Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Memoriam: Naná Vasconcelos

Pat Metheny Group: Are You Going With Me (live)

As we all know, 2016 seems to have been the worst year ever for high profile losses in the musical world (and the acting world, and the writing world….). Chuck Prophet released a song from his forthcoming album called “Bad Year For Rock and Roll,” and who would disagree? Every year here at SMM, we look at some of those who we lost this year, the famous, the lesser known, and some in between.

In March, Naná Vasconcelos died of lung cancer in Brazil. Vasconcelos was an incredible musician, and although he was a vocalist and performed on a number of different Brazilian instruments, including the berimbau, he became renowned as a percussionist. As a bad drummer myself, I recognize that percussion is often where you stick the bad musicians, and in my days in the Princeton Band, we had a large “trash percussion” section, which was the home for a bunch of people who wanted to be in the band, but who didn’t actually play an instrument. But much like how right field is where you put the bad baseball player in Little League, while in the majors, right fielders are often stars (like, you know, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron), Vasconcelos was an all-star percussionist. (Question—is that metaphor too attenuated?). Vasconcelos played with many great jazz and Brazilian artists, as well as some titans of rock while also releasing a number of albums as a leader.

I first became aware of Vasconcelos when he collaborated with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, and then became a member of the Pat Metheny Group. (I know that this is the third Pat Metheny related post that I have written this year (all since September), but I went a whole bunch of years without writing about him, so just bear with me).

As I have previously mentioned, my strongest memory of Vasconcelos was when he deservedly embarrassed me. In 1981, I got to see the Pat Metheny Group, with Vasconcelos, at Princeton, in venerable Alexander Hall. If I recall correctly, the band was to play two sets, and I arranged to interview Metheny between sets for WPRB. Unfortunately, I couldn’t arrange to get in for free, so I paid for the first show, did my interview, and simply never left, allowing me to see the second set.

I remember seeing Vasconcelos playing a strange instrument that appeared to be a gourd, with a long neck and a metal string, played with a bow (see the picture above). I had no clue what it was, and because the Internet wasn’t invented yet, I couldn’t Google it. After the first show, I went into the bowels of Alexander Hall to interview Metheny, who couldn’t have been nicer, and at some point approached Vasconcelos. With the arrogance and ignorance of youth, I asked him, “What was that thing that you were playing?” He looked at me with disgust, and with disdain in his voice, he replied, “that musical instrument is a berimbau.” I immediately realized that I had insulted him, and probably his culture, with my question, mumbled a response and fled. As you can see here, he was truly a master of the berimbau. And I was an idiot.

The lesson that I learned that day, and which I have tried to follow since, is that if you are unprepared, you will get embarrassed. And while that wasn’t the last time that happened to me (unfortunately), it hasn’t happened all that often.

One of the highlights of that show was their performance of “Are You Going With Me,” a song with a strong samba feel which must have been influenced by Vasconcelos. The song, which is often referred to as a “fusion ballad” builds from a quiet start to an intense climax, and the crew had rigged lights so that Alexander Hall’s stained glass windows gradually lit up as the song built, a relatively subtle and clever way of tying the visuals to the sound.

The version above is from Travels, a live album recorded in 1982 at a number of venues, so it is likely be pretty close to what I heard that night in 1981.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Strange (Weird) Holidays: John Fahey

purchase [The New Possibilitiy]

I'm not at all sure what constitutes a "Weird/Strange" holiday (holiday most likely = Xmas for this post). My sense of weird/strange, my understanding of holiday could likely be strange to you: I live in a Moslem-predominate environment, where Xmas means little, but the New Year is celebrated more or less the same (big turkey dinner ... gifts all around) We've also got all sorts of other holidays here, like the one where we slaughter sheep.

Regardless of the holiday, there are some givens: we hope to be together with the family (as best as possible); there are often gifts- and at this time of year we aim for green, red and white lights on a tree... Most anything that goes against these given traditions probably constitutes strange or weird.

It was on <The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites> that I first heard the man and his guitar. The year would have been about '73, although the album by then was close to a decade old. It being the 70s, it must have been the droning, repetitious curiously off-note style that captured me.
I confess it has been several decades since I though much about the man and his music, but a pre-holiday post I ran across the other day noted a Christmas album called <The New Possibility> that he did way back in 1968. It is filled with your classic Xmas tunes - in the Fahey style.

