Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Flatlanders @ Carnegie Hall, New York City, April 13th, 2013

Saturday night, I made the trek up the NJ Turnpike to the big city to see The Flatlanders play at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. This was my first time setting foot in Carnegie Hall; not once in my 8 years living in New York City did I make my way there. The pretentiousness was not as stultifying as I feared it might be, although I imagine the Stern Auditorium is a different story. The nature of the act also offset any snootiness: Texans are not known for that, and there were plenty of Texans in the audience on Saturday night.

This was my first time seeing any of The Flatlanders' principals--Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock--play live, to say nothing of the trio. I can't remember how I first learned about their music. I remember hearing JDG sing "Jesus Christ" for one of the Woody Guthrie celebrations about a decade ago and being impressed, and I recall WFUV playing "Julia" from the Now Again album quite a bit when it came out in 2002. On a whim, I bought a used copy of Joe Ely's Live at Liberty Lunch (1990) at a record store in Montague, MA, back when I lived in Pioneer Valley, and I spent a lot of car rides listening to it. But not as many as I spent listening to JDG's album Spinning Around the Sun (1993), which was my music of choice last year, as I drove from Portland to Brunswick 3 or 4 days per week. I've grown to love that album without limits; it's perfect, song for song, arrangement for arrangement. I also heard the Flatlanders' album Wheels of Fortune (2004) while living in the Valley, and I fell in love with it immediately. I love Now Again (2002) almost as much.

On Saturday night, the Flatlanders performed a mixture of new and old material, but the phrase "new and old material" has little meaning when it comes to these guys. Their first official album release from 1990, More a Legend than a Band, comprised songs originally recorded in 1972, and their most recent album, The Odessa Tapes (2012), was also recorded in 1972. Many of the songs on both of those albums have been recorded by one or more of the principals since 1972, sometimes several times over. I recognized as many as half the songs, but not a single song was anything less than satisfying. The opener was "I Had My Hopes Up High," which, I later learned, Joe Ely recorded for his first solo album back in 1977. I had never heard it before, and I loved it so much, I was sorry for it to end. For the first half dozen songs, pretty much everything was uptempo, from the sly, silly Butch-led "Baby Do You Love Me Still?" to the JDG-led "Wavin' My Heart Goodbye" to Joe's "Not That Much Has Changed" and Butch-led "Julia" and Joe-led "Homeland Refugee." After that, the backing band left, allowing the principals to sit on stools and strum and pick on their acoustic guitars, before the band returned for another half dozen or more songs.

The acoustic segment of the program was extraordinary in its beauty, restraint, and conversational looseness. Transcendence was achieved immediately, by way of Butch Hancock's "Danglin' Diamond." This performance I can only describe as indescribably beautiful. The song was barely even there; only the feeling of time having passed and opportunities taken up and forgone. Joe sang lead on Jimmie's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," one of the most beautiful songs ever written, complex in its simplicity (whereas Butch insists on simple complexity). Butch sang his own "If You Were a Bluebird," which I'm used to hearing Joe sing. Overall, they performed six songs in the acoustic set--two rounds of round-robin--interspersed with some chat about the old days. Joe was particularly poignant, talking about his rambling around Texas and the rest of the continent after the group's demise in 1973. He first made it to NYC in the winter, sometime in the mid-1970s, panhandling in front of Carnegie Hall, making that the first time he played at Carnegie Hall, although this was the first time he'd ever played "in Carnegie Hall." After the sextet of songs, the band returned to the stage, and the trio began a slow, acoustic version of "Dallas," before the band kicked the song into gear after the first verse.

One of the unexpected pleasures was the guitar playing. Not only did the band have a hot electric guitar player--Robbie Gjersoe, who tore off solo after solo with obvious joy--but Joe Ely had his time in the spotlight too. Of the three principals, he is the one who has spent the most time in a rock n' roll spotlight, and it showed. He had some tasty leads during the acoustic portion of the show in particular.

