Sunday, July 15, 2018

JULY/THE CUCKOO


Sure, you know this, of course you do. You may have sung it as a child; it certainly sounds as if you should have sung it as a child. I didn't but, when I first heard it, I sort of wish I did, or had. I first came across it on the remarkable Kristin Hersh solo album, 'Hips and Makers', in 1994, somewhat of a sidestep from her earlier and later career as, arguably, THE Throwing Muse. (No argument really, but reference is always made, compulsorily, to her half-sibling in the band, Tanya Donnelly.) Tucked in towards the end of a slew of songs of sparse self-immolation comes this cover of an old english folk song, Roud 413 no less. (Me, neither.) It stands out by virtue of its simplicity, perhaps the trigger to her later album, consisting entirely of traditional appalachian ditties, 'Murder, Misery and then Goodnight', also strongly commended. Many of this songs on that set too have a link back to the ballad traditions of Britain.


So what have cuckoos to do with July? Well, everything apparently, or sort of, at least over here. Let me direct you to the lyrics, except, being from the canon of trad.arr., often the lyric varies from version to version, as there is some uncertainty as to whether they "never holler cuckoo till the 4th of July" or whether they "sucketh white flowers to keep her voice clear", the lines apparently interchangeable. This may help. But, as I was saying, it was deemed so essential that a cuckoo's song be heard to beckon in the start of summer that the venerable Times of London traditionally published,  and may well still do, yearly letters around when readers had heard their first of the year. Indeed, a book has put these together. And for those who are thinking the 4th of July late for summer, and I write on the 15th after a full 8 weeks without rain, the suggestion is that the July versions of the song emanate from singers trying to appeal to an american ear.

The list of performers who have included this song in their repertoire is huge, not unexpectedly including the greats of folk song on both sides of the pond, from Jean Ritchie to Shirley Collins, Doc Watson to Martin Simpson, let alone Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. More surprising are versions by rock/blues screamer  Janis Joplin (in Big Brother and the Holding Company) and rapper Buck 65. Here, however are a few more elegant versions, three of my, other than Kristin, favourites.

Archetypal englishman in L.A., Richard Thompson, together with Eliza, daughter of Martin, Carthy and Canadian legend Garth Hudson:


 A radically different version from blues muso-ethnologist Taj Mahal:


And Laura Veirs, with a fairly traditional take:


Hell, I haven't even included Townes, Rory and many, many more. (And some of these, mentioned and/or featured may offer the flower sucking over July. So sue me!) But, before I send you to the record store, all this romanticism should not take away the ugly truth about this bird.

Do you know, if you like the Kristin, buy the whole damn album!

Friday, July 13, 2018

JULY: Fourth Of July



Purchase Shooter Jennings, "Fourth Of July" 

Shooter Jennings, heir apparent to the legit country music crown, is doing his goddamnest to keep the weird in country weird. I'm talking real weird, the opportune word here being weird. Jennings is, of course, the son of country royalty Walon Jennings, and he's done his best to give a one finger salute to the Nashville establishment and make music his own way. And while it might not always be country, it's also rarely anything else you might recognize.  He's done things his own way, and he's shredded out some of the best, and the strangest, country tracks you'll ever actually enjoy.

Shooter's has one boot deep in tradition, as you'll hear on the tag line in this track, featuring a very drunk, but also very royal, George Jones, slurring out "He Stopped Loving Her Today." What else you'll hear, way out in the the other realm, is a bit outta space and outta time. Shooter doesn't really do music you'd feel comfortable labeling. This is evident in almost anything you might randomly pick from his Spotify profile. So yeah, hopefully, at this point, you're digging in. But, go deeper into his albums and you'll see how Jenning's "eff you genius" cuts across genres without approval, permission or apology. Jennings makes music his own way, which is a terrible cliche, but I can't think of a better way to describe how the crown prince has found his own feet in the whirlwind and followed up on what his father, the king, laid out out for him to follow. Case in point: he cut an album with Stephen King, 2010's Black Ribbons, which is one of the most interesting, spaced out, deeply current-events-rooted and sonically wild concept albums I've ever heard. Though, the unique factor is true for pretty much anything Shooter Jennings has recorded. If you haven't done it yet, listen up.
I promise you'll love what you hear.

And even though we're not talking about the track, as this is about "Fourth of July", his kicker "Fuck You, I'm Famous", from the same album is a beautiful antidote to our current near-dystopia scatter shatter, end of the world blues...Happy 4th of July, kids...hope those explosions outside are just kids shooting off fireworks..and not the revolution we really need.


July: Shine On Harvest Moon

Milton Brown: Shine On Harvest Moon

[purchase]

Leon Redbone: Shine On Harvest Moon

[purchase]

Asylum Street Spankers: Shine On Harvest Moon

[purchase]

Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster: Shine On Harvest Moon

[purchase]

The term “classic” is certainly overused, but I think it’s fair to say that Shine On Harvest Moon has earned it. The song was written and originally recorded in 1908, and countless artists have performed it since. At this point, you could also call it a folk song, and I can live quite comfortably with that as well. The versions I have chosen show only a small part of the range of possibilities for performing the song.

Milton Brown is one of the subjects of a fierce argument in the field of western swing music. Bob Wills is widely known as the father of western swing. In fact, however, Wills, though not heard here, cut his musical teeth in Milton Brown’s band. So adherents feel that the title of creator of western swing should belong to Milton Brown. On the basis of this 1935 performance, I would say that one can hear western swing beginning to take shape, but we are not quite there yet. To be fair, however, I would have to listen to a lot more of both Brown’s and Wills’ music before giving a real opinion. It’s an assignment I would not mind at all, given the time.

I am sure I must have heard other versions of Shine On Harvest Moon, but this one by Leon Redbone was the first to make an impression on me. This is actually one of the best known songs Redbone recorded. He specializes in finding forgotten gems from the American songbook, and giving them the folk orchestra treatment heard here.

