Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hard: Heroes Are Hard To Find

purchase [Heroes Are Hard to Find]

How our music tastes can change over time.

Fleetwood Mac's <Heroes Are Hard To Find> was one of my favorite albums way back then. (Yes, I bought it - see my previous!) The album came out at about the height of the band's fame: that would be just before the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and just after the release of < Mystery To Me> , which - at the time - I couldn't get enough of. On cassette tape, of course.

Admittedly, (still after all these years), there are several great pieces on the <Heroes>  album - many of them better than my choice of "Heroes Are Hard to Find" , but they don't meet the current theme criteria.  There's the mesmerizing "Bermuda Triangle", the take on Elmore James' "Coming Home" .. lots of Bob Welch before he left the band ... and some other good music here. The fact is that Fleetwood Mac was pretty big stuff in the mid 70s. Mick Fleetwood had put together a  group that moved the Fleetwood name from a mildly successful 60s band to the top of the charts - repeatedly- throughout the 70s.

The funny thing to me is how - 40 years later -  the title track (Heroes) no longer does much for me. You know how they talk about songs that maintain their allure/stature over the years? My take is that this isn't one. Admittedly,  I made good use of it a few years back in one of the courses I taught. The unit's topic was heroes, and the song seemed to fit in alongside Tina's <We Don't Need Another ...) and Little Feat's <Time Loves A...> ... but now, it just comes up a little short.

That said, I wouldn't be  bringing up a song that didn't have some kind of value. The value for me is mostly in memories. The value for you ... ? Possibly a song you hadn't heard before? Possibly a new perspective on the song. Maybe just a reminder of a bygone era. Then again, as I cued the song for one more play before posting, I was struck by the similarity with my previous post (Little Feat's Don't Try So Hard) - as Fleetwood began to roll, I might have been listening to Feat - close to the same beat. Guess it says something about my musical taste.

Fortuitously, the clip above includes both Christine McVee and  Stevie Nicks.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hard: Hard Times Come Again No More

Hard Times Come Again No More is a song that dates from well before the Great Depression, but it’s easy to see why you might not think so. The song is a secular hymn, a plea directed to the comfortable for compassion for those less fortunate. It speaks to times when those in power would have the poor and the middle class compete against each other, rather than risk us joining together to find common solutions to our problems. We are in such a time now, and the Great Depression was a period that brought about such a joining together for an all-too-short moment. The song, however, shows that the need for compassion is much older. Stephen Foster wrote Hard Times Come Again No More in 1854, and it became a favorite on both sides of the Civil War. In seeking out versions of the song for this post, I found that some of the best versions express the idea that none of us are alone in the way the song is arranged.

Jennifer Warnes: Hard Times Come Again No More


Jennifer Warnes finds a stark beauty in the song with the sparest arrangement here. She gets a small group of friends together for an a capella version that expresses solidarity with the sounds of human voices alone.

Mavis Staples: Hard Times Come Again No More


Mavis Staples is best known for her work with the Staples Singers, although her solo work has become better known lately. Either way, she is a gospel singer at heart. Even a secular song like this one becomes a prayer when she sings it. This jibes perfectly with Stephen Foster’s intent, and results in a powerful performance.

Nanci Griffith: Hard Times Come Again No More


Nanci Griffith makes a specific connection to the hard times that have been experienced by the Irish people. Her version includes notable Irish musicians such as Dolores Keane and Sharon Shannon. Griffith starts with a small ensemble, and gradually builds to the full arrangement, which is a great musical device for expressing the theme of the lyric.

Paolo Nutini and the Chieftains: Hard Times Come Again No More


Finally, I could not resist closing with the Chieftains’ version with Paolo Nutini. The universality of the theme of the song is still very much intact, but the Irish connection is now explicit. The Chieftains find a perfect fit for the song as an Irish ballad, and deliver a version that lingers after the last note. Stick around for the coda played on pipes and drums; it really takes this one home.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

HARD: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Nooooooooooo, not that one!