But it was the songs that ruled the day on Saturday night, along with the overall feel of command and authority that is so difficult to define or anticipate but which is immediately identifiable when you hear it. Joe preceded "Homeland Refugee" with the story of the song's inspiration: a child of Texas natives who'd fled to California, looking for work after the dustbowl years of the 1930s, returns to Texas, a state that the child had never known. As it happens, I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the children of Albanians living in Greece who, in the wake of the current financial crisis, have "returned" to Albania, a country they've never known. I was also delighted with "Pay the Alligator," one of the silliest songs in the Flatlanders' cannon and, to finish off the set, the standard "Sitting on Top of the World." That last one was performed uptempo with some hot electric guitar solos, which is the most common way of performing that song these days. Chris Smither has claimed that song as his own, having extracted the pain and suffering from the lyrics and laying them bare. But it sounded just fine as a rocker on Saturday night. During "Thank God for the Road," the gentleman seated to my right exchanged satisfied glances with me, as Butch sang of "shoulders to cry on." By the time the band encored with "Midnight Train," I already knew that this was the best night of live music I've enjoyed in over a year.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kalamazoo Gals

Longtime stalwart of the NYC bluegrass scene Jack Hirschorn calls the following to our attention:
"Kalamazoo Gals” by John Thomas is the forgotten story of the women who built Gibson’s “Banner” guitars during WWII.

Please join us for an informal gathering and book signing in a unique setting: Retrofret Vintage Guitars. Located in the industrial Gowanus Canal section of Brooklyn, NY, Retrofret will honor Women’s History Month and the release of Mr. Thomas’ book on Sat. March 2, 2013 from 5PM to 8PM.

"Retrofret is uniquely connected to the subject of Mr. Thomas’ new book, ”Kalamazoo Gals”, for many reasons: First of all we have quite a thing for old Gibson guitars! Retrofret is one of the few major guitar shops dealing exclusively in vintage instruments. Secondly, our repair shop happens to be run by a woman and our staff includes three female technicians handling most of the repair and restoration work. Finally, I just love the true stories behind the guitars - especially the little known ones." - Steve Uhrik

Friday, February 15, 2013

Chris Smither @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA, February 8th, 2013

As I type this, I am listening to the album Don't It Drag On, Chris Smither's 2nd album, originally released in 1972. Until now, I've never listened to it from beginning to end. One reason for that is the unavailability of the album; I found a copy from a used CD store via But another reason is that Smither rerecorded almost every song on the album, mostly for the 1990 live album Another Way to Find You. Two of the them show up on his most recent album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, as new studio recordings. But on Don't It Drag On, all of them sound like the work of a young old man, like Neil Young had decided that blues and bluegrass were the way to go after all. His voice hadn't quite filled out yet--or at least it doesn't sound like it on this recording--and the foot-tapping had not yet become an important part of his sound. So it doesn't sound like the man who recorded Another Way to Find You, or anything after. But the arrangements--eerily austere on "Another Way to Find You," gently propulsive on "Don't It Drag On," mournfully elegiac on "Every Mother's Son," tightly bluegrassy on "Friend of the Devil"--are winners, every one. And the songwriting and the guitar picking are the brilliant flashes that he's been coming up with ever since he began recording again with It Ain't Easy (1984). And in the end, although I love the way his voice has changed as he's aged, even the somewhat thin vocal sound on this album (and on its predecessor, 1970's I'm a Stranger Too!) feels right somehow.

At the World Cafe this past weekend, the 68 year old was in fine voice. The thick, slightly slurred baritone felt warm and comfortable, like it always does. The pleasures of his performances don't quit over the course of 90 minutes, and they'd probably still feel fresh after 120. "Open Up" has become the standard way for him to greet audiences for many years now, and "Lola" is a common follow-up, and everything seemed to unfold effortlessly from there. His sets still emphasize newer material, from Drive You Home Again (1999) up through Hundred Dollar Valentine (2012). For the fans, there are few surprises. Once, he dipped back to the Up on the Lowdown (1995) album for "Can't Shake These Blues." When he was ready to conclude with what has become his standard farewell, "Leave the Light On," requests for "No Love Today" echoed through the room, and he obliged, playing both of them to close the set. He returned to play J. J. Cale's "Magnolia," a simple love song that, he explained, signified that he was getting himself ready to write the material for his next album.

