Friday, February 5, 2016

The Accordion: 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)

" 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)", better known as "Sandy," is early Springsteen and the E Street Band at their poetic best, a beautiful image-laden tone poem about Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Springsteen cut his teeth as a young musician, the place that made him, in many ways. Or perhaps his legend—it’s hard to separate the two.  "Sandy" is a wistful, fairy-tale ode to ‘home’, or at least a place that is home in the heart, much like The Clash's tribute to London in London Calling and Van Morrison's Belfast in Cyprus Avenue, evoke more than just a sense of a place.

"Sandy," from Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, is a beautiful little ballad that shuffles and skips along, mostly due to dearly departed accordionist Danny Federici's lilting and elegant accordion line. Federici, a founding member of the E Street Band, passed away in 2008. The song is a love song, for a girl, for a lifestyle, for a certain place in a certain time, destined to never really come back again, thanks to the way youth speeds away from us and leaves us with just memories. Hopefully, good ones—and the best part of good memories is how much better they get with time.

Robert Santelli, in Greetings From E Street:The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, describes the song as “the perfect musical study of the Jersey Shore boardwalk culture.” The song is populated with the eccentric, vibrant characters that populated many of Springsteen’s youthful, Dylan-inspired street epics: switch blade kids, tramps, factory girls…all those faces that made Springsteen’s street-scene operas such wonderful pieces of not only music, but poetry as well.

His greatest work in regards to the neon, asphalt and brick fables is Jungleland, but it is "Sandy" that invokes a sense of nostalgia, even for places an times that the listener might have no claim on at all. Springsteen is that kind of writer: universal in the experiences he relates.  But, here it is Federici’s accordion that makes "Sandy" such a beautiful song, that as the major aural element works to emphasize the sadness that sits underneath the bright sun and the brash joking of the narrator, trying to get right, but just not making it. The accordion here sounds like youthfulness, it sounds like the carnival. It sounds, truly, like a a whole soundtrack to memory.

The E Street Band still brings this tune out, as a tribute to Federici, much as 10 Avenue Freeze-out is done now as tribute to the Big Man, Clarence Clemons. That’s a hell of a thing: a song that comes to serve as a monument to one who made it sound so distinctive.  "Sandy" has always a special place for E Street Band fans, and will now stand not only as memory of Danny Federici, but as a hat tip and a wink to youthful days, long gone by…

The Accordion: Come Unto Me


As a devoted listener to WFUV, I was certainly aware of The Mavericks, but they were really just on the edge of my musical consciousness. I recognized and liked a few songs, and that was about that. My friend Tom, a fine singer and guitarist in his own right, whose bands often cover The Mavericks, kept telling me how great they were live. As usual in matters musical (not to mention food, TV and soccer, despite his support of Manchester United), Tom did not steer me wrong.

My first exposure to the band’s live show was at the 2014 Clearwater Festival. My wife and I had spent an incredible first day, seeing, among others, an all-star tribute to Pete and Toshi Seeger, Dar Williams, Guy Davis, Dan Bern and Richard Thompson (and you wonder why we were upset when they cancelled this year’s festival). My wife had enough, and decided to leave, but I wasn’t going to miss The Mavericks’ closing set. And it was worth every second. They truly kicked some ass, and had me dancing. And if you know me, you know that’s a big deal, especially because I wasn’t even close to drunk.

What makes them such a good live band? Start with the music—a mix of country, rock, Western swing, and more varieties of Latin music than I know how to name. Singer Raul Malo, whose deep, expressive voice is one of those that you never forget when you hear it, is of Cuban descent from Miami, and there is definitely some of that in there, along with all sorts of Tex-Mex sounds. Then, add the fact that it is just played well, and with incredible enthusiasm. Plus, as we know, horns make everything better. Stir in Malo’s charisma and stage presence, the goofy charm of keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden and the menacing intensity of guitarist Eddie Perez, and you have something that is not only unique, but incredibly infectious and fun.

For some time, the band has made regular appearances at the Tarrytown Music Hall, in my town, and when they announced their 2014 dates, there was no question that I was going to go. My wife, Tom and I caught the show from the front row of the balcony, and the full set was even better than the shorter festival performance. The crowd was on its feet from the first note, and the show was a nonstop party. The video above was shot by someone on the floor, sort of below where we were sitting. The sound isn’t great, but it gives you a sense of what was going on. Another friend, Bob, who is a volunteer usher at the Music Hall, and thus sees many, many shows, swears that The Mavericks are, by far, the best live band that plays there.

I picked that song, “Come Unto Me,” because it features the button accordion, a common instrument in Mexican folk and popular music. Michael Guerra, who is not a full member of the band, but tours and records with them, does a great job lending a Mexican flavor to the song, not to mention has a long solo. Also, at the end, Malo points at me. Sort of.

