Saturday, January 21, 2012

On the Air: Never Too Late

Michael Franti and Spearhead: Never Too Late

[purchase studio version]

When I started thinking about this week's theme I begin to think about how the internet, for better or for worse, has changed the way that many of us listen to the radio. With an internet connection you can essentially listen to any radio station which live-streams their programming. For example, I am in Boston, but I regularly listen to sports programming streaming from WGN radio in Chicago.

My first experience with streaming music came in 2004 when my then boyfriend introduced me to KEXP. KEXP is a public supported (minimal advertising) radio station based in Seattle on the University of Washington campus. They began live streaming in 2000. Most of their daytime playlist is dominated by whatever is popular in alternative rock (or indie pop or whatever), but they also have a huge variety of shows featuring country, jazz, world, hip-hop, local music, etc.

My favorite part of their programming is their live guests. In 2005 KEXP released their inaugural Live at KEXP volume 1 limited edition album which featured 19 of their best live performances (out of over 250) from over the past year. One of the most striking performances on this stellar set is by Michael Franti and Spearhead and his song "Never Too Late." Before performing a stripped down version of the song, which really highlights Franti's powerful vocals, Franti describes the meaning of the song and dedicates the song to am important person in his life.

Friday, January 20, 2012

On the Air: El Cumbanchero

Desi Arnaz: El Cumbanchero

[purchase studio version]

I Love Lucy was the first live television sitcom to be shot on film and to make use of three-camera production techniques. It's also perpetually rerun (even now, 60 years after it debuted, six times per day on the Hallmark Channel). Lucy's popularity is due in no small part to its evergreen comedy. But, its reputation as one of the most profitable TV shows ever is testament to the business acumen of the show's producer and co-star, Desi Arnaz. Desi may have played second banana to Lucille Ball on TV, but he ran the show -- literally. (Arnaz's business chops were likely genetic: His grandfather was a co-founder of Bicardi Rum.)

Arnaz achieved his first taste of fame in the 1930s as a guitarist in Xavier Cugat's orchestra. After WWII, he struck out on his own, with a band made up of Cugat castoffs, most of whom couldn't play the tropical music Arnaz favored. As a result, his orchestra offered an eclectic mix of styles, embellished by Arnaz's energetic singing and playing.

"Babalu" was Arnaz's best known song, but "El Cumbanchero" is his most exciting. Arnaz first recorded "El Cumbanchero" in the 1940s, and it appeared on I Love Lucy a couple of times, most raucously in an episode where Lucy and Ricky host a hoedown in their apartment, trying to get the Mertzes to tear up their apartment lease. This version is taken from a 1951 CBS radio special, Your Tropical Trip.

"El Cumbanchero" was written by Rafael Hernández, the leading composer of Puerto Rican music. That Arnaz's Lucy renditions make this the best-known Hernández composition in the continental United States speaks to the enduring impact of Lucy and the extra boost music receives when performed on prime-time TV.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On the Air: To Be Surprised

Sondre Lerche: To Be Surprised

[purchase studio version]

Norwegian artist Sondre Lerche is not exactly a household name. My first encounter with the man and his music was an appearance on the David Letterman Show a few years back. Following in a long tradition of late night TV talk shows, one of the better sections of Letterman's show is the regular musical offering at the end, sometimes introducing us to a musician we might not have otherwise been exposed to.

This performance was a breath of fresh air: a song that struck me as commercially viable - yet played with a style that felt off the beaten path. My interest piqued, it led me to locate a studio version of To Be Surprised, which further confirmed my positive impressions. Here was a musician whose live versions of his music were no less professional than his controlled, studio-crafted recordings. In several YouTube clips showing him in informal pre-concert appearances he came across as fun, down-to-earth, skilled and comfortable with his tools (his guitar, voice and lyric writing skills.) His musical genre has been described as lounge/folk/pop.

posted by KKafa

On The Air: KX

Morning Bride: KX

[Free download of studio version here]

For my first ever post I thought it made sense to look to the classics. Well, classic to me at any rate: Morning Bride are particular favourites of mine and have been for a good while now. They’re one of those bands that seem effortlessly better than celebrated acts who plough the same furrow despite garnering so much less in the way of kudos. Their debut album Lea Valley Delta Blues is a marvel, in as much as it manages to do exactly what its title promises by delivering authentic Americana while remaining true to its roots in North East London.