The high points were plentiful. The newer "Place in Line" elicited murmurs and sighs of appreciation. His waltz-time version of "Visions of Johanna" had the feel of complete command. "Leave the Light On" is always a climactic moment, and it was on Friday night. "Seems So Real" once again felt tougher and more strident in concert than on record. And the concluding "Magnolia" radiated love. Hearing Chris Smither perform in concert is an essential experience for anyone with an interest in this kind of music, and as he ages, each performance feels increasingly special. "Since space and time are bending / there's no finish line," but eventually there will only be a body of recorded work left behind, and the memories of these performances. I've seen around 20 of them, but they aren't enough. I am not looking forward to a time when they'll have to be.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Erin McKeown @ Johnny Brenda's, Philadelphia PA, January 20th, 2013

An impromptu decision to ignore my raging head cold and wander out into the chilly Philly streets to see Erin McKeown wound up paying off. This was my first trip to Johnny Brenda’s, a venue I’d been hearing good things about since I hit town back in June, and it’s right on my street, albeit over a mile away. The performance space is upstairs from the bar and small. The stage is big relative to the rest of the area, and there’s a balcony that I could not see much of from my station on the floor, where I leaned against a pillar for the entire evening and stifled my coughing and sneezing. Johnny Brenda’s gets good acts. I had to miss David Wax Museum when they came through town, but this was where they played.

Erin’s opening act was a Canadian singer and guitarist named Jenn Grant. She performed with a drummer, a bassist, and a guy who alternated between steel, keyboards, and guitar (a beautiful cherry-red Epiphone that I wanted to get my hands on). Her band was good. They were clearly supporting her songs, staying out of the way and letting her put the words across. Her voice was a bit too quiet in the mix, though; I couldn’t often make out the lyrics. At the end of her set, the rhythm section departed, leaving her and her keys-man alone on stage for the finale; “a rock song,” as she put. This wound up being “Eye of the Tiger,” which I recognized immediately. At first, I couldn’t tell if she was trying to play it straight. She gave herself away, though, when she hit the refrain and pawed the air at us as she sang the word “tiger.” We all laughed.

Erin McKeown is someone who knows how to simultaneously play it straight and put you on. She’s been making music professionally for around 15 years now, and her album, Manifestra (2013), which I have yet to hear, is full of political songs. I was excited to learn this. Her best albums display not just emotional complexity and a real facility for arranging music, but an ironic wit that, in theory, should serve politically themed songs really well (at least, it seems to work for Randy Newman). Her albums are basically divided into two groups: the ones about herself (Hundreds of Lions, We Will Become Like Birds, Distillation), and the ones about something else (anti-Christmas, American popular song, Judy Garland). The new one appears to be one of the latter ones, and that leaves this particular admirer with a quandary. In principle, I like hearing singer-songwriters get outside themselves a bit. But in practice, the more into herself her gets, the better Erin’s music becomes; Hundreds, Birds, and Distillation are her best. Her Sunday night show leaned heavily on the new album, and the only other songs she performed came from the three great ones. In any event, what makes her best music so great is her ability to straddle the line between sincere emotion and ironic distance. Most performers choose one or the other, and the few who try to split the difference don’t usually succeed the way Erin McKeown does.

Sunday night, she was accompanied by a horn player and a drummer. The drummer in particular was really good. I thought back to Allison Miller, who was playing with her when I saw her at Southpaw, many years ago, and the drummers who played with her during her Distillation 10th anniversary show at the Iron Horse a couple of years ago. Erin likes a good drummer. And this one made his presence felt from the very first song, "Aspera."

After “Aspera,” Erin took us through a bunch of the new songs and told stories about them as she went. A particularly jaunty one, “The Jailer,” was a highlight. She also revealed an unanticipated enthusiasm for the NFL. When an audience member informed her that the Ravens won, she announced it to the crowd, to a smattering of cheers and boos. She remarked that she would never again talk to a Philly crowd about sports. But later on, she did. “I hate the Patriots,” she confided to us, a pretty safe thing to say in Philadelphia. And, at one point, her band left the stage, leaving her to take a couple of crowd requests. “That is the best feeling in the world,” she said, after the calls for different songs filled the air. “Beautiful (I Guess)” was beautiful, performed solo. And she dedicated “The Little Cowboy” to her opening act, after a few false starts that required some guitar retuning.

