Eliza Gilkyson: Beauty Way
For the next two weeks, our theme is Blood, vaguely derived from the classic heart symbolism for Valentine’s Day which falls during this period, but also because we thought it was a good idea.
Sometimes, when a theme is announced, I need to search my iTunes library for a song, and other times something just jumps into my head. And for some reason, that is what happened here, despite the fact that there are many more obvious choices.
The amount of music out there is staggering. I’m sure that there are many people whose musical taste and collection (tangible or virtual) has basically stagnated. But for me, and other music fanatics, it is impossible to keep up. I have a pretty significant collection of music, and a pretty broad range of musical likes, but I simply can’t know everything, or keep up with all of the new good things. I hear all of the time about music I should like or should check out, and often when I do, I realize, yeah, that’s pretty good. And maybe I’ll download a few songs and check them out more.
Which is a long way of getting to my point—there are people making great music out there—music you might really like, if you heard it, but you just haven’t had the chance. Eliza Gilkyson is one of those musicians who has had a long career in the industry, great reviews, but not a huge amount of name recognition outside of the Austin area. Although, to be fair, she has been pretty popular in these pages, having been tagged in 6 prior pieces, more than Aimee Mann, Alejandro Escovedo, Pete Townshend and Harry Chapin, to randomly choose a few people with bigger profiles.
Gilkyson comes from a musical family. Her father Terry was a folksinger in the 50s and 60s, and then became a songwriter for Disney movies—his songs include “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book. Her brother Tony was the guitarist in Lone Justice, and for a period, X, and also produces. Her sister Nancy is a singer and an executive at Warner Bros. Records. Eliza began her career singing on her father’s demos and soundtracks, including a couple of Disney TV shows. She moved from Hollywood to Santa Fe, New Mexico in her late teens, started a family and began releasing records. Her musical and personal journey took her to Austin, then back to Los Angeles, then to Taos and to Europe, before returning to Austin. Her son Ryder has produced some of her albums, and her daughter Delia has sung on some of them. Her songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Lucy Kaplansky, Bob Geldof, Roseanne Cash and others. She even has a couple of Grammy nominations, and was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
Our featured song, “Beauty Way,” from Gilkyson’s 2000 release, Hard Times In Babylon, is a semi-autobiographical tale about the hard life of a musician who comes close to, but just misses, hitting it big. What always struck me about the songs were her lyrics, which make it almost seem like her desire to play music was irresistible, and that she simply had to keep going, no matter what the result:
I worked the clubs along the Sangre de Cristos
Polished the diamond in the rough
By the time I hit L.A. I was hotter than a pistol
But you're never hot enough little darling
You never really hot enough
I felt the lights on the big, big stages
The fire burning in my soul
I've had those nights when my guitar rages
But it's not something you control little darling
It's not something you control
And there’s the blood reference—the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which run from Colorado to just north of Santa Fe. But I also think of the metaphorical blood that Gilkyson spent trying to make it in the music business.
A little side note--back in the days before iPods and CD burning, I was one of those people who made mixtapes, which I listened to on a tape player or in the car. In 2001, I included a version of “Beauty Way” on a tape, followed by a Los Lobos song, “Down on the Riverbed.” At some point, I was listening to the tape, and realized that the two songs mentioned red-tailed hawks, making it a great subconscious segue. Which is something that only ex-college radio DJs think about.
Sunday, February 7, 2016
Friday, February 5, 2016
As a devoted listener to WFUV, I was certainly aware of The Mavericks, but they were really just on the edge of my musical consciousness. I recognized and liked a few songs, and that was about that. My friend Tom, a fine singer and guitarist in his own right, whose bands often cover The Mavericks, kept telling me how great they were live. As usual in matters musical (not to mention food, TV and soccer,despite his support of Manchester United), Tom did not steer me wrong.
My first exposure to the band’s live show was at the 2014 Clearwater Festival. My wife and I had spent an incredible first day, seeing, among others, an all-star tribute to Pete and Toshi Seeger, Dar Williams, Guy Davis, Dan Bern and Richard Thompson (and you wonder why we were upset when they cancelled this year’s festival). My wife had enough, and decided to leave, but I wasn’t going to miss The Mavericks’ closing set. And it was worth every second. They truly kicked some ass, and had me dancing. And if you know me, you know that’s a big deal, especially because I wasn’t even close to drunk.
