
Woody Guthrie.jpg
Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

September 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Cover Avalon JD Malone and The Experts.jpg
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.
JD Malone and The Experts.jpg
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.)

July 30, 2011

Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II

It's easy to see how at first glance it would be hard to find any connection between punk rock and Mariachi music. With the former being all black leather, short cropped hair and three chord angry music and the latter being flamboyant costumes, intricate musical arrangements and romantic themes they appear to be world's apart. In fact the gap appears so wide between the two the idea of bridging it seems almost ridiculous. However, it's not without precedent for American popular musicians to either be influenced by Mariachi or to play Mariachi tunes themselves.

First there were all the Latin tinged pop songs of the early 1960s (ever hear of a song called "La Bamba" or a guy named Richie Valens?) and the show bands from the same era with their Bosa Novas, Rumbas, and other assorted Hispanic influenced dance tunes. Listen carefully to the old Phil Spector wall of sound songs from the 1960s and you'll hear castanets, bongos and other Spanish influenced percussion holding the songs together. For those looking for that influence in bands with a harder edge I'd like to point you in the direction of a guy named Carlos Santana or how about a band called Los Lobos? Then there was the Mink DeVille Band of the 1970s who drew heavily upon the sound of the Lower East Side of New York City for songs like "Spanish Stroll". When he went solo, Willy DeVille, the band's lead singer, went so far as to release a Mariachi version of the old Texas blues number made famous by Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe".

One shouldn't be so surprised at the widespread influence of Spanish music - they were the first European power to establish colonies in the Americas after all. Remember, the lands which people are now so concerned about keeping Mexicans out of were territories stolen from the Spanish through conquest. Texas, New Mexico, California and others were all Spanish until they were invaded and conquered by America. African American blues and gospel and British folk music get so much of the credit for developing rock and roll, we tend to forget the third major influence on popular music in North America. So if any group of American musicians, be they punks or rappers, decide they want to sing Mariachi music, it's really not that much of a stretch. All that matters is how well they do it, and their intentions in performing it.
Cover Mariachi El Bronx II.jpg
All that being said, when I first heard about Mariachi El Bronx, punk band The Bronx's excursion into Latin music, I had my doubts about the whole idea. Mariachi music isn't the easiest music to play and requires band members to play instruments most musicians in Canada and the US aren't overly familiar with. While the basic six string guitar has proven a popular import from Spain (no, neither it or the banjo are American as the banjo came over with African slaves and the guitar with soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars at the end of the 19th century) others essential to the Mariachi sound aren't as well known. The huge oversized base guitar known as guitarron, the round backed vihuelas, five stringed guitars, and even folk harps with twenty-eight to forty strings.
However, after listening to their second recording in this incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx II, which will be released on the White Drugs label August 2 2011, I'm not only convinced of the sincerity of the band's effort, but was blown away by their ability to carry it off. Expanding their line up to include Vincent Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and the Beastie Boys' Alfredo Ortiz means they have sufficient musicians to meet the demands of the music's more complex arrangements and a Latino presence to ensure they keep faith with the music, and keep faith they do. What's so wonderful about this record becomes obvious right from the first song "48 Roses", their complete and utter sincerity when it comes to performing the music.This isn't some camp joke at the expense of the music, these guys are genuine in their attempts to not only play the music but to capture its heart and spirit as well.

Now I don't know enough about the technicalities of Mariachi music to critique the band on how well they are playing all the subtle nuances those more familiar with the genre would be aware of. However what I can tell you is they do a magnificent job of sounding like they know what they're doing musically. From the rhythms of the guitars and guitarron to the melodies played on trumpet and accordion, they have mastered the elements that make the music so instantly recognizable. The only thing the least bit disconcerting is how un-Hispanic the lead vocalist sounds in comparison to how Spanish the music sounds. Yet what's slightly jarring in the beginning ends up being reassuring. The fact that they are singing naturally, without affectation of any kind, is further proof of the band's sincerity.
Mariachi El Bronx.jpg
Whether the song is about a guy who is in trouble because he has four girlfriends, the opening "48 Roses", about hope in the face of hardship, "The Great Provider" (which has the wonderful line "faith isn't magic it's just keeping my foot in the door") or the guy pleading with the girl to give him a chance even if her family don't think he's good enough for her, "Norteno Lights", the music and lyrics work together beautifully. The feel and tempo of the music not only create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for what each song is about, it works with the lyrics to help tell the song's story. Instead of the swelling strings we're used to hearing in order to clue us in that the singer is in the grips of some really strong emotion, here they do everything from providing joyful counterpoint to a moment of happiness or work together with other instruments to create any number of emotional settings.

Unlike most pop songs which will tack on strings almost as an afterthought, Mariachi music is very carefully orchestrated and arranged. It's a sign of just how good a job Mariachi El Bronx have done that each of the tracks on their latest release are beautiful examples of the above. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it's like listening to a chamber music ensemble where one of the instruments is also a vocalist. Perhaps because there's less emphasis on horns and brass instruments than there is in jazz or show bands it reminds me more of classical music than anything else. But I also think its the way everything works together to create a whole in a way that I've only heard in classical music before. All of which means these guys have done a remarkable job in making the jump from playing punk rock to playing Mariachi music.

Mariachi El Bronx II is not just an album that's remarkably good for a group of punks, its a remarkably good album period. The music ranges from being infectious enough to drag you to your feet to start dancing to introspective enough to have you listening to a song's lyrics and nodding in recognition. On the band's web site they talk about how living in California you hear Mariachi music being played all the time which is definitely not the case up here in Canada. Thankfully the boys in Mariachi El Bronx have taken their fascination with the music and let it inspire them to start performing it, giving those of us not lucky enough to live near where Mariachi music is played the opportunity to hear it anyway. This is a great album of great music by a great band - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II 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.
Cover Th eLost Cause Minstrels.jpg
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.
Grayson Capps By Adam Smith.jpg
Like those who first developed rock and roll Capps has listened to the music around him and incorporated it into his sound. As he has lived in New Orleans and Tennessee as well as his native Alabama those influences are a little more diverse than is usual for a rock and roller. While tastes of a few of these have shown up in earlier recordings, The Lost Cause Minstrels sees them beginning to coalesce into a sound; the sound of Grayson Capps. Gospel, country, bluegrass, New Orleans brass and blues are all part of that sound and are woven together in intricate patterns underneath his lyrics. You can't always hear them front and centre in every song, but one way or another they've each played a role in the material on this disc.

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

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

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

April 10, 2011

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Cover Cash Bootleg Volume ll.jpg
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.
Johnny Cash 1950s.jpg
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.
Johnny Cash 1960s.jpg
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.)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Various Performers - Louisiana Swamp Stomp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5, 2010

Music Review: Jefferson Airplane: Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition

Back in the dark ages - the early 1970s when disco ruled the airwaves and before punk reminded us that rock and roll should make the establishment nervous not be part of it - I was your typical lost teenager looking for direction. As the present looked so dismal and I was lousy at looking into the future, the only viable alternative seemed to involve looking backwards for guidance. Reading about the previous decade with its protests against the war in Vietnam, the fight for Civil Rights and the music that accompanied it all made the 1960s seem a far more exciting time to be alive then the decade I was living through.

Needless to say the reality was lot different than any romantic notions my teenage self might have had. For while the lofty ideals of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were indeed worthy of being kept alive and venerated, a great deal of what I was first attracted to didn't bear up well under close scrutiny. Mind expanding drug trips could just as easily be heroin addiction and overdoses, the sexual revolution was just another excuse for men to exploit women and a great deal of the music was as manipulative and corporate as what was being put out in my own era. The more music I listened to the more I began to appreciate how the era's reputation for being a golden age of popular music was based on the achievements of a few gifted people and what I can only assume was a diminished capacity for critical evaluation caused by drug use.

However, while there were many groups which disappointed, one who lived up to their press clippings and whose reputation wasn't based on hazy memories was Jefferson Airplane. While psychedelic bands were just about as common as weeds in the Airplane's home town of San Francisco in the 1960s they stood out from the pack. Not only were they musically versatile, equally capable of burning the house down with acid rock as they were playing traditional blues numbers and ballads, what really caught my attention was the interplay of voices between their three main vocalists; Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.
Cover We Have Ignition.jpg
While Slick would swoop in and around her male counterparts like a circling bird of prey, it was when she stepped up to the microphone for her leads the true scope of her talent was revealed. It wasn't just that she was powerful, anybody can be loud, it was her ability to modulate her voice to suit the requirements of the material that was so impressive. Whether it was her in your face demanding of her audience whether they wanted somebody to love or not on "Somebody To Love" or the harmonies she wove with Balin and Kantner that could take you to a place few other female rock vocalists had even attempted before her, she was far different from any other female vocalist I had ever heard.

Yet Slick hadn't been there when the Airplane first took flight, not joining the band until the fall of 1966. Around a month after she joined, while they were still recording Surrealistic Pillow, the band introduced Slick to their audience over the course of two concerts at the end of November that year. Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition, being released on November 9/11 by Collectors Choice Music, brings those two concerts to CD for the first time and gives listeners a glimpse of what was to come with Slick as a member of the band. The concerts were a mix tunes taken from the soon to be released Surrealistic Pillow, covers and songs either from their first album or that would end up on other albums further down the road.

While the set list for both nights was pretty much identical, listening to how much the songs changed from performance to performance gives one a good idea of both their willingness and ability at improvisation. Whether it was just a matter of changing the guitar solos or taking a different approach to the song on a different night it's hard not to be impressed by the way they were will to tinker with new material in front of an audience. You get the idea that they were still finalizing their forthcoming album and taking this opportunity to try out ideas for each of the new songs before they came up with a final version for the record.

The other thing the recording does is show the different musical and intellectual interests at play in the group. Bass player Jack Casady and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen's interest in the blues, that would see them forming Hot Tuna as a side project in the future, comes through in the band's performance of Jorma's "In The Morning" and his passionate guitar work during the same. At the other end of the scale is Balin's biting and sarcastic "3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds" with his plea to "Do away with people wasting all of his precious time". Floating above and around all of them are Kantaner and Slick's early explorations of the fantastic and psychedelic as can be heard in the early versions of Slick's "White Rabbit" and the only known live recording of Kantner's "DCBA-25".
Jeferson Airplane 1960s.jpg
While these divergent interests were what made Jefferson Airplane so much more vital a band than the majority of the so called acid rock groups showing up in the Bay area, it was also the eventual reason for the demise of the original line up within a few years of this concert. However in 1966 what it made for was an exciting group who refused to be nailed down as one thing or another. Their cover of Fred Neil's "The Other Side of This Life" takes the one time folk song into territory its writer probably never imagined, while their version of Donavon's "Fat Angel" is remarkably sensitive to its origins.

Many times there are good reasons why previously unreleased material never sees the light of day, usually because the sound quality sucks. However that's not the case with Live At The Filmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition as the sound is remarkably clean. Far too often live recordings see some part of the mix washed out for one reason or another, but in this case none of the band's subtler nuances are lost in the recording process. In fact considering the sound systems of the day, I wouldn't be surprised if these discs aren't in some ways superior to what the audience at the concert heard.

More then forty years after this concert took place, and some thirty odd years after I first listened to Jefferson Airplane, their music remains as interesting and exciting as it was originally. While the group is still only in the earliest stages of their career when this disc was recorded, not only does their potential for greatness shine through, but they are already delivering performances far superior to what you'd expect from a group who had only finalized their line-up a month or two previously. This recording is more than just a curiosity piece that will be of interest to no one but die hard Jefferson Airplane fans, its a great record that will give people an opportunity to experience one of the best bands to come out of the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. If you ever wondered what all the fuss was about when people talk about Jefferson Airplane, this will go a long way towards answering those questions.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jefferson Airplane - Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

Music Review: Mark Newman - Walls Of Jericho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Package Hank Williams Complete Mother's Best Recordings.jpg
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.
Hank Williams & Drifting Cowboys.jpg
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.
Cover Setlist Johnny Cash.jpg
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.
Johnny & June Carter Cash.jpg
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.
Cover John Prine In Person & On Stage.jpg
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.)

December 20, 2009

Music Review: Various Performers - Nowhere Boy (Soundtrack)

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, there's Luther himself. Now, while I've heard any number of his recordings dating back to his earlier years on through his career, I never had the opportunity to see him perform. Unlike some performers who run all over the stage or contort themselves while playing their leads yet still don't feel like they are giving off the energy to rival a fire-fly, Luther Allison standing still centre stage feels like he could power a small city. There was one moment when he let loose a lyric, half-way between a primal growl and singing, sounding like the words were being torn out of his soul, that set shivers running up and down my spine. At that instant he became a small sun around which everything else revolved, dependent on him for the energy required for life to exist.
Luther Allison 1a.jpg
I knew a theatre director once who referred to rock and roll stars as the shaman of the modern world as they had the power to control tens of thousands of people during their concerts. To be honest with you I had never really bought into that line because to my mind the power we awarded those people never felt like it was as a result of their actions, but more because of their status as celebrities. However, when Allison sang that note, even though I was separated from that moment by twelve years and technology, there could be no denying the pull he exerted on me by whatever it was he was generating. You could almost hear the collective drawing in and holding of breath by the on screen audience as they too were captured, and then the explosion of its release in the form of cheers and applause.

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

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

December 11, 2009

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

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

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

The concert was filmed in May of 2008, and features Capp playing solo and unplugged. Over the course of about one hundred and ten minutes he sings twenty-five songs and regales the audience with stories about people he's known and some of the places he's been. Some of his songs tell versions of the stories that's he's just told us, versions that take us inside the story so that instead of being an observer all of a sudden we're sitting in that bar with him and Bobby Long on a Saturday afternoon in Alabama ("The Love Song Of Bobby Long").
Grayson Capps 1a.jpg
Watching Grayson Capps perform is almost like attending an old fashioned revival meeting. He's a commanding presence on stage, and not just because he's a big man but because of the force of his personality. Whether he's telling a story, singing, reciting, or leading the audience in a sing a long, he exudes a life force that has to be seen to be believed. He sings with a voice that sounds like its been carved from the wood of a tree that's been around as long as the Tennessee Mountains he sings about in his song "Arrowhead". Yet for every rough hewn song about some strange and tragic character who has crossed his path, there's an equal number of songs that express his joy and wonder at the world.

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2009

Music Review: Stace England And The Salt Kings - The Amazing Oscar Micheaux

While its well known how popular music has changed throughout the years, its not often that popular music is used to document the changing of the years or figures in history. Popular music is usually considered far too frivolous a thing to deal with the weighty matters of history. History books are always about the rich and powerful and the decisions they make affecting the type of people who listen to popular music - so what kind of contribution could it make to recounting the important events of the past?

The thing is, when history is only about the wealthy and powerful, it ends up being only told from their point of view. As a result people like Carnegie and Rockefeller become heroes while the union organizers who fought them and their thugs for things we now take for granted, like the forty hour work week and child labour laws, are still depicted as villains. For the longest time it was only through the songs of those eras by people like Joe Hill, framed on a murder charge and shot by Salt Lake Police, that versions of events aside from the ones in the history books existed. Recently there have been moves towards more populist versions of history as people like Howard Zinn try to recount events from different perspectives.

So, not only is there a tradition of popular music giving us a different perspective of history, there's now also more of an interest than ever in finding out more about when on "behind the scenes", so to speak, of the big events in history. Over the last few years Stace England and his band the Salt Kings have put out two albums, Cairo Illinois and Salt Sex Slaves, which have been done just that by recounting events that you won't find a record of in most history text books. With their latest album they've moved into the twentieth century in order to give us not just a glimpse of events but a person. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, available for download now and being released in the new year on Rankoutsider Records, introduces listeners to America's first major African-American film director.
Between the years of 1919 and 1948, Oscar Micheaux was the only black homesteader in South Dakota, published seven novels, and wrote, produced and directed forty-four movies staring and about African-Americans. His first movie, The Homesteader, was based on his experiences in South Dakota, but if a movie about a black homesteader dealing with racism wasn't bad enough, Within Our Gates his second feature, depicted whites raping black women, attempting to lynch black families, and showed the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and vigilantes. While that may sound like a pretty accurate depiction to us, you have to realize that D. W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation released in 1919, depicted just the opposite; black men trying to ravish delicate white beauties, and the Klan heroically preserving white honour.

It wasn't only whites that Micheaux managed to upset, various black civic groups were unhappy with his rather unpleasant habit of attempting to always show the truth on screen. Some of his movies dealt with the very contentious issue of passing; where fair skinned black people attempted to "pass" as white people and not suffer the same discrimination as the darker complexioned members of their community. In fact God's Stepchildren, his 1933 movie on that subject, was picketed at its premier in Harlem by black community leaders and members of the communist party for being racist. However it was more usual for white communities to be unhappy with his work, whether from their depiction of a drunken and lecherous reverend in Body And Soul (which featured Paul Robeson's film debut), or his continuing to challenge Griffith's stereotypes by having African-Americans standing up to the Klan and running them off.

Each of the twelve tracks on England's release either deals with one of Micheaux's movies or provides us with a glimpse into the world in which these movies were released. While track one, "The Homesteader", taken from the name of both the novel and film based on Micheaux's experiences in South Dakota as the only black homesteader, talks about the struggles of settler to eke out a living, track two takes a somewhat different approach. "Vendome" was the name of the theatre in Chicago where Micheaux's film The Homesteader was shown and it brings to life the excitement African-American people must have felt about seeing themselves depicted accurately on the big screen. "Folks like us up on that silver screen/Two reels in we're going to be celebrating".
Appropriately enough the final song on the disc is taken from the final movie of Micheaux's career, The Betrayal. While the director had hoped to create one last epic to cement his legacy, the three hour plus movie made in 1948 was universally panned. For the first time he received mainstream press attention, The New York Times, only to see them cut the movie to shreds, and even papers that had been his staunch allies turned on him. The song's lyrics reflect both how the director, by sticking to his guns, burnt a lot of bridges and alienated people during his career, and the results of those actions. "What will do when they have forgotten/All is forsaken and friends you have none/You can't go home over smouldering bridges...

As is usual for England and his band, with help from friends on some tracks, they employ from a multitude of genres to help tell the story. While the music might not be from the era represented by the disc, what they've chosen for each song has the appropriate feel to deliver the emotional message they are trying for. It might not have been the music that Micheaux would have chosen as the soundtrack for his silent movies, but it sure works as an introduction to it.

Once again England has taken an overlooked piece of American history, this time a person, and opened our eyes to what we've been missing. Intelligent and musically as interesting as ever, England and the Salt Kings make another convincing argument that popular music has a role to play in helping us tell our histories. With The Amazing Oscar Micheaux they have not only done the great service of ensuring a remarkable man is not overlooked, but are doing their best to rekindle interest in the work that makes him important. Aside from the CD, the band is also doing multimedia performances featuring clips his films (Micheaux clips accompanied by tracks from the CD are on line as well) and live performances of an original score to the movie Within Our Gates - a performance which won them praise at the Rome International Film Festival in 2009.

In the future, when they go to write the history of our times, we should hope the equivalent of Stace England And The Salt Kings are around to help ensure the complete story is told. Without people like them who knows what or who might be forgotten or overlooked.

October 31, 2009

Music Review: Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth -Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth

"A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork, that's the way I spell New York"... Well maybe not, but New York City has always had sort of a mythical status for those of us who don't live there, We either hate it or love it - you can't be ambivalent about that town. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere the song says, but what the hell is it that all those people are trying to make it as? There's what - ten million of them crammed onto an island that was supposedly bought for some beads and trinkets from people who didn't think anyone could own land...a city started by a deal which cut corners, what more do you need to know about it?

Still, New York City...The one time I've actually wandered its streets was early 1981. The city was still recovering from the shock of John Lennon being gunned down outside his apartment building four weeks earlier. Stars don't get killed in NYC, only junkies and stupid people who go down the wrong dark alley at night or wander into neighbourhoods they don't belong in. During the day it was all broad avenues, full of people hustling. Tall buildings casting long shadows down canyons made of glass, steel, and concrete in the bright sun of the first week of January were replaced at night with neon strewn streets filled with the white plumes of exhaust streaming out of the constant caravan of yellow cabs flowing up or down stream. In the shadows of the night excitement and danger walked hand in hand waiting for some fool to make the wrong choice.

It was probably a mistake to have taken the pink micro-dot a friend had given me for while in NYC - it was already enough like an acid trip for a kid from the tame streets of Toronto just in town for three nights and four days, but I had the idea that I wanted to go deeper into the experience of New York City. But you can't do that as a tourist - you can't get past the veneer no matter what you ingest. You have to have spent time inside its rhythm, develop a feel for its sound, understand the good and the bad - love her for both sides of it, and then be able to sit back and say shit - I lived through that. It takes great rock and roll to understand New York City and bring her back to life. Which is what you get, great rock and roll and New York City, by the truck load, on the new self titled release from Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth distributed by Varese Vintage, Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth
Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth Cover.jpg
Willy DeVille said to me once that nobody's born in Manhatten, implying that everybody was drawn there from somewhere else, but if Steve Conte wasn't born there he sure as hell belongs there. He's guitarist for the ultimate New York City band, the New York Dolls, he's subbed as guitar player in the Mink DeVille Band during Willy's 2003 tour of Europe, and now he's released a CD which sounds like it was written in blood that pumped out of the city's heart. Yet this ain't just some dark and mysterious ride into the heart of darkness at the core of the city, because there's a real heart that beats at the core of both Conte and New York.

If there wasn't a heart in New York City how could so much great art be produced on one small patch of land? There's something happening in those dark places that fuels inspiration, desire, passion, and pain - and Conte and the boys (Lee "Leeko" Kostrinsky on bass and Phil Stewart on drums) and their friends who've sat in for the session, find their way into those corners and have brought back a few of stories. (That great harmonica solo you hear about half-way through the disc is Conte's band mate from the Dolls David Johansen while the beautiful back up vocals are provided by Nicki Richards and Catherine Russell)

The credits list eleven tracks on this disc, but its really like one long stream of conscience dive into the music. He starts us off with the aptly titled "This Is The End". because sometimes the best way you to look at something is looking back at where you've been. Then, before you've had a chance to take a deep breath before making the plunge, he's hauling our asses downtown in a "Gypsy Cab" for a whirlwind tour of what makes New York City and rock and roll fucking great. (This is definitely a PG column by the way, but so are rock and roll and NYC and if you don't like it, go find Rudy Giuliani and commiserate with him over his failure to round up all the scum like me who pollute our fair streets)
Steve Conte & The Crazy Truth 1.jpg
Now although "The Truth Ain't Pretty", and some of "The Goods Are Odd", this isn't just some dark magical mystery tour into the underworld. There has to be light in order for there to be dark and Conte has been around long enough to know that it's not cool to die with a needle in your arm, it's just a waste. So if you've come here looking for some sort of peon in praise of riding the rails to destruction, this isn't the place. There's no room for nihilism anymore, you may have to take the bad with good, and we may all take a few wrong steps now and again and fall down blind alleys while we're looking for whatever it is we're looking for, but that doesn't mean you can't have hope. The bright lights flashing by the cab window can turn your head, but you can only mistake fame for talent for so long - and in Conte's New York City talent and heart win out over fame and posing everyday.

Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth is rock and roll at its most dangerous and hopeful best. Like all the best music that's come out of New York City since the mid 1970's there's a knife edge to their sound, but that's only there to protect them from a world that would cut out your heart if given a chance. At its best New York City defies those who think different is bad and originality a sin. This CD brings that to life without ignoring the dangers of the flip side - being different just because its cool could find you face down some day if you take it too far. It's okay to "rock and roll like the Marquis de Sade" (One of the best rock and roll lyrics I've heard in years) but there's also more to life and you can't forget that either. Conte's songs sound like they've been down quite a few roads, some of which might have been dark and dangerous, but he also sounds like he's never forgotten how to find his way home. New York City may not be everyone's idea of home, but Conte sure understands what makes it home for so many people.

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.
Blind Boys Of Alabama Duets Cover.jpg
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.
Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama .jpg
Toots Hibbert, lead singer of Toots And The Maytals, first came to international attention with the song "Sweet And Dandy" when it was included in the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff. Hibbert's long association with reggae, his 1968 recording "Do The Reggay" is credited with being the originator of the genre's name, makes him seem an unlikely candidate for singing gospel. However listening to him singing "Perfect Peace" along with the Blind Boys, reminds you that reggae was more than just another form of pop music. It too was born out of the passion of belief, either for the Rastafarian faith or for the fight for civil rights in Jamaica. His voice cracks with soulful energy and you can't help but feel his passion for the material.

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

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

October 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 8, 2009

Music Review: Zora Young - The French Connection

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

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

As for the disc's title, it was recorded entirely in France with Zora being accompanied by a band made up of the creme de la creme of French blues musicians. African American musicians have been migrating to Europe and France since the 1920's when they formed the jazz bands that played in clubs throughout Paris. For blues musicians in the 1950's and 1960's not only did Europe mean an appreciative audience, it also meant the opportunity to be in a non-segregated society and allowed them to be free from a great deal of the racism they faced back home. Some of them were so enamoured of the change that they took up permanent residence in the countries which treated them the best, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The French Connection Cover.jpg
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.
Zora Young.jpg
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.

August 7, 2009

Willy DeVille: Rest In Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 28, 2009

Music Review: Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae

Normally trips down memory lane are exercises in sentimentality that have little or no interest to anybody save for those directly involved in the events being rehashed. When such excursions are married to popular music the results are as varied as people's individual tastes and how they choose to remember their own past. It's difficult to generate enthusiasm for these exercises in nostalgia if you actually lived through the era in question, especially when the music designated as being representative of the times doesn't appeal to you now anymore then it did when it first polluted the air waves. Duran Duran don't appeal to me now anymore then they did back in the 1980's and I really can't see how anybody can look back on music like that with anything other than nausea. However, there's a difference between those sordid attempts at pretending there was anything worth remembering about bad pop music and embarrassing clothing trends and celebrating a specific genre of popular music.

In Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae the musicians who were at the forefront of performing this precursor of reggae reunited in Kingston Jamaica to record and perform some forty years after the genre's heyday. The documentary movie made of the reunion follows them around the city checking out their old haunts and into the studio as they re-record their rocksteady hits. While the movie has only received limited release, it opened on July 24th/09 in four cities in Canada, the soundtrack, Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae was being released on the Moll-Selekta label.

A joint Canadian and Swiss co-production the movie probably won't get much distribution action south of the border, so the CD might just be Americans only opportunity to check out the greats of the rocksteady era coming together to play their music one more time. Judy Mowatt, Leroy Sibbles, Rita Marley, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Hopeton Lewis might not be familiar names to most of today's audiences. Reggae fans might recognize the names of the three women from their time as the "I-Threes" singing harmonies for Bob Marely (and in Rita's case, as Bob's wife); Sly Dunbar as the drumming half of the ubiquitous reggae rhythm section Taxi Squad; and Leroy Sibbles from his days as the lead singer of the Heptones and his subsequent successful solo career. However, most of the other people involved in this won't be known to many people outside of Jamaica, as rocksteady didn't seem to travel off the island.
rocksteady CD cover.jpg
Before any of them made names as reggae stars, they were playing and recording rocksteady. In a lot of ways it seems like the main difference between rocksteady and reggae was the amount of recognition and money the performers received as compensation for their efforts. The music, at least what's been recorded on this disc, doesn't sound much different from reggae, save perhaps that it's lighter on the bass and a bit more up tempo. What makes these songs so important is they represented the beginning of the move away from ska music, which had dominated the Kingston music scene until the mid 1960's, that would eventually lead to reggae.

It was rocksteady that slowed the music's tempo and added the heavy bass that has become such a distinctive part of the reggae sound. It was also these new performers who first started to write lyrics about love and conflict. Listen to a song like "Sounds & Pressure" by Hopeton Lewis and you hear elements of both ska and reggae. The peppy horns have always been a feature of ska, but here the music is at a slower tempo and is propelled with the slower, almost insistent beat, that distinguishes reggae. Unlike reggae though there is a definite lightness to the music. While they might be talking about subjects like needing to find work or your love leaving on the next train like in U-Roy's classic "Stop That Train", the music just doesn't seem anywhere near as dense as reggae.

Listen to Ken Boothe singing "Freedom Street", with it's exhortation to walk down freedom street in order to rid the world of war and injustice. The message might be heavy but the music is a lot brighter than what you'd hear if it was sung by someone like Marley or Tosh. There is a pop element to the songs that is lacking in reggae, and you get the feeling that it doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously as reggae does. Of course there's another big difference, you're not going to hear anybody mention Jah, or any talk of Rastafarianism for that matter, in these songs.
Rocksteady Concert.JPG
Now listening to these songs there's something else you have to keep in mind, the average mean age of the people recording them has to be at least somewhere in the sixties. These songs were all recorded in 2008 at the old Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston where many of the songs were recorded the first time - forty years ago. I can remember when Leroy Sibbles came to live in Canada in the late 1970's to escape the political violence that was tearing the slums of Kingston apart, and he wasn't a young man then. Yet hearing him on disc now, he sounds no different then he did all those years ago.

The same goes for all of the performers on this disc. Judy Mowat's voice is as strong and powerful as it was when she first recorded "Silent River Runs Deep" or when she Rita, and Marcia were singing harmonies for Bob Marley. These folk are ageless wonders, and they are superbly backed by musicians just as capable as they are. The rhythm section, anchored by the incomparable Sly Dunbar on drums, is so tight that you can drop a penny on it and it will bounce in perfect time. Songs like "Shanty Town (007)" sound as good now, if not better, thanks to improved recording techniques and technology, then they did when I first heard them on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall from the early seventies.

Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae is a wonderful collection of music from an amazing group of musicians who made history forty years ago by paving the way for people who went on to become far more famous than most of them ever did. It amazes me that rocksteady never caught on in the wide world in the same way ska and reggae did outside of Jamaica. It's far more infectious than reggae and much more accessible than ska, meaning there's no reason why it shouldn't catch on with a wider audience even now. According to Sly Dunbar a lot of Jamaicans would say they prefer rocksteady to reggae because it had better sound, singing, playing, and better instrumentation. Well, while some might argue with some of those specifics, it's easy to see how somebody could prefer rocksteady over reggae. If you've never heard this music before this is the perfect opportunity as your not going to find anybody who can perform it better than the people on this disc. One warning - there's over sixty minutes of music on this disc so be prepared as once you put it on you're not going to be able to sit still until the last note fades away.

July 17, 2009

Music Review: Missy Andersen - Missy Andersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 28, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Kicking Against The Pricks Cover.jpg
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.
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.jpg
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.

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.
Under My Own Disguise Box Set.jpg
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 12, 2009

Music DVD Review: The Lee Boys -The Lee Boys Live At Bonnaroo

Normally when you think of steel guitar, especially pedal steel guitar, the last thing in the world that's going to come to mind is African American gospel music. A country gospel tune like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" sure, but you don't ever expect to hear one playing in one of those earth shaking, hip swinging gospel choirs that inspired today's funk, soul, and blues musicians. Yet if you were a congregation member of The House Of God, Keith Dominion churches, steel guitar in shape or another is exactly what you'd have been hearing since the 1930's.

sacred steel music was born out of the popularity of the Hawaiian Steel guitar in the early part of the twentieth century. Two brothers, Troman and Willie Eason were responsible for bringing the steel guitar to the House of God services in the 1930's. While Troman had learned how to play in the Hawaiian style, Willie had not had any formal training and simply played the music he was familiar with on this guitar. From such humble beginnings a genre was born.

The Lee Boys are a family group consisting of three brothers; Alvin (guitar), Derrick, and Keith (vocals) and three nephews; Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel guitar), Alvin Cordy Jr. (7 string bass), and Earl Walker (drums). They each grew up making music in a House of God congregation in Perrine Fl. where the brother's father was pastor and steel player. Having been playing together, or individually, in the church since they were seven they've not only developed into proficient musicians but have also learned the key elements for staging a successful show. You don't need to look any further than their new DVD release Live At Bonnaroo for evidence of just how impressive they are.
Lee Boys Live At Bonnaroo.jpg
Sunday mornings at folk festivals were reserved for gospel groups from all over, and I guess Bonnaroo is keeping up that tradition as this recording is of a Sunday morning performance The Lee Boys gave at last year's festival. Now I can't think of a tougher time, or a harder audience to play for, than the Sunday morning of a festival. Half the crowd is either recovering from the night before, if they've even gone to bed yet, and the other half are just wandering onto the site and getting their bearings. A band has to be pretty special and be able to deliver a red hot performance in order to first grab, and then hold, this type of audience's attention for the length of the concert.

Well, not only are the Lee Boys able to pull off snaring this audience right from the word go, they have them in the palm of their hand all the way through the show. Now I hadn't been familiar with the band before listening to and watching this disc, and hadn't remembered they were a gospel group, so it was a bit of a surprise on the first song to hear them calling out to the audience to testify and bear witness like they would if they were conducting a church service. To be honest I hadn't been paying too much attention to the lyrics either because the music had blown me away so much, so it wasn't even until the break of the first song, "Let's Celebrate" that I realized I was watching what was basically a tent revival meeting.

The House of God churches that gave birth to sacred steel integrated music into the whole service. Citing Psalms 150:4 "Praise Him with stringed instruments" and 149:3 "Let them praise His name in the dance" the steel guitarist who leads the band works with the congregation's minister so that in addition to playing actual songs, they work as punctuation for sermons and all other activities in the church. When you watch The Lee Boys you quickly realize you might be able to take the music out of the church, but you can't take the church out of the music. However, as in the case with almost any art that's truly inspired by belief, what makes these guys so great is the passion they bring to what they're doing.
Lee Boys .jpg
Sure the pedal steel guitar laying down the leads for the songs is a novelty that captures your attention for the first couple of songs, but once you get past that point there has to be something that holds your attention. Obviously part of that is the fact that these guys are an incredibly talented band who might look like they're playing loose and sloppy but are so tight you could throw a pin on them and it would bounce a mile straight up. Yet I've seen and heard plenty of bands who can play like that, who don't hold my attention or captivate me the way The Lee Boys are able to.

You can't help but be caught up in their energy from the moment they step on stage and start playing. Brothers Derrick and Keith on lead vocals don't stop even when they're not singing. During solos either one of them could be calling out to either the player or the audience exhorting and pushing them to have a good time, dance, sing, testify, or whatever they want to do that might demonstrate their joy at being alive. For that's what it feels like their concerts are really celebrating, the joy of being alive, and it doesn't matter whether you believe in the same things they do or not because you can't help but be caught up in all the fun.

Unlike a lot of gospel bands, judging by this concert anyway, The Lee Boys play their own music. The one song on the disc that wasn't written by a current band member, "Joyful Sounds", was written by their late brother Glenn, a former member of the group. Another difference between them and most other gospel groups is their sound. For while you normally can hear in gospel music the roots of secular forms of African American music, The Lee Boys are a melting pot of soul, blues, R&B, and funk, coming together in what can only be described as a joyful noise.

The copy of the DVD I received was only a screener, so I've no idea if there are any special features as it didn't have menus, just started right in on the concert without any preamble. The sound quality was great and the camera work was a nice mixture of on stage shots, including close ups of individual leads, mixed with the occasional crowd shot. It's interesting to watch as the concert progressed the crowd growing increasingly responsive to the music and the band's entreaties to have fun and dance and how by the end they've managed to get everybody up on their feet and moving to the music.

Sacred steel gospel music has been pretty much unknown outside of the communities where it's been played until the last few years. However with releases like The Lee Boys Live At Bonnaroo and bands playing at festivals and gigs across North America the rest of us are finally being let in on the secret. I can pretty much guarantee that you've never heard anything quite like it before and once you have you won't forget it in hurry.

December 9, 2008

Music Review: Various Performeres Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest

Music has always had the power to inflame people's passions. From ultra nationalist songs that whip up hatred against others to religious music that inspires devotions, music has the potential to have the strongest and most immediate emotional impact of all the arts. Therefore, it's little wonder that down through the years music and songs have been written to express both dissatisfaction and appreciation for the way the world is going.