As the reviewer/primary source I came across notes: you can almost hum along to his versions. They are certainly recognizable, even if they arent quite right. There's always a note or beat that shouldnt be there, but works just fine all the same. In the Fahey style.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Strange (Weird) Holidays: Light That Menorah

Phofo: Light That Menorah
[Here’s Phofo’s website where you can hire him to write music for your TV show, film or commercial]

We’ve occasionally dipped our toes into the shallow pool that is Hanukkah music here at SMM, in part, because as I noted last year, it hasn’t really inspired much good music. Confronting our new theme of Strange or Weird Holiday music, though, I found a contender, “Light That Menorah,” by Phofo, which fits the theme, even if it still isn’t a great holiday song.

In fact, other than the title, it is kind of difficult to tell that it is a Hanukkah song at all. It starts out as an electronic instrumental tune that sort of chugs along, until about a minute or so in, when some distorted vocals, buried in the mix, may be saying “light that menorah.” Or maybe not. At almost 2 minutes in, we get a bit of klezmer sounding music, and some more of the distorted vocals. A snatch more klezmer follows. It then rocks for a little while and then sort of peters out, like a dreidel before it stops spinning. It is, to my ears, more than a little weird.

But certainly interesting. There’s no “album cover” to use as the featured picture for this post, so, instead, in keeping with our theme, I used a picture of a Strange and Weird Menorah.

The song is credited to Phofo, and using my strong Google skills, I determined that Phofo is a composer who has written the score for Disney's Club Penguin, Sushi Pack (a Saturday morning cartoon on CBS), the animated feature film, Los Campeones de La Lucha Libre and Shep & Tiffany Watch TV (which was on Bravo). He is also a producer, has written for McSweeney’s and was a music consultant to PRI's This American Life.

But who is Phofo? That took a bit more work on the Google Machine. Turns out, he is a lawyer named Adam Weitz. Some of you may know that I, J. David, am also a lawyer, and that I blog as a creative outlet. Weitz also has a creative sidelight to his lawyer work, but he gets paid for it (presumably).

And that makes me jealous.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

STRANGE (WEIRD) HOLIDAYS : Santa Claus has got the AIDS this year/Tiny Tim

There, it is done. I have posted perhaps the worst, the least defensible holiday song ever. And, until this piece, I was the lucky one. I had never heard it. Don't get me wrong, it isn't so much the lyric, execrable though it is in its splendour of  political incorrectness, or even the tune, macabrely festive, more rather the vocal, grating by even the singers usual standards. And they were usually pretty low. I dare you to get through it all in one go.

In Tim's defence, he claimed it was about Santa eating an Ayds bar, a then available diet snack, becoming unwell thereafter, stating also it was nothing to do with recently outed, subsequently deceased film star Rock Hudson. Yeah, right. As if those 2 sentences might make the one rule out the other, rather than underline each other. (O, and Ayds, at least, had the prescience to change their name soon after.)

Mind you, the thrice married singer proved he was no homophobe, with the hilarious b-side, misogyny being also well within his gift. Bless! But, gallingly, maybe it is his very innocence in how Ds can be STed that is after all the key. Witness the lines about the cat then contracting herpes from the chair he had sat on. (Phew, that's a relief, just a simple misunderstanding then.)

Poor Tim, born Herbert Khoury, in 1932, he was always destined to be on the wrong side of public opinion, his brief window of fame coming more as the audience laughed at, rather than with him. So, by contrast, here is his high water mark. See which you prefer.

Don't bother!

Thursday, December 8, 2016


Buy  (Transient Random Noise Bursts with Announcements)

With a title like this, you’d expect doodling and experimentation, a sonic interpretation of a dude named Barry in his attic, hunched over with all the contents of a mail order Acme kit spread over a table: Barry is trying to tune into alien messages.