I included the Asylum Street Spankers here because, first of all, they do a great job with the song. But this version also restores the original female lead vocal, and the delivery here is close to how the song was originally sung. Also, the Spankers restore the original order of the months. Most performers nowadays sing, “January, February, June and July” But the original lyric is heard here: “April, January, June or July”, with April stretched somehow to three syllables. The Spankers opt for a musical feel that somewhat recalls Redbone’s version, but adds the klezmer feel of the clarinet line and the doubletime verse at the end.

I was done with this post, or thought I was, when I came across my last selection, by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Here is an instrumental version during a theme dedicated to lyrics. This version is just so sweet I had to include it. This is small combo jazz from 1959, at a time when bebop and cool jazz were all the rage, and free jazz was about to make its appearance. But this performance harkens back to an earlier time. I would put this on a short list of tunes to play for someone who is just hearing jazz for the first time.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

July: Armstrong


Nanci Griffith: Armstrong
[purchase]

It isn’t a particularly profound or original observation to point out that 1969 was a pivotal year. There were Woodstock and Altamont and tons of amazing albums, Nixon’s inauguration, the Stonewall Riots, the Mets won the World Series, the U.S. secretly bombed Cambodia while the antiwar movement gained strength, the Beatles had their picture taken on Abbey Road and performed for the last time, the Manson family went on a murder spree, Sesame Street debuted, and Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Just for starters.

But if you had to pick the number one event of 1969, you’d probably pick the small step for man, and giant leap for mankind—Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, which took place in July, 1969. I was 8 when it happened, and I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch history being made. (Most of the other times I was allowed a late bedtime that year related to the Mets). As a kid in those days, there was little more exciting than watching rockets launch—we’d stare at the TV, waiting for the countdown, and what seemed like the slow climb of the rocket into space.  Which may be why MTV's early branding included videos of rockets and moonwalks. The moon landing was something truly amazing, especially when you consider that the watch I’m wearing now probably has more computing power in it than the entire Apollo 11 mission used.

While watching the landing, John Stewart, formerly of the Kingston Trio, wrote a song, “Armstrong,” which is about how despite all of the problems in the world, and our differences, everyone watched, or heard, about Armstrong’s amazing feat. I can honestly say that I never heard the song, but here it is:



(That’s the single version, which is different from the version released a few years later on Stewart’s album, Cannons In The Rain. I never heard that version either.)

The song has been covered a few times over the years, but the one I did hear was by Nanci Griffith, on her album Clock Without Hands. In fact, the album features three Stewart covers, including “Armstrong,” and Stewart plays acoustic guitar on the track. (Pete and Maura Kennedy, who I saw at Clearwater, contribute mandoguitar and vocals). It is a pleasant folk song, and Nancy Griffith’s distinctive vocal style works well. And the lyrics mention July.

The Dexateens, an underappreciated band from Alabama, released a song called “Neil Armstrong” a few years ago on their excellent album Hardwire Healing, which was produced by the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and David Barbe, who was in Sugar and has produced Truckers albums. Matt Patton, the Dexateens' bass player now fills that slot in the Truckers. Unlike the Stewart song, though, the Dexateens seem to be focusing more on how the moon shot, and his celebrity, affected Armstrong. And the lyrics also mention July.

Apparently, there are some people who believe that it was actually Louis Armstrong who was the first man to walk on the moon. He wasn’t, of course (although he sang “Moon River”), but he died in July—on the 6th, in 1971, at his home in Corona, Queens, about a mile from Shea Stadium, where the Mets lost 5-1 to the Expos.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

JULY: JULY, JULY/The DECEMBERISTS


Can it really only be 16 years since the Decemberists first peered around the corner into existence? Strangely, and I speak as a fan, it seems so much longer. Not, it is true, to the taste of all, the vocals of bandleader Colin Meloy being possibly the main hurdle to mass approval, together with their unworldly appearance,  the senior common room at a Cahoots/The Band theme night, and their downright odd arrangements, a quirky mix of the archaic with the unexpected, conspire to a niche version of world famous. Which is just fine in my book. And 'July, July' is perhaps the standout track on debut LP 'Castaways and Cutouts'.

Colin Meloy reminds me of Richard Thompson in a strange way, a catalyst of tradition and electricity. But maybe not so strangely. (Yes, I am going to talk about Meloy mainly, rather than the band, regardless of how tremendous are his cohorts, instrumentally, and they are, without him as prime singer and songwriter, they are meaningless. His band and he calls the tunes.) Constantly ploughing his own singular furrow, undoubtedly indebted to the british folk revival of the 60s and 70s, yet ears attuned to influences elsewhere. He has produced a series of solo albums, EPs really, devoted to such disparate bedfellows as Shirley Collins, Sam Cooke, Morrissey and the Kinks. But are they so very different? In Meloy's hands, often just his guitar and marmite voice, sometimes with spectral backing vocals, the similarities become immense.






See what I mean? OK, so 'Summertime' is hardly unique to Cooke, but what a version this is, drawing into focus what a great song it is, a steamy Tennessee Williams 3 acts in a few simple verses. And so too the songs of Stephen M. and of Ray Davies, let alone the trad. arr. seamed by Collins. I have to question, mind, quite what Meloy now has to say about the increasingly bizarre rants of the erstwhile Smiths frontman, whose image he has allegedly inked on his skin.

The Decemberists, of course, plough similar, albeit augmented by the trappings of electric rock music, chucking in accordion and stand up bass where necessary, and now, in 2018, the introduction of synthesisers and similar new-fangled. And now, instead of ancient mariners, they sing about village idiots.

