Friday, April 20, 2012

Suites and Medleys: The Reduced Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard: Medley of Hits

[purchase]

Just as the Reduced Shakespeare Company boils down the epic works of Williams Shakespeare into two hours, this excellent medley of Merle Haggard hits does a good job of condensing some of the Bard of Country Music's best songs from the 1960s into a slightly overmodulated six-minute medley. The set is taken from his legendary live album, Okie from Muskogee, recorded in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA. It was Haggard's first live album, and also his first record to go gold, then platinum. If this is your introduction to these songs, they sound complete; in fact, after I got used to these abbreviated renderings, the extra words in the full-length songs almost seemed unnecessary. Almost.

I would write more about this....but something about unnecessary extra words makes me want to stop here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Suites and Medleys: Try A Little Tenderness/(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons/You Send Me

Sam Cooke: Try A Little Tenderness/(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons/You Send Me

[purchase]

Before “Try A Little Tenderness” was a soul classic, it was a standard beloved of crooners. Little Miss Cornshucks was the first to give it an R&B edge in 1951, and Aretha Franklin recorded it in 1962, drawing from the Cornshucks version. But it was Sam Cooke’s interpretation of it, as part of a medley recorded at the Copacabana club in New York City, that inspired Otis Redding’s definitive version from 1966 (which we have cause to remember this month following the death last week of Andrew Love, who with fellow Memphis Horns founder Wayne Jackson played that iconic horn intro).

Sam Cooke was Redding’s idol, but unlike Cooke, Redding didn’t compromise. The medley here, recorded on 8 July 1964, is Cooke at his compromisingest: he sings two standards which the mostly white audience can identify with, and then delivers his big crossover hit. To hear Cooke in a soul environment, one has to hear the live album recorded at the Apollo, and unreleased until the mid-’80s.

But make no mistake, bubbling just under the surface at the Copa, and especially on the “Try A Little Tenderness” part of the medley (which Cooke apparently based on Aretha’s version), is Sam Cooke the soul singer, the gospel singer, the voice that Otis Redding idolised and which he heard when he set off to record the song originally recorded in 1932 by the Ray Noble Orchestra (and shortly after by Bing Crosby and Ruth Etting).

There is a lovely story that Redding actually didn’t want to record the song, which was arranged by Isaac Hayes, because he could not stand the idea of competing with the by then dead Sam Cooke, and so intentionally sang it in a way he thought would make the recording unreleasable.

For more on the background to “Try A Little Tenderness”, go HERE

Suites and Medleys: Sailing Shoes/ Hey Julia/ Sneaking Sally Through the Alley


Robert Palmer: Sailing Shoes/ Hey Julia/ Sneaking Sally Through the Alley

[purchase]

Robert Palmer isn’t that unusual a name. So, when I first heard Addicted to Love, I wanted to know if this was the same Robert Palmer I was thinking of. After all, he didn’t sound all that much like the Robert Palmer I knew. But, they are indeed the same person. I was thinking of the Robert Palmer who opened his debut album with an amazing medley of a Little Feat cover, Sailing Shoes, and two originals, Hey Julia and Sneaking Sally Through the Alley. What an introduction! The whole thing is a blast of funky New Orleans-inspired swamp boogie, and the three songs are distinct, but Palmer stitches them together seamlessly. He had to rearrange Sailing Shoes to do it, changing it from the slow burner Little Feat performed, into a funky groove. Little Feat never performed the song this way, but that’s most of them backing Palmer on the track.

Side Note: I know of at least one other famous Robert Palmer. The other was a pop music critic for the New York Times when I was young. “Pop music critic” is a term that doesn’t really do the man justice. He could write intelligently about an amazing variety of musical genres, and was one of the first to introduce me to world music. Palmer was one of the first people who inspired me to want to write about music. He was an authority on the blues, and his book Deep Blues is required reading on the subject.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Suites And Medleys: Fantasia's Confidential Ghetto


PM Dawn: Fantasia's Confidential Ghetto

[Purchase]

I bought a brand new sealed cassette copy of Jesus Wept from a small record store I was driving by in Montrose, Colorado. Had it not been $4, and had I not a hundred miles to go before I got home,  I probably would have passed on it and missed out on what I still consider to be 1995's best album.