On 1993's TRNBWA, outer-body contact is communicated through swirling, colorful epic songs. On their 3rd and most conceptual album, Stereolab crosses the Velvet Underground and shoe gaze with the nod to Krautrock.  They flaunt their influences and yet come up with something so original. Almost all songs are long journeys characterized by simple, repetitive chords and a drenching flood of Moog and droning vocals, which are often distorted or suddenly cut off at the end.

On subsequent and weaker albums, Stereolab continued to develop a sound that has been dubbed “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music”. On Dots and Loops, which has a couple excellent summer singles and Mars Audiac Quintet with its sing along gem “Ping Pong” and on the more complex Cobra and Phases which features some dazzling bass lines, vocals are cleaner and chic. They are the center of the songs much more than on TRNBWA, where vocals are more like an instrument. They can be grotesque, or they can ride the crest of a sonic wave, playing beauty to the instrumentation’s beast.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

leftovers: another STE*

purchase [ I'm Losing You]

JDavid's latest post got me thinking: the STE* posts were mostly (Steve***) based. So... what about the  *** STE variation. As in Rod STE****.

Being of a certain age, I confess that I wore out the (vinyl) grooves on my legally-purchased copy (there really weren't (m)any other options back then) of  the "Every Picture Tells A Story" album - Stewart's best ever?  Methinks that '70, '71 and '72 were likely  Rod's best years. Every Picture (in the very middle of these years) is likely the best: it includes the songs you know: Maggie May,  Reason to Believe and Mandolin Wind.

Stewart's eclectic/convoluted past includes stints in The Jeff Beck Group, followed by the Small Faces, followed by the Faces. In fact, at the time of Every Picture, Stewart was still maintaining a connection to The Faces, and they appear on <I'm Losing You> - one of the better of several solid tracks on the album. It's not the tightest production - pieces of the timing are slightly off, but what matters much, much more is the feeling put into the work: one of their best IMHO: Ronnie Lane & Ronnie Wood! And there's Kenny Jones (later of Who fame) on the drums here as well. Whew! if you make it to the end of the clip - out of breath!


There was a time when it mattered what label a band was actually on. I guess this was because you actually knew, there was the inescapable logo on the centre of the large spinning disc, seen whenever you placed the needle onto the outside groove. CDs never seemed to have that vibe and, hell, downloads? How would you know? Plus, record companies each seemed to have separate entities, rather than just merely being sub-divisions of the same corporate monster. Even if they were. Different genres seemed to fit better with some labels than others, a fact duly noted by the MDs of same. A nobody on a hip label could often sell more than a somebody on more of a loser label.
In the 60s the 2 labels that kicked my record buying pleasure off were Island and Harvest, both nominally still in existence, but, sold off and passed on so many times between majors as to have no relevance to the times I write of. And, given the theme of this piece, Island will have to wait another day.

Astonishingly, Harvest were named, or so it goes, around the UK mellotron heavy "poor mans Moody Blues", Barclay James Harvest, the label being formed, within E.M.I. as a competitor with, amongst others, the aforementioned Island. (The verity of these seems actually a little stretched, as the label opened for business  in 1969, the debut from BJH not arriving until the following year, but, hey!) With the lava lamp design in greens, this was aimed directly as the "Underground" scene of the day, the first release being Deep Purple's Book of Taliesyn, with other debutants being Edgar Broughton, Michael Chapman, Kevin Ayers and Pink Floyd, so a pretty heavy roster.

                                                             Edgar Broughton Band

                                                                       Kevin Ayers
Into the 70s and the focus shifted into a post-punk ethos with Wire and, for the U.S. imprint, Duran Duran. They lost Floyd and Deep Purple during this time, but, much to their undoubted delight, after the release of Dark Side of the Moon, gifting them one of the biggest ever returns ever, 3rd largest sales ever, after Thriller (Michael Jackson) and, astonishingly, Back in Black (AC/DC), even if some of these sales included later transfer of rights to other labels.

For the next 20 odd years it appears to have been a bit of  mess, as the imprint was passed from hand to hand, even having a brief re-launch as Harvest Heritage, for reissues of both the original artists and, bizarrely, others never included.

In 2013 it seems to have had another relaunch, primarily for a number of U.S.bands I am unfamiliar with, bar TV on the Radio, and this chap, who seems to have later fallen out spectacularly with them.