While I'm sure you can find examples of protest songs from almost every era of civilization, just check out the Irish songs about the British occupation, it really wasn't until the twentieth century that English language protest songs began to take the shape that we are familiar with. Most of the early ones dealt with the plight of the working class in North America and called for the establishment of unions. As the twentieth century progressed, and fell into the depression of the 1930's, songs the plight of the poor farmers and the social/political system that could allow the crises to happen began to be heard.

However it wasn't until after WWll and the popularization of folk music that protest songs began to obtain widespread popularity in English speaking North America. With first the civil rights movement in the United States, and then the war in Vietnam, causing people to question the moral authority of government and society's inequities protest, songs and the people who sang them gained widespread popularity. Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixing To Die Rag", and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing" were along the lines of typical folk songs, while Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers Of America" showed that the protest song didn't have to be limited to just folk singers.
Rich Man's War.jpg
Yet, after only a relatively short time the protest song's popularity died again. It seemed that when the impetus created by the unique combination of events and circumstances that had fostered the movement for social change died, so did interest in listening to songs about what was wrong with society or other people's troubles. While punk bands like the Clash, or musicians like Billy Bragg made no bones about their politics and did their best to motivate their listeners, the majority weren't interested. Like punk, rap and hip-hop had the potential to speak for the disenfranchised, but it was co-opted until now it glorifies the very things it originally protested against. (Check out the the lyrics of any Grandmaster Flash song from the early eighties and compare it to what's being sung as rap now and you'll see what I mean)

Now that doesn't mean that protest music is dead, it just means you have to look a little bit harder to find it. As a public service the good people at Ruf Records in Germany are releasing a new compilation CD of protest music recorded in the last few years. Rich Man's War: New Blues & Roots Songs Of Peace And Protest, to be released in the United States and Canada in the new year, is a collection of topical blues songs that were written in response to the first American presidency of the 21st century. While Ruf Records is distributing the disc, only two of the performers appearing on the disc are from their label, as producer Kenneth Bays has searched out recordings by as diverse a group of blues players as he could find. You'll notice that some of the songs seem to stretch the definition of blues somewhat, which explains the slightly unwieldy title, but does nothing to diminish the quality of the music.

I guess it only shows how unpopular protest songs have become when of the twelve songs on the disc not only have I only heard two of them before, "Follow The Money" by Bob Brozman and "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane, but I only recognized the names of two of the other musicians who had contributed to the recording; Guitar Shorty and Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. Which is a great pity, because not only are the songs on this disc all intelligent, and sometimes quite funny, but even better, they are all good pieces of music. Protest music has received a bit of bad rap over the years for being painfully earnest and painful to listen to as its been wilfully misrepresented by those who'd rather we'd not be reminded that the world isn't quite the way the government depicts it.

Needless to say as the songs collected here are all in direct response to the Bush administration and its policies their primary focus is on topics that have dominated the newspapers since his election. What was nice to see was how each of the performers found a way to address the issue they chose to talk about without resorting to making villains out of people like the soldiers being sent overseas, but attacked the policies and motivations of those who made the decision to send them. Even better, there are a couple of songs that don't even resort to blaming anybody in particular, but instead seem to be shaking their heads with regret at the whole damn situation.

Two of the best songs on the disc are the previously mentioned "Jesus And Mohammed" by Candye Kane and "A Time For Peace" by Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater. In the former, Candye Kane imagines a conversation taking place between the two prophets and them shaking their heads in disbelief at how their followers could have screwed up their respective messages so badly. "This isn't what we wanted, both were heard to say, how could our words of love lead us to this day/ Oh my children don't you understand, misery and hatred won't get you to the promised land". Sung along the lines of a country/blues gospel number, and especially with Candye Kane's big and expressive voice, the song is a particularly effective condemnation of the hatred generated by all those who would have their followers on either side believe they are fighting a holly war.

Like Candye Kane, Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater has turned to the gospel roots of blues music for his song, complete with an echoing organ solo and church choir. "How many politicians have to lie? How many good soldiers have to die?". What makes this song so effective is the stark simplicity of its message, "It's time for love/It's time for peace/It's time for cease", and the genuine passion that he and the choir are able to bring to what they are saying. "A Time For Peace" is a genuine prayer for peace that transcends individual religions or politics and reminds us if we don't keep love in our hearts we're no better than those we criticize for making war.

Rich Man's War is a collection of intelligent, musically interesting songs written in response to events of the last eight years. You probably won't have heard many of the songs on this disc performed before, and you may not have even heard of some of the performers themselves. However, after eight years of listening to one version of events and maybe starting to feel a little uncomfortable with what you've been told, don't you think it's about time to give some other opinions a chance? This CD represents that chance - maybe you should give it a listen.

November 27, 2008

Music Review: Guitar Red Lightin' In A Bottle

You see them on the street corners of almost every major city in the world. Some of them have elaborate set-ups including battery powered amplifiers, others are one man bands playing a kick-drum t, strumming a guitar, and blowing on a harmonica. Some of them can barely play their instrument, while others are virtuosos. Yet, no matter how good or bad they may be, for one reason or another, no matter what the weather, these musicians have made the sidewalk their stage and what, or whoever passes by, their audience.

In another life time I was part of a children's theatre company that use to perform outdoors in parks and even on the occasional sidewalk. So I speak from experience when I say there is nothing more difficult for any performer to do than attract the attention of someone just passing by, unless it's holding their attention in spite of all the distractions around them. Amplifying your sound doesn't do much more than add to the overall white noise of a city street and actually increases the likelihood of people blocking you out like they attempt to block car horns and everything else around them.

The experienced street performer knows that it's force of personality that attracts people's attention. If you just stand there strumming your guitar and singing, the average person walking down the street with their mind on the day ahead or the one that just passed won't pay you any attention. When you play the streets you learn how to "sell" yourself and your music so someone catching sight of you out of the corner of their eye, or hearing just a snatch of sound coming from your direction, will be attracted and turn their attention to you. If you think it sounds difficult to do, well believe me it's even harder to accomplish in practice.
Guitar Red.jpg
After listening to Lightin' In A Bottle, street musician Guitar Red's new release on Backspace Records, I'd lay odds that when he plays street corners not only do people stop, but traffic does too. Right from the opening notes of the discs first song, "Box Car No. 9" he reaches out and grabs your attention, and doesn't let go until the last note of track ten, "Song About A Jimi Hendrix Song" fades away. Accompanying himself with only guitar and clavinet, and helped out on bass by Chris Francisco, Guitar Red's music has more energy and vitality than most bands, and hundreds of times more personality than ninety percent of any musicians I've ever heard.

There's nothing sophisticated or polished about Guitar Red (real name Billy Christian Walls) or his music. What it does have is pure and unadulterated heart and soul, with each song sounding like he's drawing upon personal experience for inspiration. It doesn't matter whether he's singing about the woman who done him wrong or serving on a chain gang for stealing potatoes, you can't help but believe he sweated out his days under the Georgia sun breaking rocks or had his heart broken time after time. When he sings about telling the boss man not to ride him so hard because his momma just died on "Chain Gang Blues", you don't have to be prescient to know that the next line will be "now I'm serving twenty to life" because you can feel the depth of his grief and know just how close to the edge he is.

It doesn't matter whether he's playing slow or playing fast, singing sad or singing glad, because he doesn't differentiate between them when it comes to passion or intensity. He's like the best storyteller you've ever heard, in that he draws you into what he's telling you without seemingly trying. One second you're listening to the opening notes of a song, and the next you're sitting looking at the world he's created through his eyes and experiencing everything he's talking about.

A lot of people who play acoustic blues, or traditional blues music, seem to get hung up on playing the same rhythmic pattern over and over again until you're stupefied with boredom. Guitar Red on the other hand keeps things moving, so that the music fits the mood expressed by the lyrics of his song. The blues isn't about what note or chords you play on your guitar, the blues is what comes from your heart. Guitar Red knows that and his music reflects it, and listening to it you sure can feel it.

One of the things that really struck me about this recording was how he used his voice. He doesn't have what you'd call an attractive singing voice, but he has a fine ear for understanding how to make the best use of the gifts he's been given, which is a highly expressive voice. Many people who play the streets end up only knowing how to be loud and louder when they sing from years of having to compete against traffic noise. Red, on the other hand, modulates his voice according to the needs of the song and the mood he's trying to establish. Compare how he sounds on the up tempo "Lips Poked Out" where's he creating a fun, teasing atmosphere, to "I Believe", a quiet and sincere declaration of his faith that has a hundred times more conviction to it than any preacher foaming at the mouth.

After years of listening to histrionical pop singers trying to prove how emotional they are by either screaming or whispering, Guitar Red comes as a welcome relief. It's like he has a direct conduit from his heart to his voice so that no matter what he says it comes out sounding like he means it with his entire being. If he's singing one of his up tempo, up beat songs you can hear the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye coming through in his voice. When he's singing about something difficult or serious you can feel his body bending under the weight of the words.

There are thousands, if not even millions, of people who play music on the streets of our cities every day of the year, and the majority of them aren't anything special. Once in a while though there are genuine gems among the dross whose talent is so pure it shines out like a beacon for all to see. Guitar Red is one of the latter as his music is heartfelt, passionate, and full of life. He might be singing the blues, but he sure brought a smile to my face.

November 26, 2008

Music CD & Bonus DVD Review: Buffy Sainte-Marie Running For The Drum

For all that Canadians claim moral superiority over Americans, our history when it comes to dealing with issues of race is no better than anybody else's. We have been the master of discreet and covert discrimination from almost the moment we became a country in 1867. Just look at the nearly successful campaign of cultural genocide that we carried out against Native Canadians with the Residential School system. Children were stolen away from their parents, some transported thousands of miles from home, in order to make them useful citizens.This included stripping them of their identities by changing their names, forbidding them to speak anything but English (or French if they were in Quebec), and being taught that their parent's beliefs were superstitions that was going to send them all to hell.

In spite of their best efforts, the combined efforts of the government and the Anglican and Catholic Churches weren't quite successful. Enough people held on to their nation's culture and preserved it for the lost generations. Lost because not only didn't they fit into the white world, they didn't fit into the world of their parents either. Unlike others her age Buffy Sainte-Marie avoided Residential school, but was "adapted" by a predominantly white family (her adopted mother was part Mik'maq) in New England, miles away from her family in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her mother did tell her that there was a world of difference between what she saw in the movies and the reality of being Native American, but she could find out about that stuff when she was an adult if she wanted.

As anyone who is familiar with Buffy Sainte-Marie's music, activism, or art knows she most definitely found out the truth about the circumstances of Native Americans in contemporary society. Her latest release, Running For The Drum, not only once again confirms her talents as singer and songwriter, but reaffirms her commitment to the culture of her people. However, as the DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, included as a bonus, shows she's not interested in merely preserving the culture like a museum piece, but keeping it a living breathing entity that isn't afraid to be part of the modern world.
Running For The Drum.jpg
One doesn't need to look any further than the music on Running For The Drum for examples of that as she draws just as heavily upon modern musical influences as traditional native ones when writing her material. In A Multimedia Life she says that her musical influences included everything from R&B, early rock and roll, Miles Davis, to the French singer Edith Piaf, and you can hear traces of just about all of them, on the new disc. Right from the first cut you know this isn't going to be the type of "Native" music they sell in New Age emporiums. There's nothing ethereal about the strident challenge of the lyrics, the dance club beat that pulses underneath it, and the sound effects that surround "No No Keshagesh".

While I've become used to Buffy Sainte-Marie's use of technology in her material, "No No Keshagesh" (Greedy Guts) still took me by surprise with its sound and the amount of technology she used on it. Yet once I adjusted to what she was doing I could hear how this music was working to make the lyrics attacking how businesses have "Got Mother Nature on a luncheon plate/The carve her up and call it real estate" that much more powerful. This isn't some whining, tree hugger song about being nice to the flowers, this a call to arms to fight back: "Mister Greed I think your time has come/I'm gonna/Sing it and pray it and/live it and say it singing/No No Keshagesh you can't do it nor more."

I watched the documentary before I listened to the CD which is where I found out about her being taken from her family as a child and not knowing whether she was born in 1940, 41, or 42. In 1964, as her career was starting to take off, she made a trip up to the Wikwemikong pow-wow on Manitoulin Island (largest fresh water island in the world) in Northern Ontario, and began the process of trying to find her family. Unfortunately all of the records pertaining to her adoption had been destroyed, so finding out who her birth parents were was impossible. However she was readopted by a Native family from her home reserve who she had met at the pow-wow. Her new grandfather was the son of one of signatories to Treaty 4, the treaty in which the Cree Indians of Western Canada recognized Queen Victoria as their ruler, and he was her link in the chain that reconnected her to being a member oft Cree nation.
Buffy Sainte Marie a.jpg
The documentary does a really good job of telling Sainte-Marie's story from her earliest days as a folk singer in Greenwich Village in New York City, combining archival footage of some of her earliest performances with present day interviews with people like Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, and other contemporaries from the time. We find out that her career in the States came to an abrupt halt in the late sixties when she was blacklisted by the Johnson administration for her activism in both the anti-war movement and Native rights.

By the end of the sixties she was making her primary focus Native rights, using every public appearance she made to try and educate people on the reality of being Native in the twentieth century. As a result of this her air time became more and more limited as people like The Tonight Show started applying conditions to her appearances - no talking about civil rights and only singing certain songs - and she would say, thanks, but no thanks. This didn't stop her from winning an Oscar for co-writing "Up Where We Belong" from the movie An Officer And A Gentleman.

The documentary takes us up into the present day and she talks about the things that motivate her now. In the early eighties she started to experiment with digital art and continues to create in a variety of styles and mediums to this day. Her other major focus has been on creating educational programming for Native and non-native children using the Internet. The Cradleboard Teaching Project is a multi media interactive curriculum for students from grade three to twelve while the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education is dedicated to helping Native American students receive an education and also educating people of all backgrounds about Native American culture.

Needless to say with all this going on her music output isn't quite as prolific as it used to be, but that doesn't mean the quality of her work has suffered any either as the material on Running For The Drum makes perfectly clear. Whether she's doing a tribute to the early music of Elvis Presley on the rockabilly like "Blue Sunday", or a hauntingly beautiful song like "Easy Like The Snow Falls Down" which she dedicates to hospice caregivers who help families care for loved ones who are dying, her music remains as potent as it was when she wrote "Universal Soldier".

She pretty much covers all her musical influences on this disc, including a New Orleans blues tune, "I Bet My Heart On You" that features a piano duet with her and Taj Mahal. Yet, at least in my opinion, it's when she taps into her own heritage for inspiration that her material begins to transcend the boundaries of ordinary pop music. Listen to a piece like the previously mentioned "No No Keshagesh" or "Working For The Government" where she has sampled pow-wow drums and sings in the high falsetto of the pow-wow singer and, if you let it, her voice will lift you out of yourself, and send you travelling in ways you wouldn't think possible with popular music.

More then forty years after starting her career as a professional musician Buffy Sainte-Marie is still continuing to look for new ways to express herself and isn't afraid of taking chances with her music. Running For The Drum is a great example of just how powerful and diverse a musician she is. The DVD documentary, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, included in the package as a wonderful bonus shows you the steps she's taken to get to where she is today. Great music, a fascinating artist, and a well told story - what more could you ask for from a two disc CD/DVD set.

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.
Hank Williams.jpg
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.
_hank williams.jpeg
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.

October 19, 2008

Music Review: Creedence Clearwater Revival Green River

I remember a night in 1980 walking in downtown Toronto Ontario and I happened to look in the window of one of the city's really good independent record stores. Normally their window displayed the latest imports from England or efforts by local punk bands, so it came as some surprise to see a copy of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Willy And The Poor Boys featured prominently in the window. One of the staff had stuck a label on the cover reading -"The Original Only Band That Mattered", in an obvious challenge to The Clash's promotion of themselves as "The Only Band That Matters".

"Down On The Corner", one of the singles taken from Willy And The Poor Boys, was one of the first pop songs that had stuck in my head as a kid outside of The Beatles, so although as a good punk I was properly indignant by the slight towards The Clash, I was intrigued enough to later that night dig out my brother's copy of "Willy" and put it on the turntable. Listening to it for the first time as an adult I was amazed by what I was hearing. It was rock and roll at its purest. Raw, unrefined, and stripped down to the essentials it was everything that punks claimed to aspire to with only a few ever came close to achieving. Listening to Willy And The Poor Boys is to understand what rock and roll is.

It's been forty years since Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) put out their first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1968, and in honour of that anniversary Concord Music Group, through their Fantasy Record imprint, the band's original label, have reissued re-mastered version of their first six recordings. Aside from the two already mentioned that includes Bayou Country, Cosmo's Factory, Pendulum, and Green River. ( I have to admit to a little confusion because the Concord site says the reissues are in honour of the band's 40th anniversary but also lists their first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival as being released in 1967 - I guess forty just sounds better than forty-one.)
Creedence Clearwater Revival.JPG
In spite of the success they had with hit singles like "Bad Moon Rising", "Proud Mary", "Lookin' Out My Backdoor", and "Who'll Stop The Rain", to name only a few, the band started to splinter in 1971 when John Fogerty's brother Tom left the band, and the band dissolved the next year. The years following the band's break up were nasty to say the least as Tom and John Fogerty spent years in court fighting each other over ownership of CCR's catalogue of music. It's interesting to note that only John has had a successful solo career while the best others have done is try to cash in on the CCR name by putting together a lame cover band playing the band's hits.

Of the albums being re-released the one that I thought I was the least familiar with was Green River, so I figured that would be a good one to check out. Well it turns out I wasn't quite as unfamiliar with its contents as I had thought. I might never have owned Green River but aside from knowing the title track, I knew two others quite well too. Perhaps you've heard of them; "Lodi" and "Bad Moon Rising"?

Well I felt like a bit of an idiot after finding that out, but it still meant there were six songs on the disc I wasn't familiar with, as well as the five previously unreleased bonus tracks that had been included. Yet it was hearing the songs that I did know in the context of an album instead of in the soundtrack of a movie ("Bad Moon Rising" shows up in American Werewolf In London), played by some cover band, or on the radio as a golden oldie that somehow had the most impact. Green River was released in 1969, just before that little get together in upstate New York called Woodstock, and a year after Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Although many among us, myself included, have a romantic view of the Woodstock concert it really was the beginning of the end of an era.

A year earlier it looked like Bobby Kennedy was headed towards the White House and there was hope of revitalizing American society. He was trusted by everyone from members of the Black Panthers to New England blue bloods, and if there was anyone who was going to be able to bridge the gap between the two it was him. He was promising to end the war in Vietnam, promote literacy, and find ways to deal with the grinding poverty of the inner cities and rural poor. What America got instead was Richard Nixon escalating the war in Vietnam, dealing with the poor by drafting them into the army and shipping them overseas as cannon fodder, and instead of spending money on the people of his country he increased military spending.

"Hope you got your things together/Hope you are quite prepared to die/Looks like were in for nasty weather/One eye is taken for an eye" Fogerty rasps in "Bad Moon Rising", which doesn't sound nearly as cute or funny when its not the soundtrack to a werewolf movie. In fact if you didn't know any better it sounds like John is predicting the end of the world with this song. Or how about in "Wrote A Song For Everyone" when he sings "Saw the people standin' thousand years in chains/Somebody said it's different now, look, it's just the same/Pharaoh's spin the message, round and round the truth./They could have saved a million people, how can I tell you?"

Not only doesn't he sound very optimistic about the way things have gone, he doesn't sound like he's got much faith in the future either. Then there's "Commotion" where "People keep a talking, they don't say a word/...Talk up in the White House, talk up to your door/So much going on I just can't hear". It sounds to me that forty years ago Fogerty knew what was going to be happening with the world in the future, as he's articulated pretty much what goes on today in this song. A lot of noise but no substance from anyone, especially our leaders. In fact they seem to make a lot of noise just so nobody will notice what it is they're really doing.

There's precious little sweetness and light on this disc, and when you hear songs that you once thought you were familiar with in this context, boy do they take on a more potent meaning. Even the title song, "Green River", for all the beauty of nature and the carefree days of youth it evokes, has an aura of foreboding to it -"'re going to find the world is smouldrin'/And if you get lost come on home to green river". Of course those were the days when there was still green rivers to go home to, and maybe there are some still, but I doubt there as plentiful as they were back in 1969 when Fogerty wrote this tune.

The five bonus tracks that are included on this disc are of two songs that were never finished, "Broken Spoke Shuffle" and "Glory Be", and three live cuts that were from the European tour in 1971 after Tom Fogerty had left the band. When I first heard the live cuts I hadn't realized they were minus a person, and was puzzled as to why the sound was so thin - I had thought the mix was so off that they had lost one of the guitars. They're interesting to listen to because it makes you realize just how important that extra guitar was to the Creedence sound, and that without Tom they just weren't the same. It's no wonder the band only lasted another year.

Green River is more than just a great rock and roll album, although its that too. Its a sophisticated and intelligent, if rather pessimistic, commentary on the time period it was written in. Musically and lyrically this release far outstrips most of its contemporaries for its realistic view of the world around them. While others might have been writing about ending the war or all you need is love, John Fogerty and CCR were singing about the darker truths that run like a current underneath the surface of our society. What's really incredible about Green River is that unlike many of its contemporaries this album is still relevant. CCR may not be the only band that matters, but the fact that they still matter is equally amazing.

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?
Carrie Rodriguez.jpg
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 15, 2008

Music Review: Fontaine Brown Tales From The Fence Line

You have to wonder at some people's stamina, sticking with being pop musicians for over forty years. I'm not talking about folk like Mick and Keith either who have been stars for longer then most of you reading this will have been alive, but the guys (and women) who have somehow or other managed to make their livings in popular music since the early sixties. Think about what it must involve to do that if you don't have a record contract with a major label that pays the bills. It means you're dependant on the cash you make from any gigs you can scrounge.

After some success in the early 1960's playing the Detroit rock and roll scene with the likes of Bob Seger, some collaborative work with Del Shannon, and bouncing around he industry producing and performing, Fontaine Brown spent five years living what he called the life of a man with no fixed address, playing crappy little clubs and making just enough to get by. There's only so long though that a man can do that, and so he pulled his van over to the side of the road, set up a home studio, and through his industry contacts settled into a comfortable career as a songwriter for the last twenty years supplying the likes of Emmylou Harris, Persy Sledge, Dave Edmunds, and John Mayall with tunes.

Now two hundred songs later Fontaine has stepped back into the studio for the first time in close to thirty years to record his own music. If you couldn't tell by the diversity of the folk who have recorded his songs over the last few years, Tales From The Fence Line is a collection of tunes that ranges from country flavoured pop to some of the raunchiest and low-downiest blues you'll have heard outside of a swamp. Fontaine has been out right to the extreme edges of pop-music, where it's dirty and nasty and bar owners stiff you for a night's work, what he calls "the Fence Line", but instead of becoming bitter and resentful over lack of success like others might have, it seems to have only made his love for the music he plays stronger.
Fontaine Brown.jpg
Some performers who spend their lives doing a little of this and a little of that end up being only mildly proficient in a variety of styles; basically only good enough to satisfy the not so discerning audiences of drunks they play for in bars. Judging by the evidence presented on Tales From The Fence Line that's not the case with Fontaine Brown. It doesn't seem to matter what style of song he's singing or playing, he's not only as comfortable playing it as someone whose dedicated their whole career to that genre, he writes tunes that reflect its best aspects.

The first thing you notice upon listening to Tales From The Fence Line is how seamless the disc fits together. You'd think that a recording make up of a mixture of genres would sound pretty disjointed, but Brown and his producers, Don Dixon and Daniel Bourgoise, have arranged the twelve songs in such a way as to create the flow that you don't normally find on recordings. The songs don't have anything to do with each other, there's no "theme" tying them together, yet they fit together just like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

The opening track is an ear grabbing, blues/rock song, "Ain't No Brakeman". Complete with raunchy, fuzzed out lead guitar, harmonica solo, catchy chorus, and slow break in the middle of the song, it's a classic rock song that could have been written anytime between 1969 and 1975. From there they go into the mandolin drive title song from the disc, "Fence Line". While anybody could have penned the opening song, this one could only have come from the heart of a man whose spent as long wandering in the wilderness of popular music as Brown has. There are echoes of John Fogarty in his vocals, but the song is uniquely his own, as it sums up a great deal of the desperation he must have felt while sweating up on stage in some nameless bar in front of empty chairs.

Musically the song is also far more interesting than your standard blues/rock song as they do things like have the drums and guitar playing on each other's off beat to create a strange syncopation for the mandolin to run across. There's something about the song that it sent shivers up my spine the first time I listened to it. Somehow or other the music manages to capture the desperation of the lyrics in a way that most songs aren't able to accomplish. This is not a pleasant song to listen to, not because it sounds bad, but because it's never easy to listen to something this truthful and emotionally raw.

Fontaine gives you a bit of break for the next four tracks as he does a sort of tribute to the various styles of music you can tell have influenced him the most. "Detroit Saturday" is the sounds of Detroit rock and roll; "Closer To The Flame" is a soul influenced pop song that shows his affinity for Motown; from it's organ driven opening to it's chorus "Love Come Rescue Me" sounds like it could have been a hit for Marvin Gaye or even Otis Redding; and "Southside Story" is Chicago blues - electric and scorching.

After giving you some steady ground, and making you think he's going to deliver a disc of fairly safe conventional pop songs, he yanks the rug out from under you for the rest of the disc. While each song might contain some element that you can recognize as being blues, or whatever, he pushes the boundaries of the song past what most people would be willing to risk. Take "Pool Of Light" for example, nothing's prepared you for the electric sitar and tabla which gives the song its almost psychedelic flavour.

Most guys who spent their careers playing bars or writing songs for a living end up being fairly conventional, only if from having to spend so many years being concerned with pleasing as many people as possible with their music. Fontaine Brown can play that game as well as anybody and can write a pop song when he wants to. However what makes Tales From The Fence Line a cut above what you're going to hear from most people is his willingness to take chances and experiment. The result is a recording that is continually surprising in its content, and a delight to listen to. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Fontaine Brown before listening to this disc, but I think you're going to be hearing a lot more of him from now on. After forty some years of working in pop music its about time he got a little recognition and he deserves it for this recording.

October 2, 2008

Streamed Concert Review: Grayson Capps Grayson Capps Live At The Paradiso

There are times when it's really obvious that I don't know my way round the Internet very well. I guess I can offer up the excuse that for the first seven years I had access to a personal computer I was using a dial up modem connection which meant on a good day I was operating at about 43kps. For those of you who've never been stuck down there in low speed land what it means is that your options for activities on line are limited. For instance you're not going to watch any streamed video unless you don't mind it stopping every few seconds to buffer as you can't download the information fast enough to play it continuously.

So even though I've been using high speed since the beginning of this year, it's only been recently that I've started shedding the old behaviours and taken to watching clips of concerts that show up on places like You Tube. What I didn't know was that there are sites like Fabchannel where they broadcast entire concerts online. I found out about them when I was trolling through Hyena Records' blog looking to see which, if any, of my reviews of their people they had linked up to, and I came across a link to a concert that one of my new favourite performers, Gryason Capps, had given at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam.

Grayson Capps had really blown me away the first time I heard any of his music, and continued to do so after I heard his recent release,Rott 'N' Roll. Then in August I had the chance to spend some time with Grayson on the phone for aninterview and that only confirmed all the good opinions I had formed about him from listening to his music. You know how it is, sometimes a person might come across a certain way on record, but then when you talk to them you find out it was only artifice and they aren't anything like what you hoped. Well that's not the case with Grayson Capps, what you hear on the records is pretty much what you get when you talk to him.
Grayson Capps.jpg
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.
Los Fabulocos.jpg
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 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.
Pete Seeger2.jpg
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?
Pete Seeger 1.jpg
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 16, 2008

Music Review: Lipbone Redding And The LipBone Orchestra Party On The Fire Escape

Every once in a while some unknown will shoot up the popular music charts on the strength of the dreaded novelty song. Songs like "The Streak" would attract attention because of either their novel content or some sort of bizarre behaviour on the part of the band. Most of the performers behind these songs turned out to have no staying power, and once the novelty of what they did wore off they vanished from sight just as quickly as they appeared. The thing about a novelty is that once it's been done, it can't be repeated, because its no longer a novelty.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Lipbone Redding And The LipBone Orchestra's most recent release, Party On The Fire Escape, on BePop Records after reading the promotional material that accompanied the CD when it showed up at my door. You see the name Lipbone comes from Redding's "ability" to imitate a trombone, and the first thing that brought to mind were the pathetic novelty acts of previous years.

Thankfully Lipbone Redding is far more than just his novel ability to make trombone sounds with his mouth and turns out not only to be a decent songwriter but an intelligent and skilled musician. Musically he's hard to pin down as Party On The Fire Escape sounds like he's tossed together a salad made up of Spanish Harlem, seventies soul, funk, a taste of New Orleans, and country music. Now it might sound like a bit of a train wreck when you say it that baldly, but he carries it all off without much difficulty.
Lipbone Redding.jpg
Ever since I first heard West Side Story I've had a soft spot for Latin music from New York City. The trouble is that there are very few people outside of the Spanish community of that city who should be allowed to perform it as they invariably water it down into something that bears little or no resemblance to the original. So I was pleasantly surprised by the opening, and title track, of the disc, "Party On The Fire Escape", as its a great example of how that music should sound. Not only that, but the lyrics do a great job of drawing you into the song by making it easy to visualize exactly what's happening.

Lipbone is like a good storyteller as his songs have the ability to evoke an image in your head of what he's singing about. So when he's singing about the "Party On The Fire Escape" it calls to mind all those images you've ever seen of New York City apartment buildings wrapped in rod-iron stair ways and their inhabitants sitting outside in a desperate search for a breeze on a hot summer's night. It's a rare thing these days when a songwriter is able to do this as well as Lipbone does, and it gives his music an extra dimension that elevates it above a good deal of what you usually hear.

The other thing you'll notice about these guys is that they have a great sense of humour, and periodically remind us not to take things too seriously. Songs like "Single Again" or "The Lipbone Theme Song" are a little bit silly, but they never cross the line over into idiocy. They are sort of like the band dropping you a wink to remind you to have fun while listening to their music. For God's sake our lead singer fakes playing a trombone - we might play the occasional song that's serious but let's remember to have a good time. It's a good thing to be reminded about on occasion, that music is supposed to be about enjoying ourselves, far too many bands these days seem to have lost site of that objective.

Towards that end the songs on Party On The Fire Escape are pretty evenly balanced between the ones that are designed to get you up off your butt and moving to the music and those that you're going want to sit and listen to. Of the former one of my favourite's is what you might call a reverse sampling song. Lipbone combines lyrics from the old Grandmaster Flash rap tune "The Message" with those from "New York City R.F.D" by Larry Collins and Alice Jay to create "New York City", a piece about the culture shock of arriving in New York City from the country. I think it must be the first time that I've ever heard anyone "sample" a rap song instead of the other way round.

What's impressive about that song and a couple of others, "Ghetto Girl" for example, is Lipbone's ability to use other styles of music and not sound out of place or like he's appropriating somebody else's music. "Ghetto Girl" is based on the old soul songs of the sixties and seventies and in the wrong person's hands would have sounded just awful. But Lipbone is able to walk that fine line required to make a song genuinely soulful and not fall over the edge into sickeningly sweet.

The major reason for that is his ability as a singer. One moment he can be growling along like Dr. John and the next he can send his voice up into the high octaves without skipping a beat. Yet even when he ascends the scale to sing soulful tunes, he's able to hold onto the same spirit that permeated his rough edged voice. That ensures those songs have the grit of reality they need to make the emotions expressed in them genuine and you can listen to them without running the risk of losing your lunch.

As to the trombone thing, or the Lipbone as it's called, it does sound like a horn. The good thing is that he only uses it in songs where it would be appropriate to have a horn solo, and even then he doesn't over use it. In the long run I think he would be better off finding himself a real horn player, as this sort of trick will only diminish his music eventually. Lipbone Redding is not a novelty act and he would be better off letting his music be appreciated at face value. It is good enough to stand that scrutiny.

September 15, 2008

Music Review: Taj Mahal Maestro

I've been trying to remember the first time I heard Taj Mahal, and for the life of me I can't. On the other hand I can't remember a time when I didn't know the name Taj Mahal. He's one of those musicians who has been a constant presence, maybe not always in the forefront, or even someone I've listened to on a regular basis. Yet in a world where names come and go and musical fashions change with the hour, mere mention of his name has always be sufficient to gain my attention.

He always seems to pop up or be involved in music related things which I'm interested in; from his appearance in the movie Songcatcher as a banjo playing blues man to his support of Tim Duffy's Music Makers Relief Foundation. His interest in music is so broad that to try and confine him to one genre by calling him a blues musician almost seems a disservice, as he seems as comfortable with early Americana music as he does with reggae and Hawaiian music. He was first person to get me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument after years of seeing it in the hands of people like Tiny Tim and adolescent movie stars of the forties and fifties, and he was definitely the first person to convince me that the banjo was indeed a blues instrument.

Of course all of that is peripheral to what's most important - his music. For forty years he's been writing and performing great music and in celebration of that anniversary he will be releasing Maestro, on Heads Up Records, September 30th 2008. Although the recording is not an overview of his career or a greatest hits package, it could be looked on as a retrospective of his time in music. The twelve tracks reflect not only the various musical styles that Taj has proven his excellence with over the years, they also display his virtuosity on his favourite lead instruments, slide guitar, banjo, and ukulele.
Taj Mahal.jpg
The word maestro, when used in connection to music, is usually associated with the conductor of an orchestra, and it implies a position of leadership and experience. It's direct translation though, master, implies more than just leadership, suggesting as it does a person with authority over others, or someone who is considered to be an authority on a particular subject or object. I think it would be safe to say with Taj Mahal that all of those definitions are appropriate.

Of course the word maestro also carries with it a certain level of recognition and appreciation for a person with years of experience under their belt like Taj Mahal, and becomes an honorific to express the respect and admiration that people feel for that individual. On Maestro Taj is joined by musicians from countries all over the world in order to help showcase his special abilities. The fact that quite possibly most of them weren't born when Taj first started working professionally only emphasizes the level of respect that is felt for what he has brought to the music industry.

Now most times when a performer of Taj Mahal's stature releases a disc which features guests on it, they might play a support role on occasional songs, either by singing back-up or laying down a lead track on one of the star's past hits. That's not the case with Maestro as Taj is not only using the disc to celebrate his career, but the music he loves. For example, not only does Ben Harper join Taj on the CD, the song they do together, "Dust Me Down" was written and produced by Harper, and would just as easily fit onto a recording celebrating Ben Harper as it does Taj Mahal. It's a great up tempo rocking blues number that shows off both men's ability to their finest.

Each of the songs that Taj has elected to do with one of his guests not only showcases his own diversity, but also plays to that person's strengths as a performer. As is the case with his number with Harper, on the piece he performs with Ziggy Marley, Taj's "Black Man, Brown Man", he joins his guest's band in the studio, making sure that Ziggy is seen in the best light possible. Given the political nature of the song, in some ways its also a nod to Ziggy's father Bob and his contributions to music, as it reflects Bob's concerns about black people's struggle for identity. Of course Taj puts his own distinctive touch to the reggae number by playing banjo and making it sound like the most natural thing in the world, although I'd be hard pressed to think of another example of banjo and reggae coming together in one song.

While the songs featuring the guest musicians are special, some of my favourite material from Maestro are songs that Taj Mahal performs with the band that's accompanied him on and off throughout the years, the Phantom Blues Band. From their opening cover of "Scratch My Back", his tribute to Otis Redding who made the song famous in the 1960's, Taj's own "Further On Down The Road", on which Jack Johnson joins them as guest vocalist, and "Slow Drag", to the last song on the disc, Willie Dixon's "Diddy Wah Diddy", these tracks put Taj right where he belongs - centre stage. Nothing against Jack Johnson, but these were Taj's songs and I don't think anything Jack could have done with his vocal tracks would have been enough to come close to matching the intensity of Mahal's performance.