Having caught them live in Birmingham (UK!) on their 'King is Dead' tour, I found myself initially uplifted, ahead of finding their cerebrality perhaps fits better with the recorded than the live. And there is then a strange dichotomy between the earnest lyrical scene-setting and Meloy gradually morphing into a demented ringmaster, corralling the crowd into choral participation. (I should add I am the frowning geezer in the crowd who never sings along, when asked to, or claps or waves a lighter. I can't abide all that stuff.) However, when they recently revisited the canon of 60s/70s folk in the guise of 'Offa Rex', their collaboration with folkish gamine, Olivia Chaney, this I wanted to see, so wanted to see. Still do. Interestingly they are keeping mighty quiet as to who the support on their forthcoming UK tour might be, my hope and money on Chaney..........


A final thought, for those who have ploughed through the vids above, and can't quite get it. This helpful instruction manual might help.

Still with me? Probably the best place to buy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

July: Mercy on Broadway/Laura Nyro



purchase [ New York Tendaberry]


As Darius notes, there are plenty of great July 4th songs to choose from, but that was never my personal intention in selecting the <July> theme. lyrics.com shows ~ 2000 songs with July in the lyrics (some repetition), so there's a lot to consider. Somewhere in that long list, among others that I would/could write about, I picked out "Mercy on Broadway". A song I wasn't familiar with, but a name that I was.

When I think Laura Nyro, I think "Wedding Bell Blues". On the second round around, I think "Eli's Coming" [Three Dog Night]


and "Stoned Soul Picnic" [The Fifth Dimension]


and "And When I Die" [Blood, Sweat & Tears].



For these, it's someone else's version of her powerful song-writing that comes to mind first. But rather than diminish Nyro's legacy, the fact that these greats chose to cover her work and hit the top of the charts with them only embellish her rightful place.

On the one hand, I want to lament our loss - Nyro died age 49 of ovarian cancer - the same age as her mother of the same. That IS sad. On the other hand, she left behind a style and a musical repertoire that is still strong decades later, a larger legacy than most can aspire to.

Come to "Mercy on Broadway". Yeah, it includes the per-requisite <July> in the lyrics - more than once in fact (unlike some of the other 2000 in the July lyrics list, where the word shows up once), and she uses month names in various other songs as well - in tune with the seasons?

Nyro was a New Yorker, so her reference to Broadway is apropos. Her references to the fare of the side-streets is equally real - she played the streets and subways of the city in the 1960s.
But it's the combination of her vocal shifts and, as Elton John put it, her "rhythmic and melodic changes" that place her apart. It's her cross over between R&B, jazz, blues and pop that made her songs so accessible to all the other bands. Like several other songs she wrote, it builds/morphs from jazzy blues to full out rocking by the end of the song.

For the record, the Christine Spero Group put out an entire album of Nero songs, but it doesn't include "Mercy".

Sunday, July 8, 2018

July: Money For Floods

Joan Baez: Money For Floods

[purchase]

Richard Shindell: Money For Floods

[purchase]

We’re About 9: Money For Floods

[purchase]

“My name is Eliza I live by the river My daughter Louise will be three in July…” A little digging uncovers a large number of songs to choose from for our new theme. However, I love a challenge, so I wanted one that did not reference the fourth of July. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great fourth of July songs that I hope we get to over the next two weeks. But there is also Money For Floods.

It wasn’t a hit, but Joan Baez has recorded the most popular version of the song to date. I often find that people who don’t like Joan Baez object to the sound of her early recordings. These were pure folk, and Baez’ voice at the time was admittedly an acquired taste. She had a high soprano voice that could sound shrill to some, and with only her guitar playing as accompaniment, you could not miss that voice. But two things happened as time went on. First, Baez began to experiment with fuller arrangements of her music. Some of these experiments, to my tastes, served her poorly, but she was certainly one of the most innovative folk artists of her day, and the best of this music still sounds fresh today. Second, Joan Baez was very young when she started, and her voice had changed noticeably by the time her career was ten years in. By the time she recorded Money For Floods, Baez was singing in an alto to low soprano range. This mature voice is capable of emotional depths that Baez could not achieve in the same way in her youth. The early shrillness, which I never minded, is a distant memory on this recording. Money For Floods is a song that gains a great deal by being sung by a woman, and Joan Baez delivers.

Baez has a few songwriting credits sprinkled throughout her career, but she is best known as an interpreter of traditional songs and the work of other writers. Such is the case here. Money For Floods was written by Richard Shindell. Shindell can write and sing a song from a woman’s point of view and make us believe in the song, because he is just that good. His arrangement of the song dictates that the sound begins intimately, and then swells at the first chorus, and the other versions I present here each follow this pattern in their own way. It is a musical metaphor that is fully explained in the lyrics by the end of the song, and it is a brilliant device.

Finally, I have included a version of the song in an a capella arrangement. We’re About 9 finds a way to make this work in a minimal arrangement that derives its power from its sparseness.

I found one more version of Money For Floods that I chose not to include, by Rob Rowe. Rowe has a voice that I find to be overly dramatic for the song, and his band doesn’t find the emotion of the song, to my ear. Also, Rowe changes the lyric so that the point of view is male, and that just doesn’t work for me on this song.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Burn/Fire: Fire On High


Electric Light Orchestra: Fire On High
[purchase]

Regular readers of my work here and elsewhere know that I’m a fan of prog rock, and I think that it is pretty clear that the Beatles were a profound influence on prog bands, many of whom have acknowledged this directly, or have covered Beatles songs. Electric Light Orchestra,which was founded when Roy Wood, of The Move, wanted to explicitly pick up where the Beatles left off, and use orchestral arrangements and instruments to fuse classical music with pop shows how it is possible to mix the two.

Initially, Wood recruited Jeff Lynne to join The Move, which also included drummer Bev Bevan, and they gradually morphed the older band into a new unit, Electric Light Orchestra. Wood left the band during the recording of their second album, leaving Lynne as the leader. And, there is no question that Lynne loved the Beatles (and the Beatles loved him—as you can see in the article that I linked to above, not only did they like his songs, Ringo and George guested on their albums, Lynne produced solo albums for Ringo, Paul, and George, replaced George Martin as producer for the Beatles’ last singles, and, of course Lynne was a Traveling’ Wilbury).

