Saturday, January 16, 2021

In Memoriam: Tony Rice


purchase [ Tone Poems  ]

My better half thinks I carry a jinx. Possibly: 2 years back, I played Tom Petty's <You Got Lucky> on stage. The man passed a month later. It's not my fault, I swear (and I don't believe in these kinds of "non-coincidences"). For the past month or so, I have been circling around Tony Rice. "Circling" as in repeatedly bringing up Clarence White, his mentor. 

The story is that Tony ran into/across Clarence White when he was a younger man and srabbled to purchase Clarence's much punished Martin guitar after his mentor's death. 

In my ignorance, I first came across Tony Rice when my cousin-in-law shared <Tone Poems> with me. We were aiming to do some guitar/banjo together based on those tunes. I knew of David Grissman through my interest in the Grateful Dead  - but I failed to focus onTony Rice. Let that be a lesson to you: if you come across someting as great as Tone Poems and ignore the half, you're probably making a mistake.

Somewhere, I missed Tony Rice's connection to The Dead via Jerry Garcia's eclectic collaborations. Again, I missed cues via Ricky Scaggs and Bruce Hornsby and Phish - all music that I come and go from with some level of attention.

Better late than never. For me, the man's music will live on.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


To say I am fond of pedal steel guitar would be an understatement; I bloody adore the instrument and how it sounds, whether as high lonesome shorthand for classic country, or, indeed, often more whenever it pops up in unexpected settings. This year we lost two or the best, two, even if I often confused the one with the other, with this piece probably now continuing to prolong the blurring of my Bucky with my Buddy.

So, in alphabetical, we got Mr Bucky Baxter, who left us in May. Born in Florida 65 years ahead of that, he was perhaps best known for his pivotal role in the bands of Steve Earle and of Bob Dylan. Indeed, he was a Duke for the three breakthrough albums of Earle's early career, Guitar Town through Copperhead Road, appearing sporadically thereafter. His was the steel in R.E.M.'s World Leader Pretend, and on Ryan Adam's Gold album, he featured on Joe Henry's Trampoline and, possibly surprisingly, played on and produced a record, Cockahoop, by the ex-Catatonia singer, husky welsh chanteuse, Cerys Matthews. But it was as a Bob Dylan regular on the Never Ending Tour throughout most of the 90s that his name became best known. Indeed, Dylan had come across him at a Steve Earle concert, asking him to teach him how to play the instrument. (History has not revealed how well that went.) In the studio, he also appeared on Dylan's Unplugged and Time Out of Mind, the latter, not without coincidence, one of my favourite Dylan's.

Fearless Heart/Steve Earle & the Dukes (1986)

World Leader Pretend/R.E.M. (1988)

Tryin' To Get To Heaven (live)/Bob Dylan (1999)

I have to mention Dylan some more, as Baxter was there for one of the two ever times I have caught the Bob live, when he headed a stormy Friday night in July at the Phoenix festival, near Stratford-on-Avon, in 1995. If Blackbushe a decade before had been sublime, this was ridiculous, all songs unidentifiable in the muddy sound, all party to tuneless new arrangements. All unidentifiable until Baxter's steel gave a hint of the original melodies, a highlight in an otherwise forgettable evening. O, had it been to the standard of the Vienna concert, above, four years later.
Baxter wasn't all that ambitious, it seems, happy to be a contributor rather than the focus of attention. But he did make one solo recording, Most Likely No Problem, an instrumental album which is worth the seeking out, with an astonishing who who's of participants.

The Big Difficult/Bucky Baxter (1999)

Here's a nice interview which gives an idea of the man. Finally, those with a finger on the pulse might know he is/was the father of the up and coming Rayland Baxter
R.I.P. Bucky. 

Buddy Cage, not to be confused either with another fellow deceased steel maestro Buddy Emmons, was a Canadian by birth, born a few years ahead of Baxter, in 1946. Another musician proficient in his instrument from an early age, he first drew attention in canadian country-rockers, Great Speckled Bird. However it was his longterm tenure in the steel seat for Grateful Dead offshoot band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, between 1971 and 1982, that he will be best remembered, taking the reins of the instrument from Jerry Garcia. Frankly, a much more adept player than Garcia. He also did a load of sessions, including, the ubiquitous Dylan reference, laying down some tracks on the many and varied Blood on the Tracks sessions, if only once on the actual studio release. 