Of course that's a hallmark of every song on this disc, the amount of energy that Taj Mahal is kicking out. It doesn't matter if he's covering Fats Domino's "Hello Josophine" accompanied by The New Orleans Social Club, singing a duet with his daughter Deva on the song they wrote together, "Never Let You Go", backed by Los Lobos, or moaning out his own "Strong Man Holler" in the best electric urban blues tradition, he's putting every ounce of himself into every note he sings. Sometimes on anniversary discs like this one, the artist will coast, and attempt to get by on their reputation alone, but that's not the case of here, as Taj appears to be playing with the same amount of enthusiasm for the material now as he did when he released his first album back in 1968.

If there was ever any doubt as to Taj Mahal's place among the premier performers of contemporary blues music Maestro lays them to rest. Perhaps some of you have forgotten just what an amazing singer and instrumentalist Taj is, after all it has been five years since his last domestically released studio album, but listening to him and the Phantoms jump all over the first few bars of "Scratch My Back" I can't see anybody having any trouble remembering him for a long time.

There aren't very many popular musicians who have the vision, the talent, and the commitment to music that would merit them being referred to as a Maestro, but Taj Mahal is one of them. His music combines the elemental passion of early blues players like Leadbelly with a willingness to be influenced by everything from the African roots of the music to the sound of Hawaii's ukulele. He's taken a leadership role in ensuring that those who played before him and the roots of the music aren't forgotten while never losing track of the future through his willingness to share the spotlight with the next generation. Ladies and gentlemen allow me to reintroduce to you, Maestro Taj Mahal, and recommend that on September 30th, you proceed directly to your nearest music outlet and purchase a copy of Maestro - you won't regret it.

September 9, 2008

Interview: Grayson Capps

I first heard of Grayson Capps by accident when a distributor sent me a catch all of CDs to review. Buried in amongst them was this disc called Songbones, which turned out to be a collection of songs that Grayson had recorded along with a friend at somebody's studio one night after hours back in 2002. Some of these songs have shown up again on his releases since that time, If You Knew My Mind and Wail & Ride, but I had never heard any of his music before and I was blown away.

I contacted Grayson's label, Hyena Records and asked them if they could send me out any of his more recent releases, I had been thinking of Wail & Ride, and instead they sent me out a promotional copy for his soon to be released disc - Rott 'N' Roll - September 9th/08. This was the first I heard of Grayson playing with his band the Stumpknockers and as a unit they were even more powerful than he had been solo. Sometimes when a guy's music sounds so potent solo it loses some of the edge that it might have had when a band is brought in, almost as if it gets watered down to accommodate the other musicians.

That wasn't the case here as Grayson seemed able to hold on to his intent whether he was playing solo or with a full band. I was captivated by his ability as a story teller and his uncanny ability to bring things to life through song. You really felt like you were being plunked down in the middle of something when you listened to what he was offering, and that if you closed your eyes you'd find yourself wandering through the lives of the people and places he was singing about.

When the people from Hyena offered me the opportunity to chat with Grayson about his music, I took them up on it and connected up with Grayson in mid August. He was visiting family in Kansas when I caught up with him and we ended up talking about stuff for about an hour. I think the people from Hyena might have expected me to talk about his new release, Rott 'N' Roll, and we might have a bit, but we mainly ended up talking about his music in general.
Grayson Capps.jpg
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.
The Stumpknockers.jpg
We recorded the latest (Rott 'N' Roll) almost all live, and it was great because we could feed off each other's energy, and what's around us. This was the first album where it was just me and the band, Stumpknockers, and it was great. The first two were me and some studio musicians, so with me and the band it was a different thing as we all had our own stakes in it. There was the sense that we were doing something together that made it a lot more fun.

What, if anything do you wish to accomplish with your music. Is there anything you'd like your listeners to walk away with after listening to one of your records?

I wanna change the world (laughs) They say that poets say in words what people can't express and I look on that as something to work towards. You can express a lot in a song or a poem - all the dreams you want, all the magical possibilities in the world, yet what it comes down to for me is trying to achieve honesty - it's the hardest damn thing to do. There's parts of me at times that can say fuck it, but I've got to remember what it is that's important. You can feel it in waves, it's like little magical moments, and every so often you get it - your truth. If you tell your own truth, people might not get it in quite the same way, but they'll get it on their own terms. It's all about finding common ground where you can meet them.

The world today teaches people that they need shit; material stuff like clothes and cars and other sorts of shit. Truths remind people of what they know and have forgotten because of the distraction of struggling to get all the shit that they've been told is important.

I was really struck by how vivid your songs are - I find that I can imagine just what the place looks like if I close my eyes while listening. Is that a conscious effort on your part to do that - or does it just happen in the process of creating the song?

That goes back to my theatre school days and the stuff we used to do in class. Who, what, where, why, and when - all the questions you ask yourself to make a place real. So when I start to write something I do that and put myself in a place. If you're keeping all that mind you're just going to be able to convey it. I remember one of the exercises we used to in class was one person had to get up in front of the rest of us and imagine what room of the house they were in. They couldn't do anything but sit and think about that room and the rest of us had to figure it out simply by looking at them. It was amazing how many times we were able to figure that out from just looking at the other person.

It was around this time that I started hearing the sounds of family in the background, and we'd been talking for a good hour already so I figured we should wrap it up and I'd let him get back to his visit. We talked a little about the possibility of him coming to play in Canada, and then we said our good byes. Looking back at what I've written out it sorta seems inadequate, but maybe that's because words on a page just don't do justice to either the man or his music.

Even over the phone Grayson Capps is a three dimensional figure, filled with a vitality that just doesn't show up here. I hope this interview offers you a little peek inside his head, and if you've not listened to his music before piques your curiosity enough to go out and pick up his new CD Rott 'N' Roll that's being released on September 9th/08. For those of you who already know Grayson's work, well maybe you've just got to know him a little better than you did before. Thanks again to Grayson Capps, and his family, for sparing me time from his vacation to chat and I hope you can make it up to this part of the world sometime.

September 7, 2008

Interview: Willie Nile - The Troubadour Of New York City

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to review the new DVD by Willie Nile. Live From The Streets Of New York. It had been years since I'd really listened to any of Willie's music, and the DVD brought back in a rush all the reasons that I'd listened to him years ago. Honest, passionate, and intelligent rock and roll without any of the pretensions that seem to have to crept into people's music these days.

Yet he's more than a rock and roller, as he's been bitten by a muse who lets him look at the world with an eye full of mischief and an ear for the absurd. His songs spring from the streets of New York City, but he's not blind to the rest of the world. The music might ring with a New York accent but his songs speak to everyone.

The other week I sent him off some questions through e-mail about him and his career and what you're about to read are his answers reprinted verbatim. I hope reading this interview will inspire you to check out Willie again if like me you lost track of him for a while, or if you've never listened to him, that you take the time to do so now. You won't be disappointed.

You mentioned in the DVD Live From The Streets Of New York that you were originally from Buffalo NY. Can you tell me a little about those early years and what influenced you to pursue a life in music

I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family where with older brothers buying rock and roll records and playing music all the time in the house as well as having a lot of classical music played so there was a wide variety of things to be heard by our small ears. We had dozens and dozens of international visitors, exchange students, Buddhist monks, Indian poets and governors, you name it. They came to our house, some for dinner, some for a few days, some for the summer and some for a year. It gave us all a pretty cosmopolitan world view. They all had different languages, customs, clothes, attitudes, etc., yet you could see how people could live together and get beyond the differences. It was interesting to see from such a young age. On top of that my father was a great storyteller. Somewhere along the line I started writing poetry and when I learned to play the guitar I started putting the words into songs.
Willie Nile.jpg
What was it about New York City that made you decide that it was the place you needed to be in order to do what you wanted to do?

It was where the beat poets were from. I was into Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat sensibility. New York was also where the record companies were and it was closer than LA or Nashville. I had a bunch of songs I'd written and wanted to make a record. I used to hitchhike down from Buffalo in the summertime and sleep in the park when I was in high school and I found it to be a magical place. I felt free in the city.

You arrived in New York City in the 1970's - it must have been quite intimidating to show up on your own and try to find your way as a musician - did you have any contacts or had you made any arrangements before hand? How did it end up coming together for you?

It was pretty simple for me. I wanted to record my songs and the record companies were in NY. It also felt like Paris in the 1850's and London in Dicken's time. There was a timeless quality to it that I liked. It was definitely intimidating at first but I got over it after a while.

New York by 1977 was a hot bed for new music, with Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, as well as guys like Lou Reed who'd already been around for quite a while - where did you fit in amongst all that?

It was an amazing time. I'd been living in the Village since 1972 and there were a lot of old ghosts from the 60's in the air. There was a pretentiousness in certain quarters that I found ridiculous. One day I was looking in the paper for new places to play I saw an add for CBGB OMFUG. It was on the Bowery and not far from where I lived so I took my guitar and wandered in. At that time it was a Hell's Angels hangout along with a lot of Bowery characters. There was a flop house above it. I asked who to talk to about playing there and was told. "Speak to Hilly." I waited for a half hour and Hilly never came out. While waiting and looking at the jukebox I saw one record on there by a "Hilly Kristal." So I proceeded to pump about five dollars of quarters and played the song over and over until Hilly finally came out of his cave quite annoyed to see who was playing his song so many times. I think he got a kick out of some wise-ass doing something like that so he let me play there. This was when the bar had a jazz pianist as the entertainment and just before Television started playing there. I played in front of a bunch of Hell's Angel's and Bowery Boys. It was great fun. I got to remind him of that story on the last night at CBGB's. I'm glad I got to see him before he died.

As for the scene that developed shortly afterwards, it was incredible. I used to go see Patti Smith and Television all the time, The Ramones, you name it. It was inspiring and original and it rocked. It was a welcome relief from the tedium of the music that was being played around that time. It was original music played from the heart by a bunch of outcasts and Dead End kids. I used to call friends up on the phone at midnight from the back of CBGB's and hold the phone up and say: "Listen to this... you gotta come hear this, come to New York." It felt like The Cavern Club in Liverpool back in the day when The Beatles started happening. They were great days.

You opened for the Who during their 1979 tour of the United States - how did that association come about?

I'd heard through my record label that Pete Townshend was a big fan of my first album. I didn't believe it and thought it was just record company hype but when we played LA on that first tour, The Who's management came to the show and after seeing me play invited me to open for The Who on their cross-country tour in the US. Naturally I said yes. I was a huge fan. It was magical to see them play night after night. I had never played with a band live before that tour so to be playing in front of 20 - 25 thousand raving Who fans night after night was pretty interesting. I had a great time.

I was interested to hear you describe yourself as a troubadour at one point on the DVD, just because that's not a word you hear people describe themselves as very often any more. What do you mean by it in terms of your music and your approach to it?

Someone who travels from town to town singing songs and telling stories would be considered a troubadour in days past. I guess that's close to what I do. I write what moves me, in one way or another. It helps me get a hold on some of the madness that goes on in this world.

One of my favourite songs on the Live From Streets Of New York DVD was "The Day I Saw Bo Diddly In Washington Square". I know you co-wrote that with Frankie Lee, but it, "Back Home", and "Streets Of New York" all struck me as being distinctly Irish influenced. How much if any do you think that heritage influences your writing style?

I love Irish music and my family roots are Irish for the most part so it's not surprising that some Irish influence would get in some of these songs. Irish music has passion, spirit and soul and if there's any of that in my music as well then that's okay by me.

There are a couple of songs on the DVD, "Cell Phones Are Ringing (in the pockets of the dead)" and "Hard Times In America", that are obviously political, but you're more than just a political songwriter. Where do you find your inspiration for material?

I just write down what comes to me from everyday life. Sometimes it's a love song, or a bar band rocker, or a minstrel fairy tale, or a poke at some phony who needs a good sock in the jaw, or a lowdown dirty rock and roll song that can ignite the masses to revolt and take over the planet and make it a better place for people to live in.
Willie Nile 1 .jpg
With Cell Phones, I live not too far from the World Trade Center and was in town on 9/11. I watched the towers burn and felt the shock and horror, as did everyone. I was on one of the first flights out of town a few days later on my way to Spain for a tour and was struck by the concern and compassion the Spanish showed night after night with their questions. They really cared about what happened and how people were doing. So, in March of 2004, when the Madrid train bombing happened I immediately checked to see if my Spanish friends were okay. The next day in one of the NY papers one of the headlines read: "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead". Apparently there were some 190 body bags lined up along the tracks and cell phones were going off in the bags. People were looking for their loved ones. It went right through me. It gave me chills and made me angry. That people could do this to one another in this so called 'modern world' really pissed me off. I wanted to fight back in some way. I think we, as a race of people, are capable of much more than this. It's bullshit, all these religious zealots running around praising their 'god' and then killing some innocent people. All sides are guilty of this recklessness. We've got to find a way to get more compassion in this world. So I just started typing away on my computer and wrote the song straight out. It was my way of fighting back. When I sing it live it's surprising to hear so many people singing along with the outro chant "Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead" in defiance of all this madness. It's heartening, I must say.

When you write a song, do you have a specific intent in mind before you start, or do you just let the muse take you and then run with it?

Usually I just let the song happen to me. I just go by my instincts on whether to pursue an idea or a phrase or a line of music. If it feels like it could be something I'll just follow that and try not to get in it's way.

What's all this that I read about the 2006 CD Streets of New York being a comeback CD? Had you not put something out for a long time before that?

I think it was 6 years since the last one was out (Beautiful Wreck of the World). I guess I just take too long between albums. I don't see any of it as a 'comeback'. I just take my time and do it when it feels right. I'm just now finishing up a new album for a release in early 09. Can't wait to get it out there.

Earlier I asked you about what it was about New York City that attracted you in the first place, and it's obvious that the city means a lot to you now. Are you able to articulate what it is about New York that makes it so special for you?

There's an electricity to this town that is intriguing to me. It's a cosmopolitan city where the rich and poor and everyone in between wander and roam about amidst canyons of concrete and steel. I've heard that Manhattan is built on a certain kind of granite that is a strong conductor of electricity. When you leave the island you can feel a certain quietness come over you.
There's always interesting music and art and food and crazy people and people who think they're normal but aren't, you name it, it's here. It's the concrete circus where everybody gets a chance to do the do.

What's next for Willie Nile - are there more CDs in the works, any tours on the horizon etc?

There's a number of shows booked till the end of the year. The web site lists them (Willie We're also putting together some tours for next year after the new album comes out. After we finish this new album I intend to make another one right away. The songs are still coming and it's never been more fun so I plan to take advantage of the time and record as many things as I can. Here's to making music and magic and maybe stumbling across a little inspiration here and there...

Well I can't think of a better note to end this interview on than that, so thank you Willie, and I'm glad to see we won't have to wait as long between drinks this time.

August 27, 2008

Interview: Richie Havens

Sometimes when you get to know somebody only through what you see of them on a movie screen or hearing them sing the impression you form of them turns out to be completely erroneous. However there are those rare people who, when you do actually get the opportunity to meet or talk to them, turn out to be just what you thought they were. Richie Haven is such a man. On the morning of Tuesday August 26th I was fortunate enough to spend just over a half hour on the phone with him and it turns out he's the gentle, intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, and humorous person that I had thought he was from seeing his pictures and listening to his music.

The hardest part about interviewing Mr. Havens was remembering I was interviewing him and to not get so wrapped up in enjoying our conversation that I forgot to take notes and write down his answers so all of you would be able to read what he had to say. I hope that a little of his gentle spirit is able to shine through "the flat, unraised words" that I've transcribed from our conversation, as once again I find this medium far too inadequate to do my subject justice.

After the initial greetings were over and I verified that we were going to have slightly more then the twenty minutes that you're normally allotted for these types of interviews, my query of whether I was going to be first of millions for today was answered with a gentle laugh and an assurance that I was actually second of only a few, we began. It seemed to make sense that we talk a little about his recent release -Nobody Left To Crown so that's where we started - but be warned - both of us (maybe it's something to do with being a Richard) turn out to share the same predilection for deviating from the subject under discussion and getting fascinated by something else. Anyway without further ado -Ladies and gentlemen - Mr. Richie Havens.
Richie Havens.jpg
When you were putting together Nothing Left To Crown did you have a particular intent in mind about what you wanted to accomplish with the album.

I was trying to actually align it with everything that's going on today in the world, the total surroundings if you would. In some ways it's a reflection of all the questions that were being asked a long time ago that we still haven't been answered. There's also a certain amount of wanting to let others know, those who are just becoming aware and not knowing what the world involves that there are questions that need to be asked. In some ways it was a catch all type of situation, with bits and pieces of of the whole picture in an attempt to show how it all works.

In some ways it's also about trying to avoid the making the same mistakes over again, learning from them - retreating from that aspect of ours selves and finding new ways of being and doing.

At this point I apologized to Richie for any pauses on my part - and told him it was just me trying to keep up in my note taking. I recounted that the very first interview I had done was with Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers and had used a tape recorder. I had fallen in love with his accent and just enjoyed listening to him answer my questions only to discover that I had forty-five minutes of white noise - so I no longer used tape recorders.

(laughter) I was waiting for that (laughs again) But you know, getting caught up in beauty, in the awe in the world, is a good thing.

Not when you're trying to do an interview with somebody

(laughs) No I suppose not.

Speaking of which - I wanted to ask you about two of the songs from Nobody Left To Crown, ones that happen to be favourites of mine, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who and "Lives In The Balance" by Jackson Browne. What was there about each of those songs that attracted you and how do you see them as being pertinent to today's world

Those two songs, in fact any song that I do, have first of all moved me in some way. It's like I hear a song and the light comes on because that person has articulated something in such a way that there's no way it could be any clearer. It's been like that right from when I first started out though.

Do you know Freddy Neil? He wrote "Everybody's Talking About". Well I used to travel up from Brooklyn to the clubs in Greenwich Village, and you have to remember I was singing doo wop songs with my friends in Brooklyn, and I heard Freddy singing about "Knocking The Walls Down" and I thought to myself - can he sing that in public? Isn't he going to be arrested or beaten up or something and hauled off stage? The songs were all about the need for change.

To this day I still have feel an awe for the songwriters who can write those tunes that show how it's possible to make a choice in how to live your life - they built a platform that can be built upon. So it was those songs, the songs that moved me that I first sung. (laughs) It was funny how that came about, because, you know, I would be sitting in the audience singing along with Fred and a couple of the other folk playing in those days, and Freddy said to me why don't you get up and sing - you've been singing them - harmonizing - in fact, you know them just as well as I do. The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughs) (If you go to Richie's web site there's a specific page where he explains his playing style) I went from singing Doo Wop and having four guys to harmonize with to having six strings to harmonize with.

It all comes back to the awe again really - my awe for the guys who can create those songs that illuminate things in such a way that it shines a new light on a subject so that you might say I never thought of that. So when I'd hear them, they would inspire me to sing them - it's like the songs came to me.

I've always admired the way you interpret other people's music, and I was wondering if you had a particular process that you go through when you prepare an interpretation?

Well, no, I don't have a particular process, what I try to do is let the ring of the writer shine through when I sing someone else's material. It's like I'm the vehicle for their message and allowing it to flow through me. Of course I use my own tuning like we talked about, but I really don't make any conscious decisions about them aside from that - I just sing them because they were powerful enough to make me want to sing them and I hope that comes through - how important I felt the song was.

You know I never think I'm changing anyone else's song, and I'm always surprised when someone says to me - wow you really perform that differently from so and so - because that's never my intent.

This is sort of a silly question to ask someone whose performed and sang as many songs as you, but is there any one in particular, or even one performance of a song in particular that stands out in your mind

(laughs)Well it's not as odd as you think, because I've been thinking a little along those lines. I've been thinking a lot about that first trio that I performed with, you know the guys who were at Woodstock with me. I've been thinking of maybe doing some work with them and trying to show the connection between the music of the fifties and the sixties. For me that's an important connection because of where I came from in the fifties, in Brooklyn doing four-part harmonies with my buddies on street corners, to where I went, which was singing in folk clubs in Greenwich Village.

You know we all like to sing the songs that appeal to us, and writing songs that work for our voices, yet it's the songs that have changed me, the ones that have made think about their messages are the ones that have had the most impact, and are the most important. You know I never thought about changing the world with the music, except maybe on some deep and personal, almost subliminal level, for individuals. If someone would say to me after hearing me perform a song, that they'd never thought of something that way before - then I would feel like I'd accomplished something. It was always especially nice when they would come up to me afterwards and say they'd never understood something until they had heard me sing it. That always surprised me, cause like I said I never saw myself as doing anything different than the person who I'd heard do the song in the first place.

I'd love to go back and do a compilation album of the songs that changed me, as they are the ones that are most important to me.

Speaking of things important to you, I wanted to ask you about a project you started up a few years ago, The Natural Guard, and wondered if you could tell me a little bit more about it

Well the Natural Guard was almost like a test of the things I went through as a young person. I was always thinking about things, and asking questions about things that nobody else I knew was interested in, and there was nobody there to answer those questions for me. So I was just curious about whether or not there were others, kids now a days who were experiencing that same sort of thing. Kids ask a lot of questions and there aren't always the people around to answer them, and this was to be a way to help them find the answers.

It was also to show them that through involvement they can make change, so we'd put out the idea to them that their community is the most endangered environment and they were most endangered species and can be done about that. We didn't want to force anybody to do it, because for so many of them school is enough of a prison already, and we figured if they didn't want to be there they weren't going to be able to accomplish very much. So in the first program we had eighteen kids between the ages of seven and thirteen.

There were quite a few people who said they didn't think it would work, because the older kids would soon get bored of working with the younger kids, but it turned out that the older kids became the teachers for the young ones, and helped them out. We adults stood aside and let them make the decision as to what they wanted to do for their community - the first one was in New Haven Connecticut - all we there for was to provide them with the tools to accomplish the what they wanted.

It was quite amazing how well it worked out - you know kids are great - they went down to the mayor's office and said we want more trees for our neighbourhood, and they got them, because whose going to say no to kids right? But more than that is how they learned what they were capable of - that they were able to make a difference just by being who they were and caring. That first group did so well that they were recognized with a Points Of Light award by Hilary Clinton. It was wonderful - I was so happy that what I felt would work really did work.
Richie Havens 1.jpg
What's really wonderful is that I recently heard from one of the young women who was involved in that first project and she's gone on to become an environmental lawyer. That was really a great feeling to hear that.

Well I've probably taken up more of your time than I should already, but if it's okay I'd like to ask you about the movie I'm Not There which you had a small part in

That was a lot of fun... You know when I first heard about what he was trying to do, with the different personas, and different people playing different aspects of Bob, I wasn't sure how it would work, but it ended up being amazing. Knowing Bob, I don't know what else could have really captured him in the way this movie did.

When they introduced me to Marcus, and said this is Woody, I was sort of taken aback (laughs) What do you mean Woody? Woody Guthrie? Yet it all made sense too because of who Bob was and what he went through. There was so much pulling on him all the time that I'm sure it really did get to the point for him that he be wondering where he was and am I there, or I'm not there. Marcus was great, you know, they had him learn six Dylan songs for the movie, and he had to learn how to play guitar too, because he didn't know how before, but I had great time doing our song.

(Me: Yeah I really liked it, on the DVD in the special features they have the complete version of that, not just the edited version in the film.)

Really I didn't know that, I'll have to get the DVD so I can see that. I was sort of disappointed that it was cut in the movie, although I could understand why of course.

Wasn't Kate Blanchate something else though, she was so him it was amazing.

(Me: I know, I'm old enough to remember Bob from that time, and I've seen pictures of him from then, and it was amazing. What really got me was her use of her hands - that was so exactly like him - especially the scenes at the piano)

Putting a woman in that place, to give a female version of self, was brilliant. We were able to see things that might not have come out any other way, just because it was a woman in that place. There's something about women and the way they can change something about themselves without making a big deal about it that allows us to see things that weren't there in them before. That's what Kate did with Bob, brought something to him that none of us had ever seen before. It was exceptional.

Working on that movie was wonderful and I really think it did justice to Bob (Me: I thought it did a better job of telling the story of that period of his life than the documentary Bringing It All Back Home) Yes, I think so too, and I'm really glad that I was involved with it - You know there's a club I play in and it's near where Marcus lives, and he drops in and sits in with me on stage for a few songs, and I really enjoy that. He's got so much natural charisma that kid that you could put him on stage with Barack Obama and he'd put him in the shadows (laughs)

Well I guess I really should be letting you go, but I have to ask what you have in store for the future - you're off to England I know this week (Richie: Tomorrow) but are you going to be touring in support of the new album or do you other things you'll be doing?

Well to tell you the truth, I'm glad not to be touring in support of the new album. I'm actually already starting to work on the next one, I've got a couple of songs in mind for it that I'm working on. One thing always does lead to the next thing though. Albums are often just like pieces that are cut off from the fold, and you don't stop because an album is finished. Although starting a project again is a challenge because of that arbitrary nature of them. I'm just leaving myself open for things to come through. I'm also keeping up with the folk under four feet tall, children, and have become involved with literacy programs for children, so a lot of energy goes there.

Well thank you very much for this, and have a wonderful time in England

Well thank you and maybe we'll see you up in Canada sometime.

There it was, my few precious moments with Richie Havens. I don't know how successful I was in capturing just how gentle a spirit he truly is, while still being incredibly passionate about life and his art. I hope you are able to appreciate just what a rare treasure this man is from my words. If you can't the deficiency lies in my pen (or keyboard as the case maybe) and not in the subject matter. The world would be a lot better off if there were more people like Richie Havens in it

August 17, 2008

Music DVD Review: Willie Nile Live From The Streets Of New York

New York city is the city everybody loves to hate. Those of who live outside of it despise those who live there because they arrogantly believe that its a Mecca for artistic talent and home to some of the most diverse and interesting creative people in North America, What really pisses us off is that of course they are right. Anybody who has spent anytime at all in New York City with their eyes and ears open will know that there is undeniably something about the energy of the town that creates the tension required to stimulate creative juices.

One only needs to look at the facilities and organizations dedicated to the arts to realize how ingrained they are into the very fabric of the city. Outside of cities in Europe I've never seen a metropolitan centre that not only celebrates the arts but the artists who create them as they do in New York. Whether a diva in the Metropolitan Opera company or a poet in the Bowery, each are given equal credence as artists. Is it any wonder that young people chasing their muse descend upon the city in the hopes that not only will they obtain recognition, but find others of like mind with whom with they can collaborate and commiserate with over failures.

So when a young Willie Nile left his home in Buffalo NY looking to set his poems and stories to music, it was only natural that he headed to New York City. It's been his home since then and in the years since his arrival he's been putting his words to music and earning the respect of his peers, if not the commercial acclaim, he deserves. He's even survived the curse of being tagged the next Bob Dylan, after Bruce Springsteen but before Steve Forbert. Although he fell through the cracks for a bit without a contract, he's now back in full swing, and in 2006 released Streets Of New York, the album he refers to as the one he's always wanted to write, a homage to the city that took him in and gave him his opportunity to shine.
Willie Nile.jpg
To celebrate the release of the album, he and his band decided they wanted to do something special so they did a one off gig at the Mercury Lounge in the lower east side of Manhattan. It was Willie's record label, 00:02:59, that suggested they film the event, and now two years latter, Live From The Streets Of New York, the DVD, and a CD of the same name, of that concert have been released. Of the fifteen tracks on the DVD and the live CD, ten are taken from the Streets Of New York release while the other five are from various points in Willie's career.

I've known the name Willie Nile for years, but I doubt if I could have named a single song that he'd written or sung before watching the Live From The Streets Of New York DVD. Now after seeing him and his band put on one of the best and most intense rock and roll shows since I saw The Clash in 1982, I won't ever forget him or his music. Musically his material ranges from good solid rock and roll with overtures of punk, anthems that are strongly flavoured by his Irish heritage, to elegant ballads played on the piano. His lyrics range from surreal creations that he co-wrote with drummer/percussionist Frankie Lee, songs about the human condition, to songs about the state of the world.

One of the really remarkable abilities he has is to be able to take a song about a personal matter, like the end of a relationship, and give it a universal appeal as it speaks to ideas and emotions that can be applied to things happening all around us. "On Some Rainy Day" is a great example of a song like that as he asks at one point, "Will you think of me of some rainy day" which on one level could be someone asking their ex if they will spare them a thought occasionally, but also asks us, will we think of anyone aside from ourselves on occasion.

As I mentioned earlier quite a few songs on the disc are songs that he co-wrote with Frankie Lee, and one of those is also one of the more surreal offerings on the disc. "The Day I Saw Bo Diddley In Washington Square". First of all it sounds like a tune that either the Pogues or The Waterboys would have sung, as it has the feel of an Irish pub song, all slow and anthem like, but the lyrics sound like they're from a psychedelic walk in the park. How many times is the sky actually orange or do balloons appear to be growing on trees instead of leaves? It's a beautiful exercise in letting your imagination run wild, and it actually captures the rare beauty that can happen in a big city on a fall day under the right circumstances - especially if the late Bo Diddley happens to be wandering around.

Two songs that he sings back to back, "Hard Times In America" and "Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead) are very angry. Not in the sense that Willie is angry at anyone in particular, but angry at a world that can let the sort of shit happen that he's describing. The first is pretty self explanatory and even though it was written twelve years ago, it is still as depressingly applicable today as it was then. One of the fun things about it though was that half-way through it Willie's two guitar players, Andy York and Jimmy Vivino became, in their own words, "axe wielding fiends" as they enjoyed bashing leads back and forth between each other like tennis players involved in a long rally.

In the special features section of the DVD there's a short feature where Willie and the band members talk about some of the songs on the disc. "Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead) was written after the terrorist attack on the train in Spain in 2004. One of the New York papers ran a headline about cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead in reference to the fact that bodies were lying on the side of the railroad tracks in their body bags, and phones started ringing inside them as people began phoning family and friends they knew had been travelling on the train. You can hear the anguish in Willie's voice as he sings this song, a song that wonders at the horrors that mankind can keep inflicting on itself.

The band that Willie has assembled for the DVD is the band he plays with whenever the opportunity arises, but it's not that often anymore as they all have other commitments that keep them busy now. So this night was special for all of them, because it doesn't happen as often as any of them would like that they get to climb up on stage with Willie Nile. Aside from the three already mentioned, there was Rich Pagano on drums (he also mixed down the album and the DVD) and Brad Albetta on bass. One of the hardest things for a rock and roll band to accomplish is to sound loose but be incredibly tight at the same time. These guys have that chemistry, what with having a history and sharing a common focus of knowing and loving to play Willie Nile's music, all of which combined make for a great rock and roll concert.

Although, it's two songs that were the furthest removed from rock and roll on the disc that were the ones that moved me the most. "Back Home" and "Streets Of New York" both feature Willie sitting down at the piano. While the former has the band backing him up the latter is just him solo. Both songs tell you a little bit of the kind of life Willie has had, but there's no sense of self-pity or cheap sentimentality about either of these numbers as he is simply telling a story. Willie is a real troubadour in that way, as he has the ability to tell a story with a song and let you draw your own conclusions about what's going on. He can touch your heart with a song and his piano playing, but he never once tries to tell your heart how it should feel.

Both the sound and the video on this DVD are excellent and make you feel like either you're a member of the band or you're watching the show standing on stage beside which ever member of the band is the focus of attention at the moment. As far as I can tell the sound is regular stereo while the picture is definitely fullscreen. However you are so close to the action that none of that technical stuff really matters, as who cares about it when you can watch the guitar player's fingers walk the fret board and Willie's fingers caress each piano key.

Live From The Streets Of New York is one of the best concert DVDs I've ever seen. Not only does it do a great job of recording a great concert, it records a great concert by a great artist, Willie Nile.

August 16, 2008

Music Review: Richie Havens Nobody Left To Crown

It was while sitting in a second run theatre in the east end of Toronto, Ontario that I first saw Richie Havens perform. In 1977 I was sixteen and the Woodstock Music Festival had taken place eight years earlier, but the movie of the event extended its life for people like me who had no interest in the pop culture of the mid seventies. In the days before punk hit Canada the music and the politics of the late sixties seemed far more alive then anything our own time had to offer.

Which explains why on that Friday night there were about forty of us sitting spread out through the Roxy Cinema, squinting through the haze produced by the smoke from about that many nickel bags of Mexican pot, at a so-so print of Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace And Music. Hearing the soundtrack on my brother's cheap stereo at home hadn't prepared me for seeing the force of nature that was Richie Havens playing guitar and singing on the screen. With the camera shooting him in a tight close up, Richie filled the screen, and you could see individual rivulets of sweat running down his face as he curled his body around the guitar he was strumming and poured out his soul into a microphone.

Although there were many other firsts in terms of seeing people perform that night, Richie Havens' performance was the one that left the most indelible impression on me that night. The intensity that he played with and the incredible passion that was being transmitted by this one man to the thousands of people in the audience on screen, and to us in the old and tacky theatre helped make him far more memorable then some of his more famous contemporaries.
Richie Havens.jpg
It's 2008 now and I own a DVD copy of the director's cut of Woodstock as a memento of my own youth, and as a historical record of the event itself. While some of the musicians have become history, and some of the music sounds dated, Richie Havens has not been swallowed up by time, and as can be told by listening to his latest release on the Verve Forecast label, Nobody Left To Crown his music is as powerful and relevant as it ever was.

There aren't too many people left from the Woodstock era with the moral authority to be singing about the state of the world anymore. They've either left the world, or been co-opted by the very establishment they were supposedly so intent upon changing. Musically many of them have become vapid and are content to play out their remaining years as near caricatures of their former selves. So the performer who has adhered to his ideals for the last forty years and continues to express them through his music like Richie Havens does is a rarity.

Six of the thirteen songs on Nobody Left To Crown are new originals that Mr. Havens has written for this disc, while the seven covers are ones that speak to either issues of the day or express an idea that he cares passionately about. That last bit might be a tad redundant as I can't think of Richie Havens singing a song if he wasn't able to make an emotional commitment of some kind to it. Interestingly enough one of the covers dates back to the Woodstock era, Pete Townshead's "Won't Get Fooled Again", and Havens' interpretation of it keeps it as pertinent today as it was then.

That's the thing about Nobody Left To Crown that's important to know, Richie Havens maybe a figure some of you think of as belonging to a time in the past, but that is unfair to the man and his music. None of these songs are exercises in nostalgia, nor is the disc some sort of sixties revival thing. This recording has been made for today's world, and the messages it has to impart are relevant to what is going on around us. Listen to the second song on the disc, "Say It Isn't So" and you'll hear what I mean.

"Say it isn't so/ That the world must choose again/ Who is foe and who is friend". It could be a commentary on any of the numerous wars that are ongoing in the world today, or it could also be about how our society seems to demand an us and a them in almost every circumstance. We are always searching out somebody to blame for the things that are wrong in our lives. It could be the poor people for being a drag on the economy because we have to pay taxes to make sure they get their welfare, the immigrants who steal all the good jobs, or the minority that got the job and not you. It's our choice whether we live a life of perpetual wars or "realize we are all the same" in the important ways, in the ways that truly matter.

Whether it's his cover of Jackson Brown's "Lives In The Balance" questioning America's friends of convenience in the world, and how can a country say it stands for freedom when it has friends that kill their own people. Or the title track, Richie's own "Nobody Left To Crown", where he questions the way America elects it's leaders, he's showing us what lies beneath the surface sheen of the twenty-four hours of non-stop distraction we call a culture that diverts attention away from the real problems in the world. The more time people spend talking about their favourite celebrity, or reading about their most recent affairs, the less they spend concerned with the state of the world around them. Who cares if the infant mortality rate in America is as high as it is in some developing nations when you can look at candid pictures of some star's boob job?
Richie Havens 1.jpg
He doesn't say any of these things directly, he's too good a song writer for that. Instead he points us in certain directions in the hopes that we will think for ourselves and reach our own conclusions. One of the ways he has of making us listen is his voice. While it might have lost a little power over the years, it's expressive qualities and the sense of urgency he can impart with it is still more then sufficient to grab our attention and hold it.

