Thursday, September 20, 2018


Two for one here, a band with amazing in their title and amazing in the song, which is, um, amazing. And my "research", the search button in the top right of this page, suggests they haven't been here before, surprising if they are indeed up to their modest entitlement. And are they? Let's see.....

I was a bit of a country nerd in the early 70s, or country rock more accurately, that hybrid of long hair and pedal steel, disowned, largely, by each of its parents at the time, yet proving enormously resilient and robust. Now given I was living and raised in East Sussex, in the south of England, my cowboy credentials were pretty slim, but I dug hard and deep to nail my colours to the (confederate?) flag. So it was way more than the Byrds or Burritos for me, more, much more than the New Riders and Poco. I would rifle through the vinyl at record shops for hours until I could find something yet more arcane. And there were a host of trinomials, bands with 3-word names, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Pure Prairie League and these guys, but I could never remember which was which and who sang what. Indeed, I still had to look as listening was no great differentiator. The League I thought were great, ARS were a little bland, with the Aces somewhere in between. The featured song, their sole chart botherer of any great note, is typical of their style, a 4:4 harmonied croon with appropriately wailing steel and lyrics about drinking and crying. It's actually held up quite well, I think. It comes from their 1975 debut, "Stacked Deck", which is probably the best introduction to the band. It contains also another song you may recall, especially if you are Canadian, the number one in Saskatchewan hit, Third Rate Romance, which has dated terribly, the product of when other influences get chucked into the pot. They lasted until 1980, successive albums producing limited returns. (They reformed in the mid to late 90's but that need not trouble us here.)

More interesting to me is what happened to the erstwhile piano tinkler, James Hooker, not realising he had been in the band. A decade or so on from crate digging in dusty record shops, I was married and living, by chance and to my glee, next door to another country rocker, although Paul was slightly more attuned to the country than the rock. He had a bigger collection than me and introduced me to many an act I hold dear to this day, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith, to name but two. Back then Earle was only beginning to revive his career after his drug habit had led to incarceration. But Nanci was in her prime and, being someone with a bigger european audience than at home, toured the UK regularly. I just have seen her play half a dozen times in those late 80s, always with faithful Hooker alongside, playing piano and leading her band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, which would also showpiece whichsoever hip young guitar slinger she had unearthed in the country & irish clubs of Dublin. Her shows were a delight and could have me alternately yelping and weeping, not least in the song below, co-written with Hooker, the much covered Gulf Coast Highway. Live, Hooker was always given due credit for his overall role in the Griffith sound, he seeming quiet and unassuming, smiling in embarrassment as attention was drawn to his pivotal position and exquisite playing.

Life intervened in so many ways and Paul and I lost contact. I stopped going to Nanci Griffith and indeed any shows for actually quite a long time, picking up again roughly 15 years ago. Hooker had however kept busy, and I was astonished to see he had worked with and was on so many records I love. Like John Hiatt's "Slow Turning"and ex-Brinsley Schwarzer Ian Gomm's "Rock'n'Roll Heart", both as organist. Also that he had, full circle into and within my trajectory toward the Rhythm Aces, been a latter day Flying Burrito Brother, or at least appeared on a couple of albums, albeit far from their heyday. (And, fact fans, original Rhythm Aces drummer, Jeff 'Stick' Davis, was a member of the 'Sneaky' Pete Kleinow/Garth Hudson collaboration, Burrito Deluxe.)

Hooker is now seemingly retired and was certainly never a returning Ace. As I look back over my years of gigging, he has certainly always seemed one of the good guys. And, through appreciating his later work, suddenly I find myself listening to 'Stacked Deck' with a whole lot more enthusiasm.

Stack yours!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Amaze: I'm Amazed

Purchase My Morning Jacket's "I'm Amazed"

I have to be honest: I don't really get My Morning Jacket. I like what they do; I appreciate the wide-ranging canvas they use and the infinite mixture of texture, sounds and compositions they spread across it. But, I've never been able to pin down who they are, or more distinctly, what kind of band My Morning Jacket actually can be labeled as or named. Are they folk, are they rock--no, too simple. Are they a jam-band? Are they progressive? Are they...I don't know what to call them.