This is no syrupy Sedaka or claggy King, this is Studio One, Kingston, Jamaica, Hortense and Alton Ellis, a wonderful slab of early lover's rock from, um, much the same time. Probably. Don't get me wrong, the "other one" is a fine piece of music. For it's day. If not a little unbearably twee, not to say the image of  Neil Sedaka and Carole King in the clinch they once were seems a little not-in-front-of-the-children in it's euww-ness.

Brother and sister, Alton and Hortense were better known apart than together, with Alton, the 'Godfather of Rocksteady', being by far the better known of the two. Indeed, the duet in this song is probably not even that, with Hortense added as an overdub to an earlier hit for her elder sibling, and the LP in the frame for the clip being otherwise songs by one or the other, rather than both, even if Alton had originally produced some solo success with most of them. This is how show biz worked in 1960s Trenchtown. Or maybe even 70s, as the recordings didn't reach any much wider public until 1990. It is no less wonderful for that, and is a staple on many of the excellent retrospectives of the original era produced by Soul Jazz records amongst others.

Alton had a long and varied career ahead of dying from lymphoma in 2008, in a career stretching from the derivative jamaican ersatz american r&b of the 60s, in time for the birth of ska and, eventually, reggae. As these music forms blossomed, Ellis was often a lone voice in decrying the violent 'Rudeboy' culture that caused so much social chaos. After sojourns in Canada and the U.S. he eventually made his home in the U.K., arriving well in time to be greeted as an elder statesman for the emerging 2-Tone ska revival of the late 1970s, as the Specials and their kin made a stand for multiculturalism. His legacy includes many wonders including this version of this David Clayton/BS&T groaner, giving it a little less sweaty smell, and, less successfully, this curious version of 'Whiter Shade of Pale.' Fabulous bass, though.

Hortense, meanwhile, spent time both under and out the wing of her brother, recording constantly, alongside a couple of marriages and producing, at least, 8 children, before herself succumbing to throat cancer. Here is a staple from her live career in the States, a version of the Patti Labelle song, although her biggest hit was 'Unexpected Places.'

You can't have too much vintage reggae and I can't have too much love for it.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Hard: Hardgroove


I’ve written many times about how lucky I am to live in Tarrytown, New York, in part because the Tarrytown Music Hall is within an easy walk from my house. I’ve seen so many incredible rock and folk music shows there, that I’ve lost count.

This week, the musical landscape of Tarrytown got even better, as a new jazz club, Jazz Forum, opened last weekend, also within walking distance. My wife and I attended the early show on Saturday, featuring the Roy Hargrove Quintet, and were completely blown away. The club itself is beautiful—a minimalist L shaped space with room for 85 patrons without crowding and the walls are covered with art from local artists that will rotate over time. There is a gorgeous, specially made bar and a back room with comfy chairs and a pool table. The current menu is limited to dips and tapenades, charcuterie and cheeses, all of which looked delicious (we didn’t eat on this visit). The service was professional, friendly and not obtrusive, which was remarkable considering that we were at only the third show after it opened.

So, how does this fit our theme? Simply because opening a new jazz club is hard. Opening any business is hard, opening a music club is harder, and I suspect that opening a jazz club is even harder still. Google the statistics for new business failures, and you can see that it ain’t easy. But I think that Jazz Forum has a good chance to succeed. The main reason is that its owners, Mark Morganelli and his wife Ellen Prior know what they are doing. Morganelli, an excellent trumpeter and flugelhorn player in his own right, has been promoting jazz shows for almost four decades. He has promoted jazz shows and festivals in Westchester County and other suburbs for years, including for many years at the Tarrytown Music Hall and his connections in the business are myriad. Not only do these connections and friendships give him a leg up in luring top talent to play a small suburban club, Tarrytown’s location, an easy drive or train ride from New York, make it an attractive place to play and for audience members to come and listen. Also, I heard at least one patron tell Prior how happy he was to be able to hear such great music without having to head into the city. So, while the endeavor itself is hard, and it may be hard to keep Jazz Forum alive, I think that it will beat the odds.