What else? A handful of songs from Hundreds of Lions—which I rank #2 in the Erin McKeown discography, after the extraordinary Distillation and in front of the superb We Will Become Like Birds—which all sounded great. A little bit of singing along with “We Are More,” from Birds. Some commentary about the US-Mexico border and, in response to an audience question, some insight into what inspires her. Two performances of the new song “Proof,” first done straight and second done backwards. A great instrumental jam, during which Erin sat down next to the drummer and grinned at him as her guitar wove in and out of the percussion.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hot Tuna @ The Beacon Theater, New York City, December 1st, 2012

Over the past decade or so, Hot Tuna has passed into the realm of comfort food. I do not listen to the recordings as often as I used to, but Tuna at the Beacon may become an annual tradition for me. This was my 5th (or 6th?) time at the Beacon for Hot Tuna since the fall of 1999, and I have yet to be disappointed. This year’s show was important for a few reasons. First, it was my first Tuna show since the release of Steady as She Goes (2011), the band’s first studio album since Pair-a-Dice Found (1990). While I’ve heard Jorma perform some of the songs from this album in solo performances, I had yet to hear most of them performed with the full band. Furthermore, this show included a number of special guests, some of whom I’d heard play with Tuna before, others not. My last Tuna show was the 70th anniversary bash at the Beacon, detailed here, and, much as I love the Jorma solo shows I’ve seen in the meantime, it’s his band that means the most to me.

The show began about 10 minutes past 8:00, when Jack Casady walked out on stage alone. After thanking us for coming and saying a few respectful words about New York, especially in light of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, he began playing some bass guitar alone on stage. Two minutes into the solo, Jorma Kaukonen, Barry Mitterhoff, and Larry Campbell walked onstage and began picking out the familiar opening to “Hesitation Blues,” which elicited enormous cheers from us all, and off we went.

This edition of Hot Tuna included the core band—Jorma, Jack, Barry, and Skoota (my favorite of the many drummers that have passed through the band)—and this evening featured many special guests: G.E. Smith, Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Lincoln Schleiffer, Bob Margolin, Bill Kirchen, and the wonderfully named Cindy Cashdollar. The material from Steady as She Goes prominently featured Larry and Teresa, particular the latter’s harmony vocals. Larry Campbell played some killer violin, starting with the opening number, and he sat down to do some pedal steel on a couple of tunes. His guitar playing, meanwhile, is superb, and if you have not heard the recording of Tuna’s Beacon shows from 2010, which include his tasteful licks on “Genesis,” among other Tuna classics, you are missing out. But he and Teresa shone most brightly when, in the middle of the first set, they did an extended jam on the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree,” a great surprise. Bob Margolin was a guitarist in Muddy Waters’ touring band back in the 1970s, and he contributed some fine solos, particularly on “Rock Me Baby,” and a couple of his own songs, most prominently “She and the Devil,” in which Bob gets down on his knees to pray: “Lord, give me strength / don’t let me kill this woman,” later followed by an assurance: “someday she'll surely go to hell.” Bill led the band on Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changing,” another nice surprise, and Cindy played some mean lap steel on that one and on a couple of others. But the greatest contributions, I thought, came from “George,” as Jorma called him (and that *is* G.E.’s name, after all). His loud, distorted chords on “I See The Light” and “Hit Single #1” made those two the real highlights of the first set, and his solos on “Rock Me Baby” and “Bowlegged Woman” stole the show. And in the second set, he brought Richard Shindell’s “Arrowhead” to life. I hope he gets to play with these guys more often.