At last year’s Clearwater Festival, The Mavericks again closed the show. And again, my wife left early (it really was raining hard when she left, but I really wanted to see The Mavericks again). Unfortunately, due to the rainstorm, which had stopped, but led to delays and equipment issues, they took the stage late and their set was truncated. But what they played was, again, great. We skipped last year’s Tarrytown residency, but I do hope to go back the next time they play there, with or without my wife.

Speaking of my wife, as I may have mentioned, she, and my daughter, are proud alumnae of Smith College, as is this feminist maverick:

Say hi to the legendary accordion player, Gloria Steinem.

The Accordion: Flaco Jimenez

Ry Cooder is the kind of eclectic musician that would include an accordion from time to time. He also would include a tuba, and you can hear them both in on his 1976 Chicken Skin Music album. Among other unusual instruments that he has included are the cimbalom, the tiple, the bajo sexto, the laud, the mandola - many of which he himself plays.

Since way back in the Chicken Skin Music days, his go to man for the accordion has been Flaco Jimenez. Jimenez also plays on the 1994 Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jimenez has played with David Lindley - kind of from the Ry Cooder camp. Or with Los Lobos because, of course, the accordion features heavily in Mexican music.

The paring of Mexican & accordion has a curious and circuitous history. A PBS show called Accordion Dreams relates how the ostensibly German accordion made its way into Mexican music via German settlers moving to Texas in the mid 18 hundreds. The Tejano music which resulted is a mix of polka inspirations and Mexican band. That's a simplification, of course. Mexican music includes all sorts of styles, but the accordion does seem to have been brought that far by Texas Germans. It's also a simplification to call it accordion music: there are several different types of accordion.
If all you came here for is the accordion, you can cut to Jimenez's solo at about the 7 minute mark.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Accordion: John Kirkpatrick

Who? Shame on you, Kirkpatrick is the king of the English squeezebox, I would say single-handedly bringing back this instrument, or instruments, into the modern folk (rock) pantheon. You don't maybe know the name, but please accept you have heard him. Let me take you back, hell, over 40 years. Witness the boy (me!), awkward and lumpen, picking slowly up on the UK folk tradition, by way of Fairport Convention and this song. It's back to my beloved Top of the Pops, and a sadly currentlyunavailableonyoutube footage of this seminal band, performing a Dylan song a la Francais. Amidst all the striped jumpers and onions was one John Kirkpatrick, squeezing away for his very life.

Move forward a year or 2 and it was 'Morris On' that captured me, folk-rock interpretations of Morris tunes, leading me to years of dancing with hankies, eventually spending 10 years as a fully fledged, if flat footed, member of a side, spending my weekends dancing the dance and, it's true, drinking the drink. In the album sleeve above, Kirkpatrick is the chimney sweep, singing and playing this song. Incidentally, should the anathema of electric Morris prove too alarming, he was the prime culprit in an eminently recommendable album, 'Plain Capers', all acoustic and straight from the village green.

But he wasn't entirely tied to tradition, something Richard Thompson, erstwhile Fairport alumnus, and the green woodsman in the album cover above, was able to exploit in his initial run of duet records, with then wife Linda, and later solo records, someone much missed from his current output IMHO. Here is an astonishing live song, with quintessential Kirkpatrick holding it all together.

For reasons never acknowledged or admitted, despite an ongoing willingness expressed from Kirkpatrick, Thompson seemed to drop him after a while, with Kirkpatrick retreating back to the folk clubs from whence he had sprung, give or take a short caretaker role in Fairport "rivals" Steeleye Span and with his own band. Before, after and during this, he has continued, solely or, in earlier days, with ex-wife Sue Harris, to play alone or as a duo. Here is his tour de force, apologies if it is too raw for your refined ears.

Of course he is intricately linked in with the incestuous family tree of UK folk, plus or minus rock, via the various Albion Bands, Country and or Dance versions, and brass-folk pioneers Brass Monkey. Perhaps to and in my mind and ear, his seminal piece of work, in cahoots with another ex-Fairporter, Ashley Hutchings, the 'Godfather of Folk-Rock', is 'The Compleat Dancing Master'. Sorry, no clips....

Without this man I honestly believe there would be lesser an english folk tradition, vibrant and alive, with very much less a likelihood of an ongoing squeezebox legacy, through John Jones/Oyster BandSimon Care/Edward II or Gareth Morris/Little Johnny England.

Buy at his page, astonishingly he has one, albeit entangled with others, but 'Morris On', 'Plain Capers' and a lot more are there......