The same goes for the music, as Havens still plays his guitar with the staccato strumming style that made him famous and that has pushed many a song into orbit. However. this isn't just a solo recording as he's accompanied at various times by everything from a cello to the twenty-six string mohan veena played by Harry Manx. While an exotic instrument like either of the two just mentioned can be overused to the point where they become the focal point of a song, in the case of Nobody Left To Crown the instruments are used perfectly to accent which ever song they are being used in. Either the sitar sounding mohan veena will silver in the background of one song or the cello will gently interject a counter point to the rhythm of another. All in all these are beautifully crafted arrangements, whether they are Richie Havens' originals or covers of another person's work.

There's something of the prophet about Richie Havens, not that he makes any predictions with his songs, but rather the fact that something about him suggests that not only can he see things in a way that not many of us can, he can also tell us about them. For more then forty years Richie Havens has been singing impassioned pleas that we examine the lives we are leading and make some decisions about them. Nothing Left To Crown shows that as a performer and a composer he continues to be a musical force to be reckoned with.

August 14, 2008

Music Review: JJ Grey & Mofro Orange Blossoms

It's easy to form false impressions of places by basing them on the superficial information available today. From recollections of people's holidays in on line photo albums to what we see of them in television and movies, we're inundated with images designed to entice us to spend our tourist dollars. Air conditioned, air brushed, and sanitized they have as much to do with a place's reality as a centre-fold has to do with real people. In spite of being aware of this, I've never been able to picture Florida as anything more than a collection of motels and beaches, created by Disney World. If ever a state was made out of plastic it was Florida.

Which is of course completely unfair to everybody and everywhere in the state that have nothing to do with the designated tourist zones, but until recently I had no way of knowing that anything else existed. Although in my defence I would ask how many people in Florida think that because I live in Canada I speak French and have to wear snow-shoes year round. Anyway, about a month ago I was introduced to a slice of a much more realistic Florida by a group of musicians from Lochloosa in a band called JJ Grey & Mofro.

I had been sent copies of two of their earlier recordings, Country Ghetto and Lochloosa, on Alligator Records by their Canadian distributor. I was not only impressed with them musically, but by the way they were able bring their part of the world to life. Instead of the mawkish sentimentality or boasting that's earmarked a great deal of the regional music that I've previously heard, these folk created songs firmly rooted in reality that contained elements of such universality that even a city boy from the frozen north could understand what they were about.
MOFRO .jpg
One of the things that had impressed me most about those two discs was how they had expanded their musical horizons from the first to the second. Not only did the music become more sophisticated, they also showed a willingness to experiment stylistically. So when I received an advance copy of their forthcoming release, Orange Blossoms due out on August 28th/08, I was interested to see what they had in store this time.

Well these guys don't fool around, and right from the opening track on the disc, the title song "Orange Blossoms", they show that they have no interest in standing still. For if on the last disc they dabbled in funk and R&B, they've taken the plunge here and committed themselves fully to creating a groove that will move you physically, emotionally and intellectually. That might sound like hyperbole, but these are songs that you can listen to just as easily as you can dance to them as the lyrics matter just as much as the tune, and the CD has been produced with that in mind. Not only are you able to hear the lyrics on all the songs, but they're also comprehensible, not buried under a whole bunch of effects so that you can't understand a word the vocalist is saying.

In "Orange Blossoms", JJ Grey plays with the idea of sense memory, the scent of orange blossoms that pervade the spring atmosphere in his part of Florida, in creating a song that starts off appearing to be a typical nostalgic look back at young love/lust. The music is a mixture of R&B and innocent guitar rock and roll that sounds like it could have been written in the early nineteen sixties. The combination of the lyrics and the music work so well together that the twist at the end of the song catches you completely off guard, successfully changing the mood and the implications of the tune.

Track two, "The Devil You Know" moves into the realm of hard funk, complete with horns punctuating the beat and giving it a harder edge then the opener. Where the horns on "Orange Blossoms" added a layer of sweetness, here they give the tune the dangerous feel needed for a funk tune to really find its feet. When coupled with the background vocals, and the tight playing of the rest of the band, "The Devil You Know", has funk classic written all over it.

I have to admit to some qualms about the fact that they listed strings among the instruments used on the disc. Too many time strings have been the kiss of death for many a good band as they turn songs into clichés. "She Don't Know", track four on the disc, is the first time that the strings make themselves really known and they are used in just the right way to make the song that much stronger. The tiny bit of soaring under the vocals, gives way to some really nice punctuation much like the horns have been used on the funkier numbers.
J J Grey a.jpg
Unlike other groups that use strings in order to prove their emotional authenticity, Mofro don't need the props as they've already established those credentials. So when they use strings it's for what they can bring to a song musically, not how they can be used to manipulate the listeners. In fact the way they are used in "She Don't Know" almost works to push you away from an emotional reaction as they insert breaks into the flow of the other instruments. What was a simple R&B tune is made complicated and brooding by the presence of strings, instead of schmaltzy and vapid.

Something that happened on this disc that didn't on the previous ones for me, was that I really became aware of JJ Grey's singing voice. To be honest I'm not sure how I could have missed out on it before as its really quite amazing. It's not often you hear somebody with a genuinely soulful voice, meaning that his voice is full of soul, anymore. There aren't many people out there who can sing with the type of honesty that he brings to all of his songs, and on this disc it really comes through. I don't mean that he's some brooding and intense guy or some such shit like that, because soulful doesn't have to equal drama queen like so many people think today.

Listen to the fun that Grey is having while singing "On Fire" and you'll see what I mean. You can't do that if you're going to get hung up on being melodramatic over nothing. Being a soulful singer means you sing every song with everything you've got so nothing is left over when the song is done. When you listen to Grey sing, no matter what the song is about, you know that he's not held back, and the song is only over because he's got nothing more to add.

When I first heard JJ Grey & Mofro what caught my attention was the way they had created a sound that reflected the part of the world they came from, and wrote songs that worked within that frame work. With each subsequent disc I've heard them expand on that base and branch out into new directions while still holding on to the core that made them distinct in the first place. Orange Blossoms, being released on August 26th/08 continues that process and shows them to be more than just a regional band. This is music that speaks to you no matter where you come from or where you've been.

August 8, 2008

Music Review: Travis "Moonchild" Haddix Daylight At Midnight

There were two performances back in the 1970's that turned me on to the power of electric blues. The first was part of the television special on Public Broadcasting called All You Need Is Love that traced the history and roots of popular music. During the segment on blues and jazz they concluded the episode with B. B. King singing his version of "Free At Last" while playing film footage of African Americans from as far back as the late 1800's up to the civil rights marches and sit-ins of the 1960's. Not only did the poignancy of the lyrics hit home, but the power of King's guitar leads really struck home when seen in that context. Somehow they seemed to sing as loudly about hardship and struggle as the lyrics.

The second performance was Muddy Waters singing "Mannish Boy" during the Band's concert movie The Last Waltz While there wasn't the emotional context of the television show, there was something about the sight of this man standing up on stage dressed in a leisure suit looking so normal, while out of his mouth came this amazing, resonating, voice, that was incredibly moving. The song is deceptively simple, as it follows a basic rhythm that repeats itself throughout. However, the way the vocals and the music accented certain points in that pattern gave the tune an emotional power that a more complex song couldn't hope to match.

Now obviously Muddy Waters and B. B. King are tough acts to follow, and both performances were in special circumstances, but on some level or another I'm sure those two performances have been the benchmark against which I've compared everyone else that I've seen since. It's not often that I hear anyone who is able to measure up to the emotional strength and honesty that they generated, but Travis "Moonchild" Haddix's newest release, Daylight At Midnight distributed by Earwig Music, is one of the few that have evoked both of those performances.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Travis has been around the blues since he was born in Mississippi in 1938. His father was Delta bluesman Chalmus "Rooster" Haddix, who played fish fries and juke joints on weekends and worked the fields during the day. If his guitar playing reminds you of B. B. King's, it's probably because it was meeting King in Memphis that made him want to learn the guitar. It was during his time in the Armed Forces that he began entertaining as he and a buddy were given the option of guard duty or playing for other soldiers and settled on the latter. Once back from Europe and discharged he joined an R&B band called Chuck & The Tremblers based out of Cleveland Ohio who he stayed with for six years.

It's not often you get to hear someone play who can handle King style leads, R&B grooves, and the deep rooted pulse of the Mississippi valley like Haddix does. In each of the songs on Daylight At Midnight he incorporates at least one of those three styles, if not sometimes more, and as a result has created a CD of diverse and exciting work. Even better is the fact that unlike others who are satisfied with being able to simply reproduce a style, he has used them in order to create his own style that comes through on each of the ten original tracks on this recording.

Perhaps it's his background in R&B, or maybe just a singular attitude towards life, but Haddix has a wonderfully sly sense of humour that comes through in his song's lyrics. Maybe it's because of my predilection for wixing my mords up that I liked his song "Backward Baby" so much, but how many times do you actually hear someone use the words back-assward in a song? Just as funny are the subtle, sexual overtones to "Way Back In The Country" where he talks about the lessons he learned about the birds and the bees. Some of those birds don't sing, eagles who like raw meant for breakfast and buzzards who cruise around waiting for something to die, and not all bees make sweet honey, some will just sting you.

There are far too many blues singers who feel like they either have to always shout their lyrics or put on some type of affectation they think is appropriate for singing the "blues". It's when you listen to a man like Travis Haddix that you realize what you've been missing out on by listening to people like that. He has one of the more expressive voices that I've heard singing any style of popular music in a long time. In fact he's such a skilled writer that the music on some songs was obviously created to take advantage of that and works with his voice to emphasis its expressive qualities.

He has more than just humorous songs, and while his material covers the usual love/relationship/mystery-of-the-opposite-sex topics typical of blues and R&B, there's also a side to his music that you don't find in too many songwriters. The title song, "Daylight At Midnight", is in reference to a tour he did recently in Finland and found himself in the land of the Midnight sun for the first time. In it he expresses his wonder at joy at the "Strange things that happen in this town, it's daylight at midnight - seem like the sun don't go down".

Daylight At Midnight is Travis "Moonchild"Haddix's tenth solo release, and all of his discs, including this one were originally recorded and produced for his own label, Wann-Sonn Records, and are now being distributed by the Earwig label. It's not often you have the chance to hear someone who is able to move so seamlessly between the blues and near funk R&B on the same disc with such authority and assurance or whose lyrics are both funny and intelligent. This disc is a real antidote for all those bands who have forgotten that just because it's called the blues doesn't mean it can't be fun and who don't know how to sing about anything else besides that girl who done them wrong.

August 7, 2008

Music Review: Chris James & Patrick Rynn Stop And Think About It

I like blues music, always have and always will. Yet I'm not blind to the fact that it's probably one of the most abused genres of popular music out there. Almost any idiot who picks up a guitar can play the twelve bars that form the basis for nearly every blues tune and blues based rock song ever written. The problem is that most of them don't seem to know what to do beyond that. It's depressing the number of blues releases I listen to that I don't review simply because they sound just like twenty-five or thirty other discs that I've hear in the last year.

You can usually divide the guitar players into two different categories the screamers and the plodders. The screamers are the guys who rip off guitar solos at every opportunity and play down at the high of the fret board making lots of high pitched noise that they think passes for music while the plodders plough through the music because they equate slow with sincerity. Sometimes if you're really unlucky you'll get somebody who combines the two and plods around making noise every so often.

After a steady diet of this you actually start to dread the arrival of blues discs by performers you've never heard of signed to labels that you didn't even know existed. Fortunately there are still some labels out there who you can usually count on, and even if you haven't heard of the band or individual on the disc, it will be at least worth a listen. Earwig Music out of Chicago are one of those labels and their recent release of Chris James' & Patrick Rynn's, Stop And Think About It is a good example of the quality they tend to deliver.
Chris And Patrick.jpg
Looking at Chris, guitar and vocals, and Patrick, bass and occasional vocal, you might not immediately think blues musicians, but once you start listening there's no denying that these guys have talent. While their band, The Blue Four, has played with quite a few more experienced blues musicians and appeared on other people's recordings, this is Chris and Patrick's first solo recording. Of course it's not just bass and guitar as they're joined by friends like Sam Lay on drums, Bob Corritore on harmonica, and Johnny Rapp taking second guitar for a few tracks.

The disc is a good mix of original material and interesting covers. Of course it doesn't hurt that they share my affection for Elmore James, and four of the tracks on the disc are covers of his material. What I like about their covers is that while they show respect for the original material they do more than simply offer imitations. Their version of Elmore James' "Hawaiian Boogie" not only captures the song's original bounce, but introduces some nice swing elements that give it an almost jazzy feel.

What I like about their own material is that while they are consummate professionals, they aren't so full of themselves that they take everything too seriously. You can't write a blues song called "Mr. Coffee" without having a pretty good sense of humour. Hey don't get me wrong, coffee is very serious business and I'm glad to see people are finally giving it more recognition in song. Of course they could also be auditioning for a certain coffee maker commercial now that Jolting Joe has gone. What I especially appreciated about it was that unlike a lot of so called humorous songs, this one has genuine wit and intelligence behind it and isn't just some juvenile throwaway.

Musically they play a mixture of 1950's style Chicago blues and more contemporary sounds. What that does is create an overall atmosphere that is both comfortable in it's familiarity and interesting because of the new touches that they've added. Both Chris and Patrick have a really good feel for the sound of that era, which explains why they do such a good job with the Elmore James songs, and such a genuine appreciation for the blues in general, that you can't help but be caught up by their enthusiasm for the music.

It's one thing to be talented, which they are, but it's another thing all together to be able to convey your love of what you're doing while playing the music. It's under those circumstances that even familiar riffs are infused with new life and no matter how many times you may have heard a song before you can't help but enjoy it like you're hearing it for the first time all over again. Stop And Think About It doesn't break any new ground when it comes to the blues, but it's one of those recordings that reminds you that something doesn't have to be brand new to be exciting.

Chris James and Patrick Rynn have made a recording that once again show us there is no music quite like the blues when it's played with love and enthusiasm. Not only do they bring both to this disc by the bucket load, but they have the skill to channel it into tight arrangements of other people's material, and create originals with their own distinct flavour. Not bad for their first disc.

July 30, 2008

DVD Review: No Direction Home - Bob Dylan

The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was in the fall of 1978 when I was seventeen. I remember being really surprised that he did the whole first set solo; just him, his guitar, and harmonica. He did a mixture of old favourites and more obscure tunes from his early albums, The Times They Are A Changing and Freewheeling Bob Dylan including "Masters Of War", "Hard Rain", and "Blowing In The Wind". In the second set he brought out his band that he was touring with at the time, and they rocked the house with stuff from his then current release, Street Legal and various electric hits from his past.

After the immediate euphoria of being able to say that I'd seen Dylan in concert had passed, I began to experience something akin to being disappointed with what I had seen. It wasn't as if he was bad or anything, he had performed letter perfect renditions of his material so they sounded almost exactly the way they did on his records and his band was hot. Yet the feeling of being let down persisted. More then a decade later I saw him for the second time, and this was a completely different show. He did a lot of his old material again, but this time he did versions of them that were nothing like his original recordings.

After the concert I heard people around me, including some I had come with, complaining about how they barely recognized songs and he didn't sound like he used to. It had been a difficult concert, with Dylan and his band in attack mode mounting assaults on each number like they needed to be battered into submission. However, unlike the previous concert which had left me feeling strangely empty, this time I found the music stayed with me and I found myself thinking about individual songs in a way that I hadn't before.
Bob Dylan 1963.jpg
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).
Bob Dylan 1966.jpg
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
Grayson Capps.jpg
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 28, 2008

Music Review: Xavier Rudd Dark Shades Of Blue

Normally it's a pretty simple process to write a critique or review of somebody's work. I listen to, read, or watch whatever the item is, and try to judge it on it's own merits as objectively as possible. That usually means trying to place the item in a context that will allow me to judge it based on how it stacks up against others of a similar ilk. It sounds pretty good in theory, and I like to think that I'm able to carry it out in practice more often than not. Of course I've also got in the habit of not reviewing anything that I know I wouldn't be able to stomach - so I've never really had to test the limits of my objectivity in that way.

Where it all falls apart though are the occasions where the work touches me personally in some manner or another. When something strikes an emotional chord that resonates deep inside me I find it extremely hard to hold onto any semblance of critical detachment. How do you write a review about something when all that comes to mind when listening to or reading it is, "Holy Fuck, that's great!" The obvious thing to do of trying to itemize all the reasons why I think it's so great seems next to impossible as each time I go back to the piece my critical faculties seem to desert me. I just can't seem to get beyond the awe that I felt the first time, no matter how many times I watch, read, or listen. So, I apologize in advance for any and all gushing, and the decided lack of critical detachment in the following review - you can turn back now before it's too late, or take your chances and read on, but don't say I didn't warn you.

The first time I listened to the Australian musician Xavier Rudd I was impressed not only with his musical virtuosity, at the time he was nearly a one man band playing guitar, kick drums, and didgeridoo, but his abilities as a songwriter. He could not only write songs about the state of the world, but he could look inside and write a song about the way his children made him feel that was so unsentimental that even a childless person like me could appreciate the emotion. Underlying all his music was this strange, but wonderful combination, of a deeply felt spiritual connection to the planet and the laid back attitude of a surfer boy.
Xavier Rudd.jpg
Musically he'd been playing a reggae influenced world beat style when I first heard him, but flavoured with some really sharp lap, slide guitar. That sound has gradually been evolving, and on his 2007 release, White Moth, it began to change from something that was identifiable as any particular genre, into music that was an extension of what he was feeling at a particular moment in time. White Moth contained everything from traditional indigenous music from Australia and North America, hard rock, and simple yet eloquent acoustic music. As he was singing about coming out of the cocoon to be in the world around you, he was also spreading his wings musically.

Now, on his forthcoming disc, Dark Shades Of Blue, being released on August 19th/08 on the Anti record label, he takes the next step in synthesizing the elements that have made his work so distinctive in the past and continues his evolution as a musician and a songwriter. While initially, compared to his earlier work, the temptation is to say this is a dark, almost brooding recording, calling it introspective would probably be closer to the point. However, unlike other's who turn their gaze inwards, Xavier doesn't become self-involved, and the material on Dark Shades Of Blue is as universally applicable as any of his previous recordings.

The difference here is the emotional commitment to the material has come from someplace deeper inside of him then before and he's broadened his means of expression. This is his first recording where he has used obvious effects on his voice and the music has taken a few giant steps away from the easy going reggae groove that used to distinguish it. There's a hard, almost brittle edge to the sound that interestingly enough gives it an air of fragility rather than the toughness normally associated with hard electric guitars.

For those who know Xavier Rudd's earlier work the opening instrumental track, "Black Water", is your first clue that things on this recording are going to be different. Jagged guitar riffs churn and bounce over an almost un-syncopated beat, through which the low throb of the didigeridoo moans and wanders. This opening segues into the title track "Dark Shades Of Blue" which seems to be a commentary on the way the state of the world effects people. When he sings "You paint dark shades of blue" in the chorus, he appears to be talking about how the anxiety in the world is reflected in our attitudes and the ways we respond to what we see around us.
Blackwater Marci Lutken-Rudd.jpg
The cover art for the disc is taken from a painting by his wife Marci Lutken-Rudd entitled "Blackwater". I mention this because the piece is indicative of the album in that at first glance it appears to be rather dark, monotone, and brooding. But if you look closely at the painting you'll see layers of texture and delicate nuances of colour within what appears to be a sold block of greyish blue. There's also a bright snake-like swirl of yellow in the centre that pulls the eye to it immediately. It's as if the painter wanted to remind us that what ever else we think we see, there's always a spark of something else waiting to be discovered.

On Dark Shades Of Blue Xavier Rudd's songs offer us an alternative way of reacting to the things in the world that upset us. It's easy to get angry about the injustices we see around us, the pollution that's destroying the environment, and any other issue that attacks our emotions. What's hard is to find a positive reaction; that streak of yellow, the spark of joy that the world can still inspire in us. He doesn't deny the problems in the world, and they anger and upset him as much as anyone, but if we forget the pleasures to be had, what exactly are we fighting to preserve.

Dark Shades Of Blue is going to surprise a lot of people, and I think some people will be disappointed, or at least disconcerted, as its nowhere near as accessible as any of Xavier Rudd's previous releases. This is an album of complex songs highly appropriate to the complexity of the world that we live in today. Oh, and, holy fuck it's great.

July 23, 2008

Music Review: Double Trouble & Friends Been A Long Time

It's sort of ironic that the two members of a rock and roll, or any popular music band for that matter, who are most responsible for the rhythms that make the music so distinct are usually hidden off to one side or behind the other members of the band. While the lead singer and the guitar players can usually be found as far down stage as possible basking in the glow of an audiences accolades, the bass player and drummer are sometimes lucky if the stage lighting even makes them visible to the crowd.

Of course there have been exceptions to the rule, as there always is, but the majority of drummers and bass players toil in relative obscurity compared to their band mates. As if that wasn't bad enough, in a lot of today's music drums and bass are being replaced in bands by computer and digitally generated rhythm tracks and drum machines. Talk about rubbing salt into a wound! I have to wonder how many studio musicians have seen careers dry up as they've been replaced by machines?

All things considered it's not surprising that we don't find very many rhythm sections making enough of a name for themselves that they are able to command popular attention. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie) became internationally known for their work with reggae stars Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru in the 1980's, and parlayed that success into appearances on recordings with people as diverse as Grace Jones to Bob Dylan. Aside from them, there's only two other men that I know of that have been able to parlay initial success as a unit into a long lasting career working together.

When Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton, on bass and drums respectively, backed up the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn they picked up the name Double Trouble. Not only has the tag stuck around, but so has their career as a unit. Working behind the explosive guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn for most of, if not all of, his career, and then continuing to work ever since, makes them one of the most enduring rhythm sections in popular music. Not only have they put together various bands, and played as a unit for some of the best musicians in the world of blues and rock and roll over the years, they've garnered such a reputation for excellence that they can call upon everybody from Willie Nelson to Dr. John when putting together an album.

Such was the case with the recording Been A Long Time, first released back in 2001 and now re-released on the Music Avenue label. Chris and Tommy called up a few former band mates from the Arc Angels (Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall ll) and Storyville (vocalist Malford Milligan) to join them and a couple of other friends. When your friends include Jimmy Vaughn, Susan Tedeschi, Gordie Johnson, Johnny Lang, Eric Johnson, Willie Nelson, and Dr. John, you hope they're going to do a little more than just get by with a little help from their friends, and Been A Long Time doesn't disappoint.

One of the nicest surprises of this collection is how many of the songs are originals that Layton and Shannon have either written or co-written with the others appearing on the recording. Be honest, how often when you check writing credits do you expect to find the names of the drummer or the base player listed as one of the primary composers of a song? Sure in some bands they'll get a credit for their contribution to the music, but as lyricist?

Having only my memories of Stevie Ray Vaughn to go by when thinking about Double Trouble musically, I was expecting a disc of blues tinged rock and roll. So the opening track on the disc, "Cry Sky", was a pleasant surprise. It's a beautiful, gospel tinged, soul song that Layton and Shannon co-wrote with one other person that is performed wonderfully. I'd never heard of, let only heard, Malford Milligan before this recording, and his singing on this song blew me away. He's got amazing vocal control and a great voice for this type of music, making it one of the few contemporary songs that I've heard that can match up to the great soul songs of people like Al Green and Wilson Pickett.

The whole disc is full of unexpected treasures like this, including a searing rendition of the old Led Zeppelin classic "Rock And Roll" hammered out by Susan Tedeschi on vocals, Charlie Sexton and Van Wilks on guitar, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd adding a searing guitar solo. Tedeschi was great because she brought her own power to the vocal track and didn't try to imitate the original. It's always a pleasure to hear someone interpreting a song instead of just "covering" it, especially a tune as well known as this one.

The other thing that I found amazing about this disc is that not once did I notice either Layton or Shannon any more than I would be aware of any drummer or bass player on an album. There's no padding of songs with extraneous drum and bass solos just because they are names on the cover of the disc. They do their jobs like they have been doing for years; supplying rock steady rhythm for the people playing in front of them no matter what style of music is being played.

Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bonnie Rait, Jimmy Vaughn, and of course Stevie Ray Vaughn, long ago discovered just how valuable Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon are as a rhythm section. Been A Long Time shows them doing what they do best - being the core around which great music is built.

July 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.

July 11, 2008

Music CD/DVD Review: Augustus Pablo The Mystic World Of Augustus Pablo: The Rockers Story

It was the unlikeliest source imaginable, you'd have thought, to be an introduction to the dub music of Kingston Jamaica, but Black Market Clash by the Clash was where I first heard that bass heavy, mixed down, slowed down groove. In those days of two sided LP records, side one of album contained some reggae covers and original tunes by the Clash, while side two was more of the same, but also included a dub version of the song "Armageddon Time".

London, England had a large ex-patriot Jamaican community, which by the time the seventies and punk rolled around was into its second generation. Kids grew up with the accent of Kingston, Jamaica on their lips, but the grey rain of England as their environment. It was also an increasingly hostile environment for people of colour in those days with police harassment and skin-head beatings common. Punks, like The Clash, took up fight against racism and formed groups like Rock Against Racism as an attempt to help. Bands like the English Beat and The Specials with their mixed race memberships and ska music, that combined pop sensibilities and reggae back beats, were political messages in their own right.

Mystifying words like "Rockers" and "Rude Boy" made their way across the Atlantic Ocean in the lyrics of songs by these bands, while dubbed versions of Clash and English Beat songs were released on extended play (EPs) twelve inch vinyl singles. It was vaguely understood that this music had something to do with reggae and Jamaica, but since it didn't sound like anything Bob Marley or Peter Tosh were doing at the time, most people I knew weren't quite sure what to make of it. It was known that the Clash had recorded some tracks on their Sandinista triple album in Kingston, Jamaica, but aside from that we didn't know anything about this dub stuff that was so popular in England.
Agustus Pablo.jpg
The name Augustus Pablo wouldn't have meant a damn thing to anybody I knew. Black Uhuru were as adventurous as most people got when it came to listening to reggae, and I doubt there were many people aware that there was any other music coming out of Jamaica at the time. Yet it was in the early seventies when this extraordinary man began recording, first as a performer, then as a composer and producer. It was his collaborations with King Tubby, the man credited with inventing dub music, in 1976, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown and 1977, East Of The River Nile, that are credited with popularizing dub music in England and providing the early inspiration for hip-hop and rap in the United States.

As he never sought after commercial success, and very rarely toured, Pablo never received the recognition that accrued to some of his more famous countrymen. Now, nearly ten years after his death of a rare nerve disorder, that might just change with the release of The Mystic World Of Augustus Pablo: The Rockers Story, a four CD and single DVD box set by his American distributor, Shanachie Entertainment Group. The first three CDs of the set are an exhaustive retrospective of his career with samples from the three decades of his output as a producer, composer, and performer. The fourth CD features cuts that were previously unreleased and tracks that had been released on labels other than his own from his early days as a performer. The DVD contains footage from two concerts in Japan in 1986 and 1988, and some taken of Augustus during the filming of a documentary about the band Soul Syndicate called Word, Sound, and Power

The first thing you notice when listening to an Augustus Pablo song is the fact that lead instrument isn't one you can quite recognize. It sounds sort of like an accordion, or maybe a harmonica, but it turns out to be a melodica. Usually considered a children's toy, a melodica is a small keyboard with a mouthpiece at one end through which the player blows while shaping the notes with the keys. This almost whisper of sound floats over top the heavy, slow, bottom end of the "rockers" sound, giving it an ethereal quality more reminiscent of the East than anything that ever came out of Africa or Jamaica.

Augustus is credited with creating the trademark rockers sound, the slow and heavy reggae sound that we've all become familiar with now but was only coming into common usage in the early seventies. The name rockers was taken from the name he had given his sound system (DJ set up) and latter his record label. It was a sound that seemed more in keeping with the Rastafari ethos of living as natural a life as possible as the rhythm takes on the characteristics of a pulse - a measure of the world's natural movement.
Augustus Pablo.jpg
One of the great things about this collection of music is that it allows you the opportunity to trace Augustus Pablo's evolution as a composer and producer as we follow his career from his early work in the seventies with people like Leroy Sibbles of The Heptones on disc one updating an earlier rocksteady hit, "Love Won't Come Easy" over a rocker rhythm track. The first disc also includes "King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown", the track that really popularized the music in England, some early dub collaborations between King Tubby and Pablo, and songs by Pablo produced singers Hugh Mundell and Jr. Delgado. You can hear the formation of the elements that will characterize Pablo's work over the course of his career; deep rhythms and soaring melodies that have an element of sadness and an air of the mystical coursing through them.

Even with the advent of new technology, and Pablo wasn't hesitant about using computer generated beats later in his career, the qualities of mixing bright melody lines with heavy bottom end persisted in his compositions. It could be a vocal line of remarkable soulfulness, the haunting sounds of his melodica, a keyboard or a guitar, but the melody would always sound as if it was billowing upwards, suspended on a cushion of air created by the power of the beats pulsing under it.

With advances in recording technology his dubbing techniques of course became more sophisticated as the years progressed allowing him to shape the original material even more. The technology also allowed him to experiment with percussion as is shown on track eleven on disc three of this set, "Drums For The King". Here he's integrated a traditional akete percussion group with a digital rhythm track to produce a sound that combines the best elements of both worlds. Pablo's use of digital tracks and computer generated music never sound like he's using the technology because it's a convenience. It's more like they are another musical instrument that he can play in his quest to make the music speak more eloquently.

A twenty page booklet included with the box set includes two nicely written overviews of Augustus Palbo the man and the musician. I get the impression that he knew that he was not going to be here for a long time, he was born in 1953 and died in 1999, so he poured his heart and soul into his music - whether he was performing, composing, or producing. The three clips that are included of him performing and being interviewed on the DVD show a very slim, almost ascetic, man of amazing intensity.

He stands at the microphone, reed thin, with his entire being focused on the music he's creating by blowing into his melodica. The thousands of people in the festival audience may as well not exist for all the attention he pays them. Even in the less formal setting of the segments filmed for the documentary this intensity of focus comes through. There is no such thing as casual music, you either strive to do it as well as possible each time you play or you don't do it all.

For those of you like me who hadn't been introduced to Augustus Pablo before, or had maybe only vaguely heard of him, The Mystic World Of Augustus Pablo: The Rockers Story will be a revelation. It will introduce you to the man who played a great role in shaping the sound of modern reggae and whose music, whether they know it or not, provided the genesis for hip hop and rap performers today. Even more importantly it will introduce you to his music - music that will change the way you think and feel about reggae.

June 26, 2008

Music Review: Candye Kane, Deborah Coleman, & Dani Wilde Blues Caravan: Guitars & Feathers

Since 2005 Ruf Records of Germany has been putting together a travelling revue featuring musicians signed to their label and touring them through Europe and North America. This year's version of what they call The Blues Caravan, Blues Caravan 2008, features three women; two established performers, Candye Kane and Deborah Coleman, accompanied by one of their new discoveries, British guitarist Dani Wilde

On January 27th 2008, the three women were recorded live in Bonn Germany and that concert has now been released as a live concert CD Blues Caravan 2008: Guitars & Feathers. The guitars in the title are a reference to Dani Wilde's and Deborah Coleman's guitar playing ability, while the feathers are...well... that's Candye Kane. Aside from being a reference to Candye's last release on Ruf Records, Guitar'd and Feathered, it also refers to Candye's larger than life personality and the fact that she does have a thing for feather boas.

(As of this writing Candye Kane is in recovery from Pancreatic Cancer - the kind that can be dealt with through surgery - and is actually well enough to be talking about a return to performing this July. She had been diagnosed sometime shortly after this concert, and in all probability this could have been one of the last shows she gave before her surgery. As a musician she of course had no insurance that would cover the majority of her medical bills, but thankfully the Blues community rallied around her and were able to raise sufficient funds through concerts and individual donations that it appears she won't have debt to deal with as well as recovering from surgery. For those who'd like to keep up to date on how she's doing, she posts on a regular basis to a special page on her web site)
Candye Deborah & Dani.jpg
Unlike previous Blues Caravan recordings where the three performers have worked together, this one was set up as three mini concerts, with the three women coming together to cover Ray Charles' "Won't Leave", to open and again at the end for a finale. First up is Dani Wilde who performs four original tunes. The Brits seem to have a factory that produces high quality, high energy, electric Blues guitarists, and Dani is the latest model. Britain has never been known for mass production like the States, instead of millions of family cars coming off the line, they are better known for luxury sedans like the Rolls Royce. The same thing seems to apply to their guitar players.

Like her predecessors Dani plays with both elegance and power and an understanding that while speed is important, it's also important to hear every note. While its hard to make a definitive judgement on someone's playing after only hearing them for four songs, Dani is definitely more than just another guitar hero(ine). She plays with a passion and commitment that belies her years, and the fact that she felt assured enough to play her own compositions on this night says a lot for her self-confidence. This assurance also comes across in her vocals, for although her range is limited, she sings with a clarity and expression that many vocalists with more experience lack.

As far a vocals go, there are few around these days who can compare to Candye Kane when it comes to power and expression. While there are a lot of big voiced women out there, and women who have a larger range than Candye, there are very few who can do as much with their voices as she can. Not since Mae West has there been a woman who can put so much innuendo into her voice. Unlike many people with large voices though, Candye doesn't just attack her songs and try to bluster her way through them. At the same time she doesn't try and milk them for emotion that isn't there like far too many of today's pop divas. Instead she gives as a true a reading of a lyric's meaning as possible, while always remembering that her purpose on stage is to entertain those listening.

While Candye Kane is a hard act to follow, Deborah Coleman doesn't have any trouble grabbing an audience's ear. While Dani Wilde is a talented player, Deborah Coleman's playing shows what experience adds to someone's guitar work. There's an intangible quality to her playing that says, "this is a Blues woman" that can only be achieved from a combination of life experience and years of playing. I talked earlier about the history of British Blues guitarists, but that pales in comparison to the history that's evoked by Deborah's singing and playing.

That's a point driven home firmly by her version of Willie Dixon's "Whole Lotta Love". While Led Zeppelin might have made a name for themselves covering it as a hard rock number, Deborah's version reminds us where it came from. Instead of pummelling the listener into submission with volume, she digs deep into the emotions of the song and makes it real. There's an authenticity to Deborah's playing that makes her performance live long after she's done on stage; she brings the Blues to life in a way that few other performers, male or female, can.

Ruf records' Blues Caravan recordings have provided showcases for their talent in the past, and has proven to be a great vehicle for exposing an audience to a variety of Blues styles in one package. Blues Caravan: Guitars & Feathers is no exception as its an opportunity to hear three very unique women performing their music on one great disc.

June 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.
Cow Island Hop.jpg
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 23, 2008

Music DVD/CD Review: Byther Smith Blues On The Moon

I've been receiving review copies of DVDs from Delmark Records in Chicago Illinois for the last couple of years now. While there have been some interesting experimental Jazz concerts, and a few other Jazz discs, the ones I've liked the most have been the recordings of Blues gigs from bars around the city. While a couple of the bars, like Buddy Guy's Legends, are large and well appointed, most of them look like they could be a local bars in any working class neighbourhood in North America.

It's only when the camera pans across the walls of these bars to show the autographed pictures of those who have played them over the years, that the difference between these places and other local watering holes becomes clear. There aren't many neighbourhood bars in many cities that can boast of having had Sonny Boy Williams, Junior Walker, Carey Bell, and Luther Alison perform a gig in their bar, let along play there on a regular basis. The picture walls of these bars are hall of fame galleries of Blues practitioners dating back to the late forties when the post war electric Blues scene in Chicago first started.