I miss the days when the label had a brand. As a child of the 50s, I grew up in the heyday of both vinyl and of record companies able to throw big bucks at all, hoping some would eventually deliver some return on the investment. I still have a stack of Harvest titles on my shelves, playing them still.

But, as a final thought, who remembers the guy in the clip below?

 Norman "Hurricane" Smith was one of the original founders of the label in 1969. Studio engineer for all the Beatles' early releases, up until Rubber Soul, he then hooked up with Pink Floyd, producing several of their early releases, thus unsurprising that they came to join his fledgling label. He also produced the aforementioned Barclay James Harvest and the 1st rock concept album, S.F. Sorrow, by the Pretty Things, the psychedelicised R'n'B contemporaries of the early Rolling Stones. Astonishingly, in 1971, he began an unlikely solo career, despite, at best, a voice shorn of most of the usual expectations in popular music, a public warming to him, largely totally unaware of his legacy of earlier involvements. Well done, that man!

Here is the entire catalogue of original Harvest releases.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Leftovers: Ste*--Prog Rock Guitarists Steve Howe, Steve Hackett and Steve Hillage

Yes: Mood For A Day  
[purchase Fragile by Yes]

Steve Hackett: Ace Of Wands
[purchase Voyage of the Acolyte by Steve Hackett]

Steve Hillage: Castle In The Clouds/Hurdy Gurdy Man (Live)
[purchase Live Herald by Steve Hillage]

Ste* was one of the odder themes we had in 2016, and in response, I wrote about brilliant guitarist Steve Tibbetts, a relatively obscure musician whose music, as I said, “exists somewhere in the never particularly commercial intersection of jazz fusion, world music and ambient music.” Thinking about our Leftovers theme, I realized that I was aware of three more guitar virtuosi whose first name is Steve. So, I figured, why not write a little about each of them, in reverse order of their fame.

Despite the fact that all three of them are remarkable guitarists, and have continued to make music for years, I pretty much stopped following their careers years ago. Whether it was a change in their music, or changes in my tastes, or, more likely, a combination of both, I’m really not knowledgeable about their work from after the 1980s, which may well be very good. I do still enjoy the music that they made back in the day.

Steve Howe (who was already the subject of a Ste* post), of course, is best known for his work with Yes. Born in 1947 in North London, he made his first recording, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” in 1964 with the Syndicats, and played in a number of other bands, including Tomorrow and Bodast. Check out this Bodast tune, “Nether Street,” part of which was later used in Yes’ “Starship Trooper.” After passing on the chance to join the Nice and Jethro Tull, once it was clear that Bodast was not going to get a deal, he agreed to join Yes, replacing Peter Banks. Howe’s eclectic influences, including classical, jazz, and rock helped to create the distinctive Yes sound during their best and most iconic period.

He left Yes when it broke up in 1981, wasn’t asked back for the reformation of the band (so, he didn’t play on “Owner of a Lonely Heart”), and reunited with most of the “classic” Yes lineup in Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe. He has participated in some, but not all, of the various Yes lineups over the years. I really stopped listening to Howe after he left Yes the first time. I never really paid much attention to his solo albums (including the ones he made while still in the band), or any of the later Yes efforts that he appeared on. There were a few good songs on the first Asia album, but I felt that the band was less than the sum of its parts, and his project with Steve Hackett, GTR, also failed to interest me. Howe continues to record with Yes and in a jazz trio featuring his son on drums, and to perform.

Steve Hackett, Howe’s GTR bandmate, is best known for his work with Genesis. Born in 1950 in central London, he was a self-taught guitarist. After gigging with a few bands, in 1970, he joined Quiet World with his brother John, a flutist, and appeared on their only album, before leaving the band. Hackett put an ad in Melody Maker magazine for musicians "determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms." Peter Gabriel answered the ad because his band, Genesis, had lost their original guitarist, Anthony Phillips. Like Howe, Hackett wasn’t the first guitarist in the band which made him famous, but was part of the band’s best, and best known, lineup.

