Saturday, October 15, 2011

Special Projects: Coast of High Barbary

Joseph Arthur: Coast of High Barbary


I didn’t want to let our week of special projects pass with posting something Hal Wilner was involved in. Who? you may ask. Hal Wilner is a producer who has made a career out of tribute albums and other special projects that put lesser and better known musicians in unfamiliar, and possibly uncomfortable, combinations, and get them to make amazing music that sounds like nothing they have ever done before. Wilner’s best known project was possibly the album Stay Awake, which featured a surprising mixture of artists doing Disney songs. Sun Ra’s version of Pink Elephants on Parade must be heard to be believed. One of Wilner’s more recent projects was Rogue’s Gallery, a collection of pirate songs and sea shanties. So you might expect an entire album of folk music, but not from Hal Wilner.

Joseph Arthur is known for songs that straddle the line between folk and pop. The songs are expertly crafted, and Arthur knows how to make it work. He normally surrounds himself with fine sympathetic musicians who are great at helping him realize his sound. But, for Rogue’s Gallery, Arthur showed up alone, and he was at Wilner’s mercy. The result is a version of Coast of High Barbary that sounds like some sort of mutant cabaret number. This one might have been heard in a seaside club where a hard rock band and an avante-garde jazz combo were playing, and the drinks were flowing freely. Arthur sings in a sinister baritone at the bottom of his a range, a voice I’ve never heard from him before.

Special Projects: Bangla Desh

George Harrison and Friends: Bangla Desh


George Harrison was always my favorite of the Beatles, even at my tender age of 10 when they hit the music scene in 1964 -I loved his thoughtfulness, his playfulness, his spirituality... so imagine my delight at discovering the two-part Martin Scorsese documentary, Living in the Material World, recently airing on HBO...

It brought back memories, as I re-discovered much and learned a lot - of course I must have known, but it was surprising to realize that George's August 1, 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh (actually two shows the same day) was the first of its kind (long before Live Aid) to bring together famous musicians (Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and others) to raise global awareness as well as money for a charitable cause...

According to Wikipedia: "As East Pakistan struggled to become the separate state of Bangladesh during theBangladesh Liberation War, the tremendous political and military turmoil and the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities led to a massive refugee problem in India. This problem was compounded by the 1970 Bhola cyclone, bringing torrential rains causing devastating floods and threatening a humanitarian disaster."

In reply to a request for help from musician Ravi Shankar, Harrison not only wrote and recorded the single Bangla Desh but took Shankar's idea of a small fund-raising concert in the United States and turned it into an enormous event, organized in only five weeks, in Madison Square Garden.

The concert raised $243,418.51 for Bangladesh relief, which was administered by UNICEF. Sales of the album and DVD continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.

I recall going to the Fox Theater in Atlanta, during my senior year in high school, to watch the film with friends - I owned the album and, after watching the Scorsese tribute, just purchased the 2-disc CD. I always knew I loved George best - the documentary reinforced why...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Special Projects: Well Did You Evah?

Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop: Well Did You Evah?


1990 saw the release of Red Hot & Blue. The album is a special project for two reasons. First, it was recorded to raise awareness of AIDS research, and some of the proceeds from the album went to that purpose. Second, Red Hot & Blue is a tribute to the music of Cole Porter. The resulting album has a mix of music that often occurs on benefit albums. It seems like more artists want participate than there are room for, so some have to double up, and some unlikely collaborations are the result. Well Did You Evah? pairs Deborah Harry of Blondie fame with Iggy Pop. It may be worth remembering that Blondie got their start playing the famed punk club CBGBs. Well Did You Evah? as rendered here is a power pop blast with a punkish disrespect for its source. But most of all, it is the sound of two artists having a lot of fun.

Special Projects: Riders on the Storm

George Winston: Riders on the Storm


Sometimes a real genre-shift is all another artist needs to make their music sound shiny and new. In 2002 George Winston, contemporary pianist and mainstay of the Windham Hill label, took 13 songs by the Doors and transformed them to introspective and melodic solo piano songs. It took me a while to choose one because I really love the whole album, but I went with one of my favorite Doors tunes.