Factoring an even further-flung destination into this equation comes this track: a version of their 2007 single KX recorded live on Gothenburg’s local radio station P4 during the band’s Scandinavian tour of the same year. In contrast to the studio version this performance strips the song back to two acoustic guitars and the clear, haunting voice of vocalist Amity Dunn. Despite having grown up listening to the mighty John Peel, I confess that I am not usually one to seek out radio sessions. This band is the exception to the rule.

Guest post by Houman

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On The Air: Secondhand Furniture

The Go Betweens: Secondhand Furniture


   On an Autumn day in 1984, The Go Betweens appeared on John Peel's BBC radio show and performed four songs that would become available on an EP. They'd just completed Spring Hill Fair, their third album. Their single "Bachelor Kisses" was getting some airplay and the band was in terrific form--bouncy, edgy, tight. You can hear early Talking Heads and Gang of Four, I suppose, but the band's songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster also approached lyrics with the humanity of  short story writers. In this song, a divorced man sees his old marriage bed in a secondhand furniture store. All four songs benefit from the stripped down production. It's not surprising to hear fans say, despite its 14 minute length, this is their favorite Go Betweens release.


Sesame Street: ABC-DEF-GHI

[purchase studio version]

A month before I began primary school in West Germany in 1972, the TV authorities broadcast a pilot run of the revolutionary (and therefore controversial) US educational kids’ programme Sesame Street, in English, to measure parents’ reaction to it. I remember my mother, my younger brother and I watching it, and being enthused (I also think watching Sesame Street in a language I couldn’t understand planted in me the first seeds for my growing love of English).

Clearly it was well received by other viewers as well: by early 1973 Sesame Street, now dubbed into German and titled Sesamstrasse, was screened twice daily throughout the country, except in conservative Bavaria.

I loved it. I could do without the repetitious counting and presentation of the day’s letter, but the interplay of the characters, especially the Cookie Monster and Ernie and Bert, and Bob McGrath’s retelling of fairy tales (with a wink and a nod at watching adults) was top notch TV. I also loved the street scenes: real-life characters Susan, Gordon, Bob and Mr Hooper (known in Germany as Herr Huber), and especially Oscar, whom I dressed as at a First Grade fancy dress party.

The song here is preceded by some of the interplay between real people – Gordon and Susan – and Big Bird, voiced by the great Carroll Spinney, who also did Oscar. The rather dim bird then sings about “just about the biggest word I’ve ever seen”, which turns out to be the alphabet, but pronounced as a single, tongue-fracturing word. Like so many of the Sesame Street songs, it is superbly catchy; had it been part of a hit musical – and it sounds like a musical tune – it would be regarded as a Broadway classic.

“ABC-DEF-GHI” was co-written by Joe Raposo (1937-89), whose catalogue of Sesame Street tunes includes some of the best, such as “Being Green”, “C Is For Cookie”, “Sing”, “Doin’ The Pigeon” and the theme tune. He went on to write songs for his pal Frank Sinatra and other TV theme tunes, including that of Three’s Company.

Raposo wrote “ABC-DEF-GHI” with Jon Stone, a pivotal figure in the Sesame Street history, who helped develop many of the show’s stock characters and served as writer, director and producer for many years until his death at 66 in 1997. Crucially, it was Stone who introduced Jim Henson to Children's Television Workshop president Joan Ganz Cooney, the remarkably woman who spearheaded the Sesame Street concept.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On the Air: Cry

Rockpile: Cry

[purchase Live at Montreaux]

"Rockpile is usually Terry Williams on drums, Billy Bremner on guitar, Dave Edmunds on guitar, and my name is Nick Lowe, I play the bass...Let's have some fun tonight!"

That's how Nick Lowe introduced his band Rockpile during its 1980 appearance on the King Biscuit Flower Hour. King Biscuit was a syndicated concert series, which ran in the '70s and '80s on U.S. radio stations that played cool music. (And, that in the '10s are likely the ones in your town running sports talk or Jack FM. Thanks, CBS, Cumulus and Clear Channel!) Many of the original King Biscuit Flower Hour shows can be streamed for free on the Wolfgang's Vault web site.