Over time, Hackett began to feel marginalized by Genesis which gradually put less of his music on its albums. After the tour supporting the Wind And Wuthering album in 1977, Hackett left the band. I followed Hackett’s solo work for a while. His first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, recorded while he was still in Genesis, featured the band's drummer Phil Collins, who also sang on one song (before he was the lead singer of Genesis), and bassist Mike Rutherford, along with John Hackett, and is probably a minor prog rock classic. I was also a big fan of 1979’s Spectral Mornings, and continued to listen to, and enjoy Hackett’s solo work, to a somewhat diminishing degree, through the mid-1980s.

One of Hackett’s big problems is that he is a great guitarist and a bad singer. So, when he writes songs with lyrics, he either has to bring in outside vocalists with varying success, or sings himself, usually with the assistance of significant processing, and mostly unsuccessfully. After that, I again pretty much lost track of Hackett’s career—occasionally listening to some of his studio and live Genesis “revisited” work, but ignoring most of his varied output, which has ranged from classical, to world music, to blues, to prog and rock. Hackett also continues to record, as a solo artist and with others, and to tour as a solo act, and with a mostly Genesis-based show.

Steve Hillage, the youngest and least well-known of the trio of Steves, was born in 1951 in northeast London. Hillage played in a number of bands as a teenager, a couple of which even recorded and released albums. While attending university in the Canterbury area starting in 1969, Hillage began to play with other musicians and bands in the Canterbury scene. In 1971, he formed Khan, which released one album of psychedelic prog, before breaking up. Hillage then joined Kevin Ayers’ band before becoming a member of Gong in 1973, as the band was starting work in its “Radio Gnome” trilogy. But when Gong inevitably disintegrated, Hillage began a solo career.

I was introduced to Hillage while at WPRB, almost certainly from hearing his great live, spacy cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” from the 1979 album Live Herald, which led me to the rest of his solo work. I will admit that my immersion into the Gong world focused mostly on the later, Pierre Moerlen-led albums which were almost entirely Hillage-free, and it was only much later that I spent any time listening to the bizarre Daevid Allen era band’s eclectic psychedelia that featured Hillage.

Just as I was getting into Hillage’s music, he began to move away from the prog rock guitar heroics that I liked, and into ambient dance music, which I didn’t, so I basically stopped paying attention to his career after the late 70’s. Over the years, Hillage produced albums for a variety of acts, including Simple Minds (pre-Breakfast Club fame) and continues to focus on performing and recording dance music under the name System 7 and Mirror System with his long time musical and personal partner, Miquette Giraudy. He also occasionally participates in Gong reunions. And, for some reason, he appeared on this Elton John cover “sung” by William Shatner.

I’d love to be able to tie this up with some clever ending, but like a post-Thanksgiving turkey, cranberry and stuffing sandwich, it is sometimes better just to be happy that things work together, without overthinking why.

Monday, December 5, 2016


purchase Edwyn Collins (Gorgeous George)

The older I get, the less frequently I feel cool. I imagine this is pretty normal. Cool is walking with rhythm after a good haircut. Cool is feeling wet on a dry day. Cool is feeling like you are separate from your environment and still glowing. Cool is fluid. Cool is the buzz and insight that comes after a couple beers at darkness. Cool is the walk to the meeting point where you’ll meet the girl who sees limitless potential in you. Cool is seeing and hearing all and getting it.

Edwyn Collins “Girl Like You” glistens with coolness and nudges you to have a smoke and take a long walk. Drums that recall Noir nights in Morrocco, a xylophone part as neat as a Martini and a big fat guitar lick that simply erects. The song is chill within its own danceability. It is the soundtrack for a ferocious pool party in a David Lynch film.

Edwyn’s story for the last 10 years has been touching more than cool. In 2005 he suffered two strokes in two days, rendering his right arm numb. I didn’t know this prior to his show four years ago in Istanbul. For all songs, he sat down on an amplifier, sometimes tapping his cane to the music. His son, James, sang on one new song and did two neat spins during the chorus. Then Edwyn stood for “Girl Like You”, as if there was no option. He hammered his cane to the lyrics “too many protest singers/not enough protest songs”, eventually limping away to let the band finish for three more minutes. You could sense his band revered him. The guitarist revered that solo. And the audience-merely 75 people-were struck by the sincerity of the evening: no excuses made. The energy was dumbfounding intense.