They're a far cry from the large venues where today's pop stars perform.You're about as likely to find fancy dressing rooms and special foods laid out here for those playing as you're the Grand Wizard of the Klan walking in the front door. For although the crowds are pretty much mixed these days, they're still located in the old neighbourhoods and pull in a fair number of people from the surrounding streets. Follow the camera through the door and wend your way through the crowd to the small stage, and you've stepped into a world where the old divisions don't matter; everybody is here for the same reason, to listen to the music.
Blyther Smith.jpg
The Natural Rhythm Social Club is located on the South Side of Chicago and in August of 2007 Delmark records brought their recording equipment and cameras out to record Byther Smith and his band for the DVD Blues On The Moon. Released on June 17th/2008, this collection of twelve songs is some of the most intense Blues music I've heard gathered in one place before.

Now if the name Byther Smith means as little to you as it did to me when I first read his name on the cover of the DVD, don't feel too bad as he seems to have flown under everybody's radar until recently. Born in Monticello, Mississippi in 1933, Smith arrived in Chicago as part of the post war migration North in the 1950's. He had been a bass player prior to coming to Chicago, but soon switched to guitar and began playing gigs around town.

According to the biography included in the liner notes of Blues On The Moon although Byther received some local recognition in the sixties and seventies, it wasn't until the 1980s and the recording of his first full length album, Housefire on the Razor label, that he began to garner attention. Listening to Byther Smith for the first time, you have to wonder how the hell a talent as impressive as this could have been missed for so long. His voice is as strong and authentic as any of his more storied contemporaries, his guitar playing assured and stirring, and his own material is the equal to anything I've heard written with few exceptions.

Some Blues musicians are known for their ability to wring emotion out of a lyric, others for the way their guitar playing pulls at your heart strings. Byther Smith brings to his music an intensity of emotion that shines through in the forcefulness of both his guitar playing and his vocals. If emotion is an electrical current powering music, than Smith is a conductor who translates it into guitar and vocals that pulses with an intensity that could power a small city. Constantly driving forward, his music challenges the listener to keep pace with the level of emotion he's transmitting and to let it carry them places where others aren't able to venture.

Eight of the twelve songs on the DVD are Byther's own compositions and each one is as assured and professional a song as you're liable to hear from any Blues musician no matter what their experience and credentials. "Blues On The Moon" and "Give Up My Life For You", the third and fourth songs on the disc respectively, are two that stood out in particular for me due to the two different perspectives they give a listener into Byther's personality.

"Blues On The Moon" can be seen as a funny song about being offered five million dollars to play Blues on the moon. It's sort of silly, but think about his career as a musician and the lack of financial success he's experienced to date, and there's also a certain amount of irony you can attach to the song. Being paid a large amount of money for a gig is as likely to happen to him as he's likely to play a gig on the moon. What's nice about this song is that's there not an ounce of self-pity to be heard, It's just a simple statement of fact, and an acknowledgement that you don't play the Blues in the hopes of fame and fortune.

"Give Up My Life For You" is a far more complex and emotionally intense song then its immediate predecessor. Who else do you know has compared love's intensity with the crucifixion? "Baby Jesus died/He died for this world/ I'm Baby - Don't let Him die for you girl". The power of the lyrics, and their emotional depth, coupled with the intensity of Byther's vocal delivery and the churning strength of the music, makes this a love song unlike any love song you've heard before.

It would be remiss not to mention the four men accompanying Byther on this disc. Anthony Palmer on guitar, Daryl Coutts on keyboards, Greg McDaniel on bass, and James Carter on drums, are equally proficient on their instruments as their front man. Not only do they do a magnificent job of accentuating Byther's creations with their playing, they each add a layer of texture to a song that keeps in mind that the song is what's important, not their contribution.

As anybody whose familiar with Delmark DVDs has come to expect the sound and visual quality of this disc is exemplary, with the options of either 5.1 surround or DTS sound available for those with the equipment. It also comes with a combined commentary/interview track with Byther Smith that you can play while watching the concert. Blues On The Moon is also available as a CD that features the almost identical track listing, missing only the eleventh track on the DVD, "My Baby's Mean" .

You may never have heard, or even heard of, Byther Smith before listening to Blues On The Moon, but you won't be forgetting him soon after this disc. His passion, intensity, and talent combine to make him a truly remarkable Blues musician.

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.
Watermelon Slim And The Workers.jpg
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 18, 2008

Music Review: Alejandro Excovedo The Real Animal

It's really quite amazing how many gifted performers there are in the world of popular music who seem to fly under most people's radar. Part of the problem is that most of them aren't ever going to find themselves getting what you'd call extensive radio play or being the flavour of the week. One thing that most of these folk seem to have in common is a passionate love for what they do, and for the energy that is so integral to playing Rock & Roll.

In most of these folk's hands Rock & Roll is still the music of the streets, and has a wild and untamed feel to that makes it just a little unsafe - just like Rock & Roll should be. That was the big attraction to Punk when it came along in the seventies, it made Rock and Roll dangerous again, gave it back the edge that had been smoothed away by corporate decision makers and pretentious progressive rockers.

A musician who has slid under my radar for the last thirty years has been Alejandro Excovedo. I know it sounds sort of silly but after listening to his latest release, Real Animal on Manhattan Records, I can't help but think that he sounds just like a musician from New York City should sound like. I don't know if there is such a thing as a "New York" sound officially like there is a Detroit sound, but there's something about Alejandro that exclaims New York City in neon lights as bright as any sign on Broadway.
Alejandro Escovedo.jpg
From the tips of his spiked hair to the points of his cowboy boots, and the black clothing and shades in between, he definitely looks the part, and his music has that sharp edge and buzz of excitement that makes me think of the streets of New York. From the pure pop sound of the opening song, "Always A Friend", the raw power of "Chelsea Hotel '78", to the nearly sentimental sound of "Sensitive Boys" Alejandro covers almost all the approaches possible to a Rock & Roll song.

Now in case I've left you with the impression that the music on this disc is bare bones, minimalist, that's far from the case. Alejandro and producer Tony Visconti have incorporated saxophone, cello, and violin to fill out the sound. Yet in keeping with the overall tone of the disc, one of driving energy and power, those instruments are used in such a manner that they augment the strength of the music without making it sound over produced. In fact I don't think I've heard strings used in quite the rock and roll manner that they've been used here.

One of the most striking songs on the disc is "Chelsea Hotel '78", where Alejandro recounts what it was like to be living there during the days of Sid & Nancy. He doesn't romanticize the time like so many others might, but looks at with cool dispassion and a fair bit of irony. "We came to live inside the myth/Of everything we'd heard" he sings in the opening verse. However, the dream goes sour, and the fantasy of artistic suffering turns ugly when it meets the reality of Sid Vicious' heroin addiction. Nancy's body found on the bathroom floor was the final death knell for youthful innocence and a reality check. "So we all moved out/(And it makes perfect sense)/And we all moved on/(And it makes no sense)" is the songs summation, and it could just as easily be the epitaph for the whole sordid and sad affair of Sid & Nancy.

"Sister Lost Soul", the track that follows directly after "Chelsea Hotel '78" is almost the answer to the trauma of those early days. It's a gentle song, about having managed to survive and grow up with your ability to feel still intact. Everybody around has let their hearts grow hard, and the singer feels "like the only one left alive". Yet he throws the shadow of doubt on his own feelings, by admitting, "You're not the first or last I've lied to/I'm lying to myself right now". Maybe there's nothing left but to get what comfort you can, where you can, and be happy with that?

Real Animal contains thirteen songs, and not one of them is longer then four and a half minutes. This disc is a reminder that's there's a lot to be said for, and can be said by, a well written, and passionately played Rock & Roll song. Alejandro Escovedo is a throwback to when Rock & Roll was something that scared your parents, and made the authorities nervous. Real Animal is a breath of fresh air in the normally stuffy world of pop music.

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.

June 15, 2008

Music Review: The Homemade Jamz Blues Band Pay Me No Mind

There's always been someone out there trying to cash in on kids as pop musicians. Inevitably the result is some horrible, sickly sweet concoction like "Teeny Pop Punks" or its equivalent. Back in the sixties of course there was a spate of "family" groups made up of real siblings like the Jackson Five and The Osmond Brothers, or artificially generated ones for television like The Partridge Family. Heck even before that there were the child stars of Hollywood like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney.

So I think it's only natural that any announcement of a band made up of children be treated with at least some cynicism. Yet from the first time I heard of The Homemade Jamz Blues Band about a year back I had the feeling they might be different from the rest of the bunch. First off, they were being touted as a Blues band, and to be honest if you were looking to exploit your kids and make some money off them would you choose to make them a Blues band? I love the Blues and all, but it's not exactly the big money maker that turning your kids into a Hip Hop band would be. Then there was the fact that they placed second out of 157 bands at the International Blues Challenge in 2007, a competition open to adult Blues bands from around the world.

While seeing may be believing in some instances, you only have to listen to someone sing the Blues to know if there's something there or not. If you're heart and soul aren't into it, if for some misguided reason you're only in it for the money, it's going to show up the second you open your mouth to sing, and the first time you put your fingers on the strings of your guitar. Well, I have to tell you, that after listening to Pay Me No Mind, The Home Made Jamz Blues Band's first release on the Northern Blues label, this trio of two brothers, Ryan (16) and Kyle Perry (13), guitar and bass respectively, and their younger sister Taya (9) on drums, have convinced me they're for real.
Homemade Jamz Blues Band.jpg
The first thing you need to know about Pay Me No Mind was that the basic tracks were laid down in the living room of the Perry house in just three days. Part two of the home made equation is the fact that their dad made the guitar Ryan plays out of auto parts, (The Ford logo across its body is a bit of give a way), and part three is that ten of the eleven songs on the disc are originals; lyrics by their dad Renaud and music by the kids.

What I want to know is where did a 16 year old boy get the voice of a Blues singer at least four times his age? This young man Ryan Perry sings with the authoritative growl of someone whose been playing the Blues circuit for more decades then Ryan has been alive. The thing is, he doesn't just sing well, he sings with a conviction and a passion that I've not heard in players with twice his experience and four times his years. Sure on the slower songs his voice shows its lack of training, but goodness the kids only sixteen. Think what he's going to sound like with a couple more years of professional singing under his belt.

Musically a trio can be somewhat limited, there's only so much that you can do with bass, drums, and guitar. So it's a pleasant surprise to hear The Homemade Jamz Blues Band mix it up as much as they possibly can. True they're helped out by their dad laying down some really nice harmonica playing on a few tracks and producer Miles Wilkinson adding rhythm guitar on four cuts, but in the end the trio are the ones who created the music everybody is playing. Take the ninth track on the CD, "Jealous" for instance. It has a low down, down and dirty, funk like groove, running under Ryan's choppy attack on the guitar, that the bass and drums carry with a loose tightness that I haven't heard rhythm sections with twice the experience carry off.

I've been saying - better than people with more years and experience then these kids have been alive, but the most amazing thing about this disc is how quickly you forget you are listening to a band whose drummer won't legally be allowed in bars for at least ten more years. From Ryan's opening challenge at the start of the disc, "Ladies and Gentlemen are you all ready for the blues" to the last notes of their cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" that ends the disc, this is a rough and ready collection of really well played Blues. Period.

No, wow they're amazing for their age, or any other qualifier that you might think of, because they are, simply put, a good Blues band. They have a feel for the music, and the touch to play any style that they put their minds to. From the hard driving rock tinged of "Voodoo Woman" with its echoes of Jimi Hendrix style Blues, to the slow molasses sound of deep south electric Blues of "The World's Sure Been Good To You", they sound great.

Anybody who thinks that The Homemade Jamz Blues Band is merely another novelty act along the lines of the teeny-pop bands that are churned out like processed food are in for, not just a pleasant surprise, but a shock. These three young people are not only assured musicians, they play a brand of Blues music that is as authentic and passionate as any I've heard. Pay Me No Mind might be the name of their first CD, but if they keep playing music this good, people are going to be minding them for a long time to come.

June 11, 2008

Music DVD Review: Steel Pulse Steel Pulse: Door Of No Return

I have this wonderful memory from the early 1980's in Toronto, Ontario Canada. I was standing on a subway platform waiting for the train to pull into the station when a Rastafarian man descended the stairs at the far end. With his hair piled on top of his head crammed into a hat, and his erect carriage, he looked to be well over seven feet tall. He proceeded to stroll across the platform, beaming with delight as if there were no other place he'd rather be than this particular station. As he pulled abreast of me he inclined his head in a regal nod, and without breaking his stride, let a small brown envelope slip from his hand and fall at my feet. He continued his passage through the station to the stairs at the other end of the platform and ascended with the same airy grace that had marked his entire passage.

At some point during the mid to late 1970's the political situation in Kingston Jamaica became so volatile that many people left the island country and sought asylum in Toronto. Not only did they bring with them their love of Reggae and Calypso music, many of the people who moved north were also musicians and they formed the nucleus of what became a thriving Reggae scene. Having our own Reggae scene in Toronto meant that there was enough local interest for stores to stock music from bands in England and Jamaica. The first album that made an impression on me was the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come featuring Jimmy Cliff, Toots And The Maytels, and other bands from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.

From there it was only a short step to Bob Marley And The Wailers, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, and Steel Pulse. It's been more then thirty years since I heard my first Reggae album and a lot of water has flowed under a lot bridges. Marley and Tosh are both dead, Marley from brain cancer and Tosh gunned down in his home, and the heady days of political activism which saw the alliance of Punk and Reggae bands in the fight against racism are long gone.
Steel Pulse.jpg
So it was with some curiosity, and not a little trepidation, that I slid the DVD of the documentary Steel Pulse: Door Of No Return from MVD Video into my DVD player. Originally formed back in 1975, Steel Pulse had been one of the first British born Reggae bands, and right from the start had made it clear they weren't interested in compromising their sound, their beliefs, or their politics for anybody. Thirty years is a long time for any band, or anybody for that matter, to stay true to who they were and what they wanted to accomplish when they first started. Were Steel Pulse still the same band that took part in the 1978 "Rock Against Racism" concert in London's Victoria Park alongside The Clash, The Tom Robinson Band, and others?

Some of the faces may have changed among the band's members, but judging by the music and the message that comes across in Door Of No Return the soul and the spirit of the band haven't changed a bit. Directed by Michel Moreau, the documentary follows the band from a benefit concert for Amnesty International 1999 in Senegal to a subsequent tour of the United States, side trips in Africa, and a trip back to the streets of Birmingham where the band was formed. The documentary includes footage from both the concert in Senegal and their tour across the United States. Yet, just as interesting are the interviews with individual band members that sees them reflecting back on what the trip to Africa meant to them, and what it means to be part of a band like Steel Pulse.

For founding member David Hinds the band represents more than just a vehicle for playing music. In interviews with him during this film it becomes obvious that he feels he has an obligation to his audiences to be "uplifting"; informing them about African history - emotionally and intellectually, inspiring them to believe that a better world is possible, and singing about political issues that are important the world over. The chance to play a human rights concert in Africa, like the Amnesty International benefit in Senegal, was for him an opportunity for Steel Pulse to put their philosophy into action, and for the band to contribute to something larger than themselves.

It was interesting listening to some of the younger members of the band describing how they see Steel Pulse as a multigenerational family. Back up vocalist Donna Sterling was the newest member of the band when the film was shot. She talked about how she was learning from the senior members of the band about the world and life, and that one day it would be her responsibility to pass that knowledge along to those who joined the band after her. It's in this manner that Steel Pulse has been able to maintain a continuity of intent that so many bands lose, and will ensure that future versions of the band will carry on what was started in 1975.

Musically the band remains the same interesting mix they've always been. They start with a solid Reggae core and add on top of that touches of Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, and Rap. Of course there's always been a strong Rap tradition in Reggae music with dance hall masters like Yellowman rhyming over music long before it became super popular in North America. Steel Pulse uses Rap as a break in their songs that allows them to step out and address the audience directly about an issue.

The songs that are included in the movie, and the two extra pieces of concert footage in the special features section, offer some good glimpses of the band in action. What's really quite amazing is that not only are they musically exciting to watch and listen to, they are a message band who don't let the message get in the way of the music, or being entertaining to watch and listen to. Somehow they strike the perfect balance so that the point of the song is clear, but you never feel like you're being beaten with a stick to get the point.

Steel Pulse: Door Of No Return is a great record of a great band that will provide old fans the opportunity to catch up with some old friends, and those who aren't familiar with them a chance to get to know them for the first time. Presented in both 5.1 and stereo Dolby sound, the DVD will look and sound good on most systems and makes for intelligent and fun viewing; just like the band.

May 28, 2008

Music Review: Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara Soul Science

Since I started reviewing music that falls into the catch all category of World Music, I've heard some of the most amazing combinations of sound. Classical Indian musicians playing North American Jazz on their traditional instruments and a Gypsy brass band playing Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" are only a couple of examples. But I don't think any of them could have prepared me for the music that I heard on the new release from the World Village Music label, Soul Science

Soul Science is the product of a collaboration between British guitarist Justin Adams and traditional Gambian "griot" (musical history keeper/story teller) Juldeh Camara. Justin is best known for being Robert Plant's sideman and his collaborations with the Tuareg band Tinariwen from the South Sahara. Camara is probably unknown outside of his native Gambia, yet has been steeped in his culture's music since he was a child when he served as his blind father's guide as he travelled around in his role as griot. According to legend Juldeh's father, Serif, went out to collect firewood one day and vanished. Six months latter he was found by his family playing a golden ritti (a traditional one string fiddle) sitting in a tree. While the family got their son back, he lost his eyesight forever in exchange for the tutelage of the forest spirits in the ways of music.

With that heritage its no wonder that Camara junior's playing is so extraordinary. While I've heard many other musicians who hail from the griot tradition in Africa, I've never heard one able to do what he does on this recording. There's no way a one stringed instrument should be able to create the diversity of sound that he seems to be able to draw out of his ritti, but somehow or other he makes it the equal of Justin's electric guitar in terms of originality of tone. Bo Diddley meets West African griot music might sound far fetched, but that's only one of the amazing roads these two men travel down.
Adams, Camara, Miler.jpg
What gives this recording even extra spice is the fact that they've elected to utilize the services of a multi-instrumentalist percussionist instead of the standard contemporary drummer. Salah Dawson Miller is a perfect fit for these two men, as he not only is a regular on the British Blues scene, but is deeply involved in Algerian music as well. So he was already predisposed to playing with one foot in Africa and one in Britain.

It's not just Blues and Africa that they are drawing upon for their inspiration either. The opening track on the CD, "Yerro Mama", the name of a great African hero, sounds like its roots are as much from a Friday night at the "local" in County Wicklow, as it does either Africa or London's Blues scene. From there it jumps into "Ya Ta Kaaya" ("I Want To Stay Fresh") with the familiar Bo Diddley riff chugging along like a steam engine. The combination of Justin's raw electric guitar and Juldeh's staccato scratches on the ritti makes for as exciting a Rock and Roll sound as I've heard in ages.

Yet aside from how exciting the music is, and how great it sounds, what's truly amazing is how seamless they have made the synthesis of the two traditions. In the past when I've heard these types of collaborations either one or the other tradition takes a back seat to the other. In this instance though they seem to meet at a half-way point where the music blends into one. In the liner notes for the CD Adams talks about how African musicians have been perfecting the science of music for hundreds of years.

Certain combinations of rhythms and melodies can elicit certain reactions in the listener. So when he and Juldeh would get together to create songs it was only a matter of Adams playing a tune once and they would both be on the same page musically almost immediately. Juldeh would recognize in Justin's playing patterns that were familiar to him from his own studies. Juldeh's father may have been gifted his musical abilities by a spirit of the forest, but he also passed along to his son the science that went into the making of a song. Hence the title of the disc - Soul Science.

Now don't be fooled into thinking that there's anything cold and clinical about this collaboration, or that it sounds like it was created in a laboratory. These guys won't have gone into the studio and thought about the music in the terms that I've described above. Just like the professional athlete who no longer has to think about the best way to throw a baseball because he can now do it instinctively, these guys don't think about their music in terms of formula anymore. This is music sung from the heart and played with a lot more soul than anything else you're liable to hear in the next little while.

Soul Science is one of the best meeting of musical minds that I've ever heard, and the result is a fusion unlike any you've heard before.

May 16, 2008

Music DVD Review: Jon Dee Graham Swept Away

Across North America there are probably thousands of men and women who every night strap on an instrument and go about the business of making music. None of them are famous, none of them make huge amounts of money, and very few of them have roadies to carry, set-up, and take down their equipment. Most of them have no illusions about becoming "stars", or any of the other brass ring type dreams that television shows like American Idol encourage people to believe is what matters when it comes to pursuing a life in music. They're just intent upon making a living at doing what they do best; at doing what they love.

Austin, Texas is best known as being the home of the South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference, where thousands of musicians show up every year to showcase their wares for the industry and the press in the hopes of attracting the attention of booking agents and distributors to further their careers. Austin is also home to its own thriving music scene, which, like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or any other large metropolitan centre, has its own fixtures; musicians who are talented and passionate about what they do, but don't seem destined to ever to break out of the bar scene.

Producer/ director Mark Finkelpearl of Treadmill Productions, in collaboration with Freedom Records, is set to release the documentary film Swept Away on DVD that tells the story of one of Austin's favourite sons, Jon Dee Graham. Jon Dee has been part of the Austin music scene since the seventies, and has progressed from band member, to sideman, to band leader over the course of his career. He was a founding member of the True Believers who were in the forefront of the alt-country movement and when they disbanded, moved on to playing with Texas luminaries like Michelle Shocked. In 1997 he released his first solo album and was subsequently signed to New West Records for whom he released three recordings. His 2006 release, Full, received critical acclaim, and the same year saw him being named musician of the year at the SXSW conference.
Jon Dee Graham.jpg
Yet in spite of what seems to be a career path that appears like it had the potential for at least national recognition, if not stardom, the story that's told in Swept Away is of a man, who while earning the respect of nearly everyone who's heard him play, has never managed to do much more than make a living with his music. While that may not sound so bad on the surface, the reality is that it means a life that's spent on the road in cheap motels, playing bars and small venues around the country, while trying to raise a family back in Austin.

Swept Away is part documentary and part concert film, as the camera follows Jon Dee around both on and off stage. There's footage of him in concert with the two versions of his band, one a trio, the other a quartet, at a couple of venues around Austin, and in the studio - Top Hat Studios - where he recorded his last CD. The initial impression of an intense, somewhat brooding, man, is lightened as the movie progresses and we get to see him with his children, but that initial undercurrent of introspection is never quite dispelled. At one point he admits to struggling with depression for most of his life, and takes a certain rueful pride in the fact that people think his music isn't what you'd call uplifting.

Yet, you get the feeling after spending some time with him and watching him perform his music that this is not a world weariness brought on by cynicism or being jaded because of his chosen profession. Instead it is the natural extension of a soul that struggles to express aspects of the human condition. In one telling piece of conversation he refers to the Eastern spiritual figure Kwan-Yin, and points to a small statue of her that shows her standing upon a dragon and holding a small vial whose contents she is pouring onto the dragon. The dragon, says Jon, represent the life force upon which we all stand, and in the vial are tears, because it is human sadness that feeds the life force.

This isn't just some causal bar band player, or session musician. He's an introspective, intense, and aware person who takes the time to consider what it's like to be human and attempts to communicate that through the medium of his choice, music. One of the people interviewed in the documentary, I believe it was Katherine Cole from an Austin radio station, summed up his music by saying it was for adults. While contextually that makes sense, thematically his music deals with subject matter far removed from the usual trivial fodder of most popular music, it ends up trivializing the breadth of feeling and life experience that goes into each of his creations.

One of Jon Dee's band mates describes him as being like a tiger or a panther on stage; his pacing back and forth only hints at the depths of energy and power lying underneath that could be unleashed at any moment. Others describe the incredible energy of his performances and how once you've seen him live you'll be hooked forever. If you think back to what Jon Dee said about Kwan-Yin, and think of it in terms of how an artist would translate that into creative energy and how that might appear to an audience watching him perform, you begin to see that there is more to this man than just another guy performing high energy, intelligent, Rock and Roll.

Although there is no way that anything captured on tape, be it video or audio, can fully recreate the experience of seeing a performer in person, the concert footage of Jon Dee Graham included in Swept Away gives a good indication of the level of intensity that he must reach during a performance. There's an indescribable quality permeating his music that generates a level of intensity that is not dependant on speed or volume. Musicians are at times described as having "soul" by those wishing to define this intangible, as it implies a level of commitment to the music that goes beyond the ordinary, but even that seems to be inadequate when it comes to Jon Dee Graham.

He's tapped into something that allows him to create music that defines experiences in such a way that not only do they ring true, but an audience can identify with them. Yet it's not just the content, it's the spirit behind the song that people recognize; they can see themselves and how they have felt in the situations he describes, like they are looking through the eyes of the song into their own lives.

Swept Away is more than just a documentary about a middle aged Rock and Roll musician, it's the portrait of an artist. Not only has director Mark Finkelpearl given us the opportunity to see some great music being performed through his filming of Jon Dee Graham in concert, but he offers a reminder of the cost paid by someone who has dedicated himself to the pursuit of creativity. There is nothing glamourous or pretentious about Jon Dee Graham's life. Like a great many of us he lives in a quiet residential neighbourhood with his wife, two children and his dog and probably worries about how he's going to stretch his money to cover the rising cost of everything.

Yet there is also something incredibly special about Jon Dee Graham, and the way he looks at the world and is able to communicate that view point to us through his music. Swept Away gives us the opportunity to meet a very special individual, and realize once again what it means to be an artist.

Swept Away goes on sale May 20th 2008 and can be purchased through Freedom Records. You can also purchase the soundtrack to the movie on CD from Freedom Records that features recordings of the tracks performed in the movie at the Continental Club, Mercury Hall, and Top Hat Studios. Either one would be a great addition to anyone's library, but I'd buy both of them if I were you. There aren't many people like Jon Dee Graham out there, and I don't see anybody ever being getting enough of him or his music.

April 17, 2008

Music Review: Babylon Circus Dances Of Resistance

Famous anarchist Emma Goldman never actually said "If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution". Her actual response to be being criticized for dancing and having a good time, was "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." somehow was paraphrased by a printer into her most famous "quote" when creating an Emma Goldman t-shirt in 1973. While the modern version is definitely snappier, and fits better on a t-shirt, it doesn't really do justice to the sentiment she was originally expressing.

In the late 19th century and early twentieth century when textile workers struck to improve their lot, the slogan "Bread & Roses" came to symbolize their desire not only for better working conditions and decent wages but an improvement in the quality of their lives. There is more to human existence than simply the drudgery of work and the struggle for survival. Emma wasn't just saying that she wanted the right to party and have a good time, she was saying that social movements had to fight to liberate not just the bodies of the people they represented, but their minds and spirits as well.

When Goldmen said she did not think that "a cause believing in the release and freedom from conventions and prejudice should demand denial of life and joy", and that she wanted nothing to do with it if it meant living like a nun or in a cloister, she was unfortunately expressing a minority opinion. Since her death in 1940 I doubt there has been anybody in a leadership position on any side of the political fence who has considered quality of life, freedom of expression, or beauty, as worthy even of mention, let alone worth fighting for.
Even those you'd expect, or hope, to express such sentiments, have for the most part stuck to politics. The majority of musicians, who could so easily bring beauty and joy into people's lives, with either their sound or their message, have taken to being either preachers or purveyors of mindless and thought destroying noise. English Ska bands the English Beat and the Specials of the early 1980's were exceptions. The infectious joy of their music made it impossible to resist dancing, while their lyrics spoke of resistance to the spread of social conservatism and appealed for racial tolerance.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that the first band I've heard since those days that's able to recreate that same spirit, has its roots in Ska music. Babylon Circus' disc Dances Of Resistance, due for release at the end of this month on the Mr. Bongo
label, is seventeen (eighteen with the hidden ghost track) tracks of the wildest, most exuberant, make you glad to be alive, music that I've heard in a long time. Not only have these nine guys from France got something to say about the state of the world, they say it in a manner that brings you to your feet from joie de vivre.

While there is no denying the Reggae and Ska influences in their music, there's another flavour that comes through loud and clear as well. The sound of the Balkans comes can be heard in the way they use the brass section of the band. Anyone who has listened to any of the gypsy brass bands from Romania will recognize their influence on Babylon Circus. While the idea of mixing the deep base groove of Reggae with the express train of a gypsy brass band might sound odd to some, the effect has to be heard to be believed.

Not only are they musically exciting but their lyrics, at least the ones in English that I could understand, are compelling and intelligent. The first song on the disc, "Contra La Guerra: Greva General!" (Against The War: General Greva) starts off with the sounds of the anti-war demonstration in Spain that brought two million people into the streets to protest the war in Iraq. At the onset of the current Gulf War, a conservative government in Spain had supplied troops as part of the occupying force against the express wishes of the people. It was demonstrations like this one that ensured that government lost the next election and the new government brought the Spanish troops home.

No matter how much the American administration wanted to bluster about Spain giving in to terrorists, the truth of the matter was that the people of Spain were against the war from the start as was proven by demonstrations of that size. Celebrating that demonstration in song, is a celebration of the power a population can have for positive change when they come together and speak with one voice. By incorporating the sound of the people at the demonstration chanting the words of the title into the song, the band manages to capture the spirit of the event and transmit it to the listener. They've done such an effective job that it's impossible not to be caught up in the moment. If you close your eyes while listening, you can almost believe that you are there in amongst the people.

The music of Dances Of Resistance isn't just about the big events in the world. There're songs about our individual struggles as well. "J'aurais bien voulu" ( "I Would Have Liked") is about a man's regrets and desperation from what must be unrequited love. "My Friend" is a driving guitar song in honour of friendship, and what that can truly mean. In some ways it raises questions about the nature of friendship because the music is so frenetic, but at the same time it avows that "this song is for you because you are such a good man". (At least as near as I can tell because sometimes it is hard to understand the vocalist's English. When he gets excited his accent becomes very thick and I lost the occasional word).

The title song, "Dances Of Resistance" is pure Reggae and is a call to arms to stand up and "get out of control" because "Dances of Resistance give justice a chance", and "turns the balance". It blends into the first track, "Contra La Guerra", so that the demonstration becomes part of the "Dance Of Resistance". In fact, the first four songs of the disc pretty much blend into each other, as the band careens from song to song. It is very much like watching a three ring circus, what with the variety of entertainment, and the ongoing display of talent. That might not be what the name of the group refers to, but it sure feels appropriate in that moment.

More than anything else though Babylon Circus makes you feel alive and encourages you to understand and appreciate being human as much you possibly can. They sing about the world, and they sing about individuals, and in some ways they are a call to arms. The battle they want you to fight doesn't involve guns, or hurting anybody though. It's a call to wake up and live.

Emma Goldman may not have said "If I can't dance I don't want to be part of your revolution" but I'm betting she would have been the first on the floor for Dances Of Resistance This is a CD of great music, and a timely reminder that being political doesn't mean forgetting what it's like to be human. In fact, remembering what it means to be human is probably the best "Dance Of Resistance" we have at our disposal.

April 10, 2008

Music DVD Review: The Mink DeVille Band Mink DeVille Live At Montreux 1982

I can think of nothing more disappointing than going back in time via video tape and seeing something that you remembered cherishing when you were younger and finding it wanting. Things that you once thought funny not only don't make you laugh anymore, they are so un-funny that you wonder why you had ever considered them humorous. Of course it doesn't just apply to television shows and movies that you once laughed at, but also books and music you remembered as being brilliant, now no longer shine with the same intensity that they once did.

Part of it can be put down to whatever altered state of mind you might have been in during the time the memory comes from. It's really quite amazing what you find out you missed seeing or hearing the first time round when you see the same program sober at some latter date. Of course the reverse also applies in that's it's amazing how what you thought you saw and heard at one time no longer seems to exist.

What ever the reason for it happening, there have been sufficient occasions recently where memories of an event have proven more entertaining than what actually happened that I've started to grow nervous of trips into the past. While I've never been one to get all teary eyed with nostalgia over the "good old days", or want to return to my youth, it would still be nice to know that some of the things I enjoyed when I was younger have been able to stand the test of time.
Willy 1982.jpg
So it was with mixed feelings that I sat down to watch the DVD Mink DeVille Live At Montreux 1982 that Eagle Rock Entertainment has just released as part of their Live At The Montreux Jazz Festival series. I was pretty confident in my belief that the music would stand up to being as good as I remembered it being, because the music that Mink DeVille's front man, Willy DeVille, has been producing recently has been great, but a whole bunch of times being been bitten can sure make you shy.

I needn't have worried; as soon as I heard the opening notes of the band's instrumental piece prior to Willy's entrance I knew this was one time when the music was going to sound as good now as I remembered it sounding when I listened to Mink DeVille back in the seventies and early eighties. Ironically it wasn't a configuration of the band that I was familiar with, as there were some people in it who hadn't been on any of the albums the band had released to that point. In fact I hadn't even known that Paul James, a Toronto, Canada Blues guitar player, had even played with the Mink DeVille band until I saw this concert disc.

Yet it doesn't seem to matter who is in the band, the music is impeccable. From the moment they began to play the show's opening instrumental, "Harlem Nights" to when the last chord of the last song faded away they sounded like they had been playing with Willy, and together for decades. The rhythm section of Joey Vasta on bass and Tommy Price on drums; long time Mink DeVille keyboard player Kenny Margolis; saxophone player Louis Cortelezzi, and the previously mentioned Paul James on guitar, handled the multitude of styles required to play the band's repertoire with ease. From the hard rocking numbers like "Lipstick Traces" to the smouldering torch song sound required by "This Must Be The Night" they don't miss a beat or a note. They managed that rare balance that only really good bands achieve of sounding loose while being incredibly tight.

Then there was Willy; nearly as skinny as his moustache, hair swept back and up in his trade mark pompadour, and elegant in a three piece suit. All the deadly beauty of a switchblade at midnight on the streets of Spanish Harlem singing with a voice that originated in the cotton fields of Mississippi, mixed with the street smarts of West Side Story, and the soul of Memphis made Willy the nearest thing to a pure distillation of American Pop music that you could possibly hear.

With either his guitar or the microphone as his partner, Willy danced across the stage with the deadly elegance of a matador doing a tango. With a roll of his shoulders, a tilt of the head, and a flick of his hand he communicates more with his body than most singers can dream of doing with their voices. Yet at the same time he never allows himself to become more than the music. Instead, all that he does is part of his effort to ensure that the listener gets full measure out of each song.

The music on the disc includes classic Mink DeVille songs like, "Spanish Stroll". "Cadillac Walk", and "Savoir Faire". Yet it seems only fitting that for his encore Willy chooses to do a cover of the Ben E. King classic "Stand By Me". With it's mixture of Soul, Rock and Roll, and Blues it might have been written for Willy and the sensibility he brings to popular music. It's also a great song for the whole band to show off their abilities, as it has great parts in it for the rhythm section, guitar, and saxophone.

Eagle Rock Entertainment has been gradually releasing DVD after DVD of concerts from various Montreux Jazz Festivals. Mink DeVille: Live At Montreux 1982 is due to be released on April 29th/2008 in the North American market. As has been the case with all of these releases they have re-mastered the sound for modern digital playback.

There are times our memories deceive us and over inflate the quality of things from the past, but for those of you who have memories of Willy and the Mink DeVille bands from the late 1970's and early 1980's you can rest assured that your memories haven't deceived you. If anything you may even have underestimated how good these guys were. Mink DeVille: Live At Montreux 1982 isn't an exercise in nostalgia, it's a chance to hear some great music being played by some great musicians.

000-Honour Willy-banner-72-2x2.jpg
Sign Petition To Induct Willy DeVille Into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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.

March 18, 2008

Music Review: Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards Roamin' And Ramblin'

It's funny how popular music always seems to get such a bad name for itself when it's just starting out. Everything from early Delta Blues to Rock and Roll has been referred to as "The Devil's Music" at one time or another in their existence. Yet while other music always seems to somehow or other become "civilized", or acceptable to mass audiences, the Blues has continued to be on the outside looking in.