   Prince Be was still the heavyweight spiritual love guru that wrote the 1992 #1 hit "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" and he and his brother still sampled like mad. The single "Downtown Venus" borrows  Deep Purple's groovy "Hush" groove. Maybe as a way to thank those who inspired them, PM Dawn ends the album with a medley featuring Prince's "1999", Talking Heads's "Once In a Lifetime" and Harry Nilsson's  "Coconut". There's even a nod to The Beatles's "Flying". It shouldn't work at all. But as you'll hear, it's amaze ( as the kids and Bill Mahar say).


Suites and Medleys: Texas Trilogy

Frummox: Texas Trilogy

[purchase (CD only)]

Steven Fromholz was a big part of the first wave of singer/songwriters who defined the always-in-search-of-a-better-name Texas outlaw country/folk/redneck rock progressive alt.country movement. A suite of three songs, called “Texas Trilogy,” is his masterpiece.

The songs, recorded in 1969 (predating the Preston Jones plays of the same name by several years), form a story arc depicting a “day in the life” of Fromholz's hometown, Kopperl, Texas. A recently published book, Texas Trilogy: Life in a Small Town, documents the songs and the town that inspired them. “It’s simply the story of what it was like growing up in Kopperl," Fromholz writes. "There’s not a great deal that happens in a small town like that, but what does happen has a lot of feelings attached to it.” "Texas Trilogy" kicks off with "Daybreak." ("Six o’clock silence of a new day beginning is heard in a small Texas town. Like a signal from nowhere, the people who live there are up and moving around.") After a spoken interlude, "Trainride" reminisces about the changes brought about when railways were replaced by highways. The three-pack closes with "Bosque County Romance," which sets to rhyme the hard times of Mary Martin and Bill Archer, who married young and lived out life as bad-luck farmers. ("The mortgage got the money and the screwworms got the cows. The years have come for Mary, she's waiting for them now.")

Fromholz first recorded the song as part of Frummox (“a cross between Fromholz and a lummox”), a folk duo formed with Dan McCrimmon. Frummox's debut album, which included "Texas Trilogy," was released just moments before its record label went belly up. ("It was the second most obscure album of 1969," Fromholz joked to journalist Jan Reid.) Fromholz went on to play with Stephen Stills and enjoyed a modicum of success as a singer/songwriter in the 1970s. John Denver and Willie Nelson were among those covering his songs. (You can hear Fromholz’s ragged call-and-response vocals on Nelson’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy.”) He mostly retired from the music business in the 1990s and became the Poet Laureate of Texas in 2007.

“Texas Trilogy” is decades out of print, but the song remains Fromholz’s best known work, famously covered by Lyle Lovett in his salute to Texas songwriters, Step Inside This House. In the book Texas Trilogy, Fromholz summarized the suite's impact this way: “I think I’ve painted a picture that will live much longer than I will.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Suites And Medleys: The Homestead Suite


Michael Johnathon: The Homestead Suite: Sunrise (Jenny's Theme)/ Homestead/ Suppertime

[purchase]

Michael Johnathon is a consummate singer and songwriter with something profound to say. On his 2003 album called Homestead, the poetic theme revolves around home, with songs composed in the glow of the musician’s Kentucky farmhouse fireplace. After the album’s reflective opener called "Winter's Eve," the album launches into "The Homestead Suite" with three tunes: Sunrise (Jenny's Theme), Homestead and Suppertime.

The album's title cut, "Homestead," tells a story of a peaceful autumn evening at home in woods, complete with music, family, homemade bread and a glass of wine. The song even makes mention of a couple of the assisting musicians, Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle) and J.D. Crowe (banjo). Some others appearing on this album include Rob Ickes (dobro), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Mike Cleveland (fiddle), Barbara Lamb (fiddle), John Cowan (bass), and Don Rigsby (mandolin).

Johnathon's seventh album also features cello, flutes, percussion, French horns, fluglehorns, trumpets, sitar, electric guitar and jaw harp on various cuts. The nicely-arranged, multi-instrumental patchwork of tones and rhythms resemble a cozy quilt that warms you while you relax in your old rocking chair. Johnathon’s vision for "folkestral" music incorporates elements from folk, blues, bluegrass and classical genres. Besides his own rootsy vocal styling, Michael plays guitar, banjo and mandolin. With his fine accompanists, the band always successfully dispenses "song conversation" to the music.

On the same album, Johnathon offer another suite called "The Crimson Rose Trilogy." That begins with Conception, a one-minute prelude of three mandolins. It segues into The Garden, the story of a maiden with a secret that only a garden knows, a child who was lost and buried there near a crimson rose. The third piece in the trilogy, Redemption, provides a joyous instrumental "musical expression of the maiden's freedom from pain after she dies."

