Los Lobos: One Time, One Night
Los Lobos deserve to be considered as one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. They deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and that’s not only my opinion). They deserve to be remembered for a remarkably diverse body of work, and not just for covering “La Bamba.” My wife and I saw them last night at the Tarrytown Music Hall on their 40th!! Anniversary Tour, and they blew us away. (And opener Amy Helm and her band were also incredible).
In 2011, we got tickets to see Los Lobos at the Music Hall, and we were very excited. We had seen them back in 1987, not too long after we started dating, at The Pier in New York. For those who don't remember The Pier, it was an outdoor venue on the Hudson River in Manhattan, near where the Intrepid is now. Every summer, they would set up a stage, a bunch of uncomfortable metal chairs and a few food vendors, and for very little money, there would be great music. I saw so many great shows there, ranging from The Clash and U2 to Miles Davis, King Crimson and Jean-Luc Ponty. I saw Elvis Costello and Pat Metheny. Not to mention Stanley Jordan. At the time, Los Lobos were hot, fresh off the success of “La Bamba,” but my wife and I appreciated their other work. Even better, the opening act was The Smithereens, another great band (but not my daughter’s future a capella group).
The show was great. Both bands rocked, and we had fun. Over the next few years, we really enjoyed what Los Lobos were doing. In addition to exposing us to various forms of Mexican folk music, they also demonstrated their abilities to play rock, blues, jazz, folk and even odd experimental music. And yet, despite the consistently high quality of their music, their popularity decreased from the probably artificial high of the “La Bamba” years.
For whatever reason, it wasn’t until 2011 that we decided to go see Los Lobos again, at the Music Hall, and I know that we were excited. The opening act was blues legend Taj Mahal, and he rocked the place. Then, Los Lobos came out. And they were awful. They were missing their usual drummer. David Hidalgo, their great vocalist/guitarist/accordion player seemed off his game and the band was lethargic. Maybe it was because it was the opening night of the tour, or because of the personnel issues, but they chose to play a set that was heavy on Spanish language songs and light on their more recognizable numbers (to an Anglo audience, at least). Which is not to say that there weren’t some good moments, but overall, we left disappointed.
Last year, the band returned to the Music Hall to perform one of their best albums, Kiko, in its entirety. We chose not to attend, and, as it turned out, Cesar Rosas, the band’s other main singer and guitarist, was out sick.
But, for some reason, when the Music Hall announced another show, with Amy Helm as the opener, we decided to give them another chance. And they really delivered. Playing a good mix of songs from their entire career, as befits an Anniversary Tour, they seemed to be in sync and having fun. Everyone was there—including their remarkable newish tour drummer, Bugs Gonzalez, who appeared to be having a blast. They ended the first set with an incredible medley—starting with “Dream in Blue” then segueing into a cover of Traffic’s “40,000 Headmen,” complete with flute, which turned into “Maricela,” before morphing into a raucous Spanglish “Más y Más.” For the final encore, they brought out Amy Helm’s band (without Amy, who had joined them earlier in the set for two songs) to replace Gonzalez on drums and Conrad Lozano on bass, and added Helm's incredible guitarist Dan Littleton to the mix for a raucous cover of The Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover.” Everyone was having fun, and about halfway through the song, Hidalgo put down his guitar and switched into the drum seat.
To me, though, the high point of the night was their version of “One Time, One Night,” which is not only one of my favorite Los Lobos songs, but is one of my favorite songs, period. The wrenchingly sad story of how life doesn’t always work out, even “in the home of the brave [and] this land here of the free,” always affects me. It made me think and actually brought me close to tears.
And in the end, isn’t that what a good story is supposed to do?
Friday, December 6, 2013
Friday, November 29, 2013
POG AON OIDCHE EARRAICH : RUNRIG
I'm feeling a bit stuck in this folkie groove, worried whether I should feel worried. But, do you know what? I don't. This is important. Well, I think so.
This is a song, poem, whatever, about Flora McDonald, and it is in gaelic. It probably neither rocks nor rolls, and has a choir singing on it. What's not to love? Well, try it......