Back in the 1920's when Robert Johnson was playing in juke joints and honky-tonks in Mississippi the Blues was considered the dark side of what was sung in the church on Sunday. Instead of setting people's minds to thinking of the sacred, it kept their minds firmly fixed on the profane by singing about wine, whisky and women. As they years have gone by the secular nature of the Blues has come to matter less and less, but while it retains a core following of faithful listeners, it has never achieved the wide spread success that so many of its offspring have realized.

Even though Rock and Roll co-opted Blues for the majority of its sound, and a great many of its early hits were Blues songs re-worked to suit the new genre, the Blues continued to be marginalized. The Blue's biggest strength, its raw passion and emotional power, has probably been the primary reason for its lack of commercial success with the mainstream audiences in North America. Most people look to entertainment as an escape from the real world, and the Blues' isn't about running away, its about testifying to the troubles of the world.
Honeyboy Edwards.jpg
You only have to listen to somebody like Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards' latest release, Roamin' and Ramblin', on the Earwig Music label, to hear how how raw and honest the Blues can be. "Honeyboy" was born in 1915 in Shaw Mississippi and is one of the last of the great Delta Bluesmen left among us anymore. Like most of his contemporaries he did very little commercial recording early in his career, with his first tracks being recorded by Alan Lomax in 1942 for the Library of Congress. Like many other African Americans, Honeyboy left the South in the early fifties and moved up to Chicago which has been his home base ever since.

It was a hard scrabble life playing in small clubs, and on street corners for a while. In 1953 he recorded several songs with Chess records, but they were never issued until recent years. That's not to say he didn't make any records, but the majority of his music in the appears to have been released on various anthologies, rather than under his own name up until the late 1970's. In 1979 when Michael Frank founded Earwig Records, Honeyboy recorded his first disc under his own name since 1953 with the release of Old Friends. Since then he has released another eight albums, won a Grammy for best traditional Blues album for Mississippi Delta Bluesman in 2001, and in 2007 was awarded the W.C. Handy award for Acoustic Blues Artist of the year.

For Roamin' And Ramblin' producer Michael Frank wanted to create a tribute to all the fine harmonica and guitar duets that Honeyboy had taken part in over the years. In his career Honeyboy had played with played with probably every great harmonica player to come down the pipe from Little Walter to Cary Bell. Unfortunately not only are many of these great players no longer with us, some of them never recorded with Honeyboy. The next best thing was to recruit two of the best harmonica players on the Chicago scene, Billy Branch and Bobby Rush to record with Honeyboy for this album.

Mixed in amongst the tracks recorded for this disc are older recordings taken from some live gigs with Walter Horton on harmonica in the seventies, a couple with Michael Frank sharing the stage with Honeyboy, and two from those Alan Lomax sessions back in 1942. The first time I listened to the disc, I didn't have the cover in front of me, so wasn't aware of the particulars of each track, and while there are some obvious difference in sound quality between the tracks recorded in 1942 and the ones recorded in 2007, I defy anybody to date them by the sound of Honeyboy's voice or the quality of the music.

"Crawling Kingsnake" was recorded in September of 2007, "Jump Out" in 1975, and "Army Blues" in 1942, and each one features a strong voiced, impassioned singing, and high energy performance from David Honeyboy Edwards. Whether he's performing solo with his guitar like he did in 1942, or matching note for note with a harmonica in 2007 the man is an incredible performer. At ninety-two years of age, which he was in the fall of 2007, he had more get up and go in his performance than most guys even one third his age seem to be able to generate.

Of course the stuff that make his performance so remarkable is the very stuff that's been working against Blues music ever really gaining widespread popularity. Its full of raw, honest emotion without any compromise. He sings directly from the heart at all times and makes you truly understand what the word soul means when talked about in terms of music. Hearing his rough hewn voice accompanied by the lonesome sound of the great harmonica players on this disc is enough to send chills up your spine on more than one occasion.

Sometimes when a musician is billed as a living legend, or the last of his kind, he's hauled out like some museum piece and placed on display like an exhibit. His or her talent might be a thing of the past but that doesn't stop people from exploiting them for their own purposes. That's not the case with David "Honeyboy" Edwards' latest collection of Blues music, Roamin' and Ramblin' This is as fine a collection of acoustic Blues that I've heard in a long time, and proof positive that the Blues are still some of the most emotionally honest and powerful music to have ever been performed.

This is one legend who doesn't rest on his laurels, and can still teach anybody who listens to him a few lessons in how to live life to its fullest. Roamin' And Ramblin' is a great recording by a great performer, and a must own for any fan of the Blues.

March 17, 2008

Music Review: Harry Manx Live At The Glenn Gould Studio

There used to be a time when live albums were a mixture of so-so sound and versions of a performer's greatest hits peppered with extended guitar solos and the occasional drum solo. Although some groups were far better in concert than they ever sounded in the studio, recording technology was usually insufficient to capture the energy that made their performances so dynamic.

Some live recordings were worth owning as a record of an event, Woodstock for example, or because they featured one of a kind performances with combinations of performers that would never exist elsewhere like The Last Waltz, but on the whole they would quickly become boring. I remember owning any number of live recordings, even illegal bootlegs, at one time, and how many of them I never listened to more than once for that reason.

These days of course things are a lot different as improvements in recording technology have made it possible for a recording of a life concert to have sound with as good quality as something a band would do in a studio. So now if a performer I know puts out a live recording I'll be far more inclined to grab a copy then I would have even only ten years ago. Listening to Live At The Glenn Gould Studio, the new live CD by Harry Manx, on Dog My Cat Records, proves that live recordings not only match ones done in the studio for quality, but are finally able to capture the excitement and immediacy of a concert as well.
Harry Manx 2002.jpg
The Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, Canada, where this disc was recorded is a live audience facility maintained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) for the recording of performances for radio and television. On occasion it's also used for live concerts by performers because of its great acoustics and the potential for making a live recording. It's a room ideally suited to those using a variety of sounds and tonal ranges in their music, as the equipment is sensitive enough, and the technicians are good enough, to not only make crystal clear recordings, but also capture the feel of a live concert.

In other words it's the perfect atmosphere for creating a live recording of the type of music that Harry Manx performs. For those who aren't familiar with Harry's music the best way to describe it is as a mixture of traditional Delta Blues and classical Indian Ragas. He studied Classical Indian music with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt during the twelve years that he lived in India, and on the completion of his studies was presented with one of the special twenty string guitar/sitar hybrids called a mohan veena, that Bhatt had built. So now when Harry plays the Blues he uses an instrument that allows him to combine the qualities of the two vastly different musics to create one unique sound.

If one were to think of Blues in terms of the earth and Indian music as air, in Harry's music you find the meeting place between the two elements. It doesn't sound like it should work, in fact it sounds like the worst sort of New Age nonsense when you only read about it, but listening to how he manages to get the two sounds working together you can't help but feel he's created something special. Live At The Glen Gould Studio has some wonderful examples of just how effective this synthesis of his can be.

For this concert he was joined by musicians representative of both sides of his musical make-up, with Classical Indian vocalist Samidha Joglekar and tabla player Ravi Naimpally representing the East, and Steve Marriner on harmonica, Kevin Brett on guitar, and George Koller on bass from the West. With Harry as the meeting place for the two styles and the impetus propelling the performance, both sounds are constantly working with, and feeding off, each other.

For the listener the effect is akin to at one moment listening to music that is trance inducing, and then the following moment music that makes you want to get up and dance. While that may sound like you're going to be pulled in opposite directions, Harry and his fellow musicians are able to strike this amazing balance whereby the two work in harmony. Instead of being carried away by the trance like qualities of the Indian music, you are carried into a deeper appreciation of the Blues by the way they are blended together.

The order of the songs in the concert and on the disc are arranged so that this effect is maximized. With the opening song, "Point Of Purchase" featuring a beautiful and haunting vocal performance from Samidha being immediately followed by Harry's version of the traditional Blues tune "Take This Hammer" the relationship between the two musical style is formed right from the start. It's not until the fourth song on the disc though, that they meet in one song, and I promise you that you've never heard a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (slight return)" quite like this one.

Banjo and tabla are not instruments one normally associates with Hendrix's Blues/Rock classic, but somehow when accompanied by electric guitar, bass, harmonica, and Samidha's vocal harmonies, its as powerful a version of the song as any that Hendrix ever did. Hendrix recorded two versions of the song, one the popular hard rock song, the other a slow Blues number, and this is a cover of the latter. There was always a heavy spiritual element to Jimi Hendrix's music, but most people never really paid much attention to it. Harry and his band not only pay attention to it, but they bring it out so strongly that one wonders how it ever could have been missed in the past.

For people who are fans of Harry Manx and have never had the opportunity to hear him in concert, Live At The Glenn Gould Studio is a disc you don't want to miss because not only is the sound quality amazing, it also captures the immediacy and intimacy of the live concert experience. For those who aren't familiar with his unique style of music, this a wonderful way of being introduced to what he does. You will hear how West and East can meet, with beautiful and harmonious results. No matter how you look at it, Live At The Glenn Gould Studio is great music.

March 13, 2008

Music Review: Eddy Clearwater West Side Strut

The great thing about the Blues is how it changes from geographical area to geographical area but still manages to retain enough of its characteristics to be obviously the Blues. In Los Angeles they play what they call West Coast Blues, and in Mississippi they have Delta Blues. As befits its pride, Texas has laid claim to its own version of the Blues, while up in Oklahoma and Tennessee they played what they called Piedmont style.

Outside of the Mississippi Delta Blues probably the most well known and established of the sounds is the one that originated in the South West of Chicago. The origins of Blues in Chicago are tied up in the migration of African Americans leaving the Southern states looking for work. From the time that slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, until integration was enforced in the 1960's and Jim Crow laws were abolished, Illinois was the demarcation line denoting the end of sitting in the back of the bus for African Americans.

While Chicago still had its establishments that refused to serve "coloureds", at least there was work to be found and there weren't laws that enforced bigotry. After the end of World War Two, the flow of refugees from the South turned into a flood as people came North looking to take advantage of the post war boom. Chicago had been home to a thriving African American music scene since the early days of the twentieth century that was probably second only to New York City in size. So it was only natural that it wasn't just people looking for regular work that came North, but musicians did as well.
Eddy Clearwater.jpg
Eddy Clearwater was one of those who came up looking for a musical future and it didn't take him long to become a permanent fixture on the Chicago Blues scene. He was born in 1935 in Macon County Mississippi and in 1948 his family moved to Birmingham Alabama. He had to teach himself to play the guitar upside down as he was a lefty. His first break came playing guitar for the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and when he arrived in Chicago his first gigs were with Gospel groups, but gradually he started hooking up with Blues musicians.

He started his career using the name "Guitar Eddy" but changed it for his first recording to Clear Waters (his manager came up with it as a play on Muddy Waters) which soon evolved into Clearwater. He was one of the first Blues players to incorporate Rock and Roll into his Blues, paving the way for him to be able to keep playing in the sixties and the seventies when the bottom fell out of the Blues market as he was able to play steadily on the North Side of Chicago for young white audiences more interested in Rock and Roll than Blues.

But no matter how you slice it, if you cut open a Blues man's music you'll always find the Blues at the centre of things, and Eddy Clearwater is no exception. At seventy-three he's just released a new album on Alligator Records called West Side Strut that not only rocks the joint, but reaches back to his Gospel roots and travels deep into his Blues soul. West Side Strut is an intergenerational, family affair, as both his nephew Ronnie Baker Brooks, and Ronnie's dad Lonnie Brooks take part. Well Ronnie does more than just take part as he produced the CD and he and Eddy wrote five of the tracks together, and Ronnie contributed "Too Old To Get Married" for his uncle and his father to duet on.

The first thing that your going to notice listening to this disc is how much fun everybody is having. It comes out in the banter that they exchange between songs or even during them as he and Ronnie exchange leads, or Eddy and Lonnie tease each other during their song together. "Too Old To Get Married" is one of those songs that has the potential to be "cute" if handled the wrong way, but not these two guys. They turn it into a humorous take on their own lives and use it to poke affectionate fun at the fact that they're each old men still playing a supposedly younger man's game.

Well, I'd like to see the younger man who can keep up to Eddy's guitar playing. With Ronnie Baker Brooks pushing him, he uncorks some incredibly hot guitar. Yet while he's fast on the fret board, he doesn't give you the impression, like so many younger players, of trying to cram notes into places they don't belong. There's more than just technique that guides his playing, there's the heart and soul of a man whose father picked cotton for a living and who grew up in the South in the thirties.

On "Came Up The Hard Way" Eddy and Ronnie each recount the stories of their respective early years, and they represent the difficulties that have faced, and still face today, African Americans coming of age as second class citizens. For Eddy it was the life of a field hand's son, and for Ronnie it was growing up in the inner city ghetto. In spite of the difference in environments, and a couple of generations separating them, their experiences on an emotional level are pretty much interchangeable making it one of the less enthusiastic endorsements for the American way of life and a great Blues tune and the same time.

Eddy also shows the depth of his soul on two beautiful songs, one of them co-written by his publicist, (a woman who I've received work from in the past) Karen Leipziger and the other he wrote with Ronnie. The former is summed up perfectly by its title of "Do Unto Others" the first words of the so called Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you", which hardly anybody abides by anymore. It's a beautiful, Gospel tinged plea, for people to try and show a little more compassion in their dealings with others.

"A Time For Peace" is another song where the title tells the story without too much elaboration needed. Its a heartfelt plea for peace in a world which really seems to have forgotten what that word means anymore. On both these songs Eddie digs deep within himself and shows the empathy that makes him such a fine Bluesman. You can't play the Blues with any sort of sincerity without being able to feel what other people are feeling, and in these songs Eddy shows us just how well he can articulate what so many people in the world are crying out for these days.

West Side Strut is a fine example of the great sound of Chicago Blues, played by one of the old masters. Listening to Eddy Clearwater is an experience that you don't want to miss, and now you have the opportunity to hear him in all his glory. From hard rocking Blues to soul stirring Gospel, this disc covers all the bases, and will have you believing that he really is Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater.

March 12, 2008

Music Review: Eddie Tigner Slippin In

There's something about Barrelhouse Blues music that gets under your skin and won't leave you alone. Perhaps it's the beat, the inflection of the singer's voice, or maybe it's just the easy swing that set's your hips to moving and your toes to tapping. Yet, a real good Barrelhouse player can also take you down a sentimental road full of tears and heartbreak without once making it taste like too much sugar in your coffee.

It's a real trick, and not one that many people can manage; Dr. John is probably the best known player, and I've heard one or two others who can carry it off. One of the guys I knew is no longer with us,Ron Hedland, and you probably never heard of him. I knew him in the early eighties when he was calling strippers at the Brass Rail in Toronto Ontario as his day job, and playing a Fender Rhodes Electric when he got the chance. He could sing an old chestnut and make it sweet, or he could reach down and play barrel house like he was sitting in with the whore house band back home in Virginia where he was born.

The other man you may not have heard of either, but he's still around and kicking, and at eighty-one Eddie Tigner doesn't sound like he's going anywhere in a hurry either. His voice is strong, and fingers fast on the keys of either his piano or the organ that he plays; kicking out some of the best, lowest and fattest Barrelhouse blues I've heard in a long time.
I guess you can be excused for not having heard of Eddie Tigner because it's been a while since he was in the public eye. According to his biography over at the Music Maker Relief Foundation's web site he's been spending his days recently serving lunches in a school cafeteria. Eddie started his piano playing career back in the forties when he was in the army (he figures he has played gigs at every armed forces base in the United States) and was actually playing Vibes in his first band.

Living in Atlanta during the 1950's he played with Elmore James during the early years of the decade, which is probably where he picked up his fine Boogie Woogie/Barrelhouse technique. Eddie's band, the Maroon Notes, played vaudeville shows in theatres in Atlanta and toured through small towns throughout the South down through the west coast of Florida. In 1959 the Ink Spots rolled into town and needed a keyboard player for the night and hired Eddie. That night lasted for nearly thirty years as he toured with them until 1987. Since 1991 he's been playing clubs in around Atlanta as well as "feeding the children" as he calls his day job.

Slippin In is Eddie Tigner's second release on the Music Makers label, and shows once again what a valuable service the folks who run that label are doing for American music. Not only are they making sure that deserving artists are able to record and make a living from doing what they do best - playing music - they are ensuring that the rest of us get to hear some of the best music around. Mainly through word of mouth they find the musicians who have slipped through the cracks and are barely surviving on low paying minimum wage jobs or social security, and give them the opportunity to regain their pride and earn some money by booking them for shows and recording their music.

As I said earlier Eddie is one of the best Barrelhouse style players I've heard. It's not just that he's a hot keyboard player, because I'm sure there are hotter ones, or that he's got the greatest voice in the world, it's the way he uses his talents that make him so good. He doesn't just play the piano, he teases and coaxes notes from it, so that it sings in that way that's specific to honky-tonks and old juke joints.

Listen to him playing "Please Send Me Someone To Love" on Slippin In and you'll hear what I'm talking about. In the wrong person's hands this would be the biggest piece of shalmtz this side of Las Vegas, but under his care this song sounds like the plea it should be. His fingers gently pull notes from the piano that are redolent with the sadness of a lonely man, while his voice, down in the lower register, states his case in an almost matter of fact manner. There's something that much more poignant about a song like this when it's delivered as a simple plea for compassion, instead of the melodramatic howl that so many people seem to believe is what constitutes emotion.

The musicians he plays with are taking their cues from Eddie and you can feel it in the way they have all caught the less is more attitude that his playing exemplifies. Listening to his composition, the instrumental "Slippin In", primarily a Hammond Organ and guitar duet, makes this really clear. Instead of either Eddie or his guitar player, Felix Reyes, playing speed of light solos with millions of notes that you never hear, they make each note they play tell a story. I'm not a big fan of organ music normally, but the way Eddie uses his Hammond made a convert out of me on this occasion. There was something about the way he was able to nurse the notes out of that instrument that made it sing beautiful harmony with the guitar unlike anything I've heard in along time.

Eddie Tigner is a great all around Blues piano player who can handle everything from a straight ahead Blues number like "Need Your Love So Bad", to the rollicking swing of "Knock Me A Kiss". He can sing it slow and sweet, or fast and loose and sound equally comfortable and always sound like he means every word that he sings. There aren't many people left who can do justice to Barrelhouse Blues/honky-tonk music anymore, but Eddie Tigner's Slippin In is proof that there are still some who have what it takes to make your spine get loose and remind you that you have hips.

March 2, 2008

Music Review: State Radio Year Of The Crow

Have you ever noticed there are some bands which just feel too big to listen too indoors? There's something about their sound, or their energy that makes you feel you need to have open space around you when play their music because the walls of the building your sitting in are somehow or other too confining for you to appreciate what they are doing. This doesn't mean the band is necessarily loud, but they are so intense that you need to be outside so you have enough room to run amuck when the feeling strikes you.

I guess a live venue where there's lots of room would be good too, but these aren't the types of bands you want to see in a fixed seat venue, or in a confined space like a small club or bar. Someone in Toronto, Canada made the mistake of booking the Clash into a fixed seat venue on their first tour over here and it resulted in the first two rows of bolted seats being ripped out of the concrete floor because the audience needed to dance.

The next day there were headlines about a rock and roll crowd rioting. Yet, as those of you who ever saw The Clash know their concerts were so intense that if there wasn't a way supplied for people to expend the energy generated, they would invariably find a way on their own to do so. It wasn't an example of "Punk" violence, as the sensationalist press would have had people believe, it was about what happens when people tap into real emotional energy and are denied a means of releasing it.
Year Of The Crow.jpg
Now I'm not condoning vandalizing a concert venue or saying that bands should aspire to inspiring violence in their fans (anyone who knew the Clash knows that they wouldn't have condoned stupid violence either) but at the same time concert promoters really ought to know enough about the acts they book to realize who is appropriate to what venue. For example, I would never take a group like State Radio and try and contain them and their energy in a place which doesn't at the least give their audience an opportunity to flail about.

Led by former Dispatch vocalist/guitarist Chad Stokes (nee Urmston), the three person renewable energy source known as State Radio also includes Chuck Fay on bass and a drummer named Mad Dog. Following the same pattern as Dispatch, State Radio is fiercely independent and eschews any contact or contracts with major labels. Their first disc Us Against The Crown was released in 2006 and just this past February 5th they released the follow up Year Of The Crow.

It was when I first listened to Year Of The Crow that I was reminded about how difficult it is to listen to some bands over your headphones and sitting down. This is not music to get mellow to folks - and while I do recommend sitting down with the lyric sheet at least once while listening to the disc - it was only when I plunked the disc into my archaic RCA portable disc player and went out into the snow this morning that I felt like I had enough space around me to appreciate what they were doing. It's the type of music that you can really embarrass yourself with if you're not careful. You get so wrapped up in the songs, that you can find yourself all of a sudden singing along at the top of your lungs with a chorus or standing in the aisles of the grocery store pogoing while looking at the selection of cat treats.

First things first; if you've not heard them before and you've come to State Radio looking for Dispatch, well you're not going to find it here. Sure there are similarities, Chad wrote songs for both groups after all, but there's an edginess about the content and the presentation that I hadn't felt from Dispatch's music. While there was always some sort of social content in the earlier band's work, there was a lightness of tone that allowed for a wider audience appeal.

There's no way that anybody with any sympathies to the current administration is going to be able to listen to Year Of The Crow without having their beliefs called into question. Whether it's the condemnation of the whole Bush clan from grandpa down (he stole Geronimo's skull from its burial ground so he could use it in some fraternity initiation at Yale) in "Guantanamo", their homage to Dick Cheney's Halliburton war profiteering in "Gang Of Thieves", or their tribute to the fine work the CIA do to this day in destabilizing governments in South America on the song "CIA".

State Radio is far more reminiscent of the politicalized music of The Clash and similar bands of the late seventies and early eighties when they show this side. References to the Weather Underground in "Gang Of Thieves" makes it clear they also know that it takes more than platitudes to change the way things work. They're not advocating violence or anything like that (calm down Homeland Security) but they are saying there's nothing wrong with openly resisting what's going on in Washington right now.
State Radio.jpg
Now I don't want to give the impression that they're a one note band, they can tone down the anger and sing with compassion as well. "Bemjamin Darling Part 1" is a wonderful recounting of how the first black man in Maine came to be freed and settle his own plot of land, and "Fight No More" is a moving recounting of Thunder In The Mountain's (Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce) long retreat in the face of broken treaties and the government's policy of exterminating the wild horses the tribe depended on for survival. I defy anyone to listen to "Sudan" and not be moved by the narrator's wish "for guns to all turn to sand and leave the Sudan"

The song that touched me the most was "As With Gladness". Chad describes it in press notes as Mother Earth regretting ever having let man have anything to do with the planet. For me what it did was encapsulate the frustration I feel at how we continue to believe that there's nothing wrong with the way we treat the planet as if it were an both a garbage disposal and an unending supply of goodies.

Musically State Radio plays appropriately to their lyrics and they use style changes to emphasis different moods and attitudes. The result is that a song can start out hard driving and fierce and then modulate down in order to ensure we're playing close attention to a particular lyric, and then pick up steam again to increase a song's emotional edge.

State Radio and Year Of The Crow is not going to be to everyone's taste, especially people who don't want to face up to some of the more unpleasant realities of the world that we live in. They aren't going to make friends among the neo-cons either for that matter, but I don't think they're going to be too chuffed by that. State Radio have something to say, and those willing to listen can expect some of the most passionately honest music since the Clash. These guys could very well be the next "only band that matters".

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.
Rob Millis Jeffery Taylor.jpg
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.
Gramophone advertisment.jpg
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 6, 2008

Music Review: Willy DeVille Pistola

I've been fortunate enough in the past couple of years to have had the opportunity to interview a number of fascinating people involved in the creation of music or literature. In some cases it's been the very formal, "you've got twenty minutes to talk to X starting now ", and I've been forced to follow a script that promotes whatever it is the person has just released or is touring. Under those circumstances I count myself as being especially lucky if I can sneak in a question or two about what makes them tick and motivates them to do what it is they do.

I usually find those types of interviews fairly unsatisfactory as they really don't tell you anything about the person behind the mask of "musician" or "author". So I try to avoid that format whenever possible by sending the subject of the interview my questions through e-mail and letting them answer at their leisure. The result is usually detailed answers for me and for the interviewee the assurance that the chances of them being misquoted are kept to a minimum. (The obvious drawback is that I have to rely on subject of the interview to answer the questions and return them, but so far I'm only waiting on two individuals for responses, and they both have pretty good excuses.)

Of course there are exceptions to every rule and in this case it's been the two times I've interviewed Willy DeVille over the phone. Both times we've talked for two hours plus in what have turned out to be free ranging discussions covering everything from how he got into music, some of the people he's played with, and his experience at the Oscars. The last time we talked it was with instructions that we make certain to talk about his forthcoming mini tour of Europe (beginning in Belgium on February 13th/08) and his latest recording Pistola.
Willy DeVille Pistola.jpg
For reasons that continue to escape me Willy DeVille has never achieved the level of success in North America that he has obtained in Europe. He's not been without his moments in North America, what with being nominated for an Academy Award for his song "Storybook Love" from the movie The Princess Bride, but it's never approached the level of acclaim he's achieved over seas. In fact, although Pistola is being released in Europe on Tuesday February 5th/08, there are currently no plans for a North American release date at all, although you should be able to buy it through his web site at some point.

Whatever the reasons are for Pistola not being released over here, it's a real shame, because it's a perfect example of Willy DeVille diversity as a performer. As one would expect from the man with the self-professed love for old Rock 'n' Roll and the Blues the disc's opening song, "So Sir Real" is a Blues tinged Rock number. The play on words in the title becomes obvious when you listen to the song's lyrics as they are a commentary on how so much of what's happening today is simply beyond belief.

I don't know if this was deliberate or not, although I suspect it would be if Willy had anything to do with it, but Pistola is being released on the opening day of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is very appropriate. Willy lived off and on in New Orleans for a number of years, and has had a love affair with the music and the style of the city for ages. "Been There, Done That", the second cut on the disc, is his first nod in that musical direction. With its heavy bottom end it sounds somewhat like a reggae tune, but there is sharpness to the energy that distinguishes it from that more laid back sound.

The fifth song on the disc is Willy's tribute to New Orleans. "The Band Played On" opens with horns playing the familiar strains of a funeral parade as would be performed by one of the city's famous brass bands. From those beginnings one would expect that Willy is going to be singing about the demise of the city, and giving her the last rites. Yet even through the mournful sound of the horns, and in spite of his personal dismay at having seen places he knew and loved under water, he sees coming through the mists the spirit of the city rising. "New Orleans maybe on her knees" he sings, "but she will rise again".

It seems that Willy might have a point, because in spite of the politicians and developers who want to turn the city into a plastic imitation of her old self, grass roots fund-raising campaigns are doing their best to rebuild the city for the people who used to live there. New Orleans has a long history of going its own way, from long before she was even part of the United States, and just maybe there's enough of the old buccaneer spirit alive still to bring her up off her knees and escape the grasp of the greed heads and profiteers who seek to profit from the misfortune of others.
Willy with Guitar.jpg
The one song on Pistola that's a cover is by a singer song writer named Paul Seibel who released two studio albums of beautiful country/folk back in the late sixties, Jack-Knife Gypsy and Woodsmoke & Oranges. "Louise" is the type of song that in the wrong hands could turn into sentimental garbage, but Willy's version is bang on. His rough-hewn voice adds just the right amount of character to the song to give it the harsh edge it needs for the emotion to be real instead of manipulated.

One of the most powerful songs on the record is actually one that he wrote back in 1980 when he was in Paris to record his album Le Chat Blue,"Stars That Speak". Instead of singing the lyrics, Willy recites them, as he would poetry, to the music. There's something incredibly haunting listening to him narrating the tale of an artist coming upon a piece of sculpture that he had made when he was a younger man. Choosing to recite the lyric instead of singing it, gives the piece the understatement it needs to be effective.

The final song on the disc is another recitation, but it's as different from the first as night from day. "Mountains Of Manhattan" opens with the haunting sounds of a Native American cedar flute played by Willy, which is joined by the sound of a drum throbbing a steady heartbeat sound like the big drum does at a Native Pow-Wow. In many ways this is probably the most personal song on the disc as it's Willy's first song that acknowledges his native ancestry. Like many people of his generation who are part Native it was considered a dirty secret by the family that needed to be hidden away.

The vision of Manhattan he offers as an urban forest emphasizes what was lost when a way of life and a people were eliminated by the coming of "civilization", as well as the sense of displacement felt by anybody who all of sudden discovers that they aren't who they've been told they are for years and years. It's a powerful piece, made all the more potent for it's highly personal nature, and Willy's ability to deliver it with honest passion.

Pistola is not the type of album you'd expect from as established a performer as Willy DeVille. Most people at his stage in their careers wouldn't be taking the risk of including pieces as unconventional as "Mountains Of Manhattan" and "Stars That Speak", but Willy has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. It's that willingness to take risks that keeps his music fresh and alive, and the ten songs on Pistola are no exception.

While ten doesn't sound like a lot of music in this digital age where CDs can be crammed with as many as twenty songs, it's a question of quality versus quantity. I know that I'd rather listen to these ten songs over twenty songs by most other people any day of the week.

000-Honour Willy-banner-72-2x2.jpg
Sign Petition To Induct Willy DeVille Into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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.
Willie Nelson 2.jpg
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.

February 1, 2008

Music Download Review: OK Go & Bonerama You're Not Alone

In Catholic countries all over the world next week marks the run up to the Lenten Fast, where the devout are encouraged to sacrifice a pleasure in symbolic representation of the sacrifice that Jesus made for them. While there are special days set aside for religious services, Ash Wednesday, for example, the week has been traditionally given over festivities.

While there are celebrations from Quebec City in Canada to Koln in the Catholic Rhineland district of Germany, two have always stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of renown and infamy; Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While neither event would let anything as trivial as Hurricane damage normally stand in the way of a good time, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has surely suffered because of the continued absence from home of so many musicians who would normally have participated.

In this, the third Mardi Gras since the levees broke in 2005, literally thousands of musicians are still scattered across the American South in refugee camps awaiting word that housing is available for them. Unfortunately there is a definite lack of political support for the rebuilding that would be required to accommodate most of those left homeless. It's been left to various action committees, charitable organizations, bands, and individual performers to raise funds in an effort to either find rental units or build new housing, one musician at a time.
The latest project is a collaboration between the bands OK Go and Bonerama who are releasing a special five song E.P. You're Not Alone to raise funds to build a Habitat For Humanity home for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. It's only fitting that this benefit project be launched at the onset of Mardi Gras, as forty years ago Al Johnson wrote the song which has since become the week's unofficial theme; "Carnival Time".

Although You're Not Alone is not due to be released until February 5th the bands are joining forces this Saturday, the 2nd, to promote the fund-raising drive with a concert at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 club. Tickets are $20.00 and will kick-off the fund-raising. You're Not Alone is only going to be available for download through i-Tunes, who have agreed to donate all the proceeds. What's really wonderful is the fact other companies are joining in: IODA, a major digital distribution company will service and promote the disc free of charge, and EFM Worldwide/Horizon Cargo and Music Travel Management are paying to ship all equipment to the gig Saturday, and cover the bands' travel expenses. In other words, very little of the money raised will be used for anything but the purpose it's being raised for.

Al Johnson's story is like so many other musicians in New Orleans. A resident of the Ninth ward, when the levees broke his house was swamped and he was forced to evacuate. The house was actually lifted up off its foundations and moved on it's lot a few feet. While Al was able to rescue a couple of items ("things that were laminated he says") the city demolished his house without asking his permission or even letting him know. (Since we know from Naomi Klien's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism in her chapter on New Orleans, that there is a concentrated effort by politicians at the state and local level to prevent the rebuilding of housing, you have to wonder how many houses were destroyed in just this manner).
Now aside from the feeling that you're doing something intrinsically good by purchasing You're Not Alone, when it goes on sale next Tuesday, you'll also be receiving some really good music. I wasn't familiar with either band before reviewing the material so I had no idea what to expect musically when I first listened to it. The title is taken from a line in David Bowie's classic tune from the Ziggy Stardust album "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", one of two cover tunes the bands play.

Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, does a magnificent job of re-interpreting the vocal line for "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide". His inflections are such that he is reminiscent of Bowie without really sounding like him. He is able bring the proper emotional weight to the material, while avoiding sliding over the edge into the melodrama. Of course Bonerama, a brass band, are right at home with the song, and have expanded upon the original's use of horns. It always continues to amaze me how sultry a trombone can be made to sound in the proper hands.

I was pleasantly surprised by the three original songs from OK Go's most recent release Oh No that have been adapted for this release, with "Lately It's So Quiet" standing out in particular. While both "A Million Ways" and "It's A Disaster" are good songs, well performed and interestingly arranged, there was something about the emotional quality of "Lately It's So Quiet" that held my attention more than the others. Kulash has an impressive voice, not so much in terms of power, but in its expressiveness.

What served him so well in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", the ability to pull emotion from a lyric without having to "emote" all over the place, is on display in each track. It's very impressive for a young singer to learn the less is more rule so effectively and so quickly. Someone with less self assurance might have been tempted to belt out lines instead of trusting in the power of the lyric and his ability to communicate to make the song work.
OK Go.jpg
The fifth song the bands do is a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released", and Al Johnson joins them, singing the lead vocal. I've heard quite a few versions of this song performed and I must say that this is one of the best. First of all there 's something about the song which lends itself to being accompanied by a horn section, and that is complimented by Bonerama's arrangement, eerily reminiscent of the funeral marches traditionally played by New Orleans' Brass Bands.

Combined with the mournful, and extremely soulful, rendering of the lyrics by the man whom the benefit is for, you question just what release Dylan was actually talking about. Maybe it's the final release we all have to look forward to at the end of all our struggles and tribulations. Now those are pretty heavy thoughts to be putting into a disc to raise money and awareness of the situation still facing people in New Orleans, but maybe that's the point. People need to be made aware of just how serious the situation remains.

Here it is the third Mardi Gras after Katrina and thousands of people are still living in refugee camps with no sign of there ever being homes for them to return to. While there is an effort to try and find housing for displaced musicians, what about all the other people whose lives were uprooted? What release do they have from their misery?

OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash shows he understands how important it is for the whole community to be rebuilt when in the press release he talked about how the, "People get together on the weekends and parade through the streets just playing songs; 12-year-old-kids learn funk on the tuba; everyone dances. Life elsewhere in the world simply isn't as celebratory". Without those people who make up the community that culture will die, or simply become a sham. Culture does not grow in a vacuum, it is an extension of the people in it's community. It's all very well and good to bring the musicians home, but without the people from the neighbourhoods to provide the heart and soul that makes New Orleans what it is, it will just be a flimsy facsimileof what once was.

The title of the EP, You're Not Alone, is from a line in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", where the lead singer sings "You're not alone - give me your hand" and the backing vocals respond with a chorus of "You're Wonderful". Yet, while that sentiment is true as far the band members of OK Go and Bonerama are concerned, I'd be willing to bet that after two plus years in refugee camps the majority of people are probably starting to feel like they have been abandoned.

There are many ways for the rest of us to show that's not the case. Buying the EP, You're Not Alone when it comes available for download on i-Tunes on Shrove Tuesday, February 5th 2008, the beginning of this year's Mardi Gras, is not only a chance to enjoy some great music, but to reach out a hand and let the people of New Orleans know that you remember them.

January 31, 2008

Music Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama Down In New Orleas

In the two and a half years since the flooding that followed hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans everybody seems to be lining up to pay homage to the role the city and its people have played in the development of African American music in North America. That the majority of the attention has been directed towards raising money for various purposes in order to restore the city and the musical heartbeat that is its soul has been wonderful. Yet it does beg the question as to where everybody was in the years before Katrina.

That the musicians, who everybody is praising to the sky now, were in the position that they were living lives so close to the edge that they couldn't afford insurance for their most valued possessions, including the instruments they depended on to make their living, in the first place is a sad commentary on just how neglected that community had been for years. Even before the levees broke people who had given their lives to the music were dependant on private organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America to ensure the basic necessities of food and rent.