The Rockpile show was recorded at The Ritz in New York City, part of a tour in support of Seconds of Pleasure, the band's only official studio recording. (An excellent streaming audio documentary about Rockpile's rise and fall is available here.)

Rockpile's King Biscuit Flower Hour appearance later circulated as a bootleg, Provoked Beyond Endurance. That title reflects the band's experience on what turned out to be its last tour. Shortly after it concluded, Lowe and Edmunds decided they'd had enough of each other, and Rockpile ceased to be. For 30 years, Seconds of Pleasure remained the band's only official release until 2011's Live at Montreaux. That record, taken from a Montreaux Jazz Festival appearance a few of months before the King Biscuit session, features many of the same songs, but the intimacy of the Ritz venue brings out a better show.

"Cry," featuring lead vocals by Billy Bremner, was written by Lowe's then-wife, Carlene Carter. It's the only song on the King Biscuit Flower Hour program that has never appeared on a Lowe, Edmunds or Rockpile record. Carter included it on her "Musical Shapes" album, on which she's backed, most effectively, by Rockpile.

On The Air: One Of Us

Joan Osborne: One Of Us


It's hard to fit a whole band inside a radio station soundbooth. As such, in-studio covers often provide a chance to hear the heart of a song, stripped down to its singer-songwriter essentials. And the result can be startling, revealing a song for what it should have been, before some producer decided to make it...well, a production.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Los Angeles-based KSCA fm101.9's Live From The Music Hall series, a multi-part "best of" compilation series released in the early and mid nineties which I picked up randomly along the way, and have since reveled in for its hushed, intimate takes on everything from Howard Jones' No One Ever Is To Blame to my favorite version of Bruce Cockburn's Wondering Where The Lions Are, from Jeffrey Gaines' infamous acoustic cover of Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes to an acoustic folk-rock take on early b-side Alternative Girlfriend from Barenaked Ladies. But this Joan Osborne song takes the cake, eradicating all traces of the bombast found in her biggest radio hit, and replacing it with something redemptive: a song worth saving and savoring.

Happily, although long out of print, the first volume of this series was recently posted in its entirety on Popdose. It doesn't have the Howard Jones, sadly - but it has all the other songs named above, plus Dave Alvin, Dar Williams, Willy Porter, and much, much more. Click the "purchase" link above to snag it.

On The Air: Were You There

Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys: Were You There

[purchase studio version]

The Grand Ole Opry got its name as a result of a gag. Introducing the DeFord Bailey following the Music Appreciation Hour show on 10 December 1927, announcer George D “Judge” Hay riffed on the transition from the just finished classical music show to the upcoming Old Time Music (as country was then called) programme WSM Barn Dance by saying: “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Ole Opry’.”

The Barn Dance show changed titles several times, often to reflect sponsorship, but wasn’t officially termed the Grand Ole Opry till the 1950s. When people talk of artists being members of the Opry before that, they are referring to frequent performers on the show, much like a club or hall of fame.

The track featured here is from the 28 December 1940 show, then called The Prince Albert Show, after the sponsoring cigarette brand, and recorded at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, which still serves as a concert venue today (and which in 2010 temporarily housed the Opry). Apart from Bill Monroe, the 28 December 1940 show also featured Roy Aycuff, Brother Oswald, Pap & Odie, Ford Rush and Paul Womack and the Gully Jumpers.

Bill Monroe (1911-96) is regarded as the inventor of bluegrass, a sub-genre of country that drew from the traditional music of the Appalachians, ranging from furious and intricate breakdowns dominated by fiddle and banjo to broadside ballads to gospel. It took it its name from Monroe’s backing band, the Blue Grass Boys, which had been formed just a few months before this recording.

By 1940, Monroe was already a big name as half of the Monroe Brothers. He would go on to become a long-serving and massively influential country icon (Elvis’ “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” was a cover of Monroe’s original).