Then, someone told me: "Man, MMJ is neo-psychedelic. That's all you need to know."

This bit of information came during the lead up to a Pearl Jam gig in Camden, back in 2008. Outside the show, gathering with the faithful in the parking lot, someone was playing MMJ and rather then wonder why he wasn't playing Pearl Jam, my curiosity was piqued. The sound was interesting, the descriptor, more so.

I can agree with that classification. And, strangely, I have since listened to MMJ with a lot more understanding. Neo-psychedelic is a freeing idea, and trying to define what doesn't fit into my readily categorized listening ideals (punk, hard-core, pop-country, metal, hair-metal, etc...) can be more rendered, annotated and analyzed with the addition of that all-encompassing and opportunistic prefix, neo. Attributing the unknowable or category-defying with the label of neo helps the sound make sense, essentially blending the  misunderstood into the realm of "hard to figure but still cool, because, you know, it's "Neo, man. You don't need to understand it; just go with what you feel." And remember, because it's new, it doesn't need to make sense.

Or something along those lines. There's a freedom that comes from ignoring definitions and genre. Music can be tribal, just like politics, fetishes, area codes or passports. It's fun to defy boundaries and traditions, even if the results are confusing. But with music, sometimes confusion leads to the delight of discovery. Or, amazement. As in: amazement at new sounds and the way a band creates a fresh, aural landscape, unlike you've ever traveled through.

I'll admit again, I'm very light on knowledge of MMJ. I haven't gone over the brochures or read the maps closely yet. I'm an unseasoned traveler. And those of you who count yourselves among their (very, very) faithful, I'm probably coming across as a bit of an apostate. My apologies; I'll get there, I promise. There's a lot of ground to cover, so give me some time.

Yet,  as undereducated as I am, I do love MMJ's "I'm Amazed", off their 2008 release, Evil Urges. I saw them perform this on Letterman and was...amazed by the song. There was a great energy to the song, anthemic and urgent, stadium-ready. Up until then, I'd only known one thing about MMJ: they had done an epic cover of the Who's own mini-epic, "A Quick One While He's Away" while touring with Pearl Jam. That version, recorded live in Italy, with Eddie Vedder sharing vocals with MMJ's Jim James, was fervent and faithful to the original and glorious in its celebration of sound, rhythm and movement. When I told a friend (ever allegiant to The Who, as one should be) that I thought MMJ's version of "A Quick One" was actually superior to the original, he refused to pay for the beer he had just said he'd buy me. I admire him for his loyalty, and for sticking to his principles.

There's a familiar sort of giddiness to "I'm Amazed" and the soaring chorus, and equally angelic vocal delivery that revels in the highs and joyful proclamations, down to the vigorous power chords and church organ melody line. It's a great song, the kind that needs to be turned up loud, equally brilliant on the car stereo as it would be live and loud. And what makes the song all the more brilliant is the irony of the lyrics. While the huge-tempo, upbeat major chords would lend a natural happiness to your head bobbing and foot stomping, the song is really about being amazed by the frustrating behaviors of others: the lies we take in without thinking for ourselves, the hypocrisy we swallow from our leaders; the division of our united nation; our misguided devotions and "the lack of faith" and the "love that we're rejectin'." The song traffics in disbelief and incredulity more than the traditional joyousness of amazement. MMJ is using irony of connotation and like the best writing, the title tricks us towards one belief, but  asks the listener to accept a truth that might not be as easily accepted. For a song that came out 10 years ago, it not only sounds fresh, but the sentiment of disbelief at our national discourse and seeming inability to ease our grip on the ideas (anger) we cling to and allow to separate us, is more than pertinent. A simple sentiment, delivered with a deceptively joyful sound.  But sometimes simple is what you need.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Amaze: Amazing Grace

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Amazing Grace

I feel like I need to hurry if I want to write about this song for this theme, because it seems like a pretty obvious choice—and I can’t think of too many other relevant songs to write about. And hey, if other writers want to feature the song, have at it, and I’ve already handled the history for you.