Since I’m a Hot Tuna fanboy, it’s hard to write about the band without simply raving. These guys are instrumentalists without peer, and it’s such a treat to hear Jorma, in particular, play electric guitar. His sound is very much his own, and it hasn’t changed too much in the past 45 years (at least not to my ears). The guitar solos (and let us never forget, Jack Casady’s bass solos) were consistently exciting, but it was the ensemble playing that I liked most. “I See the Light” is a thing of beauty, and G. E.’s contributions rocked the song like I haven’t heard before, and his contributions were every bit as great to “Hit Single #1,” which is also Barry Mitterhoff’s moment to shine. Other than those two, and the electrified version of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” toward the end of the second set, my favorite moment was when Larry played pedal steel and Teresa sang harmonies on “Bar Room Crystal Ball.” If my memory serves me correctly, the last time I heard them play this song was my first Tuna show back in the fall of 1999 (at the Beacon), and it’s one of my favorite, most lyrical moments from the Yellow Fever (1975) album. I see here the set list from that show; time flies!

Hot Tuna doesn’t tour the electric band as often as they used to, so get it while you can is my advice.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Rodriguez @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA, October 28th, 2012

After a hectic travel day from Portland, ME to Philadelphia PA that featured a delayed flight and plenty of worry about whether hurricane Sandy would strand me up north, I made it down to World Café Life with Amanda to see Rodriguez. I had imagined that we were like most of the folks at the venue in that we first became aware of the great man through the recent movie, Searching for Sugarman. In fact, given how knowledgeable many audience members seemed to be about his music, I sense that Amanda and I were behind the times. Given that Sixto Rodriguez has been touring on and off since 1998, when he made his first visit to South Africa, this is really not too surprising.

Rodriguez’s performance was relaxed and quietly confident. He opened the show with “(You Give Me) Fever,” performed with some nifty strumming on his nylon-string guitar. Much of the rest of his set consisted of switching between his own songs and covers of traditional rock songs (“Blue Suede Shows”) and ballads (“It’s Just One of Those Things” and “I’ve Only Got Eyes for You”). He performed these covers with a lot of enthusiasm and remarked that these songs meant a lot to him. His own songs—“Crucify Your Mind,” “Establishment Blues,” “Sugarman,” “I Wonder,” “Inner City Blues,” and others that I could not identify but the audience seemed to know—felt different, as stripped away from the elaborate arrangements on Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). The ethereal imagery and turns-of-phrase of his own songs contrasted strikingly with the more plain-spoken oldies that he enjoyed so much.

The overall feel that Rodriguez exuded in his performance was of a man who was simply happy to be there. Pretensions were limited, and so was stagecraft. He stood and smiled at us. He retuned the guitar after almost every song, turning down the volume to pick and strum the next song just for himself, making sure he knew what he was doing before turning the volume back up to play for the rest of us. He told corny jokes and stories—about Mickey and Minnie Mouse going to marriage counseling, about how to keep successful relationships together, about the unfortunate city of Detroit, about his own luck at getting to play music for a living at his late age—that his audience, me included, ate up and applauded. He mentioned his performance on David Letterman, pointing out that the full arrangement of “Crucify Your Mind” would have sounded even better if he had not been playing at all. The self-deprecation might have sounded self-serving from another performer, but knowing what we all know about the decades he spent away from professional music, it was a poignant reminder of how challenging his life has been. I sense that that is what a lot of his current audience actually hears. Rodriguez is a survivor, a soulful, big-hearted professional who for too long was denied the vessel best suited for his self-expression and managed against the odds to resume his calling. His songs are good, but they pale in comparison to the example set by his life.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fourth Annual Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Folk and Roots Festival November 2-3

Urbana, Ill. (October 4, 2012) – Now in its fourth year, the Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival (CUFRF) is coming to Downtown Urbana on November 2-3.

“Each year, the festival has gotten bigger and bigger,” explained Brenda Koenig, chair of the CUFRF steering committee. “The fall festival is a culmination of a year’s worth of planning by our committee and a number of concerts that have brought national and regional performers to the community. The annual festival is entertaining, hands-on, and accessible, which is what folk and roots music is all about.”

This year’s festival will host over 80 performers, artists, and storytellers celebrating American roots music, dance, and stories. This year's festival activities will also include jam sessions, dances, workshops, sing-a-longs, storytelling, and family activities.