I was a fan of ELO during their mid-late 1970s heyday. I enjoyed the mix of pomp and pop. “Fire on High” is one of their stranger songs, suitable only as a B-side—an instrumental (mostly), with backwards vocals ("The music is reversible, but time... is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!"), choral segments and all sorts of odd stuff going on, making it still a fascinating listen.

Interestingly, despite its weirdness, a portion of the song was used by CBS for its sports coverage in the 70s. I have a strong memory that it was used for the network’s NBA coverage, but the Internet disagrees, telling me that it was actually, used for a sports anthology show, sort of like the better-known Wide World of Sports called the CBS Sports Spectacular. As we know, memory is a strange thing.

Back in the late 1980s, my friend Bill and I shared an apartment in New York, in the days when having an answering machine was still something that everyone had, and creating a theoretically clever outgoing message was popular. I remember that we used a few seconds of “Fire on High” and pretended that we were announcing a game while imparting the standard “we aren’t home, leave a message at the beep” message.

As I am writing this, I’m having second thoughts about whether it is a good idea to share this story or not. But we're all friends, here, right, and you won't think less of me. Right?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Burn/Fire-Have Love Will Travel




We'd like to welcome a new writer--Gregory W. Smith--to our ranks.  Here's his first post!!

For the theme of Fire/Burn, I’m choosing Tom Petty’s The Last DJ generally, and “Have Love Will Travel” specifically. I know neither of these have flames or burning in the title, but bear with me.

Let me set the stage, the year is 2002 and music is not what it used to be.  Satellite paid radio is on the rise and am/fm radio is being replaced by AOR, instead of the latest and greatest from the artists we have all known and loved for years.  American Idol is just finding its sea legs, where judges tell you who is the latest and greatest, instead of homegrown or even nationally known DJ’s.  The music business is in shambles at worst, or a cheesy popularity contest at best.  Along comes Tom and the boys to release a scathing attack on the music industry in album form.  The same Tom Petty that went to war over album prices in the eighties and never, ever took a corporate sponsor to go on tour.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the last great American rock band IMHO.

The album starts off with the title track, a love note to Los Angeles DJ Jim Ladd.  I don’t know much about this guy, but Tom thought the world of him apparently.  “Money Becomes King” follows at  number two, with “Joe” coming in at track four.  These three tracks all take aim at the music industry, but in three different ways.  “Money” is a shot of that feeling we’ve all had, when our hometown music god or goddess hits the big time.  You can still see in your mind’s eye, the large constellation they were in your small universe.  “Joe” takes aim at those notorious producers that seduce and use all the dreamers with stars in their eyes, just trying to score a record deal.  Once again, not about fire, but I think the world of those tracks.

The track that I first thought of at the mention of Burn/Fire is “Have Love, Will Travel” (track 11 on the album.)  Let me preface, that since his passing, this is the song of his I have most turned to most. It speaks to me now in ways it never did before.  His lines stand out it this song and stirs up imagery of what I have always viewed music to be.  Two lines or stanzas stand out most to me.

How about a cheer for all those bad girls
And all those boys that play that rock n roll  
They love it like you love Jesus
It does the same thing to their souls
 
That is the first one.  Music is by its nature spiritual.  It moves people to dance, to sing, to feel that you are no longer alone in the world, much like the Pentecostal denomination does for its parishioners.  A concert, whether it rock, rap, country, or polka dotted dinosaurs that play tambourines, is nothing but revival church writ large.  It stirs everyone deep down in their souls, at least it always has for my friends and I.

The next stanza is:

Maggie’s still trying to rope a tornado
Joe’s in the backyard trying to keep things simple
And the lonely dj’s digging a ditch,
Trying to keep the flames from the temple

And now you know why I chose this track.  The imagery in that one stanza gets me every single time.  I don’t what tornado Maggie’s chasing, but her hope is still there that she will rope it.  The simplicity of Joe, a man that appreciates the simple things in life, makes him loveable in his own. And then there’s that DJ.  He’s already tried creating a  line to keep the flames away and he’s down to his last line of defense, digging that forsaken ditch.  The flames are approaching, rising, burning the very air he breathes into his lungs, and still he won’t relent, won’t give up, won’t wave that white flag or won’t back down, if you will.  The temple is sacrosanct, the temple is all, the temple must survive at all costs.  And what is in the temple pray tell?  Why music of course.  The one thing that will never let us down.  The one thing that is there through the smiles and the tears.  The one fragile thing that protects our souls from the evil, vindictive, insane world.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Burn/Fire: Crash and Burn



Crash and Burn is a pretty popular phrase (Wikipedia says it's a "euphemism" for fail utterly, often with spectacle.) It's the title of several movies, some video games, and numerous songs - many of them unrelated except in title.

I had originally picked out the song by Yngwie Malmsteen, partly because I hadn't listened to him in a long time and recalled that I thought he was pretty good. But a little deeper digging revealed all the other songs with the same name. (I confess I am left a little confused about the role of copyright when so many can use the same without infringement.)

Starting with Yngwie [purchase]: the name immediately places us somewhere north or Europe (at least originally), and, yes if for some reason you never picked up on him, he's a hard rock guitarist with a classical background who hails from Sweden. And he's got lots of accolades dating back to the 80s. Apparently, if you can hit 1000 notes in succession in Guitar Hero II, you achieve the Yngwie Malsteen award.



Moving on: I linked to Sheryl Crow a few posts back and now again. Her "version" of Crash and Burn [purchase] has essentially no relation to the Malsteen song. To me - it's much nmore accessible (I don't really care for pyro-technic guitar behind Malsteen's style although I appreciate the skill involved). Sheryl Crow's more <Clapton> style is what I generally look for.



