Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Some Punch and then Deciphering Classic 80's Hits at 80 MPH

The Punch Brothers at the Birchmere

On Friday night, I was down in Alexandria, Virginia, checking out a show at one of the classic American music venues, The Birchmere. Ben and I and some friends of his were there to see the Punch Brothers, the band formerly known as Chris Thile and the Tensions Mountain Boys and sometimes known as the How to Grow a Band. They are touring in support of their recent CD Punch, the centerpiece of which is a four-movement composition for string quintet (i.e. bluegrass band) called "The Blind Leaving the Blind."

I have spoken Chris Thile's praises before on this blog and have had the pleasure of seeing this band perform live in WKCR's studios and at the Jenkins House Concert series.

The Punch Brothers are some fine pickers: Chris "Critter" Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Greg Garrison on bass (with Chris on mandolin, of course). And to a certain extent, that's why I'm not crazy about the suite from Punch. "The Blind Leaving the Blind" is a relatively well-conceived composition that asks the ensemble to get a set of discordant phrases, tempo changes and entrances and exits right. The band has it memorized and performs it crisply and cleanly. My problem is that the band is held back by its strictures and without a really clear reason. These are guys who can improvise in a most impressive fashion, slipping into modal and jazz scales within any given fiddle tune and turning it into something new and exciting. And for me, that is jaw-dropping. The suite is a decent piece of music, but I sort of have to scratch my head and say, "OK, but why?" That is, why not leave it to the classical composers?

Let it be said, however, that my opinion was distinctly the minority opinion at The Birchmere last Friday. The Punch Brothers performed the suite in two halves, and at the conclusion of the second half, a significant portion of the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. The reception was beyond warm. Chris Thile said, "All right, all right. We would like to announce that we will be starting a residency at the Birchmere in 2009. We'll be playing here every night." And the people with whom I was seated with definitely enthusiastic about the suite. But I thought that the band really hit its stride on material from the How to Grow a Woman from the Ground CD (e.g. Gillian Welch's "Wayside (Back in Time)" and The Strokes' "Heart in a Cage") and when they whipped out Bill Monroe's "Molly and Tenbrooks" as part of the encore -- hot solos all around on that one! They also gave us a really nice treatment of Norman Blake's "Green Light on the Southern."

The crowd gave these guys a thoroughly positive review, and the place was packed. They had a lot of fun on stage -- Noam Pikelny's dry humor was particularly appreciated -- and in general, these guys are well worth checking out.

Rediscovering Toto's Africa

So on Saturday, the day after the concert, Ben and I hit the road out of D.C. in the early afternoon, stopped for lunch in historic Havre de Grace, Maryland -- that's pronounced HAVE-er duh GRACE, y'all -- and then took that right turn off of I-95 onto U.S. 40 heading east to Atlantic City.

First off, U.S. 40 is an awesome highway. It stretches all the way to San Francisco, and we were only traveling a small portion of it on Saturday, but it felt like we got a big slice of America: Western apparel stores, pit-cooked barbecues, a winery, a topless bar, etc. We didn't stop anywhere, but I'm definitely ready to go back when I have some more time and get some of that 'cue!

We hit Atlantic City in the evening. I lost some money on the slots. Ben won some money at the blackjack table. After a couple of hours, we left.

Now, Ben did all the driving on Saturday -- Washington, D.C., to New York via Atlantic City -- so after our midnight dinner stop at the Crystal Diner in Tom's River, New Jersey, we needed to pick the right music to supercharge him for the final leg of the journey. Therefore, we selected Essential Hits of the 1980s on my iPod.

And we grooved along to R.E.O. Speedwagon and Starship. And then we hit the motherlode: Toto's Africa.

Released in 1982 on their breakthrough Toto IV record, "Africa" is Toto's only number one hit. Personally, I think it is a rather brilliantly composed song. It a brilliant riff. It has great multi-rhythms that complement each other. It has some sweet singing. It has build on the chorus that resolves into a sparser verse, and then there is additional build at the end through repetition of the key line of the chorus.

But what exactly is that key line of the chorus?

(If you need a refresher, you can take a listen here on YouTube. (Prepare yourself, however, for a couple of serious racial tropes in the video.))

When I was growing up, I always thought that it was "I'll catch the waves down in Africa" or maybe "I'll catch some rays down in Africa." But driving up I-95 at 1:00 a.m. on Saturday, I became convinced that it was "I'll get Lorraine down in Africa" or "I'll kiss Lorraine down in Africa." (Ben quickly took this and made it slightly more scandalous.) But who was Lorraine? She didn't seem to be mentioned anywhere else in the song. My friend David later revealed that he always thought it was "I saw charades down in Africa."

The actual lyric, according to several of the lyrics sites on the Internet is "I bless the rains down in Africa." What the heck does that mean? And how does it fit in with the rest of the song? I really rather preferred speculating about Lorraine.

(Misheard lyrics are called "mondegreens," a term coined by Sylvia Wright in Harper's in 1954 (or so says the Wikipedia entry). My favorite mondegreen of all time is from Billy Bragg's version of Leon Rosselson's great song "World Turned Upside Down." The opening lyric is "In 1649, to St. George's Hill, / A ragged band they called the Diggers came to do the people's will." The misheard lyric is "a reggae band they called the Diggers.")

The other lyric in "Africa" to which attention must be called is the completely aryhthmic "Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" -- the poor singer has to make that work in 4/4! Come on! The guy deserves some major props for that.

Now that you have thought a bit about the song and refreshed your memory, check out Andy McKee's amazing solo guitar version.

And now to continue your early 80's flashback, you'll want to check out the video for Men at Work's "Down Under." The vegemite sandwich across the counter! Oh yes!

Hours of entertainment, folks...

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