Michael Johnathon is a busy touring folksinger. He's also written a book (with accompanying CD) called WoodSongs which combines songs, poetry and social commentary. That project helped Michael launch the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, a live weekly internationally syndicated program broadcast on hundreds of stations (and internet) which provides exposure for up-and-coming artists. Johnathon is a hardworking musician who’s dedicated to his art. Homestead is a soothing, touching and caring album that also emphasizes his devotion to home and family.

Suites and Medleys: Jack & Neal / California, Here I Come



Tom Waits: Medley: Jack & Neal / California, Here I Come

[purchase]

Sometimes you don't have to be in the gutter to be looking at the stars.  And sometimes, when you look at the stars it's only because you're winking at them as you give the moon the finger.

Beautiful losers making the ultimate road trip, New York to California.  Searching for something.  God, maybe, or maybe just a good time.  Cigarettes, cheap booze, benzedrine and girls who want all of those things, and are happy to share. You dream of Bird, even though Wilson Pickett's voice tells you that you're neither Kerouac nor Cassady, you've just borrowed their shoes for a while. Forget for a moment Dean Moriarty standing alone by the side of the road, that there is precedent and that these things never end well.  These things never end. Sometimes it's best not to sweat the big stuff.

Open up that Golden State, California here I come!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Suites and Medleys: Suite Judy Blue Eyes


[purchase]

Originally a grouped set of four movements/dances including the gigue and the sarabande, the suite as a musical form was used by Bach, Handel, Tchaikovsky and other classical composers. The pop/rock musical style with its 3-minute format would be unlikely to include many examples of a suite. However, a group such as Genesis, which frequently composed longer songs, is more likely to come up with a suite. Segueing from one 3 minute pop/rock song into another, on the other hand, produces the musical form we call a medley.

Suite Judy Blue Eyes (with the obvious play on "sweet") is the result of a collection of work that Stephen Stills wrote as he tried to make sense of his deteriorating relationship with Judy Collins. The four sections of the song go from fast to slow and back to fast, ending with a section in Spanish. All come together to create a unified whole with smooth transitions between each part held together by Stills' vocals and guitar, backed by harmonies from Crosby and Nash. The story is told that the group Crosby, Stills & Nash was formed specifically for this song. Although the version most of us know came out on the debut CSN album in 1969, Stills notes that he had previously recorded a version as part of a taped demo session from 1968 which was lost for 40 years but later released as Just Roll Tape.

There are several resources you might find worth checking out if you would like to dig deeper:
 - an article reflecting back on 35 years of CSN
- Stills' official web site where you can listen to a more recent solo version
- a review of Just Roll Tape with a short preview of the '68 version

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Suites And Medleys: A Man Needs A Maid/Heart Of Gold Suite



























"In some movies there's tunes, you know..." Here's Dinosaur Sr. once again, combining two of his gems into a suite thingy of sorts, complete with stoner spoken intro. Recorded live at Massey Hall back in 1971, and found on volume 3 of the hopefully ongoing Archive Performance Series. Collect 'em all I say.

Suites and Medleys: Supermarket


Pierre Moerlen’s Gong: Supermarket
[purchase]

Great, another opportunity for me to reach into my pretentious prog rock collection and dredge up another long-winded suite. Well, I sort of went there, but not exactly. Bear with me for a bit, for some exposition/history about some obscure, but interesting music. I’ll keep it short, because you can easily find more detail on the Internet if you want—especially because this is the kind of music that has long fascinated rock snobs and obsessives.

We start with the “Canterbury Scene” of the late 1960’s-70’s, centered around a group of musicians with some connection to Canterbury, England. The music is a mix of jazz, rock, prog rock, and general spaciness, and the musicians seem to create new bands, with different combinations, on a daily basis. I’d hazard a guess that various mind expanding substances were also involved.

Probably the most famous band to be considered part of the scene is Soft Machine. A founding member of that band, Daevid Allen, an Australian, and early “hippy”, is refused reentry to England in 1967 due to a visa issue, so he stays in France and forms a band called Gong. (Aside--and there are many to be had with this crowd—one brief replacement for Allen in Soft Machine is Andy Summers, who later becomes the guitarist for a somewhat popular band, The Police).

Gong is, basically, insane. Spacy, jazzy, crazy music, the band members adopt pseudonyms like Bloomdido Bad de Grasse and create a band mythology with characters named Zero the Hero, the Octave Doctors, and Flying Teapots. Remember, this was the 1970’s.