Jazz is also hard, but Roy Hargrove and his band made it look almost easy. Hargrove was a trumpet prodigy, discovered in high school by Wynton Marsalis (a future Jazz Forum headliner? Maybe….), who has created a Grammy Award winning career, and regularly is considered to be one of the top trumpeters of his era. His soloing was incredible, but he also was willing to cede the spotlight to his fine band, fiery alto sax player Justin Robinson, subtle pianist Tadataka Unno, the rock solid Danton Boller on bass and creative drummer Willie Jones, III. Here’s a brief snippet from the show we saw, stolen from Mark’s Facebook page. You can sort of see us in the video, at the end, looking blurry.

The featured song was chosen for its title (a pun on Hargrove’s name), and not because they played it last night. It is from a project called RH Factor, featuring Hargrove and other jazz musicians along with non-jazz musicians including Erykah Badu, Common, D'Angelo, Meshell Ndegeocello, Q-Tip and Karl Denson. Hargrove has long experimented with “crossing over” to popular music, which is either a way to broaden the audience for jazz, or selling out, depending on the critic. The track is more of a soul/funk groove than a traditional jazz piece, and it really is great.

I know that my wife and I are looking forward to future shows at Jazz Forum, and thank Mark and Ellen for doing something hard to make hearing great jazz easy for us.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Hard: Dont Try So Hard

[purchase Shake Me Up]

Little Feat was/is/has been one of my favorite sounds of all. From my reading, critics seem to fall into two categories: thems that think the band could never be the same after Lowell George's passing (and they are right ... but wait: "be the same" means just that) , and thems that give them a chance without their original (burned out) star.

Like many others, I kind of stopped tracking them about the time of the 1979 album Down on the Farm. Probably had something to do with the fact that that's when I left the US. But I cant offer any excuses for not continuing to follow them. Well, no ... I did follow. Over the years, I have returned again and again to the Internet Archive's incredible collection of free Little feat concert recordings, but almost all of it is from before '79.

I'm not really truly stuck in the pre-79 age, but in many ways I am. You hear folks say that the music that comes out these days just doesn't rate compared to the old days. But it's not so. It's more that a lot of music from the "old days" has become classic. As has Little Feat.

The Little Feat on the '91 Shake Me Up album is disparaged by some: it's Paul Barrere, Craig Fuller, Bill Payne, Richie Hayward ... - the same guys as the old days. There are some songs on the album that I agree are not so good, but then there's others like <Don't Try So Hard>, that IMHO match the quality of anything earlier: solid emotion, quality vocals and slide guitar that may not be Lowell George, but doesn't leave much to be desired.

Hard: Hard to Concentrate

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Hard to Concentrate


There is the classic way to propose marriage. The man gets down on his knees in front of his love. He has already planned this moment, and he has the ring ready in his pocket. He gazes lovingly at the object of his adoration, and says the words, “will you marry me”. I suppose many couples did it that way, and I also suppose that many of those couples stayed together and are still very happy. But that was far from my experience. My wife and I had been dating for almost three years. We had been making baby steps toward the aisle, although I suppose we were somewhat in denial about our destination. We had long ago stopped splitting checks on our dates, and stopped worrying about whose turn it was to pay. We had each cleared the awkward hurdle of meeting each other’s parents. And then, one day, my wife to be got to feeling insecure about life to the point of tears, and I wound up proposing by way of comforting her. My words were something romantic like, “let’s make it official”. There followed a lengthy scene in which I had to convince her that I meant it. Hardly a textbook proposal, but we will be celebrating our 26th anniversary next month.

I mention all of this because Hard to Concentrate is a marriage proposal. It is not the classic scenario either, and the song also does not contain the words, “will you marry me”. But the lyric is classier than what I did, and there is no mistaking the singer’s intent. Like us, this couple may not have actually shopped for the ring until after the proposal was accepted. Nevertheless, this lyric makes me feel optimistic for the couple’s prospects. It invokes the realization that an I and a you have become a we. Going with the genders in the video, I hope she said yes, and I hope that they can look back fondly at this moment 26 years from now.

Musically, the song is very spare, in a good way. The drummer does little more than keep time, and the bass line is very simple and almost invisible. The rhythm guitar does most of the work here, with the lead guitar intensifying the feel of the song. It works beautifully, and nothing more is needed. The song has a quiet intensity that suits the lyric perfectly. A more recent example of this kind of song building is Ed Sheeran’s hit Shape of You. In both cases, the songwriter stopped when they had enough, with great results.