If you’re feeling tepid and flakey, listen to “Girl Like You” now and head out for a walk with your favorite shirt and pants on. See if any cool overcomes you.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Leftovers: Leftover Beatles

purchase [some Beatles ]

As the most recent notice to SMM bloggers said, the traditional leftovers theme could be interpreted several ways:  missed opportunity songs you might have posted during the past 12 months' themes, or perhaps something you can relate to leftovers of another sort.

Myself, I confess that I have to push to meet the bi-weekly output of SMM, and although I have discarded a number of posts over the past 12 months, there are none that I am driven to return to as leftovers that need re-working and then posting.

On the other hand, there are various Beatles songs that didn't make the official cut, and I guess they qualify as a kind of leftover. While you can find out-takes and un-published studio sessions for most every musician, a look back 50 or so years in and of itself amounts to a leftover of sorts. Yes, it was more or less "50 years ago today ..."

There is an extensive Wiki article about bootlegs of Beatles recordings: considering the number of performances - both in semi-private venues as well as over the airwaves, it is no surprise that there exist unofficial copies of performances (despite the limitations of the days' technology - If you are younger than 50, you ought to take the time to research what it was like to make a copy of live/radio ... music before the 90s.)

A decade or so ago, I ran across the original Beatles Complete on Ukulele project at which time they were providing a download link to each of the songs. The songs are still online but not longer easy to download. The site notes that they have a version that includes a ukulele of each of the 185 officially released Beatles songs.

Lennon/McCartney were prolific composers, and there are a number of songs that weren't distributed by their various recording companies: kind of left overs. Two in particular here from different eras of their careers The Palace of the King of the Birds from about the Magical Mystery Tour days, and then Bad to Me from 1963:

Thursday, November 24, 2016


“The worst is not. So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst’”, said Edgar, who along with Kent was the most noble and optimistic of the characters in King Lear.

Spare his plethora of Mad King Ludwig gold-rimmed chairs and gaudy baroque paintings, there is nothing that is outwardly noble and nothing to suggest that there is anything inwardly noble about Trump. Obviously, there is a whole lot of bad. With the victory evening itself and the Bannon and Sessions announcements, the last week has been frightening. But can it get worse? Let’s hope this is the end of the worst and the guy’s damage is frozen like a daiquiri.

But for the nihilists and those comforted by oncoming apocalypses, we have Killing Joke’s, “Asteroid.”

I’m a ball of fire
Fire from heaven
Terror from nowhere
You’ll never shoot me down
Days turn to minutes
Five seconds till it hits
Three seconds to ground
One second to
Coming in from the void

Vocalist Jaz Coleman, guitarist Geordie Walker and bassist Raven (and Youth shortly afterward) gave birth to Killing Joke in a smoking crater of apocalyptic theory and even though the majority of its fan base probably dismisses Coleman’s beliefs as dark humor, they’ll go along for the ride because Coleman’s soothsaying brings a healthy stream of boiling blood to Killing Joke’s music.

“Asteroid” is a stunning tune, the bonfire exploding early with Coleman’s screams (“And a 3rd Angel  sounded! And a star fell from heaven!”), punctuated by sonic drum smashes. Apparently--contrary to typical recording methods--the drums were recorded last on the album according to Dave Grohl who guested on drums on this self-titled release, Killing Joke’s 11th in their 23rd year. Killing Joke recently released Pylon, another massive slab of epic alternative-rock that belies their age and shows no sign of the band hitting any creative funk. They’re one of a few bands I am still holding out hope to see live, despite living in Turkey.

Coleman actually moved to Iceland early in the band’s career to avoid the apocalypse, moving back shortly afterward without a peep, not even ‘whoops, wrong day’. Plenty of superstars in the U.S. have plans of hightailing themselves out of America during the ensuing four-year apocalypse. Most will make their way back before the end without a peep.

Monday, November 21, 2016

It's Over/The End: Boz Scaggs- It's Over

purchase [Silk Degrees]

I was going to write about The Who's <The Song is Over>. I blocked out the song so that other SMM bloggers didn't nab my choice before I could get to it. But it's been busy days since the theme came online and my Who post is still in draft stage. Furthermore, I note that I checked in with the Who just one post back, so that is probably enough of them for now.