Calgary/Great Speckled Bird (1970)

Gypsy Cowboy/NRPS (1972)

Peggy O/NRPS (2010)

Although the Riders continued for several more years, Cage had not been tempted to return to that fold until 2005, until after founder member, John Dawson had put the original band to bed in 1997. Their 2012 release, 17 Pine Avenue, I thought terrific and well up to the standards of their earlier work, better even, tighter without their notorious cannabinoid looseness of yore.

The intervening years had him back to guesting on innumerable projects, but he never made a solo record. Perhaps closest might have been if the music from a Dutch tour, in 2005, had been ever committed to posterity. In cahoots with Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth, both accomplished legends on slide, it was called Steelin' and Slidin'. (I wonder if any clips are available?)

Steelin' and Slidin'/Trucks, Cage and Landreth (2005)

Here's an interview with him from his second spell with the band. Multiple myeloma took him in February.
R.I.P. Buddy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

In Memoriam: Toots Hibbert

Toots and the Maytals: Do The Reggay

I suspect that like most American music lovers, my knowledge of reggae music is limited to the Bob Marley classics (and a few tunes by his family members), some Jimmy Cliff, a little Peter Tosh, a handful of Toots and the Maytals songs, and maybe a few other well-known tracks. I like reggae, but rarely went out of my way to listen to it (I am more familiar with the ska revival music of the late 70s and early 80s and the ska-punk music of the 80s and 90s). (By the way, check out Lovers Rock on Netflix, if you want to hear some great reggae music and see an excellent movie.) 

But in 2018, when I started to occasionally blog shows for the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, I had the chance to see Toots and the Maytals, and experiencing the then 75 year-old reggae legend play for 2 hours was a night I won’t forget. You can read about it here

Like probably every genre of music after the first caveman banged a stick on a rock (although someone probably would claim that the caveman’s efforts were derivative of some “more authentic” ape music), it is impossible to literally pinpoint when reggae was created. I discussed this a few years ago in the context of determining what was the first rock song. Trying to figure out where ska and rocksteady stopped and reggae began is similarly fraught, but most historians of the music agree that it was Toots & the Maytals’ 1968 single, “Do The Reggay” that gave the genre its name. Hibbert was once explained:

There's a word we used to use in Jamaica called 'streggae'. If a girl is walking and the guys look at her and say 'Man, she's streggae' it means she don't dress well, she look raggedy. The girls would say that about the men too. This one morning me and my two friends were playing and I said, 'OK man, let's do the reggay.' It was just something that came out of my mouth. So we just start singing 'Do the reggay, do the reggay' and created a beat. People tell me later that we had given the sound it's name. Before that people had called it blue-beat and all kind of other things. Now it's in the Guinness World of Records 

Frederick “Toots” Hibbert was born on (probably) December 8, 1942 in May Pen, Jamaica. His earliest performances were of gospel music in church choirs. At the age of 11, he was orphaned, and moved to the Trenchtown neighborhood of Kingston, the capital, to live with his brother. In 1961 or 1962, along with Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias, he formed a band. Maytals is a word of unclear origin, which may be a reference to Hibbert’s home town, or to the Rastafarian term for “do the right thing.” The Maytals became a top ska act, initially releasing songs with religious themes powered by Hibbert’s powerful, soulful voice (and his multi-instrumental talent), influenced by, among others, Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, and eventually branching out into more secular songs. 

After Toots served 18 months in prison for marijuana possession, the band had a hit in the “rocksteady” style with "54-46 (That's My Number)," which Toots wrote about his prison sentence. They released “Do The Reggay," and then hit the UK charts with “Monkey Man.” Toots and the Maytals appeared in the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which popularized reggae worldwide, and had two songs on the film’s soundtrack. The band’s next album, Funky Kingston, released on Island Records, was a critical and commercial success (a different version of the album was released in 1975 in the US). Robert Christgau wrote about the album: 

The quick way to explain the Maytals is to say that in reggae they're the Beatles to the Wailers' Rolling Stones. But how do I explain Toots himself? Well, he's the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet: he transforms 'do re mi fa sol la ti do' into joyful noise. 