And then there's Thomas Rhett, country singer who has piled up a few hits, including Crash and Burn from 2015. You keep waiting for the girl in the video clip to change her mind, but then ... it is called Crash and Burn [purchase], so ... not.



And finally Savage Garden, another band whose name I know but am confessedly pretty ignorant of except for what I found online: to my loss. Like the above, they've got a Crash and Burn [purchase] song off their second and last album before they disbanded.



Thursday, June 28, 2018

Burn/Fire: B.B. King - Lay Another Log on the Fire



purchase [Another Log on the Fire]

Fame is fickle. B.B. King had it, C.L. Blast missed it. He had a knack for music - but no luck to go with it. B.B.King's <Another Log on the Fire> was penned by this man - Clarence Junior Lewis (aka C.L. Blast). And in fact, Blast at least once played with B.B. King, Otis Redding and others.
But he never made it to the "big time" on his own.



Because B.B. King played with him at one time, he may have picked up this song back then. Amazingly, IMHO, Blast's version of "Fire" is at least as good as BB's, so you have to wonder at the fickleness of fate.

Various sources note that Blast's [bad] luck included mis-management.
The story of the Juana label partially lays it out. Juana, a record label out of Atlanta, was poorly managed by Frederick Knight (of Ring My Bell Fame) and Blast was part of the line-up/artists signed up to the label.


From '55 to 80 or so, Blast worked without coming up with a major hit.
He did his military service in the late 50s touring and singing to fellow soldiers. In 1980, Atlantic/Cotillion (thanks, Arif Mardin) put out his first LP.

Blast, however, might take a Guinness record for number of labels a musician has worked with:
Fury, Atlantic, Columbia, Knight's Juana label, and United.

C.L.Blast also penned a few other songs, some of which you may have run across:
Love Don't Feel Like Love
What Can  I Do
If I Had Love You More
I Just Don't Know
And to his further credit, he collaborated on "Ring My Bell" with Frederick Knight.

The 1984 version of the song was recorded at Muscle Shoales studios.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Burn/Fire: Fire Door




Ani DiFranco: Fire Door [purchase]

I’m using this Ani DiFranco song, which mentions fire, as an excuse to write about the recent Clearwater Festival, where DiFranco performed. More to the point, though, the weekend was hot and sunny, and despite some precautions, I did get a little burned.

I’ve written about Clearwater before, and it is one of the regular musical highlights of the year for me. Every year is the same, but different, and not just because there are different acts. Like most years, it was a long weekend filled with great music, some of which are new discoveries. Like most years, we get there early, claim our spot at the main Rainbow Stage, and walk around the place, shopping, visiting the Activist Area, and taking in the beauty of the Hudson River. As usual, we ran into friends. And like most years, there is some weather issue—as noted, this year it was hot and sunny both days, which is better than rain, or high humidity, but can be uncomfortable.

This year, though, it seemed as if the festival bookers didn’t have as many big name acts as in the past, especially on Saturday (and some “regulars” such as Toshi Reagon and Josh Ritter were absent). I don't know whether that was a money issue, an editorial decision, or based on availability, or some combination, but it meant that we spent the weekend sampling lots of music from bands that we were unfamiliar with, often moving from stage to stage to catch partial sets. My wife and I (and our daughter who attended with us—another difference) spent more time apart because different things interested us. Because there were fewer “must see” acts on the main stages, I visited the Dance Stage multiple times, which I had never done, to hear Cajun and Zydeco music, and we spent time at the intimate Workshop Stage for the first time, which led to my favorite performance of the weekend.

So, here we go. On the bus ride from the parking lot to the Festival site, we overheard a group of young women bemoaning their hangovers, and their concern that it would affect their performance. Of course, we had to ask them about this, and they turned out to be singers from a band billed as “Upstate Rubdown,” but which at the Festival called themselves “Upstate.” In my exhaustive pre-Festival research, I had checked out their music, and they were on the list of bands that I wanted to try to see. But we began, traditionally, at the main Rainbow Stages with what I call the “old folkies show,” now called “Songs for Pete and Toshi,” to honor the founders of the event. It included, David Amram (87), Josh White, Jr. (77), Tom Chapin (73), The Kennedys, Mike & Ruthy, Tom Paxton (80) and the Don Juans (58 and 66), and Joanne Shenandoah (60).

After a bit of that, we decided to move to the smaller Hudson Stage to check out Upstate. And they were great, despite any lingering hangovers. My daughter described them as like Lake Street Dive crossed with the Staves. She also believes that she may have met some of the women we spoke to on the bus when she visited their alma mater, SUNY New Paltz, for an a capella event.

Next up on that stage was Making Movies, two sets of brothers, one of Panamanian heritage and the other of Mexican heritage, who rocked bilingually, and included many songs focusing on the newsworthy plight of immigrants. Their music reflected many influences, including various genres of rock, Latin and African music.

 
We then returned to the Rainbow Stage for husband and wife-fronted The War and Treaty, which melded blues, rock, R&B and gospel.


They were also excellent, but it was really hot, and I wanted to check out singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy back at the Hudson Stage (where I could stand in the shade). She was good, too, and I particularly enjoyed her Lucinda Williams cover.


After that, I met up with my wife, and we browsed some of the environmentally focused vendors, before I plunged into the Dance Stage for Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, and enjoyed their Cajun dance music (but not as much as my friend Frank, who was dancing hard, and sweating through at least his first shirt of the day).

 
I headed back to the Hudson Stage for Beth Orton, and while I was a fan of her early songs, I was not familiar with much of what she was performing, and I had some trouble connecting with some of the unfamiliar songs, which were pretty dark and downbeat.


So, it was back to the Dance Stage for C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, a hard rocking Zydeco unit, which filled the floor with joyous dancers (including Frank, sweating through another shirt).