What makes them such a good live band? Start with the music—a mix of country, rock, Western swing, and more varieties of Latin music than I know how to name. Singer Raul Malo, whose deep, expressive voice is one of those that you never forget when you hear it, is of Cuban descent from Miami, and there is definitely some of that in there, along with all sorts of Tex-Mex sounds. Then, add the fact that it is just played well, and with incredible enthusiasm. Plus, as we know, horns make everything better. Stir in Malo’s charisma and stage presence, the goofy charm of keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden and the menacing intensity of guitarist Eddie Perez, and you have something that is not only unique, but incredibly infectious and fun.
For some time, the band has made regular appearances at the Tarrytown Music Hall, in my town, and when they announced their 2014 dates, there was no question that I was going to go. My wife, Tom and I caught the show from the front row of the balcony, and the full set was even better than the shorter festival performance. The crowd was on its feet from the first note, and the show was a nonstop party. The video above was shot by someone on the floor, sort of below where we were sitting. The sound isn’t great, but it gives you a sense of what was going on. Another friend, Bob, who is a volunteer usher at the Music Hall, and thus sees many, many shows, swears that The Mavericks are, by far, the best live band that plays there.
I picked that song, “Come Unto Me,” because it features the button accordion, a common instrument in Mexican folk and popular music. Michael Guerra, who is not a full member of the band, but tours and records with them, does a great job lending a Mexican flavor to the song, not to mention has a long solo. Also, at the end, Malo points at me. Sort of.
At last year’s Clearwater Festival, The Mavericks again closed the show. And again, my wife left early (it really was raining hard when she left, but I really wanted to see The Mavericks again). Unfortunately, due to the rainstorm, which had stopped, but led to delays and equipment issues, they took the stage late and their set was truncated. But what they played was, again, great. We skipped last year’s Tarrytown residency, but I do hope to go back the next time they play there, with or without my wife.
Speaking of my wife, as I may have mentioned, she, and my daughter, are proud alumnae of Smith College, as is this feminist maverick:
Say hi to the legendary accordion player, Gloria Steinem.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
Who? Shame on you, Kirkpatrick is the king of the English squeezebox, I would say single-handedly bringing back this instrument, or instruments, into the modern folk (rock) pantheon. You don't maybe know the name, but please accept you have heard him. Let me take you back, hell, over 40 years. Witness the boy (me!), awkward and lumpen, picking slowly up on the UK folk tradition, by way of Fairport Convention and this song. It's back to my beloved Top of the Pops, and a sadly currentlyunavailableonyoutube footage of this seminal band, performing a Dylan song a la Francais. Amidst all the striped jumpers and onions was one John Kirkpatrick, squeezing away for his very life.
Move forward a year or 2 and it was 'Morris On' that captured me, folk-rock interpretations of Morris tunes, leading me to years of dancing with hankies, eventually spending 10 years as a fully fledged, if flat footed, member of a side, spending my weekends dancing the dance and, it's true, drinking the drink. In the album sleeve above, Kirkpatrick is the chimney sweep, singing and playing this song. Incidentally, should the anathema of electric Morris prove too alarming, he was the prime culprit in an eminently recommendable album, 'Plain Capers', all acoustic and straight from the village green.
But he wasn't entirely tied to tradition, something Richard Thompson, erstwhile Fairport alumnus, and the green woodsman in the album cover above, was able to exploit in his initial run of duet records, with then wife Linda, and later solo records, someone much missed from his current output IMHO. Here is an astonishing live song, with quintessential Kirkpatrick holding it all together.
For reasons never acknowledged or admitted, despite an ongoing willingness expressed from Kirkpatrick, Thompson seemed to drop him after a while, with Kirkpatrick retreating back to the folk clubs from whence he had sprung, give or take a short caretaker role in Fairport "rivals" Steeleye Span and with his own band. Before, after and during this, he has continued, solely or, in earlier days, with ex-wife Sue Harris, to play alone or as a duo. Here is his tour de force, apologies if it is too raw for your refined ears.