Among the busy-ness of the past week has been rehearsals for my once-a-semester student/teacher music concert, where, for the 20th time in a row, I am doing my thing. My "thing" this time is Boz Scaggs' Loan Me a Dime. (Sorry if you think that SMM shouldn't flog the bloggers - but it just fits so well)

Wait a minute ... Boz *must* have something that relates to Over/End. Of course he does: it's called "It's Over", from Silk Degrees.Way back before I gave all my albums away because they were taking up too much space and the turntable had fallen into dis-repair, I had a vinyl copy of Silk Degrees. You know: Silk Degrees with ... well ... lots of quite decent songs. Like all those others that you know but never really hit the big time. Boz mostly/consistently seems to come in at around number  30-50 on the hit chart: pretty fine, if not big hits and Silk Degrees has several.

Way back in the 60s, Boz was a part of the Steve Miller Band: he did various vocals as well as some guitar work - off and on from '59 to '68.  It was in '69 that he made it to  Muscle Shoals, where he recorded Loan Me a Dime with Duane Allman doing the solo guitar.

Silk Degrees was his 7th(!?) album - in 1976. That's a while back, but he is still making music? In fact, he has been in and out of the music scene more or less since Silk Degrees. He's playing the West Coast in November and then the midWest and Florida in January & February, so you've got a chance to catch him there.

Friday, November 18, 2016


Trump has answered the great conundrum of the 20thC: how did a rational people like the Germans come to vote for a demagogue like Hitler?

I am probably not the most appropriate, as a Brit, to be passing comment on your election outcome. But I know one who does, and his widely reported, at least over here, tweet of 11/9 will no doubt offend many. But, as ever, those who have decried his comment merely miss the point. This is actually neither comparing Trump to Hitler, nor calling Americans fools, merely pointing out how shit happens, quirks all of the wrong time, wrong place, complications to what the literati might call common sense. Or common preconception, anyway.

So what of Bragg, archetypal Essex boy, the "Bard of Barking", his home town? And why has he become such a potent force in musico-political activism? Probably best known stateside for his being granted custodianship of the legacy of unfinished lyrics by Woody Guthrie and producing, with the band Wilco, 2 excellent volumes of new music for them, he has had a long enough history over here of irritating the establishment as to have become a national treasure, cropping up regularly on news programmes as a credible and articulate voice of, often, a counterculture to the prevailing winds. (It is sort of how things happen over here.)

Born in 1957 of english-italian stock, he first hit the establishment buffers aged 11, failing his 11 plus exams, the then entry into a better, or at least further education, He thus channeled his interest in poetry into a passion for music, picking up a guitar and practising like mad. The mid-70s were a good time for starting bands. In response to the overblown pomp of the dinosaurs of the music industry, another establishment, punk rock had begun it's eventually unsuccessful bid to smash it all down. His first band didn't make it, but in the process he learnt how music could shape opinion, citing the Clash and their appearance at a legendary Rock Against Racism carnival in 1978 as the moment. Oddly, his next move was to join the army, possibly unsurprisingly finding it not the best place for an opinionated young man of left-leaning ideological views. Buying himself out, as was necessary, after 3 months, cost £175, equivalent today to about $650.

Taking the d.i.y. ethos to the next level, he next became a busker, albeit with electric guitar (attached to a small speaker), honing his art and attracting the attention of the movers and shakers, including, as seems did everyone who ever made it, DJ John Peel. Peel had commented on his hunger mid-show, galvanising Bragg to immediately deliver a plate of curry and a demo. A series of records ensued, deliberately produced and sold cheaply, mixing political comment with quirky love songs, usually just voice and barely amplified guitar. His singing voice was a thing of simplicity; raw, unadorned and utterly without any accent other than his own, unmistakably thames estuary inflection. Nominally punk/new wave, irredeemably folk, at least to my ears, and thus my immediate interest. In a nation under the thumb of Margaret Thatcher, there was a healthy appetite for opposition, Bragg becoming a regular at the barricades.