The fact that people like Johnnie Mae Dunson, a woman who wrote over six hundred songs, including some recorded by the likes of Elvis, was reduced to depending on charity in order to survive is a reminder of how the music industry exploited the people responsible for its existence. The crime that is being perpetrated by the failure to rebuild housing and infrastructure in New Orleans, because it's cheaper to let people rot in refugee camps across America, is simply that attitude made into official public policy. (See the chapter on New Orleans in Naomi Klien's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism for a detailed description of the plans being made to ensure people don't return to the city)
Thankfully there are some people who are doing their best to ensure that at the least their friends won't be forgotten and are stepping up to be counted among those who care. It's not surprising that a good many are those who have seen their fair share of the injustices that the world can throw at a person. The Blind Boys Of Alabama are no strangers to overcoming hardship, yet have always striven to spread a message of hope and inspiration.

The original group was formed in 1939 at a school for blind, Black children in Alabama. Naturally the group has gone through changes in membership since then, with only singer Jimmy Carter left from the original group. According to Jimmy the group has always wanted to record in New Orleans, and now seemed like the right time to do it. "I can't get up on a ladder with a hammer and nails", he says, "But me and the guys can sing inspirational songs that will help lift people's hearts while they hammer nails".

They also made the decision to record with musicians from New Orleans, so on their new disc Down In New Orleans on the Time/Life label they've joined forces with Allen Toussaint, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band, Bennie Pete, and Carl LeBlanc to present their music. While Jimmy Carter says they had to make adjustments, and learn how to work with some different styles of music, you'd never know from listening to this disc that these people hadn't been playing together for years. The combination of the Blind Boys amazing ability to harmonize and the New Orleans Jazz sound of their accompanists could have been made for each other.

Right from the opening song of the disc, "Free At Last", you can hear the differences Jimmy was talking about. Long associated with the civil rights movement thanks to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech, I've only ever heard the song performed in a slow, Bluesy style by B. B. King, but here it really swings. Everyone knows how up tempo and rocking Gospel music can be, but this was different. While Gospel usually compels you to get to your feet and clap your hands with its strong emphasis on rhythm, here it's the melody that carries the song.

It's a subtle difference, but one that's noticeable throughout the disc, as familiar songs like "Down By The Riverside" and "I'll Fly Away" are given slightly different treatments than what we are used to hearing. Perhaps it's just the fact that it's not often you hear "I'll Fly Away" played by a brass band, as the Hot 8 Brass Band accompany The Blind Boys Of Alabama on this track, or a Jazz band like Preservation Hall playing "Down By The Riverside" that makes them sound different.

Quite frankly though, I wasn't overly concerned about why the material sounded like it did, I was far too busy enjoying it. Whether it was Allen Toussaint accompanying them on "If I Could Help Somebody", or either of the other groups working with them, the music was just amazing. I don't know how long this version of The Blind Boys Of Alabama has been together, but their vocal work is as immaculate as ever. Not only do they harmonize with each other, but they also seem to manage the trick of harmonizing with the instruments playing with them. At times their voices and the instruments blend together so that the lyrics, while still discernible, become less important than the music that's being created through the combination of voice and instrument.

What they've managed to do is take the music to a place where the sound itself is inspirational and is able to carry their message of hope and faith. It's like listening to some of the great orchestral works whose very existence is a measure of the depth of feeling that inspired them. It's not something I expected to find on a CD of Gospel music, although I guess it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering the quality of the performers on Down In New Orleans.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama have spent nearly seventy years singing messages of hope, faith and inspiration to people across the United States and around the world. When they went to New Orleans to record Down In New Orleans it was with the intent of trying to bring succour to the hearts of people who have seen their homes destroyed by storm and their hopes betrayed by politicians. While that may seem like a nearly impossible task, reserve judgement on their abilities to accomplish it until you've heard this CD. They just might make a believer out of you.

January 29, 2008

Music Review: John-Alex Mason Town And Country

I remember the first time I ever heard John Hammond Jr. and how impressed I was with the way his voice and the sound of his slide guitar playing worked together. It was especially noticeable when he played his resonator guitar with it's built in cones to amplify sound; he could growl out his lyrics in just the right tonal quality that he was able to cut through the sound of his guitar without shouting over it.

It was a long time until I found another player who could do the same thing, and Bob Brozman had his own unique vocal style that enabled him to work with all the resonator instruments he used and created. I say instruments because he played more then one resonator guitar, and he had also created a resonator mandolin. Aside from those two there hasn't been anyone I've heard able to find that perfect balance where their voice and their resonator guitar work together instead of the voice trying to overcome the guitar. That didn't mean they weren't out there somewhere, I just hadn't heard them yet.

That is until now, hearing John-Alex Mason for the first time. Looking at his picture on the cover of his newest release, Town And Country on Naked Jaybird Records you wouldn't believe that face had the life experience to sing with the authority needed for a church choir let alone the down and dirty blues required to work with a resonator.
Which just goes to show you that you really shouldn't judge anything or anybody by appearances. From the first syllable that eases out of John-Alex's mouth you know that this guy can sing the Blues with the best of them. It's not just that he's got the right voice for it, lots of folk out there can growl pretty convincingly without being able to sing the Blues. No what you realize about this guy is he feels every sound that he plays on his guitar and it reverberates up through his body and shapes the sound that comes out of his throat.

The next thing you notice about him is something that distinguishes him from the majority of folk who are playing these days, similar to both Brozman and Hammond, that this is a completely solo album. You look at the credits for the songs and you see it's only his name, but then you wonder whose playing the drums? Well he is, but not on a separate take, while his hands are dealing with the guitar and his mouth is doing the singing he's taking care of the drumming with his feet.

As a guy who on occasion still has trouble walking and talking at the same time, I can't help but being in awe of folk who can control their bodies sufficiently to do two things at once. To be able to do three things at once is beyond my wildest imaginings. Yet here's this guy, whose not only able to play some pretty hot guitar, leads and rhythm, but keep a steady beat going on the drum, and sing on top of that. Now that might not sound too difficult to some of you, but you try keeping three separate beats going at once and see how well you do. On top of that throw in the an occasional lead on your guitar, and never once lose your place in the measure.

Oh and if all that isn't enough, he also writes some great tunes. Eight of the fifteen tracks (there are only fourteen songs but he does a "Town" (electric) and a "Country" (acoustic) version of "Shake 'Em On Down" a traditional piece that he's arranged and added additional lyrics to) are original compositions, and the only way to describe them is to say that they were written by an old soul. These aren't the standard Blues numbers you hear from most of the new young guys out there about some girl treating them bad, or they're not getting what they want from life; what I call the selfish Blues.

The Blues he sings are either about universal things that all of us can relate to, and a couple that sound like they were created for just the sheer joy of writing and singing a song. "Rabbit Song" and "Steel Pony Blues" fall into the latter category as they are sort of nonsense tunes, but than they catch you by surprise in the end as he puts a little twist in their tails that makes you think twice about what they might be about.

It makes sense to me that almost every Blues artist putting out an album these days is including a song about New Orleans. The miracle, as far as I'm concerned, is how many of them have been so good, and John-Alex Mason's "Chef Menteur" is no exception. Some accounts say that Chef Menteur was the name the Choctaw Indians of the area gave to the Mississippi river, and listening to the lyrics of John-Alex's song you'd have to believe that he's used that interpretation of the phrase.

What I like about this song is that it's an acknowledgement of what New Orleans is and what it gave to us. "Don't forget what we got, from the original Melting Pot" sums up nicely how New Orleans was where four different cultures; French, Spanish, African, and Native American, all came together, and how important it is to remember what that means. Think of all the different music that comes from there, everything from zydeco to brass bands, traditional Jazz, Blues, and funk, and you can't help but think of all the different cultural influences that came into play.

John doesn't stop there, he also reminds us that individuals lived there as well, and rhymes off the names of Irma, Kermit, Dr. Professor and Fats along with a few others. This song highlights how sophisticated a song writer he is. He's taken his own personal feelings and expressed them in a manner that can be universally understood so that it becomes more than just about how he feels.

Before listening to Town And Country I had never heard of John-Alex Mason before, so I didn't know what to expect. What I found was another one of those rare people who when they sing the Blues they aren't just complaining about their lives, but use it as a means of tapping into feelings that we've all experienced and expressing them in a as universal a manner as possible. I was so excited by his song writing and singing ability that I didn't even mention he plays cigar-box guitar! Oh well maybe next time, and I'm sure there will be plenty of next times for this guy.

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".
kinky friedman.jpg
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.
Kinky Trio Plays.jpg
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.

January 9, 2008

Music DVD Review: Buckethead Young Buckethead 1 & 2

Have you ever noticed how the arts seems to be a magnet for the eccentric and odd? Perhaps no other field, except the applied sciences, has such a disproportionate representation of people who walk to the beat of a drummer that other people just don't hear. Of course it's debatable as to which caused which - do you have to be a bit odd in the first place to be an artist or a scientist, or is it something about them that turns people a little strange.

Whatever the reason there can be no denying that the arts have had their share of unique individuals. Usually the more flamboyant have been among those who are the performers, although that's not a hard and fast rule as there have been any number of outrageous poets and painters. A lot has been said about insecurity causing people to create a "mask" in order to hide their true selves from the audience when they go on stage.

Actors do that as a matter of course every time they go on stage as that is their job, but musicians aren't under the same the obligation to provide their audiences with that kind of performance. While some musical performers will create a persona that gives them the strength to stand in front of an audience and bare their soul, the majority of them won't go the full distance and create a completely different character. Most people who go see bands play don't expect the band to do anything other than play music.

So when the lead guitar player comes onto stage wearing a mask and a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head he tends to stand out from the rest of the band, and other guitar players in general. Buckethead is easily one of the most instantly recognizable guitar players out there right now because that's exactly how he appears on stage. But the bucket and the mask are far more than just a means of disguise, they are the physical trappings of a person with a history and a life beyond the stage.
Now I've begun to hear rumours that some guy name Brian Carol - or something like that - has begun claiming that he is actually Buckethead, but one needs only go to Bucketheadland to find the true history of the guitar hero. There you can read the heartrending tale of his orphanage and being raised by friendly chickens and the coop that he called home.

You can also read about his quest to find musical fulfillment by playing with bands like Guns & Roses, Primus, and his projects with Viggo Mortensen. But it was only recently, with the release of Enter The Chicken that he released a recording made up entirely of his own compositions. However his early days in music have been shrouded in some mystery. Where did he hone his musical skills? Is there some Svengalli lurking in the background who discovered the brave young man and guided him through his transition from coop to stage. Well the answers are now available on two DVDs of previously unreleased home movies made by and about Buckethead. Originally shot on Super 8 film but now digitally re mastered Young Buckethead 1& 2 provide valuable information that give us insight into the creative process that has allowed Buckethead to develop into what he has become today.

Jas Obrect was an editor for Guitar Player magazine in 1988 when a sixteen year old Buckethead dropped off a demo tape for him to listen. To say he was blown away was putting it mildly and he pushed Buckethead to continue to work on his guitar playing. In 1990 Buckethead asked Jas if he would film his band the Deli Creeps during a couple of their forth coming gigs. It's those films that provided the footage of the Deli Creeps in concert on Young Buckethead 1 & 2 and although neither the sound or video quality aren't the greatest because of the original media, but are good enough to give a really good impression of what the Deli Creeps were all about.

The first thing you realize watching them is they were as much performance art as they were a rock and roll band. The action started even before they took to the stage with Buckethead, wearing an airplane's emergency oxygen mask, being led through the audience on the end of a string by the lead singer. Once he was safely on stage Buckethead was released and set to doing what he does best; playing guitar. It was everything you'd expect from Buckethead today - effortless playing with fingers so impossibly large they look like they are creatures that exist in their own right.
buckethead 2.jpg
The music itself is loud and discordant, but at the same time there is a purpose to the madness of the Deli Creeps. The manner of their appearance - dressed in clothes that could be worn by deranged clerks at a Delicatessen where you wouldn't really trust the provenance of any of the meat; it might taste like chicken but who knows how many legs it may have had to begin with. It's not a political agenda, as in anti meat etc, rather it felt like wandering into some deranged version of our own world, or maybe a deli run by the boys from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I guess amounts to the same thing.

Jas Obrecht describes in his liner notes some of Buckethead's creative process which included continuous playing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre while working out various techniques on guitar. He's a reliable source of information as far as this goes because Buckethead had moved into his basement in 1991. It was during this time that the impromptu elements of the DVD were filmed. These include a really wonderful intimate concert he gave for his brothers and sisters at a backyard get together, an interview with Buckethead in a park, and a seriously deranged monologue performed by Jas while wearing a milk carton over his head and Buckethead providing suitably strange atmospheric keyboard music.

Obviously there are problems with both the sound and the video on these tapes; Super 8 was not a great media for recording anything, let alone music. But all things considered this is still a valuable record of the early days of Buckethead's career. Not only does it give a great opportunity to hear him beginning to define his style of guitar playing, it also gives us an indication of his interest in creating the atmospheric music that he has since made to underscore Viggo Mortensen's poetry on CDs produced by Perceval Press

Young Buckethead 1 & 2 are a must have for fans of Buckethead and fans of the absurd in general. Not only does it provide some great opportunities to see Buckethead perform solo, we are privy to some of his early experimentation with conceptual performance with his first band The Deli Creeps. On these two discs we are given the rare opportunity to watch a myth being created before our eyes.

Once there was a young man raised by chickens in a rundown coop from the bad side of the field who dreamed of bringing his music to the people of America. Buckethead is now regarded as one of the most innovative and exciting guitar players in the world. With a dream in his heart, a mask on his face, and an empty chicken bucket on his head, Buckethead is a living embodiment of the American Dream come true.

Watch Young Buckethead 1 & 2 to see the emergence of a star, and you will end up having your belief in dreams and the American way restored - or not. Either way this is brilliant stuff that shouldn't be missed for anything.

December 18, 2007

Music Review: Various Performers A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music

Years ago when I was helping to run a children's theatre company something that really pissed me off was people seeing nothing wrong in asking us to perform for their group or organization, and not expect to pay us anything for our troubles. It would be one thing if they were asking us to participate in a benefit for some worthwhile cause or other, and even then we'd ask for expenses to be paid, but for just an everyday regular performance we'd expect people to pay us for our time.

Still to this day I can't understand their logic of asking us to do what we did for a living for free. Did they think because we worked in the arts we had some special arrangement with life where we didn't have to pay rent, buy food, or any of those things that people with more conventional job worried about? Well, if there are any of you out there who suffer from a similar delusion about people working in the arts you need to get over it in a hurry. It doesn't matter whether someone is a painter, musician, actor, singer, sculptor, dancer, or writer they still have to have enough money at the end of the day to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Unless an artist is incredibly lucky and makes it big, he or she will be leading a hand to mouth existence for most of their days. Artists don't have a pension plan, and, at least in North America, if they don't live in Canada, the chances of them having medical insurance is slim to none. The fact that it is next to impossible for artists to afford any type of insurance leaves them particularly vulnerable in emergency situations. But if you think that artists in general are vulnerable, that situation pales in comparison to the one faced by a particular group within that community.

Predominately African American, the older generations of Jazz and Blues players in North America are at most risk from the deprivations of age, illness and misfortune. Far too many years of creating wonderful music for no money and sometimes little recognition, has left that community in difficult straits under normal circumstances. When a devastation like Hurricane Katrina destroys not only their homes, but their means of earning a living by destroying their instruments, equipment, and the venues for their performances the consequences are catastrophic.
A Great Night In Harlem Various Performances.jpg
With all levels of government seeming more intent on ensuring they never return to their former homes or their neighbourhoods are rebuilt, the musicians of New Orleans were facing circumstances we normally associate with refugees in countries that don't consider themselves "world powers". Fortunately there are people who recognize the contribution that they have made to North American culture, and are refusing to allow these men and women to be swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Since its founding The Jazz Foundation Of America has worked to make life more comfortable for the elder generations of Jazz and Blues musicians in America. They have done everything from ensuring people's rent is paid, securing them housing, putting food on their table, to supplying them with new instruments so they can work and make a living. But they haven't just been doling out handouts to tide people over on an interim basis, they've also developed programming that allows the musicians to work for a living, doing what they do best.

So when it became clear nobody at an official level was going to do anything to preserve New Orleans for the people who are the city's heart and soul, and were in fact intent on making it as hard as possible for them to return to their homes (Read the chapter in Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism on New Orleans for a full description of how local, state, and federal officials are ensuring that the Ninth Ward will not be rebuilt and its former inhabitants prevented from returning) the people at The Jazz Foundation have done their best to take up some of the slack.

Aside from donations and sponsorship from individuals and corporations whose hearts and souls are in the right place ( Note here should be made of the contributions of Dr. Agnes Varis who has donated a million dollars to fund a musician in the schools program that pays for musicians to perform to school children and the corporation E*Trade Financial who run an emergency housing fund that supplies rent and mortgage payments to musicians in dire need) there one main fund-raising activity each year has been a special benefit concert staged at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem New York for the past six years.

This year's A Great Night In Harlem took place on May 17th and raised 1.5 million dollars at the gate, making it their most successful event yet. But the need for funds isn't going away, and will only continue to worsen; people are still living in temporary shelters run by the government as far away from their home in New Orleans as Texas and that can't last for ever. One of the ways that people who want to help can contribute is by purchasing a copy of the CD made of the concert.

This year's A Great Night In Harlem was subtitled A History Of Music as it presented a history of African American music in North America from it's roots in Africa up through to contemporary Jazz, Blues, and the popular music of recent years. I've been reviewing a lot of music from the time period covered on this disc, and what amazed me was how few of the people I had heard of before, and how many of them were truly spectacular.

Track one gives you an indication of the CDs power. Its a medley of music that starts with the insistent and compelling drums of Africa, segues into the New Canaan Baptist Praise Team performing a compelling gospel tune reminiscent of what slaves would have been allowed to perform, and finishes off with ninety year old Johnnie Mae Dunson, accompanied only by her son Jimi "Prime Time" Smith, raising the roof of the Apollo with a version of "Trouble Won't Let Me Be"

Johnnie Mae was typical of the performers that the Foundation worked to support, still vital enough to work for a living if given half a chance, she was on the verge of being made homeless in her eighties if not for the intervention of the Foundation. This was a woman who wrote over six hundred songs, was never compensated for one of them, even though they were recorded by people like Elvis and other equally famous performers. She died on October 3rd listening to the CD of her final performance. The doctors were actually officially declaring her gone when the final track on the CD started to play - featuring her, Sweet Georgia Brown, and Paul Shaffer singing "Let It Roll Baby Roll".
Jonnie Mae Dunson.jpg
In between Jonnie's tunes on A Great Night In Harlem you'll find everything from Dr. Michael White & The Original Liberty Brass Band playing old style New Orleans Jazz from 1905, Henry Butler playing some quite amazing ragtime and other early Jazz piano, The Duke Ellington Big Band playing some mean swing with "It Doesn't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and then being joined by Fay Victor for a heart rending version of "Strange Fruit.

The disc turns the corner into harder Jazz next and picks up the pace with Arturo O'Farril and Candido for a burning version of "Caravan", and Roy Haynes gives a clinic in Jazz drumming with an amazing drum solo. Next it's time for the boys with the horns to take the stage, and what could be more fitting then "Straight No Chaser" to represent the bebop era. It's then on into the modern era and Jimmy Norman sings his song "Time Is On My Side" (some guys named the Rolling Stones had a hit with it some time back) and is followed by Davell Crawford singing "Everything Must Change"

Sweet Gerogia Brown, and Johnnie Mae Dunson join Paul Shaffer and others on stage for the grand finale of a Blues Jam that includes the aforementioned "Let It Roll Baby Roll", and sounds just amazing. It's a fitting end to a concert disc that features some truly special musical moments. Making it even more special is the knowledge that all the musicians are performing in order to help out their compatriots who are in dire need, and that all the money raised will one way or another end up in the pocket of somebody who has made the world a better place with their song or the sound of their instrument.

I figure that buying a copy of A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music isn't a matter of giving to a charity, it's a way for all of us to finally pay back the money that's long been owed to the people who wrote the music we've all loved for years, and who were never paid for their efforts. The fact that the disc was considered for a Grammy nomination under the legends of music category tells you something of its quality, but there's no award out there that can match the reward of listening to the heart and soul being poured out on every track of this disc.

You can purchase copies of A Great Night In Harlem: A History Of The Music directly from the The Jazz Foundation Of America's web site and be able to enjoy a piece of history forever. Remember some of these people aren't going to be around for ever, and if we are ever going to pay them back for what they've given us, we should be doing it soon, if not sooner.

December 4, 2007

Music Review: James Blood Ulmer Bad Blood In The City

For most people Hurricane Katrina ended when the winds died and the reporters left. For the people who once lived in the Ninth Ward district, and the other low-lying areas that were swamped by the floodwaters after the levees broke; the nightmare lives on. Predominantly African-American, all of them working poor or middle class with little or no safety net for disasters of this kind, they are scattered throughout the United States waiting for the word telling them they can return to their homes.

More and more it looks like it's a word that will never come. It turns out it's far cheaper to house people in temporary shelters and displaced person facilities (most countries use the term refugee camps – but you only have refugees in the Third World not in the United States of America) then to rebuild housing and infrastructure for folks who don't have money. In fact, now that the inhabitants of those areas have been forced to evacuate the governments at all levels are talking about the golden opportunity they have to revitalize the downtown core of New Orleans.

Instead of housing projects, neighbourhood bars, small businesses, and schools, they envision a Ninth Ward of convention centres, condominiums, resort style nightclubs, and fancy restaurants. It will all be lovingly restored for that authentic "New Orleans" feel, so the well heeled tourist will know what it "must have been really like". The only thing missing will be the people who gave New Orleans her heart and soul – her inhabitants.

With the mayor of New Orleans saying, why should we rebuild when no one is coming back to live here, and the former inhabitants saying, how can we live there when there is no place to live, the inevitable will happen. Temporary displacement will become permanent without anyone noticing and another piece of America's heart will be sold to the highest bidder. If you don't think that's possible, why has the Louisiana government already granted private charters to all but four of the schools that formally serviced the former Ninth Ward? They don't expect anybody to return.
0 - James Blood Ulmer.jpg
(Read the chapter on New Orleans and Katrina in Naomi Klein's most recent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism and it spells out in detail the plans that have been made for the former ninth ward. These aren't secret documents either – it's just nobody is talking about it. With an election year coming up would you want to run for President leading a party that's known for creating America's worst forced removal of her own citizens since the "Trail Of Tears"? Like the Cherokee before them, the citizens of New Orleans have been dispossessed of their homes, because when money talks the people walk.)

James Blood Ulmer hasn't forgotten about the people of New Orleans, as you can tell by the title of his recent release, Bad Blood In The City, on Hyena Records. With five of the eleven songs having titles that relate directly to the Hurricane, and the whole disc seething with barely suppressed tears and rage, it's obvious he's not willing to let anybody forget about it if he has any say in the matter.

James Blood Ulmer has only ever existed for me as a rumour of an incredibly gifted musician who has played everything from avant-garde Jazz, Blues, and Funk. Somehow, I've never picked up a recording of his until now, and this was only by a fluke. A company, Distribution Fusion III Inc. from Quebec Canada, who I'd written a review for a while back, sent me this disc in amongst a pile of others. My only regret is that's it has taken me this long to discover the magic of a James Blood Ulmer recording.

For starters there is his voice; beaten and strained as it is, showing the wear and tear of what appears to be years of trying to get the world to listen to truths that they would rather ignore, it still persists in tackling unpleasant topics, and speaking for those without a voice. Making no effort to hide deficiencies behind technology, James sings with the most abused word in music – soul.

For those who still think what groups like Hall & Oates play has anything to do with Soul, you won't recognise what you're hearing on Bad Blood In The City because the producer knows how to keep his hands to himself. Somebody who sings with Soul will be giving you a direct conduit to his or her heart without the need of soaring strings or production values to pluck tears from your eyes or put a smile on your lips.

Right from the first song on the disc, "Survivors Of The Hurricane", you can tell you're in for a trip that's out of the ordinary as soon as he Mr. Ulmer starts singing. It's a feeling that's reinforced by his guitar. If you can put your mind back to the days of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies recordings, when he was harnessing his power to the Blues, you'll have some indication of what the guitar work is like. It's said that when Jimi died James vowed to pick up the torch and play the guitar in his honour.
0 - James Blood Ulmer-a.jpg
When you hear him tearing up the atmosphere with his solos, you know that it wasn't a promise made lightly. It's not like listening to someone trying to play guitar like Hendrix – far too many guitar heroes in the world already thank you very much – instead it's as if he's taken the essence of what made Hendrix great and distilled it into his own playing. The result is dynamic and electrifying playing matching the comet trail blazed by Hendrix but never overlapping or following directly in his path.

Bad Blood In The City is full of the anger of the dispossessed and oppressed. In the years since the civil rights movement of the sixties, there has at least been an attempt to present the appearance of equality. However, in the last few years, voices have been growing increasingly strident in opposition affirmative action and other programs designed to offset hundreds of years of social imbalance. While some have expressed legitimate concerns, and there are some, the majority have been carefully coded messages designed to create an "us against them" environment.

When people like David Duke of Louisiana talked about protecting the rights of the majority, and ensuring white people get a fair shake, they were fanning flames that used to burn crosses on front lawns. But the more sophisticated, the ones who ensured that all of White America were able to see pictures of black people looting stores in New Orleans on national television (without mentioning that they had been left to die in the Super Dome while governments failed to provide even basic emergency relief) had a longer term goal. Depict them as lawless animals and nobody will give a shit what happens to them.

So now, when they talk of New Orleans rising Phoenix like out of the ashes of the Hurricane, nobody will care what happened to the folk who lived there. They were just a bunch of lawless black people, probably all hooked on crack, and now it will be safe for you and the kids to visit a New Orleans Theme Park because they've cleaned up the city.

James Blood Ulmer's voice might be tired, but he's not done fighting and that particular vision of New Orleans will never live to see the light of day if he has anything to do with it. There's a big lie being propagated about the Ninth Ward and it's up to all of us to combine voices with James. It's about time that government and business realize that human beings, no matter what their colour or race, cannot be considered an inconvenience anymore.

November 28, 2007

Interview: Singer Songwriter Martha Redbone

It was one of those happy accidents that could only happen because of the Internet. I don't even remember the exact details as to how it happened, but all of a sudden, I found myself reading about this amazing young woman who was making music on her own terms. Martha Redbone, is of mixed African and Native American heritage, with her feet planted comfortably in both worlds. On her most recent release, Skintalk, she was equally at home singing around the big drum as she was pushing the big beat of funk.

Like many strong-minded individuals of her musical generation, Martha has chosen the creative freedom of the independent route over the supposed security of signing with a major label. Along with her co-creator (they both write all the original material) Aaron Whitby from London, England, she has formed her own label, BlackFeet productions, to produce her music.

After I had read whatever article it was that I had read about her, I dropped over to the Martha Redbone web site. I was intrigued enough by what I saw and read there to write them and ask for a copy of Skintalk to review on these pages. It was after hearing and being impressed with Skintalk that I contacted Martha and Aaron to see if I could chat with them.
000-Martha Redbone.jpg
Life can get complicated for all of us, and reality can be nasty. Touring and the illness of an old friend kept this interview on hold for a while, but unlike others, Martha makes an effort. I received her answers to the questions I emailed her today – and here they are in their entirety – unedited or abridged. If you haven't met Martha before – please allow me to introduce you to one of todays most dynamic and gifted young performers, Martha Redbone.

1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourself ; where you were born and any other biographical detail you feel like talking about.

I was born in New York City and raised in both Brooklyn, NY and South-eastern Kentucky, where I lived with my grandparents in a coalmining town. I've lived in NYC pretty much since I was 11 years old.

2) Was there music in your family when you were growing up - if not where did your interest in music come from?

My father had a beautiful voice; he grew up singing gospel music in church and played piano. He & my uncle sang together in a gospel group that performed for many churches, they sang for pleasure, and enjoyed it throughout their lives. My mother loved all styles of music; being from Kentucky she appreciated gospel, blues, country, and rock.

3) A number of people I've talked to have known at a fairly young age that music was what they wanted to do from fairly early on in their life. When did you first start to consider creating music as a means of creative expression?

I had music lessons as a kid, piano, and guitar. I was a very shy child, quite introverted, and music gave me freedom to escape. I guess I still have the same feelings about music, I get a strong sense of freedom of spirit, singing heals me, it cures anything that might be on my mind, I'm happiest when I am singing.

4) Was there any event in particular that you can remember, sort of like a revelation, that made you think, hey this music gig is for me? Or was is it more of a gradual evolution into understanding that this was how you wanted to and would be able to make a living?

My very first session was the revelation for me that THIS is what I am meant to do, I am a vessel, and this spirit of singing is how I am meant to express myself. I was so nervous at the session, and also so shy that it was difficult for me to relax, but the joy in my heart to this day still cannot be described clearly. For me, it was the biggest buzz and I have never looked back. Music is my calling! Singing is my calling!

5) For a lot of people family play a critical role in their development, have yours been generally supportive, or was there any of the "When are you going to get a real job" or "What are you going to fall back on when that doesn't work out" stuff?

I think that sometimes family members say these type of things because they worry about the welfare of their child, no one wants to see their children struggle in any way, financially, emotionally, etc. And they are right, the music business is a tough one, but so are other fields of work. Some of my relatives are professional musicians and they are very encouraging and very proud of what I have accomplished so far. Overall, my family are very supportive of my music career, though there have been times when they have been nervous for me.

6) When you first began to create your own music, did you find that people had expectations of what you should be playing because of your Native heritage that differed from what you wanted to play, and if so did that make things difficult for you in getting gigs or doing recording

As a contemporary Native musician, I feel that the musical expression is most important, not the ethnic background of the musician making it, therefore I write music that moves me, filled with influences of what is going on or has transpired in my life and the world we live in today. My roots are deeply imbedded in the spirit of my parents' background and also my grandparents, so the roots music is always included as part of the sound of our music. I have always honoured who I am and where I come from in my music and everything that I do.

You also must know that the music does not solely come from me, the sound of our music is a collaboration between myself and my partner, Aaron Whitby, who comes from London, England, so here we have another big musical influence from his musical history. I never really concerned myself with what people in the business thought I should be doing. Just when they think something is a certain way, it all changes, so might as well write and play what makes you happy. I have the luxury of being an independent artist, so I guess I am fortunate not to have my musical direction dictated to me by a corporation. What a blessing, eh!

7) Can you tell us a little about Black Feet Productions. Did you form that strictly as a means of guaranteeing your freedom to create as you wanted, and not as other people thought you should, or do you have any greater purpose in mind with it as well?

Black Feet Productions was formed because I wanted to have my own label with the freedom to express music in our own vision, and also to have other acts who choose to do the same. I hope to build our label to the point where we can sign super-talented musicians who have a similar vision.

8) On your most recent release Skintalk you incorporated a traditional drum group into one song, "Children Of Love"; and you don't shy away from talking about Native themes. Have you experienced any resistance anywhere along the line to wanting to sing about that part of your life?

There are some people who think that Native people no longer exist, and that we are only depicted in Hollywood films. For this, I feel that I need to represent as much as I can, sadly today, people only seem to recognize us when we're in feathers and fringe. "Children of Love" was a wonderful musical infusion. I had always had this idea of blending the old with the new, the only other band who has done anything similar are The Neville Brothers, who also share a similar heritage to mine. I wanted to honour our people and this seemed like a really cool way to do it. The two styles fit perfectly, the roots music of America married together... I love it.

9) Obviously you draw upon your Native heritage for source material for some of your songs on Skintalk, but where else do you find inspiration for your songs and the music?

My inspiration comes from everything around me, things I read, or watch on the tube, life experiences, either my own or friends or family. I practice trying to be as open as possible so that I can appreciate all things in the world, and hope to have the ability to reflect on these things in song.

10) I wanted to ask - the credits list both you and Aaron Whitby as writers for all the songs. Is there any specific division of labour between the two of you - one of you responsible for lyrics another music - or do you each do both?

Aaron & I share all creative aspects of the songs, he obviously stronger in music and I in lyrics, but the ideas come from both, I may hear a music riff or a rhythm before I hear the top line, and he vice versa. We are lucky to have an easy collaborative vibe.

11) Here's an artsy/philosophical question for you. Well actually, it's sort of two parts and it deals with your creative process. When you sit down to write a song do you do so with a specific intent in mind, or have you had some blinding zot of an idea that's made you have to stop and start jotting something down on paper it inspired you so much? Part two is do you have an overall objective, something you want to accomplish, with your music?

When I sit down to write, it is usually after a long period of imagination and inspiration. By that I mean, we used to write every day like factory chickens, we wrote for other artists when we were signed with Warner Chappell Music Publishing, we really churned them out. But I learned that although it's cool to do this, it's also good to let ideas ferment in the mind for a bit, I like to write when I know I can hum the melody clearly. Sometimes the songs flow easily, and other times, we work and re-work a song, be it re-arranging, or re-writing to get the best out of the song. We are not precious about our music; we both definitely have respect for the craft of song writing.

12) I've always loved really well played Funk music, which is one of the reasons I like your disc by the way. My love of it came from seeing Sly and The Family Stone's performance in the movie =Woodstock back in the seventies - when did you find Funk, and what made you say yeah, that's for me

My father played in local funk bands in the late 70s & 80s; he played club dates, mostly for fun. But the music he always played at home was old school, Sly, Stevie, Marvin, Ray Charles, lots of blues and down home soul, he loved those raw voices. I must have inherited his ears because this is what turns me on as well.
Martha Redbone B&W.jpg
13) I was interested to see Dennis Banks was singing with the drum on "Children Of Love". How do you know him and when did you two meet?

We were invited to perform for the children at the Anishinabe Canoe Race in northern Minnesota, an annual event hosted by Dennis. We have participated just about every year since, donating our time to help the kids, water patrol, making lunch for everyone, etc. Dennis does a lot for Native youth, we've become friends: he's an uncle to us all.

14) I hate the word image, and I apologise for even implying that you portray one, but I found it interesting that you were photographed for Skintalk both traditionally and modern - is that an accurate representation of what you try to achieve personally and artistically? A balance between the old and the new?

Exactamundo! I get many emails from Native women who thank me for bringing an image of a strong independent Native woman to the forefront. Women have been in the back for far too long in Indian Country, and it's so cool to see other women taking charge and embracing independence and strength. We live in two worlds, and we take time to honour where we come from, many people paved the road for me today, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge... I would not be here representing contemporary Native music if it weren't for these wonderful and powerful women who opened the doors for us. I hope that we are making them proud.

15) What's next for you, anything special that we should be watching out for?

We are working on album #3, due out sometime in 2008 and of course lots of gigs all over. Our website always has what we're up to, so people can look us up online, drop us a line and say hello.

I want to take this time to thank Martha Redbone for sparing some time out of hectic life to sit down and do this interview. She talks of Buffy Sainte - Marie and Rita Coolidge being an inspiration for her – paving the way for her generation. Martha doesn't need anyone to pave any highways for her anymore – she's one of the ones who is clearing the way for the next generation. It's a good and strong Red Road that she's making and anyone with eyes can follow it. Let's hope there is soon a parade of people of all colours walking along it, because the road is not just about music, it's about being true to yourself and what you believe in.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's got a good strong heartbeat, and a pulsating back beat for parading to. Emma Goldman said something along the lines of " If I can't dance, I don't want any part of the revolution". In the revolution being led by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby you'll never have to worry about that – the road to believing in yourself might be hard at times – but it doesn't have to be boring.

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.
Bluesmen From Music Makers.jpg
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.
Christmas With Cootie.jpg
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.
Hold The Rain Cover Art Pura Fe.jpg
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.
pura fe.jpg
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.
Blues Sweet Blues cover.jpg
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.
Bluesmen From Music Makers.jpg
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.