“Amazing Grace” is a hymn, and the lyrics were written by the English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton, way back in 1772 or 1773. Before Newton had those highfalutin’ gigs, he was a seaman. In fact, in 1743, he was pressed into naval service by the Royal Navy—think, walking down the street, being kidnapped and tossed onto a ship.

During his service, he was flogged, recovered, and was transferred to a slave ship. He was so disliked by the crew that they left him in West Africa, with a slave dealer, who turned Newton over to his wife, a Princess of the Sherbro people, in what is now Sierra Leone. She promptly enslaved Newton. After three years of abuse and servitude, Newton was rescued by a captain who had been asked by Newton’s father to find him.

During his trip back to England, Newton had a “spiritual conversion,” because he believed that his prayers convinced God to save his ship from a storm. From March 10, 1748, Newton “avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.” However, when he got back on dry land, he quickly returned to sea on a slave ship, apparently not recognizing irony in any form. Newton continued to become more religious, and continued to work in the slave trade until 1754, when, it appears, God intervened by giving him a stroke, keeping him from trading in humans. Although he did invest in slaving ventures.

In the late 1750s, he ecumenically applied to be a minister in the Anglican, Methodist, Independent, and Presbyterian churches, before being ordained as an Anglican priest in 1764. It seems as if he was a pretty good one, too, and not adverse to non-Anglican views. In 1788, he publicly admitted that the whole slave thing was bad, and supported ending the trade, which England finally got around to doing in 1807 (about the same time as the US did, although as we know, that was small comfort to those already in bondage).

Newton’s hymn, based on his own life experiences, "1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith's Review and Expectation" led off with the killer opening stanza:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) 
That sav'd a wretch like me! 
I once was lost, but now am found, 
Was blind, but now I see. 

The hymn failed to chart in Britain, but was a smash hit on this side of the pond, especially during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th Century, and has become a standard African American spiritual song and was a civil rights anthem.

Nobody knows what, if any, music was used when Newton first led his congregation in the hymn, and there were many different tunes that were used over time, before “New Britain” stuck, and has become the standard version. Although “House of the Rising Sun,” works pretty well, too (better than the theme to Gilligan’s Island).

For reasons that are quite boring, today, I’ve been thinking of my father, who for some reason often remarked that he wanted a New Orleans-style funeral when he died. I wonder if that is where I got my love of New Orleans brass band music, although I doubt it, because I never remember him actually listening to any of it.

Not too long before he died, I bought a copy of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s album Funeral for A Friend, which includes many of the songs that are played at New Orleans funerals—in fact, the album is dedicated to the memory of founding member Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, who passed away shortly after its completion. To quote Allmusic at length, because reviewer Thom Jurek nails it, stating that the album:

is resolved in the celebratory gratitude for mercy in "Amazing Grace." But this review does nothing, literally, to describe the sheer power of the transference of emotion that Funeral for a Friend does. This is easily the most heartfelt, honestly rendered, and stunningly captured moment of the DDBB's recording career; it belongs in every household where the celebration of life and its transition from the sorrow of death to the eternal afterlife is honored. It is not only a classic in the genre, but will come to be regarded as a jazz classic, period. 

I’d note that the version is instrumental, so it really is “New Britain,” but that’s being picky.

In lieu of the full on procession, we played the album as people entered into the celebration that we had for Dad’s life, and I think he would have been fine with that.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Amaze: McCartney- Maybe I'm Amazed

purchase -[Maybe I'm Amazed]

I recently came across a lengthy interview with Paul McCartney in GQ mag (Untold Stories of Paul McCartney) that added perspective to the post that I had already decided would fit my choice for the new <Amazed> theme: Maybe I'm Amazed

The original recording, appearing on 1970s McCartney (the one with the cherries bowl on the album cover), was very much a home-studio effort, but was later incorporated into the Wings collection in a more elaborate production.

For me, it is the home quality of that entire McCartney album that endears it to me: pure McCartney in many ways. End of the Beatles, but an indication of what the man is capable of - even in a home studio.

But as for Maybe I'm Amazed, it is supposed to be a paen to Linda, who helped him make it through the Beatles break-up. "In the middle of something he doesnt really understand ..."

It's as good as any of McCartney's Beatles work: lyrics, harmony, timing.