Astonishingly, perhaps, songs like the above were hits, but sales were never massive enough for him to have complete control, at least not whilst in the thrall of an increasingly global record company, who expected ever more sales and commerciality. The overt nature of of his politics was probably rather too full on for universal coverage. It seemed for a while as if he could deliver, especially with anthemic and thought inspiring single, Sexuality, a pop song despite itself (but who listens to the words, anyway, perhaps the curse of the motivated lyricist.) In the end, and in order to get back the rights to his back catalogue, he had to pay back the residual of his six figure advance.

It was about now, late 90's that Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody, came across him, sensing something of her troubadour father in his work and leanings. Whilst not an obvious candidate, Bragg took this like a duck to water, his vocal cords taking on just enough translanticism to be credible.

Back then, in the UK, the politics seemingly having turned his way, as ever it turned out so not quite the hoped for policies and directions of flow. (Which may be a glimmer of hope post Trump's victory. Just as you have to be careful for what you wish for, maybe so have more hope of your worst fears than you expect?) Anyhow, with the disappointments of "New" Labour, the nominally socialist or quasi-democratic party we have, Bragg turned his ear to the vexed issue of national identity, thwarted and subverted by an abusive nationalism, trying to find a path between racist exclusivist views and inclusive pride in a mongrel nation. Sound familiar?

Latterly his output has seemed gentler, his last 2 solo releases being often more straightforward song cycles of middle-aged contentedness, up to a point, in his own skin. But, having seen him play live this summer, at one of the music festivals I try to get to each year, on a scorching sunday afternoon, slotted in between Wilko Johnson and Squeeze, days before the fated Brexit vote, he was as rousing and rallying as ever. Playing a set of largely political song, accompanied only by his own guitar and a pedal steel player, he did his best to plead a vote to remain in Europe, to much applause and acclaim. To no avail, as it happened, but it gave me hope.

As I write he tours the U.K., alongside credible songwriter and producer, Joe Henry, revisiting some Guthrie-esque americana roots, to promote their excellent duet record, 2 voices, acoustic guitars and occasional eavesdropped background sound. His voice, now a weathered and tuneful instrument in it's new lower key, a joy alongside Henry's higher tones, and some wonderful songs. Like this:

So, be Billys and Braggs, as Washington threatens to burn. As one of the songs featured above says, maybe, it's true,  in a somewhat different sense, there is indeed power in a Union, whether of states or of workers.

Buy Billy!!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

It’s Over: Idiots Are Taking Over

NoFX: Idiots Are Taking Over

Here we go again.

Back in 2000, more Americans turned out to vote for a qualified, competent, intelligent, thoughtful Democrat who was maybe not the most exciting candidate, but the Electoral College chose an unqualified, intellectually incurious, right wing clown who liked to spend time away from the White House.

Sound familiar?   It's like déjà vu all over again.

That time, things worked out quite well, what with 9/11, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, two foolish wars, lies about weapons of mass destruction, government sponsored torture, ISIS, the botched Katrina response, alienation of our allies, no health care plan, a continued refusal to credit science and facts, ballooning deficits, increasing income and wealth inequality and the closest thing to a great depression since the Great Depression.  Just for starters.

In 2003, even before much of the Bush debacle had even happened, sneaky smart punk band NoFX released their album The War on Errorism, which, in part, is a scathing attack on the still relatively new Bush administration. It included “Idiots Are Taking Over,” a song whose lyrics, only slightly over the top, unfortunately ring true again. For example:

It's not the right time to be sober 
Now the idiots have taken over 
Spreading like a social cancer, is there an answer?
*          *         * 
The benevolent and wise are being thwarted, ostracized, what a bummer 
The world keeps getting dumber 
Insensitivity is standard and faith is being fancied over reason
*          *         * 
What are we left with? 
A nation of god-fearing pregnant nationalists 
Who feel it's their duty to populate the homeland 
Pass on traditions 
How to get ahead religions 
And prosperity via simpleton culture 

It took us eight years to get rid of that awful crew, although the obstructionist Republicans in Congress worked hard to thwart progress.

And now, we have come full circle. Let’s hope that it isn’t over, and that through smart actions, both in and out of Washington, it doesn’t take that long to reverse things this time.