 
It was finally time for the “headliners” at the Rainbow Stage, and we got to hear pop humorists They Might Be Giants. My daughter again pithily remarked at how much work they put into very silly songs.

 
After that, we took a brief trip over to the Sloop Stage, where festival regulars, The Kennedys, displayed their usual excellent singing, playing, songwriting, and storytelling.


But we returned to the Rainbow Stage to hear first night closer, Ani DiFranco, another regular Clearwater performer, who played an strong set that combined her distinctive guitar style with her broadly political, thought provoking songwriting. I don’t believe that she played “Fire Door,” but I wasn’t really listening for it—nevertheless, it is a fine song, about dealing with the aftermath of a relationship betrayal. She did start the set with “Little Plastic Castle,” which I love. So that was nice.



Not bad for Day 1, right?

Sunday promised to be even hotter, but undaunted, our trio of music lovers arrived early, set up at the Rainbow Stage, wandered around a bit and returned for a new feature. Choir! Choir! Choir!, a couple of Canadians who specialize in creating participatory choirs, invited all interested to the front of the stage to learn the background parts to the folk classic, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” My wife and daughter participated, because they have beautiful voices and love to sing. I sat back and listened, because as anyone who knows me knows, I cannot sing. At all. They had fun, although it was a bit disappointing in the end because the lead singers, some of the “old folkies,” didn’t seem to understand what was going on, and were even less rehearsed than the choir.


After that, my wife and daughter headed over to the Workshop Stage for a “harmony workshop” with the band Mipso, while I went to check out River Whyless at the Hudson Stage.


I enjoyed their folk rock sound, but decided to leave part way through their set to join my wife and daughter for two reasons—to hear Mipso, and to try to make sure I got a seat for the next performer at that small tent, Rhiannon Giddens. The tent was packed, with an overflow crowd standing and sitting around the edges. Mipso, a rootsy, folk rock band, played songs and answered questions from the crowd. What I heard made me want to check them out when they did a full set later in the day.


When they were done, a few people left, but the crowd size increased as the time for Giddens to take the stage approached. Luckily, I was able to get a seat.

Rhiannon Giddens is remarkable. Her latest album made my list of favorite music of 2017. She’s a MacArthur award winner, and her bio on their website begins:

Rhiannon Giddens is a singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter enriching our understanding of American music by reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country genres and revealing affinities between a range of musical traditions, from gospel and Celtic to jazz and R&B. 

During the next hour, she sang, played the guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and discussed each song with us, and they included everything that is mentioned above, including a song in Gaelic and one in Spanish.


Being able to see a genius with such prodigious talent in an intimate venue was one of the best things that I have ever experienced at Clearwater.

After a quick lunch, I checked out Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience at the Dance Stage (Frank, however, wasn’t there on Sunday—maybe he was doing laundry), and they provided some rocking Louisiana sounds.

Then, I checked out country rock legends Dave Alvin and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, who played some songs that I recognized, both originals and covers, while never missing a chance to say each other's full names.


I wandered back to the Hudson Stage to listen to Mipso, and their music was equally enjoyable in a larger setting.
 

It was now time for the headliners, so it was back to our base at the Rainbow Stage to hear an hour of Rhiannon Giddens, with a full band, including fellow former Carolina Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins on guitar (and lead vocals on a few songs). What the set lost in intimacy, it made up in power. As you can probably guess, her performances were the highlight of the weekend for me.

Next up was Jeff Tweedy, who I am also a huge fan of. Tweedy delivered a set of mostly Wilco songs, with a few covers, Loose Fur songs, and new songs mixed in. As much as I like him, I think that his solo act would be better in a small club than a large festival stage. His stage banter, though, mostly about his perceived personal and professional failures, was extremely amusing, as expected.

Finally, the weekend ended with an amazing, rocking set from The Mavericks, who are not only a great band to see live, they also seem to be enjoying themselves on stage as much as we did in the audience. I think that my daughter, who was not familiar with the band, is a fan now.


 


I grudgingly left during the Mavericks’ last song, to try to beat the crowd, sadly listening to the sound of them tearing the joint up fade away while we approached the buses, although I suspect the extra few minutes wouldn’t have made a huge difference in our exit time.

We returned home, exhausted, hot, burned and tanned, and in awe of all of the great music we heard over the weekend. It wasn’t the best lineup I’ve ever heard, but to some that is to some degree beside the point.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

BURN/FIRE: BURN by RAY LAMONTAGNE

Now seems as good as any to fan the flames of the ultimate slow burn career of Ray LaMontagne, celebrating, roughly, his 15th year of recording. Unashamedly reflecting the music of the Laurel Canyon era; he was inspired to sing and write by the example of Stephen Stills, yet is more, way more, than the retro pigeon hole he is often placed. If the name means little, you will have heard his songs, seemingly of appeal to the commissioners of TV box sets, featuring in shows like 'Bones', 'ER'*, 'House' and 'Criminal Minds'.
 (Briefly changing the point, ain't that the dream job? I am forever shazaming away during TV nights, as husky blue-collar americana vies with quirky electronica to set the vibe onscreen, buying no few albums on the strength of the snippet heard, rather too often finding it to be their one moment in the sun, but hey, what can I do?)


'Burn' is from his 2003 debut, produced by no less than Ethan Johns in 2003. A largely low key acoustic affair, it took the glorious strings and brass settings of his next record, 2006's 'Til the Sun Turns Black' to fully showpiece his fragile charm. (*The clip from ER is the title track) A 3rd record, still with Johns, introduced a band setting, further developing the emotional palette, yearning enough in the raw form, exquisite when enhanced. Another song from this record, 'Gossip in the Grain' comes below. Entitled 'Sarah', it was also featured on/in 'House'.