The scottish band, for it is they, have legend similar to that "Scottish Play" that dare not say it's name. To invoke their name can lead, I'm led to believe, to untold harm, yet they plough their 40 year farrow, unabated, give or take an occasional change of character. This song stems from what I consider their classic period, when Donnie Munro was still fronting on blood-curdling vocals, yet he scarcely figures in this, beyond background wails. I find the goose bumps rise inevitable on this, perhaps a result of my hebridean lineage, but I can't but be affected by this piece. When my mother died, several years back, this was the obvious choice of music for her send-off, not least as she was a gaelic-speaking native of Melbost, near Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis.
This band came from Skye, I understand, another of the hebridean islands, steeped in history, real and invented. It is another world to the one I live in and know, with a poetry and presence at odds with the elsewhere world. I love it. It is my home from reality, a home from home. Fogive my indulgence. Enjoy the song.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
No, I am not evoking "Disasters" to equate with my sausage-fingered ramblings, that's your job*, but as a sign of my gratitude to Uberdude Darius for pointing out I could sift through the leavings of years other than this. Clearly I remain somewhat of a newbie in these parts, so the choice offered thereby is immense, with all the posts I wished I could have done, before sneaking up the gangplank, now available. Indeed I may multi-post this fortnight. Be warned.
(*This is as good a time as any to hitch some link to the asterisk, pointing your eyes to the upper right of this page. If you are sick of the same old, same old, jump in and jump on. Could do better? Do it then. Can't be that hard, eh?)
OK, then, disasters...... I love a good disaster, me. No, not really, I am not taking pleasure from the world of natural, but the songsmithery, particularly in days gone by, can really hold the mind and have you there.Bear in mind, before newsprint was ubiquitous, and before video feeding killed it, the broadsheet ballad was how the news was transmitted. None of your tweets and sky news e-mail updates, if it was the top of the moment action you needed to hear about, it was down to the tavern and listen to the troubadour de jour.
Now it is true I am a bit of an unreconstructed folkie. I'm keen on ye olde folke rocke. (You've noticed?) Yeah, yeah, not everybodys cup of tea, and I try to be a little varied. But on this one I can't. This is my favourite long and drawn out dirge ever. The Albion Band were the warhorse of ex-Fairport and ex-Steeleye "Godfather" Ashley Hutchings, a varied compendium of styles and strummers over at least a couple of decades, being sometimes a bijou accoustic quartet, and at others a rumbustuous 11 piece electric storm of modern and medieval mixed. "Rise Up Like the Sun" was, for me, their tour de force, and was produced in 1978. I was also lucky enough to see this incarnation on a couple of occasions, in a London slowly coming to terms with punk rock. 2 drummers, 2 guitarists, keyboards, a horn section (including crumhorns), girlie singers and electric fiddle for starters. And the Albion Morris Men to dance onstage. Perhaps the switch to a smaller and less eclectic line-up was inevitable. The album had numerous guest vocalists,as amply demonstrated within this song, despite already having, in John Tams, one of the soundest traditional and warming voices in the genre. It is him in the later verses, with Martin Carthy, the harshly angular doyen of the male folk vocal style, in the openers. The fiddle is by Ric Sanders, long, long ahead of his part in Fairport Convention. In these days he was contemporaneously in Soft Machine. (Yes, I said Soft Machine) Guitars are Simon Nicol, never that far away from any of his old Fairport cohorts, and Graeme Taylor, late of odd chamber folk outfit, Gryphon. Also tucked into the mix is a certain Phil Pickett, on ancient reeds and brass, the afrementioned crumhorn, curtals and shawms, daylighting from his other job as leader of the New London Consort, a respected orchestra of renaissance musics on original instrumentation. Drums were Michael Gregory and the best drummer in the world, in my humble, the estimable Dave Mattacks. Yes, another deportee from Fairport, but whose session history, from Mary Chapin Carpenter, through Elton John, to Paul McCartney, makes stellar reading. Go see
I implore you to take the time and listen to the whole of the song, even if you find the bare harmonium a bit hymnal, and the vocals a bit too, um, specialist. It builds from this relatively simple beginning, through a Coltrane inspired wah-wah fiddle frenzy, thence into some guitar pyrotechnic, before returning to the baseline (bassline?) melody. I love it. You may not, but give it a try. Surprise yourself. It won't be a disaster. (I should add that, because it is a "long track", the good folk at A***** won't supply it outside the whole LP. Dare you???)