Music Maker Banner.jpg

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 18, 2007

Music Review: Luther Allison Underground

People should just know better. In this day and age, you might be able to get away with faking something's provenance for a little while, but with information being so readily accessible and data so easily checked, you're going to get caught out one way or another. What's amazing about the circumstances surrounding the supposed lost Luther Allison recording, Underground is how close they did come to getting away with it.
No one is pointing any fingers at anybody, and maybe it can all be put down to an honest mistake, but recordings claimed to be from a private session Luther Allison did in 1958, seem to really have been made at least ten years later in 1968-69. It wasn't until after Thomas Ruf, and Ruf Records had released the ten track CD, and begun promoting it as the lost recordings of Luther, that Rein Wisse, publisher of Block Magazine in the Netherlands smelt something wrong.

Once the can of worms was opened it didn't take long for the truth to come out. Ruf has published on its site Wisse's article on his investigation. Aside from subjective statements, "it doesn't sound like it was recorded in the fifties", the fact that "Cut You Loose", a song originated by Ricky Allen, appears on the '1958 recording' is enough to create serious doubts about the discs authenticity, as it wasn't recorded by Ricky until four years after that date.
It wasn't just Thomas Ruf who was fooled by these recordings either. Both of Luther's sons, Bernard and Luther, genuinely believed they had unearthed a treasure in their father's collection. Bernard is quoted as saying the songs on that disc were the first ones that he and Luther sr. had jammed to when he was twelve. What is true about these recordings is Luther did go into a studio by himself and laid down ten tracks in the late 1960's while he was under contract to Delmark Records

In fact, there a quite a few people out there, including the above mentioned Rein Wisse who own bootleg recordings of those sessions. Instead of some third party making money off the deal like is normal in these situations, Allison himself was selling them. Delmark Records knew what was going on, but turned a blind eye to his breaking their contract.

Almost lost in the confusion are the actual contents of the disc. There's only about thirty minutes of music on Underground and as is to be expected the sound isn't of the greatest quality. The material itself though is an interesting mixture of instrumentals and songs that give the listener a good idea of the sound Luther was after in those days.

It's no wonder he was recording this on the sly behind Delmark's back, as it wasn't stuff they were going be overly interested in recording or publishing. You can hear Luther's interest in the rockier side of things on some of his instrumentals, (remember this is the guy who played guitar with his teeth as much as Hendrix did), but you can also hear his affection for the smoother sound of R&B coming through.

What I found the most interesting about these recordings is just how laid back they are. All descriptions I've heard of Luther, and any other music I've heard of his, has been driven and intense. Normally he played like he was propelled by Rocket fuel, but here it sounds like he's just kicking back and exploring some mellow licks with Bobby Rush's band.

If one were to believe Bobby Rush, this is the work of an eighteen-year-old Luther Allison, unsure of himself and his abilities. But even before I had heard the revised history of these recordings I had a hard time matching what I heard to that description. Nothing about these recordings, from the vocals to the guitar work sound tentative.

Insecure guitar players in my experience don't normally play leads near the tuning pegs; they usually go for the flash of bending notes high up the neck by the body of the guitar. Luther uses his whole fret board when picking out leads on this disc, and puts on a clinic for anybody wanting to learn how to build a lead. (It's easy to believe that Bernard Allison taught himself to play using this record when he found it floating around his mother's house) While there are eighteen-year-old guitar players who can play hot licks, there aren't many who can apply the same intensity to playing slow.
That's what distinguishes the playing on this disc, is Luther Allison's ability to enjoy a note. Sure he could play fast, but so could a million other people, on Underground you have the opportunity to hear him play slow and relaxed. Not maybe something you've heard before.

Thomas Ruf's commitment to expanding and developing the Blues in Europe and around the world is well known. Ruf records was awarded the Thomas Handy for "Keeping The Blues Alive" in 2007, the first European record company to be recognised in that manner. For someone to take advantage of Thomas' personal affection for Luther Allison by attempting to pass off a late sixties bootleg as an early, previously unreleased, recording is disgusting.

If anything, Underground shows how seriously Thomas Ruf and Ruf Records take their responsibilities as a record company. Instead of trying to deny the controversy, or try to discredit information that is embarrassing, they have openly admitted there are questions in regards to Underground's provenances.

If it were really from 1958, it would be an interesting curiosity, but if, as it appears to be, merely a bootleg that was recorded in 1968, it's of little significance. All that it has served to do is embarrass a company who has given a home to Blues musicians across North America when no one else was signing them while developing new talent both there and in Europe. It's a shame that Luther Allison, the man who encouraged Thomas Ruf to follow his dreams and form Ruf Records, has had his name used in such a way as to cause them embarrassment. I'd like to think he'd be royally pissed off.

November 17, 2007

Music Review: Omar Kent Dykes & Jimmie Vaughan On The Jimmy Reed Highway

It's hard for us who aren't the right generation to understand what a radical thing it was for Elvis Presley to play what he did back in the 1950s. It had nothing to do with how much or how he moved his hips and everything to do with the skin colour of the musicians that influenced him. Sure, he was playing a lot of country music, but that beat was pure Blues.

One of the big influences on Elvis and all the other young white musicians who were keen to experiment was Jimmy Reed. He was born down South but like so many others migrated up North and got work in and around Chicago. After two years of working in a foundry in Gary Indiana though, he was able to quit and become a full time musician.

What made Jimmy Reed so attractive to young musicians was his big, chunky, sound and steady rhythms. Like Big Bill Brozney, he often sang unaccompanied save for his own guitar keeping time and harmonica blowing solos. Listen to any Rolling Stones song from the early sixties and you can almost hear Jimmy Reed playing along, and they weren't the only ones as Van Morrison and The Grateful Dead both showed his influence in their earliest recordings.
0 - Jimmy Reed-3x3.jpg
Unfortunately, he didn't survive as long as some of his contemporaries did, dieing of an epileptic seizure in 1976 at the age of 51, and has missed out on the accolades being heaped on the first generation of Blues artists recently. Thankfully, there are those who still remember how important he was, and a group of them under the direction of Omar Kent Dykes (of Omar And The Howlers fame) and Jimmie Vaughan have put together a disc honouring both the memory and the music of Jimmy Reed.

On The Jimmy Reed Highway, released earlier this year on the German labelRuf Records is a collection of rollicking tunes that Jimmy either penned, or performed, plus a couple written in his honour. Right from the opening song, the disc's title track "On The Jimmy Reed Highway" written by Omar, you know you're in for one hell of a ride.

For those of you who haven't heard Omar sing before, or if you've somehow forgotten one of the most distinctive voices this side of Tom Waits, he rasps like a buzz saw in desperate need of oil, growls like a Harley-Davidson that doesn't know what the word muffler means, and is one of the sweetest sounding Blues singers you'll ever hear. If part of Jimmy Reed's popularity stems from the fact that he wrote about the realities of a working life, Omar Kent Dykes' voice was created to sing about them.

There aren't many Blues singers around who you're going to believe have spent time on the floor of a steel foundry, having to shout to be heard over the thousand gallon vats of molten metal boiling and the roar of fires hotter then the flames of hell. But listening to Omar singing "Big Boss Man" you can see him pitching coal into the maw of those furnaces to keep them blasting or doing any number of the back breaking jobs that fuel the North American economy.

Jimmie Vaughan may not be as famous as his brother Stevie Ray was, but the other half of Double Trouble is still a Blues guitar player to be reckoned with. I haven't heard him play since the days of Double Trouble, and he sounds like a far more complete guitar player now then he ever did. He had always been able to match his brother lick for lick when they played together, and on this recording, he shows he knows how to savour the notes as well as rip them apart.

I can't think of anything better then listening to an accomplished player who can still sound like each note he plays is something new and wondrous to be treasured. His touch is so sure he never overextends his stay or rushes a note. If I can't hear and feel each and every note walking up my spine, it's not Blues guitar as far as I'm concerned. Jimmie Vaughan runs leads and chord progressions up and down your vertebrae so impeccably that their echo lives on in your nervous system long after he's done.
As they tool along, the boys are joined by some fellow travellers on the Jimmy Reed highway. While folk like Delbert McClinton, James Cotton, and Gary Clarke Junior stop by for a song apiece; Kim Wilson and Lou Ann Barton are around for a number of songs each. While Kim is taking care of Harmonica duties on the majority of cuts (not when James Cotton or Delbert are playing obviously enough) Lou Ann is providing vocal counterpoint to Omar's growl.

Now Lou Ann isn't just another pretty voice singing doo-wop underneath and behind some male vocalist, she's a powerful, impassioned singer in her own right. Each time she sings, she at least shares vocal duties with Omar by splitting the verses with him and singing the choruses together. Compared to Omar her voice is like the purr of a finely tuned V8 engine that when fully revved you hear the growl of the power that's driving her.

While she's providing a contrast to Omar's growling vocals with her clean sound, you know that she can get just as down and dirty as him if she needs to. In fact that's what makes them work so well together as a team, the underlying potential that lets you know she's his equal any day of the week.

On The Jimmy Reed Highway is a wonderful disc for two reasons. First, it serves to keep the memory of one of Rock & Roll's and contemporary Blues' greatest influences alive and introduces him to a generation that might never have heard of him. The second is the fact that it's a great CD filled with superlative performances, by great musicians.

You really couldn't ask for anything more then that.

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.
Art of field recordings cover.jpg
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 13, 2007

Music Review: Lurrie Bell Let's Talk About Love

Why if some one were really upset and feeling down would they play music called the Blues? Wouldn't that just make them feel worse, singing about how down they are and all the troubles in their world? Yet, have you ever seen somebody playing the Blues who looks depressed? Hell, it usually looks like they're having the time of their life.

They could be singing lyrics that talk about how many times their woman has cheated on them in the past week, or how the world just keeps getting them down, and all the while they have a huge smile on their face. Of course some of them may not have actually ever experienced anything that makes them seriously Blue, so they're just having a great time playing some wonderful music. But what about somebody who has genuinely suffered at the hands of the world, why in the world would they want to sing about stuff that will just depress them more?

I've heard a lot of people asked that question, people like B B King, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Brozney who laid the foundations for the Blues we hear today, and they all seemed to be saying roughly the same thing; the emotional release that you get from singing about troubles helps you get over your own.
Lets talk about love picture.jpg
Blues came out of the cotton fields via Southern Baptist churches, where they sang Gospel and Spirituals to help cope with a world that spat on them at every opportunity.
Out in the secular world people needed the same comfort, and that's where the Blues came in. Instead of testifying about the wonders of God to alleviate a wounded soul, they testified to the ongoing troubles of simply getting by. Is it any wonder that so many of the old time Blues musicians sound like they're only a couple of steps removed from the pulpit?

Now if there were ever a man who had a right to complain about the hand that life has dealt him recently it would be Lurrie Bell. Since the beginning of this year he's lost his partner - the mother of his child, photographer Susan Greenberg to illness, and his father, famed Blues Harmonica player Carey Bell, to complications from a heart condition and diabetes. Yet instead of wallowing in misery like so many would be tempted too, Lurrie has chosen to celebrate the love he shared with these two very important people in his life.

He has just released his first album on his own Aria B G Records (named for his daughter) and Let's Talk About Love is twelve classic Blues love songs. Matthew Skoller who produced the album, says in the liner notes that instead of talking about the troubles that have beset him through out his life, Lurrie wanted to make a record that reflected the love that resided in his heart. With that in mind, they set out to find twelve "chestnuts" (his word not mine) that spoke to Lurrie the loudest. They took three months putting this disc together, getting the right people for the right songs, and making sure everything was just right.

If anybody ever had any questions about the talent of Lurrie Bell as either a guitarist or a vocalist, this album shows that the descriptions of him as one of the masters to be talked about in the same breath as other greats who have come out of Chicago aren't exaggerations. From the first song, title track "Let's Talk About Love" to the final cut on the disc, "Wine Headed Women" Lurrie shows he can handle any type of Blues style that's been invented with style and passion.

One of the other highlights of the disc are some the friends that stopped by to help out. "Earthquake And Hurricane" features the amazing harmonica playing of the great Billy Branch. They first played together years ago in a band made up of second generation Chicago Blues musicians, and they've played behind various other front people together on many occasions since then.
This time they've stepped up to the lead microphones and the results are awesome. The way Billy can make his harmonica work in counter point to Lurrie's voice is just wondrous, playing the high harmonies to Lurrie's alto. They trade solo's, guitar to harmonica, back again, until they finally join together like a meeting between two forces of nature so strong and natural is the sound.

The very next song Lurrie switches gears to play a soulful version of Papa Staples' "Why (Am I Treated So Bad)". This is the closest he comes to bemoaning his own fate on the disc, but it's such a glorious example of his great voice and amazing guitar that you can't help but feel lifted up by it. Since it is a Gospel song encouraging listeners to keep their heads up in spite of everything, it makes sense. But the fact that he can communicate those feelings with the tone of his voice and the notes he plays on his guitar even while asking why he was treated so bad, is testament to what a glorious talent he brings to the table.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that his guitar work is the type I personally prefer over most other kinds. Lurrie would rather put his heart into one note, instead of playing twenty just for show in the same space of time. That doesn't mean he can't burn up a fret board when it's called for, but he doesn't have to do it on every song, or even worse every lead. He doesn't try and make the song fit his guitar lead, instead he make his leads fit what the song needs to make it that much better.

Lurrie isn't a shouter when it comes to his vocals, instead as a singer he seems to have more in common with jazz vocalists than with a lot of Blues singers. Maybe it's his phrasing that distinguishes him, the way he carefully ensures that each word is distinct no mater how fast or passionate he gets. Or perhaps its the fact that even through your stereo you can feel how important it is for him to communicate the deeper meanings behind each song; the feelings the lyrics generate in his heart.

Lurrie Bell had every excuse in the world for either never making music again, or recording an album of songs that talked about all he's lost in recent days. Instead with Lets Talk About Love he's created a work that celebrates the love he was blessed with. Not only is this a CD of great music, it is also an expression of love from an extremely brave man honouring the two people who meant most to him in the world and who he lost within months of each other.

Let's Talk About Love and Lurrie Bell are truly inspiring, artistically and personally. Its not often that popular music can transcend personal tragedy with dignity and sincerity, but Lurrie Bell has done just that; what an amazing accomplishment.

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.
Deering & Down.jpg
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.
Jerry Jeff Walker.jpg
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 21, 2007

Music Review: Sleepy John Estes Sleepy John Estes On The Chicago Scene

In the past couple years of reviewing music for various blogs one of the nicest personal discoveries I've made is the amazing diversity to be found within specific genres. That's turned out to be especially true about the Blues; its such a highly individual mode of expression that it almost changes from performer to performer.

Maybe it's because of the inherent simplicity of the form, a twelve bar chord progression that can be repeated repeatedly to a particular rhythm is everyone's starting place, but where they go from there is what makes the music so incredible. All you have to remember is that everything from the heaviest of heavy metal to the frothiest of disco hits originated with those twelve chords and it will give you some idea of how truly versatile the sound can be.

Of course you don't even have to leave the Blues to get an earful of diversity; there's Texas Blues, Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, West Coast Blues, and the St. Louis Blues to name just a few. Within each of those categories, there are all sorts of subdivisions that are too numerous to itemize here. Sufficient to say that you could travel around the world, stop into a Blues bar, and tell the provenance of a band's style just by a quick listen.

That is if you have the ear to do so. On a good day, I'm able to tell the difference, between urban and rural Blues, and the more modern version as played by Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn as opposed to the traditional music of folk like Muddy Waters and B B King. But after that the lines get real blurry. You can't even go by a person's age to tell what he or she is going to be playing. John Hammond Jr. plays like he would have been right at home jamming with Robert Johnson, while Albert Collins played his guitar with his teeth and burnt down the house like Jimi Hendrix.
Sleepy John Estes.jpg
Now I'm a bit of an old fashioned guy so I've always been drawn to the more traditional rural music, but I've also developed quite a taste for Chicago style Blues with its up tempo, harmonica driven, beat a la the late Carey Bell. Well I've finally found the perfect marriage of the two in Delmark Records' re-mastering of the Sleepy John Estes 1968 recording Electric Sleep on CD and with the new name of Sleepy John Estes On The Chicago Blues Scene

Now according to the liner notes that accompany this CD the new title is in reference to the two distinct era's of Blues that are being married together for this recording. Sleepy John hailed originally from the Deep South where his father was a sharecropper who picked cotton. He also played a little guitar and he passed that on to his son. When John lost an eye to an accident at a young age his usefulness as a farm hand was reduced, so he began to learn guitar and by nineteen he was playing professionally throughout the South.

The majority of John's recordings were made before and during the early years of World War Two for the Decca label. John was an integral piece in the development of the Memphis sound around that time, with folk like BB King, Howlin' Wolf, and Bobby Bland, which played a big role in the development of the what became the Chicago Sound. But, John himself never made it up to Chicago in any serious way until the 1960's.

Like so many other older Blues players, he was given a second career through the folk revival in the States and the huge interest in traditional Blues music in Europe. In 1964, he was part of American Folk Blues Festival that toured Europe annually in the early sixties and began jamming with some of the more modern musicians for the first time. Delmark Records producer Robert Koester caught one of those jams and promised John a recording session to make an album of that type of music.
Sleepy John Estes2.jpg
The band assembled for that recording was some of the best of the best at the time in Chicago. Carey Bell on harmonica (and bass for two tracks), Sunnyland Slim on piano, the Jimmy Dawkins on lead guitar, veteran Chess session man Odie Payne Jr. on drums, and Earl Hooker and Joe Harper splitting the rest of the bass duties. With John's old style, singing voice added to that mixture of hot players, the contrasting styles made for powerfully emotional music.

If nothing else this disc shows there is no problem when the old meets new when everybody wants the same thing, to make great music. On The Chicago Blues Scene is nearly an hour of some of the best Blues music I've heard in a long time. First of all you have people like Carey Bell in his prime playing harmonica, and secondly you have a vocalist in John Estes who, in spite of age and weakening strength, is able to cut through the music without ever sounding like he's straining. Finally, the strength of the music's rural roots gives the urban sound of the band a solidity that you hardly ever find in modern electric Blues.

Listen to a song like "Dvin' Duck Blues" with its infamous lines of "If the river were whiskey and I were duck/I'd swim to the bottom and never come up", and you'll swear you've never heard it sung before. Instead of the line being a throwaway joke like you hear it now; you can hear the depths of sorrow a person would have to feel to actually believe that sentiment.

It's hearing John sing that reminds you forcibly that he is only one generation removed from slavery and the music has a sub-context that would have been forgotten by the players he was recording with. The catch in his throat, the well spring of emotion that can be heard behind each lyric, are not feigned but born out of a life where existence is tenuous and fear and mistrust are constant companions when dealing with the world.

Sleepy John Estes On The Chicago Blues Scene is a collection of great songs that brings together two generations of Blues musicians to create a disc that contains the best elements of the rural and urban sound. You can buy this disc for its historical significance if you want, but the best reason for getting a copy is that it's great music.

September 19, 2007

Music Review: Big Mama Thornton Big Mama Thornton

Few who have ever seen Janis Joplin perform on television or film (or those lucky enough to have seen her sing in person) will have a easy time forgetting her. She sang a mix bag of originals and old Blues numbers, some of them like "Summer Time" by the Gershwin brothers, dating as far back as the 1920s.

But perhaps one of the songs that she was most famous for was Big Mama Thornton's "Ball And Chain". I'm not sure if the footage I remember was from her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1968 or another concert, but what I can be sure of was how simply incredible she was. Sometimes it was almost painful to watch Janis Joplin singing in that you felt like you were intruding on someone's personal grief.

As I remember, this concert was one of those occasions, and with each passing song it felt like she was revealing a little more of her soul to the audience. When she sang "Piece Of My Heart", it felt like she was pleading with someone, anyone, to love her enough to take care of her, no matter what else the song might mean. By the time she got to "Ball And Chain" the plea and cry for help and loving was so raw that she could have been singing the phone book and you would have wept in empathy for her.

Janis never learned how to protect herself from her audience. So great was her need for affection and approval, that she let them swallow her whole. Perhaps in a kinder world she would have some sort of chance of success without the accompanying viciousness, but here she didn't have a hope of surviving.
Big Momma Thornton 1978.jpg
There are a lot of reasons why Big Mama Thornton would do something like dedicate a performance of her own song "Ball And Chain" to Janis Joplin. I'd like to think that it was in recognition of her struggle with her demons, and for gracing the world with her interpretations of Big Mama's songs.

Hearing Big Mama's dedicating a performance of "Ball And Chain" to Janis on the disc Big Mama Thornton put out as part of the Vanguard Visionaries series of discs on Vanguard records you can tell how much Thornton appreciated Janis' version of her song. Thornton, of course, was an amazing singer in her own right, just as fiery, and passionate as Joplin. If ever there were, any one woman down through the years who could understand what Janis had experienced it was Big Mama.

A Black woman singing the Blues in clubs long before the days of rights for either women or Black people, she would have probably been subjected to all sorts of indignities in order to even get up on stage. It would have been on the stage singing that she probably felt most alive and free; no matter what happened on the other side of the lights she was in complete control of her life when she was singing.

Born Willie Mae Thronton in the late 1920's, like so many Blues performers of her generation she came to music via the church. She was one of a Baptist minister's seven children in Montgomery Alabama, but had left home for good by the time she was fourteen. After singing and touring with a band for a while she decided to settle in Texas and take advantage of the club scene there to work permanently without having to go on the road.

It was in Texas that she was given the nickname "Big Mama" due to the fact she was over six feet tall and weighing in at over 200 lbs. But when you listen to her sing you could easily believe that was given that name because of the strength of her voice. Listen to her growl out her version of Lieber & Stoller's "Hound Dog" and compare it to the version Elvis sings.

Thornton's is rough with emotion and she's practically growling at the end, typical of the hard-nosed blues she preferred. Elvis on the other hand has had his version polished so it will be more palatable for mass consumption on the airwaves. Remember Elvis's image was carefully created for him by the Colonel as young and clean cut and the music had to fit.

Big Mama had no such restrictions placed on her and was free to do as she wished musically. Of the ten songs on the Vanguard Visionaries series disc featuring her she has written seven of the ten songs and offers her own arrangement of the traditional "Rock Me Baby" On every song you can here how she uses her voice to create atmosphere and evoke an emotional response from the listener.

You can hear in her voice the characteristics that have gone on to influence singers in future generations. Almost every female singer of popular music who performs rock and roll owes a debt of gratitude to Big Mama Thornton for being the bridge between them and singers like Bessie Smith from an earlier generation. She kept alive the awareness that a female singer doesn't have to sound "pretty" to be effective and they too can have power house voices that can blow the roof off a joint.

Being born in Texas, there is a really good chance that Janis Joplin had the opportunity to see Big Mama perform and heard some of her music while growing up. But even those who may never have heard her until they were adults owe Big Mama a debt of gratitude.

All you have to do is listen to Big Mama Thornton from the Vanguard Visionaries series and you'll see why. Big Mama was a singer, songwriter, and performer par excellence and without her, the sound of modern music would far different from what it is today.

September 18, 2007

Music Review: The Weavers The Weavers

Whenever I read or hear the words "Folk Revival" I have to chortle; what exactly was it supposed to have been reviving from? Folk music has been around as long as there have been folk to sing it. From the first bards and minstrels singing the stories of the heroes of the great sagas of the Norse, Irish, and others long before we were writing our stories on the page.

How else were the original stories told if not to music? Look at examples of folk music throughout history and you will find that the songs are always about something. Whether it's a sad love story like "Barbara Allen" or a song commemorating a battle won or lost, folk musicians have a long history of being the raconteurs of both current and past events.

The only revival that folk music might have gone through in the twentieth century was when the people who performed it were allowed to get on with their lives after spending most of the 1950's being black listed from performing. The House Committee on Un American Activities under that champion of freedom and justice Jo McCarthy had stolen their right to sing because they had the nerve to sing the truth in their music.

Of course there has been a long history of the establishment doing it's best to silence the voices who set the people's stories to song and music. Joe Hill is not just the name of a song; he was a singer and a songwriter in the early years of the twentieth century who wrote about conditions in the mines and lumber camps of the west. For his troubles he was shot and killed by the Salt Lake police force on a trumped up murder charge.

Telling the truth has always been a dangerous profession in our democratic society, especially if your truth differs from the official line that's offered in the textbooks and government records. According to those histories the people who fought and died so that your children aren't forced to work in mine shafts for 18 hours a day and so you don't have to work 80 hour a week never existed or at best were agitators who the heroic Pinkerton employees had to put down in order to preserve democracy.

Thankfully, there were some brave people who kept the oral tradition alive and sang the songs that told the true history of the people of North America not just the businessmen and their generals. Even when they were blacklisted, they found ways around being silenced by not performing under their own names, or by becoming members of a larger orchestra.
Listen to some early recordings of the wonderful group The Weavers and you might be puzzled as to why the songs are being played with lush strings and sound like they should be sung in a Las Vegas nightclub. It's a variation on the there is safety in numbers routine and through it they were able to accomplish a couple of things; get recording contracts and stay off the blacklists.

For a while it became fashionable to make disparaging comments about The Weavers, dismissing them as old liberals who weren't radical enough. The people who made those comments were as blind and ignorant as those who tried to silence the Weavers. It also showed they had no understanding of what folk music really is. Why don't they sing more "political music", instead of these songs about "Irene" and from other countries?

Well because The Weavers weren't blinkered by political expediency, and the only agenda they followed was a commitment to the music they played. If you haven't listened to them in a while and have forgotten just how incredible they were you're in luck. As part of their Vanguard Visionaries series Vanguard records has released The Weavers, a ten song compilation that makes a great attempt at sampling each aspect of the group's character.

Long before anyway had even come up the term "World Music" The Weavers were singing the songs of folk from all different parts of the world. "Winoweh" from South Africa, "Guantanamera" from Cuba, and "Tzena Tzena" from Israel were all staples elements of any Weavers performance. Those three were just their most popular international folk songs; they played many more then that.

People today can say what they want about diversity, but the Weavers were preaching cultural diversity in the days when America was still racially segregated and even singing in a foreign language made you politically suspect. They didn't make a big deal out of it either or do it to look important – they were folk musicians so they played the music of the folk – and it didn't matter where those folk came from.

Their biggest source for music remained America, but here again they didn't take the easy route out. Songs about unions might have been dated and too dangerous to play in the fifties and early sixties, but what they chose to play instead was nearly as dangerous. Three of the ten tracks on this recording all came from the pen or guitar of Black singer songwriter Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Ledbelly) including "Goodnight Irene", "Midnight Special", and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine".

A fourth song included on this disc, "House Of The Rising Sun" is another song that originated with Black musicians. That might not mean much to us these days, but when people were being chased off stage or condemned for playing rock and roll because it was Black music (and they wouldn't have used the word Black believe me) playing music originally written by Black songwriters was seen as a provocative act.

But to The Weavers it was no different then playing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", Lee Hayes and Pete Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer", or any of the other songs they were identified with. When it came to music they were genuinely, colour blind. Their criteria for a song making their set list appears to have been based on it being somebody's story; the music of folk from anywhere in the world.

If it wasn't for the bravery of Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and Lee Hayes, better known to the world as The Weavers, being willing to open doors that fear and suspicion had kept walled up for years, who knows if the careers of people like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan would have even been possible. Listening to The Weavers on Vanguard Records is a small reminder of who and what this group stood for. It's a timely reminder of the importance of being brave enough to speak and sing unpopular truths in times when those voices are hard to find.

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.
Levon & Amy Helm.jpg
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 13, 2007

Music Review: Mickey Hart & Zakir Hussain Global Drum Project

I guess it's not too surprising that no matter where you go on the planet, no matter what the cultural background of the people, the one thing we're all going to have in common is some means or other of being able to bang out a rhythm. It was probably something the species picked up on shortly after the discovery of fire on our climb up the evolutionary ladder.

You can picture it can't you? A bunch of our early kin sitting around the fire, and one of them, there's always somebody like it in every crowd, has a nervous twitch and with the bone he'd been just chewing on starts to tap on the hollow log beside him. He soon discovers he can change the sound he's making by how hard he hits the log, how many times he hits it in a row, and that he can also make patterns with the sound.

It was the Greeks who gave us the beginnings of the word we use today to describe the pattern made by sound, coming from their word meaning to flow: rhythmos. But I'm sure that the cultures that predated or co-existed with the founders of Western thought had their own words for the same idea. In the days when everything was done by hand, from lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together or striking two rocks, the rhythm of life was ever present and obvious.

Even in the age of machines and industrialization a kind of rhythm could be heard via the clanging of machinery and the piecing together of bits and pieces on the assembly line. However, it was also the first stage in our separation from the rhythm of life, (the heartbeat), resulting in us eventually becoming deaf to all but the cacophony that surrounds us.
Thankfully, there are some who still strive to maintain the connection for us; those individuals who are sensitive to the effect rhythm can have on us physically, emotionally, and (dare I say this publicly in the West) spiritually. I'm not talking about some New Age high priest of whatever spiritual tradition is fashionable to co-opt this week; I'm not even talking about so-called legitimate religious people either. Nope I'm talking about some of the most profane and real people on the planet – musicians.

Any musician who has ever had even a modicum of success has had to learn how to keep a steady beat going. From a lead vocalist to the percussionist, without a feel for timing they wouldn't have even been able to play in the lowest of dives without being thrown off stage in a hail of beer bottles. But if you really want to make a connection back to yourself with music you need to search out percussionists who have made it their life's work, mission even, to seek out people of like mind from cultures around the world to work with.

Mickey Hart, formally of the Grateful Dead and various independent percussion projects, is one such gifted percussionist. Even during his days of drumming for the Dead he was busy with side projects all over the world. He would use his name and status to open doors for himself, and the musicians he worked with in other countries, to ensure that their non-commercial projects would not only be recorded, but even released and promoted.

One of his earliest collaborators was the amazing tabla player Zakir Hussain. The two men have known each other since the 1970's when they were key figures in the percussion project known as the Diga Rhythm Band. Aside from both being percussionists, they have a similar philosophy when it comes to their approach to music. Each of them describes the work they have done in the years since that last record appeared as steps on a journey.

While neither of them are very clear about where the journey is going to take them, they are clear about making sure that they are continually learning and experimenting with different means of expressing rhythm. Their new release, Global Drum Project
, due out Oct 2nd on the Shout Factory label, sees them hooking up with two other percussionists; Sikiru Adepoju on the African talking drum and Giovanni Hidalgo supplying a Latin groove.

The eight tracks on this disc represent a distillation of a great deal of the music they have absorbed and learned about in the years since the Diga Rhythm Band projects of the seventies. Aside from bringing together music from the Amazon Basin to Papua New Guinea and all stops in between, they've also embraced the potential that technology has to augment what can be done with the human body.
The result is absolutely spellbinding, in the almost literal sense of the world. From the opening track "Baba", featuring guest vocals from Babatunde Olatunji, through to the ethereal "I Can Tell You More" that closes the disc, you are taken on a trip not only around the physical world via various musical influences, but to the unlimited world that resides with each of us.

It doesn't matter whether a song is composed of tribal beats, complicated tabla patterns, or sounds turned into clouds by effect's boxes, the music pulls you out of the mundane world. To sit and listen to Global Drum Project is to obtain a level of awareness that you may not have thought you were capable of experiencing. The musical prowess of all those involved in this recording is so astounding there is no way you can listen to it without forgetting about the world beyond the disc for at least the duration of its playing time.

But unlike supposed transcendental music sold in New Age stores, they aren't making any effort to be "spiritual", or even pretending to be anything other than extremely gifted musicians. Which is exactly why it is so successful in being a record of such power and grace. Their only concern is to play some of the great and wonderful music they've come across during the past few years of their journey.

Music that is played with the passion and skill that these people possess doesn't need to try and be spiritual or uplifting in order to be just that. When music is able to achieve the purity and beauty required to free us sufficiently to be able to hear what's around and inside us for a change, it becomes one of the greatest gifts we can give to each other. How much more spiritual can you get then that?

The Global Drum Project is an amazing disc of percussion music as you've never heard percussion played before. If you've never really experienced what it feels like to leave the world behind, even temporarily, then you won't want to miss out on this recording. This is music at its purest and most direct, and it will speak to places inside of you that you didn't even know existed.

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.
J J Cale Live.jpg
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.
J J Cale Today.jpg
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.

September 2, 2007

Music DVD Review: Incredible String Band Live At The Lowry

One of the ironies of music is how quickly it can change allegiances. Songs that are so blithely referred to as Americana were brought over by immigrants from the British Islands and have their origins in Irish, Scottish, and Anglo Saxon folk lore. Musical anthropologists as far back as the 19th century discovered the songs and folklore of the people in the Appalachians and Tennessee Valley areas were modified versions of traditions they had carried with them across the ocean.

"Pretty Saro", "Two Sisters", "Barbara Allan", and countless other similar songs had stayed lyrically intact even if their manner of presentation had changed. Adapted to the instruments and accents of the new world, their cadences might have changed but their meanings hadn't changed a whit.

In North America, these songs have never really become part of the mainstream, and even in the folk "revival" periods that we periodically go through these songs are largely ignored. Its only been in recent years, with movies like Songcatcher and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? that they have come to the general public's attention.
00 - Incredible String Band.jpg
In Great Britain, it's been a different story, as those songs remained part of the cultural heritage throughout the islands. They may not have been part of the mainstream popular music scene, but neither did they vanish from view as completely as they did over here. In the great British folk revivals of the early 1960's and later, groups like Renaissance, Clannad, Steeleye Span, and Fairport Convention drew upon that history for both their material and their inspiration.

One of the groups who led the way from the early 1960's to the mid 1970's was Incredible String Band. Playing a mixture of adapted traditional music and original compositions they created a sound that became loosely referred to as psychedelic folk music. Dressing like troubadours and courtly ladies from days gone by, they had great success with their musical hybrid, routinely scoring high in the British musical charts.

Of course, all good things come to an end, and so did the Incredible String Band. But individuals from the band still played together on and off throughout the years, and for the Millennium celebrations in Edinburgh some of them joined together and gave a reunion concert. Because of that gig the band reformed and a few years further down the road the line up became a quartet with two of the founding members, Mike Heron and Clive Palmer being joined by Lawson Dando and Fluff.

It's this line up that's been recorded on the newly released Live At The Lowry DVD on the MVD Visual label. The concert was filmed in 2003 and features eighteen tracks representing the bands first five albums. It would seem like this disc represents a perfect opportunity for those fans looking for a filmed record of the band's greatest hits or those interested in checking them out for the first time.
00 - Incredible String Band Today.jpg
Unfortunately, what's on display on this DVD won't serve either purpose as it bears little if any resemblance to what the band was in their heyday. It has nothing to do with the new members either, as they are both gifted instrumentalists, with Fluff in particular having a wonderful singing voice and a great stage presence. The trouble lies with the two original members of the band whose abilities on this night range from the barely competent to the abysmal.

While Heron still retains some presence on stage he is constantly straining to reach notes with his voice and when he sits at the keyboard he plays with the tentativeness of a hunt and peck typist. But even sadder is Clive Palmer who simply looks lost, confused, and barely able to play his banjo or sing in time. The occasional missed note is understandable, but it became embarrassing to watch his fingers stumble along the fret board as he hunts around for the right notes.

While the sound and picture quality of the disc were superb, and the efforts of Fluff and Lawson Dando were admirable, there was nothing for them to support. The two supposed leads in the group were uninspiring, and the performance was boring. Live At The Lowry is a performance by the Incredible String Band in name only. Former members of the band might have been playing songs they had performed thirty to forty years ago but that's the only thing that bore any resemblance to the original.

If you want to hear the Incredible String Band, I'd recommend you buy some re-mastered CDs of their original recordings and not waste your time with this DVD.

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.
00 - Stacy Mitchhart 1.jpg
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.
< img alt="00 - Stacy Mitchhart.jpg" src="" width="250" height="188" vspace="3" hspace="3" align="right" />
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"
Johnny Irion300.jpg
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, a