Without this man I honestly believe there would be lesser an english folk tradition, vibrant and alive, with very much less a likelihood of an ongoing squeezebox legacy, through John Jones/Oyster Band, Simon Care/Edward II or Gareth Morris/Little Johnny England.
Buy at his page, astonishingly he has one, albeit entangled with others, but 'Morris On', 'Plain Capers' and a lot more are there......
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
I love a squeezebox, me, and have for as long as I recall, and certainly as long as I have been addicted to music. I don't care whether a concertina, a melodeon, an accordion, piano- or otherwise, a bandoneon or whatever, and it can be from within folk, tex-mex/conjunto, zydeco/cajun, country or even just slipped into good old rock and roll. But I fear I may be an odd boy in this perversion, the majority of my chums placing these pre-cursors to the synthesiser* low in their pecking orders, arguably down near the bagpipe and the banjo, both of which I also adore. So where do I begin?
Lets's set the scene: I think my favourite ever use of these delightful instruments is within this stonking cajun version of Chuck Berry's 'Promised Land':
This belter of a song rattles along quite tidily under its conventional rockabilly steam until lifted twice, a middle eight and at the end, by the glorious surge of louisiana provided by Belton Richard, a lesser known name than that of Johnny Allan, the singer, but a man who has put out a fair bit of swamp-pop in his own name, before and subsequently.(In fact, so good a solo is it that it reappears, note for note, in this, by Los Lobos, their David Hidalgo being no slouch on the instrument either.)
But what was that I said about *pre-cursors to the synthesiser? What tosh, you say, how can you compare primitive bellows with the majesty of, um, say, Gary Numan's chosen? Let me explain, with reference to economies of scale and a journey into the mysteries of the Morris dance. These folk dances of old england were traditionally led by pipe and tabor, the simultaneous one hand on a whistle, another on a drum, with fiddle later being employed as well or instead. The melodeon, a button accordion, could provide a much greater swell of noise and range, thus being able to replace a larger team of musicians on lesser instrumentation. Maybe mellotron is a better example than synth, but it's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.
I could and I won't pontificate for hours as to the joy of squeeze, but that may not bring any converts, so how about a few more practitioners of merit wider than their genre might suggest.
Gotan Project are a Paris based collective of French and South American musicians dedicated to, largely, the tango. By imaginative use of electronic breaks and beats they endeavour to bring this dance and it's attendant culture into a 21st century setting. I think it works.
Still in France, there is of course a longstanding Parisian cafe culture built around cheesy chansons. This guy, Yann Tiersen, somehow explodes that. Oft dismissed as a mere soundtrack auteur, his repertoire is much wider. Accomplished on many instruments, I hope you will agree he gives the bellows a hell of a kicking in this burst above.
If they are still going, the Felice Brothers offer a delightfully ragged take on a ramshackle Americana that smacks of the subway busking sessions they began by playing. Based originally around the 3 Felices, now but 2 are still playing together, including James, who plays the accordion on this track, to brother Ian's singing.
As a final thought, I scribble recreationally on message board, the Afterword, a lifeboat for the aficionados of late lost music mag, (the) 'Word', and I am pleased there are other odd boys there; even the occasional odd woman. Here was a string about accordions you may enjoy.
Sunday, January 24, 2016
[purchase The Last Polka on VHS]
I’m old enough to remember seeing The Lawrence Welk Show on TV, featuring polka music which, of course, highlighted the accordion. Not that I ever watched it—but in those days, to change the channel, you had to turn a dial and pass through each channel, so sometimes I would see a snippet of the show which looked like it was from another time. It just seemed so incongruous that during the rock era, there was a show featuring polka music, on television, and that there were people who actually watched it. The concept just was, to my mind, farcical.
So, when Eugene Levy and John Candy at SCTV created the Shmenge Brothers, a pair of “Leutonian” musicians, one of whom (Stan) played the accordion, I got the joke.
