Friday, September 20, 2013

Brothers: Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Brother Can You Spare a Dime? was written in 1931. The Great Depression had hit the United States with its full force. Men who fought for their country in World War I, who had come home to work at transforming the nation for the twentieth century, suddenly found themselves on breadlines. In Washington, Roosevelt had not yet been elected, and the plight of such men fell on deaf ears. The song was written for a Broadway musical called New Americana. New Americana was a musical revue, so Brother did not have to fit into a larger plot. I can find no other information about the show, so I think it is safe to say that Brother has proved to be far more enduring than the show that spawned it. As was the custom in those days, the song was soon covered by the pop artists of the day, and both Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee separately took the song to number one shortly before the Roosevelt election.

Dr John and Odetta render the song as a slow blues. Of course, this fits both the lyric and the style of the original composition perfectly. But they are two different kinds of blues artists here. Dr John, with his gruff delivery, renders a passionate reading of the song, beautifully capturing both the pride of his past and the pain of his present that the narrator feels. Odetta has a smoother delivery, and her reading of the song submerges the pain and subdues the pride; both emotions are quieter, but just as palpable. The two trade verses, and the tension between their two approaches creates a dramatic tension that makes the performance even more powerful. I have not included a purchase link in this post, because I have not been able to find a source for this recording; if anyone knows where it can be found, I hope you will share the link with everyone in the comments.

Before I go, I should comment about the video. It is the work of an artist and videographer who calls himself Spadecaller. Born Matthew Schwartz, Spadecaller specializes in artworks that make connections between spirituality and social justice. Here, he makes a brilliant connection between the Great Depression and conditions today by juxtaposing images from the 1930s with those from today. You can see more of his videos on his YouTube channel, and there is a gallery of his other artwork on his website.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Brothers: Deadstring Brothers: Heavy Load

Deadstring Brothers: Heavy Load

Supposedly, blues music is mostly listened to and purchased by white people, and it took white Brits in the early 1960’s to spearhead a blues revival, that, in many ways, created the rock music that took over the world. Bands like the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers paid direct tribute to American blues, and Led Zeppelin stole wholesale from the blues canon. Then, of course, this music found its way back across the Atlantic and inspired Americans to revisit the blues.

By the time of Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St., the Stones had perfected their sound, which while still based on the blues, was now a synthesis of other influences. But, despite the fact that Keith and Mick (sometimes known as the Glimmer Twins) have had an almost brotherly relationship, with all of the fighting and bickering that entails, this is not about the Stones. Instead, it is about an American band that clearly—very clearly—took the sound of the Rolling Stones, and claimed it for their own.

The band is pretty much unknown, so I’m writing to, hopefully, expose people to them. And it fits the theme, because the name of the band is Deadstring Brothers. Not surprisingly, there is no one in the band named Deadstring, and they aren’t brothers (for the most part). Especially the women (including, at one point, sisters).

Initially from Detroit, the Deadstring Brothers were formed in 2001 by singer/songwriter Kurt Marschke, and the band has gone through a number of different lineups over the years. And, as befits their blues-based sound, they became better known in England than here in their native land. The song, “Heavy Load,” from the band’s 2007 release Silver Mountain (which features actual brothers, Brits Spencer and Jeff Cullum), pays tribute to a London club known for playing classic rock. And yeah, it sounds like the Stones if the Stones featured both a male and female singer (which they sort of do, at least live).

So, add these guys to the list of bands worth checking out—including their most recent album, Cannery Row, which reflects the band’s move from Detroit to Nashville. Think a little more “Wild Horses,” and less “Tumbling Dice.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Brothers: Big Brother and the Holding Company: Piece of My Heart

Big Brother & the Holding Company/Janis Joplin: Piece of My Heart

For better or worse, Peter Albin, James Gurley, Sam Andrew and Dave Getz will be forever associated with Janis Joplin – even though she sang with them for a little less than two years. The band was then, and is still called Big Brother and the Holding Company, and except for James Gurley, the guitarist, who passed in 2009, the original members are still making music and you can keep up with their tour schedule at their website ( Granted, they’ve taken breaks from it all off and on and they’ve added and removed additional members from time to time, but Albin, Andrew and Getz are still together. While not one of the musicians, Chet Helms is given credit for forming the band (the official web site calls him “the real Big Brother”); as one of the first SF rock producers/promoters/organizers, he brought them together. He, too passed away a few years back.
I must confess that I probably wouldn’t have kept them in mind all these years if it weren’t for Janis, and – although I knew deep in the recesses of my mind that Big Brother was not the band backing her on Pearl (her best work) – Joplin and the band’s Cheap Thrills includes one of my (many) favorite songs.
Piece of My Heart was first recorded by Erma Franklin in 1967. Erma Franklin (sister of Aretha) sings it with a different feel:  it’s the same song but nowhere near as rough as Janis’ vocals and Big Brother’s hard rocking, which seem to try to scratch their way out of the romantic situation the song describes (and you’ll find versions by many others, including Bonnie Tyler, Nazareth, Faith Hill ..) They all sing:
And each time I tell myself that I, well I think I've had enough,
But I'm gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.

I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it,
Take it!
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!

Janis and Big Brother (above)/Erma Franklin (below)