The band is a revolving door of musicians, including a brilliant, classically trained French drummer and percussionist named Pierre Moerlen, who joins, leaves, returns, ultimately takes over leadership of the band and moves it toward somewhat more conventional jazz-rock. Over time, the various members of Gong create a series of ever shifting spinoff bands, usually with the word “Gong” in the name; the one led by Moerlen becomes known, cleverly, as Pierre Morelen’s Gong. If you are interested in more detail on the Gong family tree and their inspired looniness, there is way more information than you need at this website: [Planet Gong]

As I said, Moerlen is an incredible percussionist, and his version of the band focuses on more conventional late ‘70s fusion, but with an emphasis on mallet percussion (vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, etc.). In my book, as a drummer, he is in the same league as Bruford, a subject of an earlier post, and who also spent a brief period in Gong. Alan Holdsworth, who played guitar in Bruford’s bands, also played with Moerlen.

The subject of this post is supposed to be Suites or Medleys, and the Pierre Moerlen’s Gong album “Time is the Key,” opens with a four track suite. At WPRB in 1980, we were big fans of these guys, and arranged to bring them to campus for a concert that was pretty amazing. My daughter still wears the t-shirt. We got to interview the band, which included guitarist Bon Lozaga, a very talented player, who was a Holdsworth disciple, and strong bassist Hansford Rowe. One or both of them lived in New Jersey, and would call the station occasionally, and we supported one of Lozaga’s projects, Boji. (Another aside—I just found a download of a Boji gig from 1981 at Trenton’s City Gardens. Here’s the opening song, and I’m pretty sure that is me doing the intro. Which shocked the hell out of me.) Boji: Katalpan Rise


I think during the interview, Moerlen said that he wrote the first side of the album on the vibraphone, and the other on the drums. Or maybe I read that somewhere, but the sound of the two sides is very different. I have linked to the third track from the suite on side one, “Supermarket,” which is fun, and playful, and has a great vibe solo. It is a little New Age-ish and sounds a little like Mike Oldfield (the “Tubular Bells” guy), which is not surprising, since Moerlen toured regularly with Oldfield. If you can track down a copy of “Time is the Key,” I think you will enjoy it. It isn’t the best Gong album, or even the best of the Pierre Moelen led Gong albums (I’m a fan of “Expresso II,” but a case could be made for “Gazeuse” a/k/a “Expresso”), but I still like it.

Moerlen retired his version of Gong not too long after they appeared at Princeton, but tried to revive it later, with other musicians and little success. Lozaga and Rowe performed and recorded for a while as Gongzilla, creating another branch on the Gong tree. Unfortunately, Moerlen died in 2005, in his 50’s, of natural causes, ending the career of an unappreciated artist.

Suites and Medleys: Harry’s House/ Centerpiece


Joni Mitchell: Harry‘s House/ Centerpiece

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Most songs are fairly straightforward. They have one story to tell, or one mood to express. But there are times when musicians are inspired to greater complexity. They will string together a song that inspired them with the results of that inspiration. Or they will create a piece of music that features shifting moods and concepts. These are suites and medleys, and we will be looking at them all week. Roughly, a suite is a unified piece of music that features distinct sections with musical and emotional shifts, while a medley is a set of songs where one blends into the next, but the songs can be separated out and performed as individual works. But there are times when it is hard to tell the difference.

Consider our first example: Harry’s House/ Centerpiece by Joni Mitchell. Centerpiece is a cover. It was originally an instrumental by Harry “Sweets” Edison. Jon Hendricks then added words to it, for his group Lambert Hendricks and Ross. Considering that Mitchell had previously covered the group’s song Twisted, I don’t doubt that it was Lambert Hendricks and Ross’ version of Centerpiece that inspired Mitchell. All of this would seem to indicate that Harry’s House/ Centerpiece is a medley. But Harry’s House is a Mitchell original. The song finds its male narrator thinking of how his marriage has shattered his idealism about love. He and his wife have become completely overwhelmed by the burdens of raising children and the pressures of maintaining their lifestyle and reputations. Yet Harry can still remember the purity of the love he first felt. He does this in a flashback to how things were in the beginning of their relationship, and Mitchell uses Centerpiece for this flashback. So one can find performances of Centerpiece without Harry’s House, but Harry’s House is incomplete without Centerpiece. For this reason, I would call Harry’s House/ Centerpiece a suite. The juxtaposition of the two songs makes a brilliant statement.