Monday, November 25, 2013
The Mountain Goats: Golden Boy
This is one of those songs that inexplicably has grabbed me. If you are not a Mountain Goats fan, please listen to it, and maybe it will grab you, too. Apparently, though, if you are a Mountain Goats fan, “Golden Boy” is considered the “Free Bird” of their prodigious body of work. It is a song about peanuts, and the entire moral structure of society. Both of which are important.
The Mountain Goats started in the early 1990’s as a solo project of John Darnielle, one of the more interesting and productive songwriters around. Much of their/his early work was aggressively low-fidelity—recorded on a boom box with awful sound. Yet, the quality of the songs, and their quirky, yet deep lyrics, based on Darnielle’s twisted view of the world led to a significant cult following. More recently, The Mountain Goats have become a real band, and they have abandoned their lo-fi sound for more conventional production, although their songs continue to be anything but conventional.
“Golden Boy” originally appeared on an EP released in 1998 called Object Lessons: Songs About Products, which included 5 songs by 5 bands (4 of which I have never heard of) about products, including “Grenadine” and “Honeywell Round Thermostat.” It was later included on a Mountain Goats compilation album, Ghana.
The track starts with what appears to be Darnielle telling “Paul” (presumably Paul Lukas, who was behind the Object Lessons EP) that he believes that this take is better than the one he was about to send, because “I have my boots on, which always guarantees a good showing.”
The song then begins with an exhortation to live a good life, and to follow the Golden Rule (do unto others….). This is generally good advice, but in the song, Darnielle does not suggest the moral course because it is the right thing to do, or for a general shot at eternal paradise. No, according to Mr. Darnielle, one should live a good life, specifically so that
When you die
You’ll find Golden Boy Peanuts
Waiting in the afterlife for you
These must be some damn good peanuts.
Further, Darnielle warns about the horrible alternative—
There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in hell
So you can't buy Golden Boy Peanuts
Clearly, the traditional fire and brimstone, ceaseless pain and suffering, etc. are nothing, when compared to spending eternity without a specific brand of Singaporean peanuts, distinguished by a
Drawing of the young Chinese farmer
The eastern sun behind him smiling at you.
I can’t really explain the charm of this song, but as someone who finds pretty much anything about religion to be ridiculous, maybe the idea that the reason to live justly is to assure an eternal supply of a particular brand of snack just amuses me.
Sugarcane Harris: Where’s My Sunshine
Papa John Creach: Bumble Bee Blues
As the unofficial keeper of Star Maker traditions, I would like to set the record straight on this week‘s theme. Leftovers week is not simply the time to revisit themes from the past year. Any theme we have ever run is fair game. So some of us may choose to revisit themes from the past year, and I may be one of them as the theme continues. But for my first Leftover, I have chosen one of our older themes, from 2010 in this case: Fiddles and Violins.
I am amused whenever I hear the term “jam band“. I grew up in the 1960‘s, and all bands I knew of jammed. It was a badge of honor, and bands that couldn‘t jam well were laughed at. The San Francisco rock bands of the time were famous for it, but so were the British blues rock groups. I can‘t think of Jerry Garcia without thinking of jamming, but Eric Clapton was just as good. It is natural to think of electric guitar players in this context, but there were jammers on other instruments too. The two musicians featured in this post both began their performing careers before jamming was common in popular music. One usually thinks of jam bands as being white, but both of these musicians were black. And both played an instrument that is not usually associated with either jam bands or, especially, with the blues. I’m talking about two fiddlers who achieved fame with rock bands of the 60s and 70s: Don “Sugarcane“ Harris and Papa John Creach.
Sugarcane Harris began his recording career in the mid 1950s as half of the duo Don and Dewey. After the duo broke up, Harris recorded with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, and Johnny Otis. By the 60‘s, Harris had come to the notice of Frank Zappa. Harris recorded two albums with the Mothers of Invention, and several more with Zappa. This was followed by a mid-70s gig with a late edition of John Mayall‘s Bluesbreakers. Where‘s My Sunshine comes from a solo gig during the transition from Zappa to Mayall. It is more of an excuse for a jam than a song. But the quality of the jam makes up for that. Harris‘ solos are brief, as this is more of a full band effort, but his playing still shows the adventurousness that would have appealed to Zappa. At the same time, a solid blues foundation, which would have been what attracted Mayall, is also evident.