I’m also old enough to remember when Saturday Night Live was a subversive, counterculture program that quickly became mainstream entertainment. And then discovering the lower budget, more anarchic SCTV, although it never seemed to be on at any regular time. I think that, at least initially, the fact that SCTV flew under the radar allowed it the freedom to display a more subtle and weird comedic sensibility than SNL. The premise of the show—that it all related to a fictional TV station/network, also gave the show a narrow focus, yet allowed it the freedom to do wide ranging parodies. And it is hard to argue that the SCTV cast members haven’t had incredible influence on comedy—we’re talking John Candy, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, Robin Duke, Joe Flaherty, and, of course, Martin Short, among others.
The Shmenge Brothers were just one of these parodies, and like so many of their skits, the humor was subtle and character based. Candy apparently based the characters on Gaby Haas, a Czechoslovakian native who had a polka-based show based in Edmonton—meaning that there was actually more than one polka-based TV show on the air. The brothers appeared on a few episodes of SCTV, starting in 1982 and ending in 1983, with an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the “New Wave” and music videos. Their retirement was chronicled in an hour-long mockumentary called The Last Polka, based, of course, on The Last Waltz. The clip above, of the Shmenges and the Happy Wanderers playing their “classic” “Cabbage Rolls And Coffee,” comes from the film. They also performed this song on Late Night With David Letterman and at Comic Relief.
Part of the humor of the sketch is the fact that polka music, and the accordion, was at that time considered a joke in itself. Of course, the accordion, and its related instruments, has a respected place in the music of many countries and cultures. And as the roots music movement spread, more and more musicians proudly feature a squeezebox, so that when, say, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, picks up his accordion, no one laughs.
One last admission—for a brief time in my childhood, I tried to learn to play the accordion. It didn’t take.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
If, as is widely surmised, 'Rocket 88' was the first evidenced relic of ye olde rocke and roll, by definition, Ike Turner, tho' neither the writer nor the singer was the first rocker. Sung, written and credited to one Jackie Brenston (and his Delta Cats), the band was actually Ike's Kings of Rhythm, for whom Brenston played sax. Dating from an astonishing 1951, when Ike was 19, a cocktail of western swing, jump blues and the accidentally 'fuzzed' guitar produced by a damaged amplifier. Raw and raggedy around the edges, to my ears it holds up a lot more successfully than other and later contenders for title as first.
Which made me think a bit about Ike, more famous now for his alleged misogyny and mistreatment of Tina, than for this or any other part of his wide-ranging legacy. Now this is not the place to assess his character and I won't. If we are to only glory those spotless in reputation, then the canon of modern music, like literature and art, will shrink to nought. OK, neither should we necessarily celebrate the blemishes and behaviours, even though we often do. Especially as it is difficult to tiptoe through the morals of one era in the shoes of another. So what about Izear Luster 'Ike' Turner, junior, 1931 - 2007?
Born the son of a minister, a recurring theme in rock music, he immersed himself in the musics of the juke joints from an early age, boogie boogie, blues, jazz, setting up and setting out on the road with his Kings of Rhythm, gaining experience by backing anyone from Sonny Boy Williamson to Muddy Waters. The success of 'Rocket 88' led to a temporary suspension of the band, as Turner became a session man and record producer, until, with 3rd wife Tina, or Annie-Mae Bullock as she was christened, a reformed Kings of Rhythm hit the road in 1956, becoming the Ike and Tina Turner Revue 4 years later. No more the rock'n'roll frontman, Ike was now the understated conductor of the band, Tina and her Ikettes taking the full focus of what was and to become a full blown R'n'b extravaganza, second only to James Brown. Arguably their best remembered early song would be the Phil Spector production, 'River Deep, Mountain High', the deal for the song being that Ike had little to do with it. And Ike, maybe uncharacteristically, always shrewdly, went along with it. Not initially a hit in the U.S., it was huge in Europe and beyond, leading to tours with the Rolling Stones.
Roll forward into another decade, popular on both sides of the atlantic by now, a staple in the charts, with covers, 'I Can Take You Higher' and 'Proud Mary', there was one further classic in store, with even now there being barely a wedding disco, or similar, that doesn't include 'Nutbush City Limits.' Both of mine did!