The song here is the spiritual “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)”. I would surmise the vocals are by Clyde Moody, “The Genial Gentleman of Country Music” who was a member of the Blue Grass Boys until 1944.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On The Air: Meet Me Tonight

The Stanley Brothers: Meet Me Tonight


[purchase “on Radio“]

Back in the old days, radio was an important way for old-time and bluegrass musicians to get heard.

Radio provided much needed exposure, publicity and income. Bristol’s WCBY was located on the Tennessee/Virginia state line. Every day around noon, folks would stop whatever they were doing to tune into WCBY’s “Farm and Fun Time” for the latest music and news. The Stanley Brothers first appeared on the show on December 26, 1946. The photo shown here (courtesy of Muleskinner News) shows the band at WCBY about 1948. Ralph and Carter Stanley left Bristol a few times for radio shows in North Carolina, West Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky. However, they always returned to Bristol.

Finances were tight, and it wasn’t easy to make a living as musicians despite successful recordings on the Rich-R-Tone and Columbia labels. In 1951, Carter and Ralph quit the music business to work at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit. It wasn’t long before guitarist Carter was back, singing lead with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Banjo-player Ralph was in a serious auto accident. Ralph (and mandolinist Pee Wee Lambert) built rooms in the old Stanley country store, attended an agricultural course, and had plans to become farmers.

Despite the tough times, The Stanley Brothers were at a peak in their musical career during the mid-1950s. So on March 24, 1956, they accompanied Curley Lambert (mandolin), Ralph Mayo (fiddle) and Larry Ehrlich (recording engineer) to the WCBY studio around midnight to record live around a single mic. At the time, the Clinch Mountain Boys included either Bill Lowe or Doug Morris on bass, but the session took place without a bass-player. There was no audience, no set list, and the session starts with Ehrlich exclaiming, “Let ‘er roll.” What you hear is some of their own personal favorite songs, many their first recorded renditions of them. You get spontaneity, energy, and even a few comments, ambient noises, whoops, hollers and throats clearing. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear a door closing on “Meet Me Tonight.”

It was a sad day when Carter met his untimely death in 1966. Songs on the album “An Evening Long Ago” would be recorded again in later years on fancier equipment. However, the March 1956 WCBY session is simply a rare opportunity to experience the beauty and power of The Stanley Brothers with the Clinch Mountain Boys from a radio station’s studio. The feeling allows us to nostalgically relive a time when their Cadillac traveled circuitous, narrow mountain roads between radio stations, churches, barn dances, and tiny schoolhouse auditoriums. For more music from their actual radio shows, also check out The Stanley Brothers “On Radio” CD put out by Rebel Records.

Guest Post by Joe Ross

On The Air: 18 Wheels of Love

Drive-By Truckers: 18 Wheels of Love

I used to be a member of one of those record clubs where you got a bunch of records for a penny, then had to buy a bunch more at full price, and it still ended up as a good deal if you knew how to play the game. I once ordered a CD from the club, and as a bonus, got a copy of Decoration Day by the Drive-By Truckers, a band I had never heard of. I have no recollection of what I bought, but Decoration Day became, and still is, one of my favorite CDs, and the Truckers became one of my favorite bands. I started to fill in their back catalog, including their debut, Gangstabilly. At the time, I liked it, but didn’t think it measured up to more mature efforts like Decoration Day, Southern Rock Opera or The Dirty South. But there are good songs on there, and they have grown in my estimation over time.

“18 Wheels of Love” is a fine song, telling the story of Patterson Hood’s mother’s romance with a massive trucker, Chester, who drove for the company she worked at, but I can’t really say it is a great song. However, when they played it live, Hood told the whole background story, and a version with the full story was released on Alabama Ass-Whuppin', a live album that came out in 1999. One of the things that can elevate a live performance over a studio version is when the band tells you about the song or comments on it. I think of some of the great Springsteen monologues as an example. Patterson Hood is similarly a master storyteller. Hood’s father is David Hood, a studio musician who played on many great Muscle Shoals recordings, and many other great songs. You can look them up. Patterson’s parents divorced, and as he tells the story, his mother did not handle it well, taking to her room. Ultimately, she got a job as an auditor at a trucking company, and one of the drivers kept messing up his logs so that he could spend time with her. They fell in love and got married. This song was her son’s wedding present.