A slight change of direction came with his next recording, self-produced and credited to Ray LaMontagne and the Prairie Dogs. Sensing some restlessness and, arguably, finding him treading water, it then took a brace of new producers to bring more out of him, firstly Dan Auerbach and then Jim James for his 5th and 6th respective discs. The former saw a echoes of a more distant past added to the colour scheme, 60s pop with Auerbach and a neo-psychedelia with James. To say 'Ouroboros' , the one helmed with James, was a radical departure might be no undestatement, with comparisons including Pink Floyd and 'Dark Side of the Moon'. OK, even with LaMontagnes's husky voice, but see how little understatement this is:


Here's what the singer had to say about it.

So where to go now? Well, he has just put out his latest. Back to his own production, I have yet to hear it but the reviews sound promising. Here's a great article from 'Uncut' magazine, travelling through his back pages with less of a pace, together with the new single.


'Part of the Light', including the above,  came out last month. Mine is in the post.

Last of all in this hardly covert fanboy tribute comes a clip that is a favourite of mine, showing our Ray, holding his head up in august company:


Friday, June 22, 2018

Speak/Talk: Talking Heads Burning Down the House



purchase [ Speaking in Tongues ]

It seemed such a no-brainer to include Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues that I feared it had already been done here. It's been done lots of other places, but I'll bring it back from wherever in history it's been lurking for you. We're talking about 1983 here.

To start, I browsed the entire archive of Star Maker posts related to the Talking Heads over the years (of which there are about 20) and don't see that anyone has ever picked this one up.

Curiously, the Wiki tells us that Burning Down the House was their "lone top ten single on the US Billboard Hot 100." Me? I loved them and I still follow David Byrne through his mailing list/blog at http://davidbyrne.com/connect

Just about every one of their albums "went gold", so that's nothing to scoff at, and there's no denying that especially Tina Weymouth and David Byrne have written their names in the pantheon of modern music greats.

You are aware of course that their vocal style is pretty heavily built on talking imposed over a funky/new wave instrumental composition. Burning Down the House is no exception. The line itself apparently comes from a common audience chant of those years, which the band adopted/converted to their use.

And then there's the Tom Jones/Cardigans rendition of the same. One of his better outputs (unless you want to count Delilah!)


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Speak/Talk: Let's Give Them Something to Talk About



purchase the whole album! [Luck of the Draw]



There are few living that can play a slide guitar the way Bonnie Raitt does. She's played with them all: Clapton, Duane Allman, Ry Cooder, Lowell George and a number of others. But it isn't just her slide guitar - there's <something to talk about> in her vocals.


Without getting too deep into the #MeToo issue, you can assume that Bonnie Raitt has seen it all. She seems to have weathered it fairly well - I don't see her personal remarks about her man-handling over the years. Yes, she's been the subject of various public broadcasts, but mostly stayed (rightly) UN-affected. Let's Give Them Something to Talk About has gained some notoriety:

I have to note that the song was written by Shirley Eikhard, who you might want to explore, since she's written songs picked up by the likes of Anne Murray and Cher (in addition to Raitt).


Jennifer Love Hewitt

Rae Solomon


Brittney Spears

Cher


KT Tunstall & Daryl Hall

Saturday, June 16, 2018

SPEAK/TALK: DON'T SPEAK IN ENGLISH



There are a number of songs that, if it's the right word, celebrate FLLD, foreign language learning disability. At least I think that is what doughty old ex-pro gambler Chip is singing, at first to and then with winsome fiddler Rodrigues, and going on about. Or maybe not, but there seems quite a canon of songs around the apparent, um, boost that might be given to an ad-hoc liaison if one participant, usually the woman, contrives to talk dirty in foreign. The stuff of lone men without names, stalking the windswept borderlands, seeking what solace they can, after-hours in the cantinas, with dark-eyed damsels. Usually ahead of shooting everyone to bits. Or being shot. If cinema is slower to embrace such themes these days, americana certainly ain't lagging.

Chip Taylor actually was a professional gambler, it made more money than the sweatshop songwriting he was signed up for. And he was quite successful at that too, certainly more so than his original desire, of following his dad into pro-golf. Calling himself a tune-tailor, from the late 50s to a decade or so later he wrote songs that became hits for a remarkable diversity of acts. Perhaps the best known is 'Wild Thing', originally by Jordan Christopher and the Wild Ones, but memorably later picked up by UK west country band  the Troggs, and, thence, Jimi Hendrix. But he also penned 'Angel of the Morning' and 'Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)', demonstrating his cross-genre ease between rock, country and soul. But the horses and casinos paid more, at least until he was banned. So, at age 53, he picked up his guitar again. Carrie Rodrigues, a classically trained violinist who had switched to fiddle after witnessing a Lyle Lovett soundcheck, caught his eye and they became a team, putting out 4 duet albums between 2001 and 2006, his rough hewed outlaw tones blending with her sweeter voice and stunning playing. She has since built up a strong solo repertoire, although not beyond still performing the odd new song, as penned by, she says, "one of our greatest songwriters of all  time", erstwhile sparring partner Taylor. He himself continues to perform and produce music, in 2016 being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, at the same time as running his own label, Trainwreck Records.

Here's a nice version of Taylor and Rodrigues together, playing 'Wild Thing'.


Now, before we lose entirely my indulgence around the aphrodisiacal enticements of endearments en espagnol, we shouldn't forget the disappointment when it fails to materialise, as drawn into focus by Mssrs. Sahm, Meyers, Fender and Jimenez, the estimable tex-mex supergroup, the Texas Tornadoes and their complementary paean, 'She Never Spoke Spanish to Me', actually written by erstwhile Flatlander, Butch Hancock.


Instead of pointing you towards any of the songs featured here; it's easy to find 'em, I'm going to direct you to a song the Taylor/Rodrigues duo slipped out a couple of years ago. The epithet remains as strong as ever: 'Who's Gonna Build That Wall?'