After that it was all about Tina, her revelations about life with Ike piling on the wretchedness already there courtesy old showbiz faves, drink, drugs and paranoia. I can't help but note some irony in that, aged 30, he was teetotal and drugs eschewing, and yet to introduce Miss Bullock into his band and his life, but that's conjecture. He did, however, manage to survive the storms, reputationally and personally, reviving again the Kings of Rhythm in 2001 and achieving his 2nd Grammy in 2006, for solo album, 'Risin' with the Blues.' He died the following year.
So let's get a bit of his finishings, remembering him for his music, not just his onetime amanuensis. (Sadly YouTube didn't have an available version of '18 Long Years', his re-write of earlier Ike and Tina song '5 Long Years'. They, inevitably, were married for 18.)
Purchase: Brand New Day
While certainly not his finest hour as a lyricist, Van Morrison’s Brand New Day, from Moondance (the album every one you know has in their collection), fits the bill for our theme this month. It’s a simple song, both hopeful and soulful. The mellow groove is pure Van Morrison blue eyed soul, with his lush and plaintive vocal styles, wavering piano and guitar lines and gospel chorus. Van Morrison crosses genres with grace—balladeer, soulster, mystic poet, party hound. Brand New Day is a small blip in the catalog he’s created, but it’s a beautiful song, in its own sense. The man himself explains the origins of Brand New Day as:
What song do you think it was? Have to be The Weight? Perhaps I Shall be Released?
For good measure, we should also mention Morrison’s Into the Mystic, itself a soulful meditation on a new beginning of sorts, magical and supernatural, and of heading into new and unknown places, concerning love and other delights…
Happy New Year to all our readers—I hope history proves 2016 to be a far better year than all the doomsayers are predicting. Starting out a year with forecasts of our guaranteed destruction before the next one begins gives me all the more reason to listen to good music and try to see the brighter side of sun. Harmony!
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
[purchase Windows 95 For Dummies, because, why not?]
Remember Windows 95? Probably not, but when it was released, appropriately in 1995, it was a pretty big deal. For the first time, Microsoft merged its Windows and MS-DOS (remember MS-DOS?) products, and made a bunch of technical improvements that I don’t really understand (although being able to use long file names was convenient). But what was great was that, for the most part, I didn’t need to understand them because they were buried behind an improved graphical user interface, which included a taskbar and a better file navigation system.
However, what is most important for our theme, is that Windows 95 marked the introduction of the “Start” button, which allowed a (relatively) quick way to start stuff. The Start button was part of all subsequent Windows releases, in some form, until the powers that be decided to leave it out of the crapfest that was Windows 8. The outcry was such that it was immediately put back, in the slightly improved Windows 8.1, and was included in the much superior Windows 10.
Now, the personal computer world is mostly divided into two camps, Windows and Mac, with a fringe of Linux and other operating system users. But back in 1995, there were other players in the market, particularly IBM’s OS/2, and the success of Windows 95 essentially drove them out of business. Part of that was based on the technology, but most of it was marketing.
Part of the strategy was to create an iconic “Microsoft Sound” to play when the system was booting up. Microsoft execs approached the master of ambient sounds, Brian Eno, to create the startup music. As he said:
The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I'd been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, "Here's a specific problem – solve it."
The thing from the agency said, "We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional," this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said "and it must be 3-1/4 seconds long."
I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It's like making a tiny little jewel.
In fact, I made eighty-four pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I'd finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.
The final version of the sound, as heard in the video above, was actually 6 seconds, and it successfully became ingrained into the psyches of Windows users. Amusingly, Eno wrote the music on a Mac. I admit that hearing it again for the first time brought me back 20 years to an age of smaller, but bulkier, monitors, slower processors, tiny hard drives and floppy discs. But others have used Eno’s snippet as inspiration. Here’s a piano cover version:
And here’s a version slowed down 23 times, so it sounds like something from Music For Airports:
And here is just one of many remixes of the sound:
In addition to commissioning Eno’s genius to create a 6 second sound, the Windows 95 marketing blitz included a 30 minute cheesy faux-sitcom operating guide starring Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry of Friends, and a memorable commercial, highlighting the Start button, in which they licensed the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.” At the time, it was reported that the cost to license the song was in excess of $10 million, but that was apparently not true, and was an attempt by the Stones to inflate the licensing value of their catalog.