Monday, December 3, 2018

Leftovers: Women: At The Purchaser’s Option


Last week’s Leftovers post was inspired by the I’m With Her concert my wife and I recently saw. Nine days later, we went to Symphony Space in NYC to see the final night of a Rhiannon Giddens residency week, a show billed as “Sisters Present.” All we knew was that the concert would include Giddens, Toshi Reagon, Amythyst Kiah, a young banjo and guitar player and singer, Birds of Chicago's Allison Russell, and Giddens’ sister, Lalenja Harrington, a singer, poet and, in her day job, Director of Academic Programming Development & Evaluation for Beyond Academics, a four-year certificate program supporting students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (and a Princeton alumna). Giddens herself has quite the bio, which you can read about here.

Giddens had already provided me with my favorite musical moment of 2018-her intimate solo workshop performance at the Clearwater Festival, followed by her full-band show on the main stage, and knowing the work of some of the other performers, the question was not whether it would be good, but how good. At the end of the night, it was clear that Giddens has now provided me with my two favorite musical memories of 2018. It really was an amazing night of music, and that includes the rhythm section of Jason Sypher on bass and Attis Clopton on drums, with Francesco Turrisi on accordion and piano. And beyond the basic quality of the singing, playing, songwriting and arranging, it was wonderful seeing how much the women appreciated each other’s work.

I’ve found two reviews online of the show, one from the New York City Music Daily blog, which referred to the performances as “riveting” and “intense,” and No Depression described the concert as one “where the power of music and the spirit of togetherness gave off a light so bright and true it is hard to find the words to describe it.” But finding words, the reviewer called it “two sets of highlight after highlight, with Giddens leading a stage full of immense talent.”

For the most part, the concert consisted of new or recent songs (or poems), all of which were informed by the past musical styles and history that influences the performers (many of which were the subject of an earlier show in the residency, “Sisters Past” which focused on covers of older songs). They played together, and individually, with some emphasis on music written by Giddens, Russell and Kiah for a forthcoming Smithsonian Folkways album, Songs of our Native Daughters.

While I agree with No Depression that it is hard to pick a single highlight, certainly, Giddens’ performance of “At The Purchaser’s Option,” is a strong candidate. An original song inspired by a slavery-era advertisement for a “remarkably smart, healthy Negro wench,” who is described as having “a child 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option,” Giddens sings the heartbreaking song from the woman’s perspective, describing the hardship and oppression of slavery—particularly being a female slave—overlaid by the additional fear of knowing that she could be separated from her baby, by forces utterly out of her control. And yet, she recognizes that her master, and the system, can take everything from her, except her soul. It is a remarkably powerful song, in the studio version that you can see in the video above. Despite its roots in the 19th Century, NPR voted it the 30th greatest song by a 21st Century woman or non-binary writer.

And it was incredible in the live version performed at the “Sisters Present” concert. Luckily, someone named David Adler, who had seats very close to the stage, recorded it, so you can see it.

It was also great from my seat in the balcony, by the way.

Finally, if you think that the lyrics are just a bit too much, and just want to hear the music, as interpreted by the Kronos Quartet, go here.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


Let's get this straight, tea is so not my cup of tea. I can't stand the stuff, being an avowedly (instant) coffee man. Yet it is an enduring image in the world of popular song, often used to evoke a peculiar englishness that has, bar the drinking of it, gone. But it gives me the opportunity for a list post, which, in the leftovers pile, will at least avoid any flak for using up "all the ideas" Thus, in time honoured, please warm your pots.......

Cup of Tea/Shack. Lovely peaceful vibes, with a hint of ye olde psychedelia which belies its youth, the song being barely a decade old. Given that it stems from the never more aptly named Head brothers, arguments might exist as to whether this song is about assam or darjeeling. Or indeed anything more exotic, but it has a timeless, restful quality I can drown in.

Penny Royal Tea/Kristin Hersh. I know, I know, it's a Kurt song, but I prefer this version to the original, excepting the Unplugged performance. I wondered quite what Penny Royal tea was, thinking it may even be a brand of teabags available in Walmart or some such, then that the song may have been a play of words, bemoaning the pitiful returns on his song publication rights: royal tea/royalty, right? As ever, wiki is my friend, and it is apparently an often unsuccessful chinese abortifacient...

Tea and Sympathy/Janis Ian. Beautiful string arrangement with typically understated Ian vocals, a wry reflection on loss. And at last a song about tea tea. I would politely endure a cup of tea under the circumstances described, and traditionally have about one cup a year, usually with aged relatives. And similar references, no doubt.

Tea For One/Led Zeppelin. Not an entirely dissimilar concept as above, portrayed and presented a little differently, it's true. Percy missing his missus, tea for one being the metaphor for alone. Whilst I can't imagine vintage Zeppelin drinking anything but (vintage) champagne, OK, maybe brown ale for Bonzo, strangely the idea of the current Plant drinking a mug of tea, probably in a Wolverhampton Wanderers mug, seems entirely apposite.

Tea Leaf Prophecy/Herbie Hancock featuring Joni Mitchell. Her song, mind, but this version has always appealed more, the original still displaying residual vestiges of a folk tendency within this, as we later learnt, decidedly jazz singer. It is also good to have a salient reminder of the erstwhile bonus in every olden days cuppa, that of having your fortune made available courtesy the leaves left in the base of the cup. Try doing that with a teabag, Mr Lipton!

Tea Stain/Tindersticks. Cripes, I love(d) this band. As an instrumental this isn't perhaps the most representative of their output, but does give the european arthouse soundtrack quality they inhabit so well. It's a pity as I can picture their lugubrious singer, Stuart Staples, finding it only too easy to imagine him with old tea stains down the front of a crumpled white shirt. (You wanna hear him sing? Sadly I can find no further tea references, Will coffee do?)

Tea For The Tillerman/Cat Stevens. Bit of vintage Cat when he was still Cat, rather than Yusuf realising he didn't sell so well without a bracketed reminder. This album and the follow up, Teaser and the Firecat, soundtracked my miserable teens, the angst and ennui of his vocals hitting a chord with lonely adolescents everywhere. There seem to be a lot of websites arguing the meaning of the phrase, but I think the picture says it well enough, whether the jovial beardy is the man who tills the soil or pulls the tiller. Personally I think the 1 minute version on the album is probably better.

Tea Leaves/The Snails. I'll be honest. This isn't the song I wanted to include, hoping that a song of equally little-known band UK The Scaremongers might be available on YouTube. It wasn't, but I encourage you look for the song, part of the Sound of Mature Huddersfield as they style themselves.
This song? It OK.

So, that's yer lot. Eight, as anything more might be seen as hogging it, seeking vaingloriously too wide a demographic where at least one song might appeal. (Memo to self, what do they drink in Tarrytown?) No room even for this......