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Speak/Talk: Talk Dirty (To Me)



Romeo Void: Talk Dirty (To Me)
[purchase]

Romeo Void briefly shone brightly in the New Wave world with a sound that mixed punk, dance, jazz and funk, fronted by the sexy, soulful voice of Debora Iyall. And yet, after a handful of successful albums, EPs and singles, a major label contract, and packed concerts, they broke up within 5 years. Iyall has maintained that the main reason that the band gave up was because she was overweight. In an interview in 2003, she stated: "Howie [Klein] sold us from 415 [Records] to Columbia Records, and they were like 'Who's this fat chick?' They decided that was as far as it was going to get, and pulled their support." Although Iyall has subsequently backed off that claim somewhat, and there is also evidence of “health issues” and intra-band tensions that helped to break them up, I don’t think that it is inaccurate to say that the perception that it would be hard to promote a band fronted by a heavy singer contributed to the band’s failure to have a longer career. (Didn't seem to stop Meat Loaf, who released Bat Out Of Hell on another label in the Columbia family, from making it big, though. Hmmmmm.)

Founded in 1979 at the San Francisco Art Institute, when Iyall, having recently seen Patti Smith perform, got together with fellow student, bass player Frank Zincavage. They added guitarist Peter Woods and drummer Jay Derrah, and christened themselves “Romeo Void.” Saxophonist Benjamin Bossi was added shortly thereafter, and Derrah left before the band recorded their first full album, leading to an almost Spinal Tap-esque parade of drummers.

I remember hearing Romeo Void’s first album, It's A Condition, in 1981 at WPRB, and being captivated by their sound. Back in the pre-Internet, pre-MTV era [technically, MTV started in August, 1981, but I didn't see it for a couple of years, because in those days, not everyone had cable, and not every cable system had MTV.]  I don’t recall seeing any pictures of the members, and literally had no clue what Iyall looked like. And I didn’t care. It was also clear that many of the band’s songs had sexual undertones, or overtones, for that matter. One highlight from the debut was “Talk Dirty (To Me), which musically had all of the elements that made the band great, with overtly sexual, even kinky, lyrics. It foreshadowed the band’s most famous song, the Ric Ocasek-produced “Never Say Never,” released the following year, that featured the memorable chorus, “I might like you better if we slept together.”

Romeo Void’s biggest hit “A Girl In Trouble (Is A Temporary Thing),” came from their last album, 1984's more mainstream sounding Instincts, so it really seems that Columbia Records’ weight shaming based lack of support might have cost them a successful band.

Iyall ended up leaving the music business for years, teaching art and engaging in projects to work with and train fellow Native Americans, although she has, recently, dipped her toe back into recording and performing. I don’t believe that any of the other members of the band had much of a musical career outside of Romeo Void.

They were an excellent live band, too—here’s a clip of “Talk Dirty (To Me)” from a show in 1981, and you can see what I am talking about. No one seemed to care that the lead singer wasn’t a stick figure. It was about this time that I interviewed the band, something that I alluded to in another column, before they performed at Trenton’s City Gardens. Having done a bit more research into the club’s calendar, I believe that the interview was in March, 1982, when they played there, with local heroes Regressive Aid opening. There’s a reference in the City Gardens’ oral history book, No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, to the band coming to WPRB for an interview drunk in July, 1981, when school was out and I was in Europe, so I think that Randy Now, City Garden’s leader, has mixed up the two dates.

As I have mentioned, during the interview, Iyall acted really annoyingly, blurting out profanities and doodling penises on scrap paper, so if she was drunk, that makes some sense. In any event, she has noted in another interview, "I do like to be provocative, and I definitely have access to my sexuality, and as a topic I find it ripe.” She did, however, agree to do a station ID, which you can find here, along with probably way more than you ever want to know about my time at WPRB. 

In my early days on Facebook, I found that Iyall and I had a mutual friend, who herself is a sexually provocative performance artist, so it didn’t surprise me. Now, both of them block access to their friend lists, so I can’t see if that relationship has continued, but there are times that I want to reach out to Iyall and ask her if she remembers the interview, which all of us at WPRB involved in the event have not forgotten.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Gems & Stones: Gary Lewis - This Diamond Ring




purchase [This Diamond Ring]


Most 60s music doesn't light my fire - except in that it is seminal. Some of the best of today's musicians were starting out then, so their early material is potentially of interest.

Gary Lewis (and his band, the Playboys) fall into that category - if you had been around then and listening to (AM) radio, you would have heard their "hits":
Everybody Loves a Clown
Save Your Love for Me
and of course, This Diamond Ring


As is often the case, when I set out to write something here, I end up learning some new things:
Gary Lewis is the son of Jerry Lewis and singer Patti Palmer.
This Diamond Ring, while making it into the "Top" lists in 1965 under the Gary Lewis name, was actually written by another musician whose name has always sort of bubbled under the surface - Al Kooper.

Al Kooper is a gem of sorts in his own right: 70+ years playing with and writing for most anyone who's anyone. Prolific to say the least, Kooper's done it all. His Wikipedia entry says "Kooper has played on hundreds of records." Hundreds, including Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Lynryd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, he formed Blood Sweat & Tears.

As for the Playboys' rendition of the song he sold for $300, Kooper doesn't have a lot of compliments, writing in his "Backstage Passes .." book that he and the song's other writers were "revolted: at how they had made a "teenage [turkey] milkshake" out of a song that had a lot more soul in it. Hmmm. Maybe that why - besides the outdated 60s sound, I cant say I chose this one for love of it - more for the curiosities I came across in checking into its history.

Of further interest, Leon Russell was the arranger. Snuff Garrett, the producer is credited with doing a pretty amazing job not only with pushing Lewis's development as a musician but also with some excellent timing of their hits so that they didn't coincide with the Beatles' output, which was otherwise dominating the chart.

Lewis took a long break from music but has returned to performing - cruise ships, casinos, corporate events ...