In 1981, the original Maytals broke up, and after about a decade as a solo act, Toots formed a new Maytals in the mid-1990s. In addition to continuing to record and perform, Hibbert has collaborated or performed with Willie Nelson, Gov’t Mule, JJ Grey & Mofro, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eric Clapton, Bootsy Collins and The Roots, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards and Jamaican greats Shaggy, Marcia Griffiths and Ken Boothe, among others. 

Hibbert was hit in the head on stage by a thrown bottle in 2013, and despite the injury that caused a nearly three year hiatus from touring, Toots wrote the judge, pleading for leniency for his attacker who, nevertheless, was sentenced to a six month sentence. After recovering from the injury, Hibbert and his band continued to tour and appear on television. He released his first new album in years, Got To Be Tough on August 28, 2020. 

Two days later, Toots was admitted to University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston with, it has been reported, COVID-19, and on September 11, 2020, he died “peacefully . . . surrounded by his family.”

Sunday, January 10, 2021

In Memoriam: John Prine

John Prine (October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020)

In a year like we've had, one filled with such division, anger, isolation, and death, it's a tough assignment to go back and look at the overly-long list of musicians we lost since last January. We do it every year, in the magazines and the lists--celebrate the best and the worst in our 'end of the year' accounting, and usually, noting those we lost becomes less painful as it is part of the ritual of seeing out the old and making for the new. Reading the list seems a little sadder, and a little longer after these 12 long months. But, then most things have taken on a different sort of weight lately, and gravity has a different--heavier, perhaps--effect than it normally does. Or should. 

While he was never the household name that he should have been, troubadour and poet of the everyday American life, John Prine passed this year from complications from Covid19. Seems unfair that he could have survived a life of his own, self-chose misadventures only to be brought low by this damned virus. Prine's work was expansive and ranged in styles over the years, while always staying within the country, folk, Americana genre. But to label him solely as a country artist is to miss the point of his songs. His guitar was simple while also distinctive. His voice was distinctive, too. But, it wasn't vocal talent that made him memorable, but the words that he sang. 

Prine's lyrics were narrative, telling stories and trafficking in images of the everyday, of the course of our lives, our loves, our happiness and sadness. his images are what we see, rendered poetic. He sings through characters who go about their daily lives, the weight of their actions growing with the parings of guitars and pedal strings, an emotional resonance of love, loss, and just living though a human day. You can read Prine and listen to him, and both endeavors are filled with emotion and meaning. In interviews, Prine bristled at being labeled a poet, and once said, “If I wanted to be a poet, I’d write poetry. I know what poetry is. I’m not writing poetry, I’m writing song lyrics. Whatever the subject is, I’m trying to write as well about that subject as I possibly can but still within the confines of a song. I’m not trying to put my words down as a poem set to music. To me, that’s a different thing.” It is the universality of his writing--the commonplace imbued with meaning and familiarity--that gives Prine's music the weight.

Another musician who is celebrated equally as a poet, Bob Dylan, is a fan of Prine's commonplace poetic beauty. Both have received literary awards, in addition to musical ones. He compared Prine to Proust, for his ability to craft story from the prosaic ordinariness of life, and said, in his own, unique way: "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs."

Prine's catalog is large, and he worked hard, all the way up until he died. You can start anywhere, skip around, you'll hear some wonderful stories, meet some great characters. If you're in need of direction, two highlights:  the debut, self-titled album from 1971, and the songs "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and "Sam Stone", both about the Viet Nam war. And a personal favorite, 1991's The Lost Years, which features back up from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. "Angel From Montgomery", "Souvenirs", "Everything's Cool"...the list does indeed go on.

It's been a lousy year. Listening to music is a lifeline that will pull you from a sea of trouble.