This week is hard for me just for the fact that I am spoiled for choice and can't decide among all the great tributes and special concerts out there. I've started several posts, only to be swayed by something even better… And yes, if you were curious, Japanese artists put out as many tribute albums as western artists do. In fact, one just showed up last month: Visual Kei Rock Tribute to Disney! But sadly it's too new to make our arbitrary year cut-off, or I'd be tempted to share a pop-punk Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Special Projects: Let's Clean Up The Ghetto

The Philadelphia International All Stars : Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto


Always a socially conscious label, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records released a compilation in 1977 that called for urban rejuvenation through the call: “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”.

The record featured some of the label’s great names: The O’Jays, Lou Rawls, The Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Intruders, Billy Paul, Dee Dee Sharp and Archie Bell. All but four of the songs on the album were exclusive to it. Some were covers, such as Harold Melvin’s version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking’”, Dee Dee Sharp Gamble’s take on “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps, and The Intruders’ remake of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Save The Children”. The highlight is Lou Rawls’ “Tradewinds”, which was first recorded by The Three Degrees in 1972 and in Rawls’ version also appeared on his When You Hear Lou, You've Heard It All LP, released shortly after Let's Clean Up The Ghetto.

The song here is the joint collaboration on the title track. Lou Rawls, whose “Tradewinds” preceded “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, sets the scene with a spoken intro about the grime of the ghetto, backed by a funky groove created by the label’s backing band, MFSB. Then Billy Paul comes in, followed by Archie Bell, Dee Dee Sharp, Teddy Pendergrass and The O’Jays. The whole seriously funky exercise was arranged by the great Dexter Wansel, who lets the instrumentalists shine during the extended instrumental play-out.

Ghetto is our home
That’s where we live, where we live
Get some paint, fetch your hammer, your nails
If you broomed, you mop and you pails
We’re gonna wash it, polish
And make it all clean
Let's wash away all of the sins
Time for a new life to begin
In the ghetto

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Special Projects: I Can't Forget

The Pixies: I Can't Forget


  The fact that even my unknown garage band got to provide a track to a Who tribute album (called, presciently,  Who Cares) has given me insight into just how difficult it must be to enlist well known artists to team up on a special project. There will always be songs listeners will skip over and songs bands rushed into production to meet deadline.

I'm Your Fan, dedicated to the songs of Leonard Cohen,  is better than most tribute albums (even though two artists, Robert Forster and Nick Cave, contributed covers of the same song). The artists involved included R.E.M., Lloyd Cole, House of Love and The Pixies. That's all I needed to know in 1991. The Pixies rocked out on "I Can't Forget" which  features some vintage Cohen lyrics: I stumbled out of bed/ I got ready for the struggle/ I smoked a cigarette and tightened up my gut/ I said this can't be me, must be my double.

I knew some Leonard Cohen in 1991. This album helped turn me on to his 70's albums like New Skin for the Old Ceremony. I'm Your Fan was just the first Leonard Cohen tribute album ( not counting Jennifer Warnes's Famous Blue Raincoat). Bigger names like Elton John, Billy Joel and Sting would gather in 1994 for the critically savaged Tower of Song. That's one tribute album I can forget!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Religion = > Special Projects: Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me

Alvin Youngblood Hart: Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me


Mississippi John Hurt was one of those bluesmen of the pre-war years, (1920s in this case), who disappeared from the music scene, and was then rediscovered during the folk music revival of the late 50s and early 60s. Many of these musicians tell of how, as children, they developed a love of blues music over the objections of their parents. The parents in these tellings believed that blues was the Devil’s music, and they would beat their children to teach them to resist this temptation. So Mississippi John Hurt may have written Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me in self defense. But it could just as easily have been religious devotion that inspired the song.

Avalon Blues is a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt that was put together by Peter Case. Hurt is one of the influences that you can hear in Case’s guitar playing, so it’s not surprising that Case would want to do the album. But some of the artists he asked to participate are certainly surprising. Alvin Youngblood Hart is not a surprise at all. His own albums are soaked in blues. Likely or not, the artists on this album all deliver strong performances, paying tribute to Hurt by making his songs their own.