“Champaign-Urbana is already a rich musical environment,” said Ed Hawkes, one of the organizers. “The Folk and Roots Festival brings in well-known national and international performers and it celebrates our local music scene as well.” A plethora of performers includes a turn-of-the 20th Century mandolin orchestra, folk, blues, and bluegrass, Klezmer music, and Irish fiddle music can be enjoyed within a few blocks of each other.

The Charleston, Illinois band, Resonation Station, will kick off the festival on Thursday, November 1, at Krannert Center’s UnCorked, from 5:00-7:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Singer-songwriter Robby Fulks heads the list of featured acts at this year’s festival that includes the Freighthoppers, Storyteller Mike Anderson, Canada’s Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra, Devil in the Woodpile, John Lilly, Blind Boy Paxton and Brandon Bailey, Mugdock Pipers, Red Tail Ring, Irish fiddler Rose Duffy, harmonica master Deak Harp, The Curses (jug, swing, blues), and The Blue Ribbon Revival.

A number of area artists performing at various venues include members of the Champaign-Urbana Singer/Songwriter’s Collective, Black Coffee Fridays, David Howie, Kevin Elliot, Almost “A” Quartet, accordianist Jay Landers; plus, a Nightjar Productions showcase with Gloria Roubal, Justin Rondin, Midas the Crow and Vivian McConnell, the Mugdock Pipers, The Shanties (Celtic), The Stay Gold Boys (rockabilly), The Young & Fretless, Emily Otnes, and Margaret O'Brien.

On Friday and Saturday, there will be a variety of jam sessions throughout the day. Bring your uke and jam with the Homebrew Ukulele Union. Free public workshops, sings, storytelling, and art sessions are also scheduled throughout the festival including instrument "how-tos", children’s activities, sing-a-longs, and community jams in a variety of styles. Scheduled dances include contra, Cajun, square, and folk styles.

A festival wristband costs $25 (children 12 and under are free) for access to all performance venues and activities. Tickets for single events, including dances, can be purchased at the door of the individual venues. Wristbands are available at Heartland Gallery and the CUFRF booth at the Urbana Farmers’ Market on Saturdays through October.

Visit for a complete schedule of events and performances, to purchase a wristband, to become a sponsor, or volunteer during the festival. The C-U Folk and Roots Festival is a not-for-profit, all-volunteer organization dedicated to the promotion of accessible art forms and community building in East Central Illinois. In addition to many area sponsors, the festival funded in part by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council and the City of Urbana Public Arts Commission.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

John Fullbright on Prairie Home Companion

This great singer-songwriter, who is currently on tour with Devil Makes Three, performed on Prairie Home Companion over the weekend. Have a listen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Jorma Kaukonen w/ Loudon Wainwright III @ The Colonial Theater, Phoenixville PA, September 14th, 2012

Not long after entering the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, I entered the men’s room, just in time to hear a couple of guys, at least two decades my senior, talking about their excitement about seeing Jorma Kaukonen. I was a bit irritated, however, to hear one of them announce, apropos of his excitement, how great Bless Its Pointed Little Head (1969) is, and the other swear that that album, Jefferson Airplane’s first and best live album, goes together with their third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967). I was irritated not because I disagree about the greatness of either (although listening back to Baxter’s now, it’s a bit uneven, though its great moments are some of the Airplane’s greatest), but because you’d think Jorma hadn’t done anything since the ‘60s were over. But he had just gotten started. In any case, Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna shows seem to attract folks who, if their offhand comments and in-concert whooping are any indication, checked out after the Airplane landed, or perhaps after Hot Tuna cooled off at the end of the 1970s, and were out to recapture something. This is not the first time I’ve noticed this—and as someone who was born in the later 1970s himself, I’m at a generational disadvantage in assessing an audience that in some broad sense I’m not a part of—but it’s the first time I found myself a little annoyed. Jorma Kaukonen plays a lot of traditional material—folk songs, let’s say—but he’s not a nostalgia act. Over the past decade or so, he’s been recording some excellent albums, including the first new Hot Tuna studio album in over 20 years, and he doesn’t shy away from performing those songs in concert.