I have purposely not told this story well to encourage you to listen to the way Patterson Hood tells it—he does it so much better than I ever could. However, the version I have posted is not the Alabama Ass-Whuppin’ version, but one that was recorded during a September 2008 taping of Austin City Limits, the great PBS music series. Here, not only does Hood tell the usual story, but he adds “the rest of the story.” In this version, Hood tells about getting a call from his sister, informing him that Chester was dying. But Chester recovered to drive his truck again. Honestly, it gives me chills every time I hear it. You can hear in the way he tells the story the love that Hood has for his stepfather and mother and his joy that Chester cheated death.

Unfortunately, and as probably was expected considering Chester’s health issues, the recovery was short-lived. Chester Adams died in May, 2010. Announcing the death to the Drive-By Truckers fans who knew the story, Hood wrote: “Chester was a cool guy and truly a force of nature that will be forever missed in our family.”

On The Air: Released

Glen Phillips: Released


On-air coverage is the sensitive coverblogger's bread and butter: many artists perform songs live that they never record, and the purity of sound from an in-studio bootleg is far superior to stage recordings, with none of the crowd noise and fuzzy recoding quality that so often undermine clarity and comfort.

As such, I am an avid collector of such performances, with a huge collection of in-studio recordings that combine coverage and originals alike. And because it is coverage and interpretation which bring me to this particular soundtable, I fully intended to start the week off here with a favorite cover or two from the usual haunts: folk sources such as Austin's KUT, Boulder's KBCO, Boston's WBUR, and Philly's XPN, and the practically infinite number of pop stations which host acoustic sessions in-studio (and occasionally release the best of these in album form in frustratingly small batches, creating an infinite series of rarities).

But then I dug up this 2005 World Cafe recording from Glen Phillips, the former Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman whose solo work in recent years has turned towards such tracks as this: gentle, hopeful, melodic and deep, dipped in the sparsest of harmonies for maximum effect. And, as a bonus, I discovered that the whole set is available on

Coverage, and more contributions, to come, I guess. In the meantime, this will serve to spread the beauty.

On The Air: Touch

Jeff 'Monoman' Conolly was a huge fan of so-called nederbiet, mid-sixties pop from Holland, and of wild Amsterdam cultband the Outsiders in particular. So when he was invited to play a session for VPRO radio in 1987 with his garage band the Lyres and was informed that übercool former Outsiders frontman Wally Tax would drop by as well, Conolly understandably got rather nervous. Fortunately, he regained his cool in time to back his hero on a glorious version of the Outsiders classic Touch, originally released back in '66 in the sleeve pictured above. Wally Tax is second from right by the way, supposedly wearing the longest hair in all the lowlands.

On the Air: On Your Way Down

Little Feat: On Your Way Down

[purchase studio version]

Musicians and bands often do interviews on the radio, and these usually include in studio performances of songs from their current album. These performances have an immediacy to them that can compensate for the lack of polish that can come from hours spent polishing in a recording studio. Radio stations often lack the ability to host all of the technology that was used in the recording, so the musicians must show their versatility. As a result, a side of their music comes out that wasn’t on the album. This week, we will be presenting the music that can result from this. Television stations often have better facilities, but even so, the artists can still show an aspect of their art that we, the listeners, don’t usually get to hear. There are times when that is the whole point of a particular television program. And we will be presenting that as well.

To begin, here is a performance by Little Feat of On Your Way Down, from a visit to radio station WLIR in 1974. This is Little Feat in its classic configuration, and at the height of its powers. In the studio, the band worked with extra musicians, particularly female background singers. Here, they have to cover that themselves. The equipment that was available at the radio station did not allow the band to duplicate the mix they used in the studio either. Here, the piano and organ parts are much more prominent in the mix than before, and they sound great. There were, of course no overdubs, so Bill Payne switches from piano to organ halfway through the song, and it works. In 1974, bands did not try to duplicate the sound of their albums when they played in any live setting. Lowell George changes the phrasing in his vocal line here. What this performance shows is just how emotionally invested in their music Little Feat were.