Papa John Creach began performing in Chicago bars in 1935. Blues as we know it now was still taking shape at that time, and Creach was most likely influenced by the black string bands of the day. Blues fiddlers were far more common in those days. Creach managed to stay in music for the next thirty years, but he never recorded until he met drummer Jon Covington, and became a member of Hot Tuna. Creach would go on to record with Jefferson Starship as well, before finally starting his solo career. Bumble Bee Blues hasan intro that recalls the early roots of Creach’s playing, but it soon turns into a fully plugged in electric blues number. Not surprisingly, Creach’s playing is much closer to traditional blues than Harris’. Together, they offer fine examples of the range of music that “jam bands” were making, long before anyone felt the need for the term.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Frank Zappa: Whippin' Post
If you're going to focus on the link between Leftovers and Thanksgiving, this first post may seem out of place: we haven't yet celebrated the feast that leaves us with the days' worth of turkey. On the other hand, in keeping with the way that giving thanks carries with it a reflection back on times past, there's no reason not to bring you songs we might have posted during the year but never got around to a few days before T'day.
Flippant, irreverent, baiting, provocative, Frank Zappa had a lot to say, both on stage and off. At times, you find his words so far off-the-wall that you're sure he can't be serious; or in an interview, his politcal views perceptive and well out in front of most of his contemporaries.
This clip could have almost gone into the "Brothers" theme: written by Greg Allman of the Brothers. Here, we've got (I believe) Bobby Martin doing some fine vocal work following FZ's intro banter and later guitar solos.
Would you all like some more-a?
Saturday, November 23, 2013
!!!: "The Step"
When it comes to punctuation in music, it doesn't get any more, uh, punctuated, than the band known as !!! (or, as they have come to be known by those speaking the name, since exclamation points are quite difficult to pronounce on their own: Chk Chk Chk). And in my estimation, they chose a pretty appropriate punctuation mark, since their music is usually quite emphatic. There isn't the uncertainty that would warrant ???, the to-be-continued feeling of ..., or the ambivalent wildcard-ness of ***.
In the music of !!!, the emphasis is on the edgy, post-punk funk, influenced by the music of early Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and Can, with vocals that bring to mind some of the more subdued singing of Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. The song I'm featuring here today, "The Step," is from their 2001 debut album, !!! (their latest album, from earlier this year, is the cleverly titled Thr!!!er). It features a funky guitar and percussion line that could have been lifted direct from Talking Heads' incredible 1980 album, Remain in Light. But it doesn't feel like outright thievery -- more like paying tribute to their predecessors. And arriving on the scene as the first song on their first album, one might say that it was a very "punctual" -- not just "punctuational" -- tribute.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Songs:Ohia: John Henry Split My Heart
I could have saved writing about Jason Molina, who died in March, for our annual In Memoriam theme, but I figure I can write about someone else, since both of Molina’s best known bands, Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. fit the Punctuation theme.
If you are a regular reader of Star Maker Machine (and thanks!), you probably have a few bands or musicians that you just love. You know all about them, their history, discography and quirks. And I suspect that you have some artists that you like, but never really got around to getting to know in the same way. That’s the way I was about Jason Molina—almost every time I heard one of his songs, I liked it, but for whatever reason (maybe because I’m an adult now? Or because there’s so much good to watch on TV?), I never spent much time learning about him and his music.
Then, in March, he died, at the age of 39, of “alcohol abuse-related organ failure.” Yuck. Another sad loss to substance abuse. I found myself surprisingly unhappy about this, and realized that maybe I liked his music more than I thought.
Born in Ohio, Molina graduated from Oberlin College and shortly thereafter started Songs:Ohia, a solo project with a revolving cast of side musicians. The name was derived both from his home state and a Hawaiian tree. Molina mixed Americana and classic rock sounds with metal and indie influences to create his personal sound, which seems to have an underlying melancholy that, in retrospect, makes a good deal of sense.
I have a little bit of a John Henry obsession—I have about 45 songs on my iPod that reference the steel driving man—and this version is one of the best modern reimaginings of the American legend (along with, of course, the Drive-By Truckers’ version). It is an epic song, reminiscent of Neil Young’s, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” in its refusal to hurry to a conclusion and its great guitar lines.
“John Henry Split My Heart” appears on an album titled Magnolia Electric Co. and sources differ as to whether this was the last Songs:Ohia album, or the first Magnolia Electric Co. album. But it really doesn’t matter. It is a great song, by an underappreciated artist who died too young. And either way, it fits the theme.