The opening act for the evening was Loudon Wainwright III, who takes generational solidarity more seriously than most touring singers his age simply by writing the personal songs that he’s always written and not pretending that he is anything other than he is. At the moment, what that means is that he knows that most of his life is over, and death is very much on his mind. Several of the songs from his set came from his most recent album, Older than My Old Man Now (2012), which contains entirely songs about “death and decay,” as he told us. He preceded two of the songs he played from that album—the title track, along with “Something’s Out to Get Me”—with recitations of Life Magazine columns that his father had written, one about his own father (Loudon Wainwright I, that is) and another about his own impending demise. The generational disjuncture made itself felt about halfway through the set, when he made a show out of peering into the audience and claiming to notice that he could see his demographic out in the crowd. That comment led into “My Meds” from the new album, a recitation of all the substances he was on (or would be on by the end of the night, he assured us). “Heaven” and “The Picture” both featured death in their own way, one moving me to laugh out loud, the other making me tear up. “Over the Hill” he co-wrote with his late wife Kate McGarrigle, before either had turned 30. When they weren’t playing music together or raising their son, he said, “we were trying to kill each other.” “The Morgue” was the highlight of the night, as it combined “death and decay” with his favorite theme from earlier in his career, “shitty love.” And there was also time for “Ode to Pittsburg,” which he wrote in 1969 and was trying to prepare for his show in that city the next night, where he went to college. He forgot about half the words, prompting him to announce, as he struck the final chord, that he was going to have to go home and google the song so that he could memorize the words in time for the show.

While Loudon Wainwright’s performances tend to be emotional roller coasters, Jorma Kaukonen’s performances (at least his solo acoustic ones; Hot Tuna is another matter) are, by contrast, steadier enterprises. This is a function of the kinds of material they perform, their performing styles, and their own particular quirks and talents. Jorma is a blues singer, plain and (not so) simple. His set with Barry Mitterhoff, as usual, combined a handful of original songs with traditional blues songs, some of which have been in Jorma’s repertoire since the 1960s, like “Good Shepherd” and “Come Back Baby” which, probably not by coincidence, are also the two songs that featured the longest jams of the night. “Hesitation Blues” and “How Long Blues” were recorded for the first Hot Tuna album and elicited some of the loudest applause of the evening. As usual there were plenty of Reverend Gary Davis songs, this time including “Children of Zion” and “Let Us Get Together Right down Here.”

Jorma was a gracious host. While Barry did most of the talking, introducing songs and doing the usual thank yous, Jorma’s stage presence was wry and warm. He pointed out that the ukulele that Barry Mitterhoff took up for “The Terrible Operation” dated back to the 1920s. He shrugged off a particularly loud request for “Killing Time in the Crystal City” by saying “now there’s a cheerful song.” He dedicated “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” to his old friend and bandmate Jack Casady, whose wife passed away not long ago. He referred to Miller Highlife as “the champagne of bottled beer.” And, as usual, he let Barry advertise their merchandise: CDs, t-shirts, and an assortment of teas which, as Jorma said, was for our benefit, not theirs. He bade us all stay healthy and take good care of ourselves so that we could all make it to NYC for the Beacon Theater shows after Thanksgiving. The musical high points were when Jorma got flashy. His solo on “Barbeque King” was especially fine, and the uptempo segment of “Hesitation Blues” is always marvelous to behold. And the encore of “Embryonic Journey” was a great moment. It was the Jefferson Airplane song that the crowd had been waiting for. And I’m glad they, I mean we, got it

Monday, July 30, 2012

Marshall Crenshaw with The Bottle Rockets @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA, July 25th, 2012

For my first evening of live music in Philadelphia (not counting a rather lonely evening at Ortlieb’s, watching a jazz guitarist solo over some r&b backing tracks for half an hour), I stuck with the tried and true—Marshall Crenshaw—and something new –The Bottle Rockets. I hadn’t heard of this band other than in the context of Marshall Crenshaw, who has been playing with them on and off for the past couple of years. It turns out they’ve been putting out albums for the last 20 years, pretty good ones according to Robert Christgau, although I did absolutely no research on them prior to the show. They played for about an hour, before returning later as Marshall Crenshaw’s backing band.

I associate the term “World Café” with the radio show, hosted by David Dye, which I’ve been listening to ever since I discovered WFUV about a week after moving to New York City in the summer of 1999. The venue of the same name is a place reminiscent of the now long-defunct Bottom Line in NYC, with a couple of rows of tables, one elevated a little , close to the bar, and a second cluster closer to the stage (which is where I was, very close to the sound engineer). Unlike the Bottom Line, there was also a big standing room area close to the stage. I was afraid at first that the standers would be in the way, but the stage was high enough for that not to be a problem. There were over 100 people, maybe as many as 150, at the show, and that was not quite enough to convey the impression of anything close to a sold-out show. I think all the sitting room was filled up, but there just weren’t enough folks up and dancing close to the stage and, toward the end of the show, it felt like the crowd was getting restless. I overheard at least one woman say that it was past her bedtime. This was clearly an audience full of Marshall Crenshaw fans, most of them well over the age of 40. The only clear Bottle Rockets fans were about a dozen or so younger folks—some college aged, a few around my age—who were clustered close to the stage, at least a few of whom seemed to vanish after the Bottle Rockets finished their opening set.

So, I didn’t know what to expect from the BRs. What I got was an hour’s worth of loud, raucous rock n’ roll. The crunching guitars were loud enough to drown out a lot of the singing (except when the bass player harmonized; I wish he’d done more of that), but it didn’t matter, because the band was great. Pretty much every song deployed a short, catchy riff, and every one had at least one guitar solo to absorb. Best of all was the drummer, who looked totally relaxed and was clearly having a great time. He held things together. They were tight and focused and clearly have been doing this for a long time. Some songs veered toward rockabilly, a few were slow. But most were uptempo and hard-rocking, and nothing bored me. They were a bit reminiscent of Joe Ely at his loudest. If you’ve heard Joe’s album Live at Liberty Lunch (1990), picture an hour’s worth of stuff like Joe’s “Are You Listening Lucky?” from that album. Song fragments I picked up included an opener called, I think, “Shame on Me,” “Indianapolis,” “Mountain to Climb,” “I Fell Down,” and a really great one called “Welfare Music.” Great stuff, and I’ll seek them out in the future.

Marshall Crenshaw, on the other hand, I know a thing or two about. The first time I saw him, he played as 1/3 of an acoustic trio, at NYC’s Rodeo Bar, but the next two times I saw him, in Brooklyn and in Northampton, he played alone on stage. He’s quite a guitar player, and I’m partial to his singing voice, but for years now I’ve craved seeing him with a rock band to back him up. And last night my craving got satisfied. I was not disappointed. The Bottle Rockets fit Marshall’s songs superbly. If anything, they sounded particularly good on the two newer songs, from the Jaggedland (2009) album: “Live and Learn” and “Stormy River.” They both featured some extended guitar solos that really worked. The ensemble playing was excellent throughout and have I mentioned that drummer they’ve got? He’s really something.

But it wasn’t the newer material that this crowd wanted to hear, it was the songs that made the man’s career, 30 years ago. “There She Goes Again” and “Cynical Girl” opened the set back-to-back, and “Mary Anne” came a few songs later, with “Calling Out for Love at Crying Time” and “Starless Summer Sky” in between. The final four songs of the set went from great to greatest: “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “Something’s Gonna Happen,” “Someday Someway,” and, to end the set, “Better Back Off,” a song that Marshall described as “a happy song about anxiety.” But to me it’s simply a song about a man trying to get his lover to stop being so critical of herself. Why don’t more people write those kinds of lyrics? The same guy also wrote “What Do You Dream Of?” which came in the middle of the set, and is incredibly beautiful, one of my most favorite songs by anyone. The covers of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and Richard Thompson’s “Valerie” soared, and the encore of “Not For Me” left me wanting more. Here’s hoping these two acts start teaming up more regularly. And here's a young man and his upbeat band getting famous in 1982.