Friday, December 31, 2010

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Phil Ochs Documentary and Thoughts on "Crucifixion"

Opening at New York's IFC on January 5th will be Kenneth Bowser's new documentary on Phil Ochs.

After a fairly serious obsession with his music while I was in high school, I've fallen away from listening to Ochs. (And I've also stopped scribbling "Phil Ochs Lives" on desks...) But just the description of the documentary made me want to delve back into his repertoire.
Bowser ... began thinking about making a film about Mr. Ochs some 20 years ago. In his vision, the documentary would show how Mr. Ochs had been wrongfully “written out of the history books,” unfair treatment for a man whom Mr. Bowser considers the best protest singer who ever lived — and the most relevant recording artist of the 1960s. A mention of Bob Dylan, whose protest songs disappeared early in his career as he turned his gifts to the surrealistically personal, is an easy way to inflame Mr. Bowser.
Now, I have been thinking a lot about Dylan recently. (In Phil's own words: "'Ochs, wake up, this is God here. Over.' I said, 'You're putting me on, of course, Dylan.'") And you know -- perhaps you need to prepare yourself -- I'm not sure that I would single out any Dylan song as being in the category of serious poetry the way that I would "Crucifixion." Dylan is poetic, but it's so often a poetry of wryness -- a comic poetry -- and then sometimes a poetry of spite (as in "Idiot Wind," for instance). And those things are powerful and meaningful and great art. But "Crucifixion" -- as poetry -- is a lyric that can stand side-by-side with Tennyson, Coleridge, Rimbaud and Whitman, I think: it uses its powerful imagery and internal rhymes in the interest of gravitas. And as much as I love "Stuck inside of Mobile" and could see it being included on a high school English syllabus, I feel less like it needs to be there.
And the night comes again to the circle-studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie.
'Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised --
The planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed,
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies.

In the green fields a-turnin', a baby is born.
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn:
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard,
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard,
And the only single sound is the sighing of the stars,
But to the silence of distance, they are sworn.
Ochs wrote the song for John F. Kennedy -- and reduced Robert F. Kennedy to tears with it shortly before his own assassination -- and it describes the birth of a leader heralding a new age who at first "stands on the sea and shouts to the shore, / But the louder that he screams the longer he's ignored." And then "his message gathers meaning and it spreads accross the land / The rewarding of his pain is the following of the man." And we know how this drama ends, but Ochs -- perhaps like Dylan in "Who Killed Davey Moore?" -- points out the complicity of our culture in it all:
The child was created to the slaughterhouse he's led
So good to be alive when the eulogies are read
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
And the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.
It's brilliant stuff with lyrics that allow for rediscovery and new discovery each time through, and it's powerfully sung, too.

Maureen Dowd on Patti Smith's Just Kids

Maureen Dowd dedicated her Christmas Day column to Patti Smith's recent National Book Award-winning memoir.
For anyone who has had a relationship where the puzzle pieces seem perfect but don’t fit — so, all of us — “Just Kids” is achingly beautiful. It’s “La Bohème” at the Chelsea Hotel; a mix, she writes, of “Funny Face” and “Faust,” two hungry artists figuring out whom to love, how to make art and when to part.

It unfolds in that romantic time before we were swallowed by Facebook, flat screens, texts, tweets and Starbucks; when people still talked all night and listened to jukeboxes and LPs and read actual books and drank black coffee.

Smith describes the wondrous odyssey of taking the bus from South Jersey and meeting a curly-haired soul mate who wanted to help her soar, even as the pair painfully grappled over the years with Mapplethorpe’s sexuality and his work’s brutality.

Doyle Lawson Branching Out?

In the January 6th Rolling Stone, David Browne has a short piece on Paul Simon's new album, which sounds pretty cool -- Simon has stepped away from focusing on rhythm and percussion to get back to thinking melodically and has written songs about Iraq, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a Vietnam veteran working at a car wash.

According to the article, the album also features "Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver's Indian percussion and Southern-gospel harmonies." Although I suspect that claim is the result of an editing error, if not, I'm looking forward to checking out the former (and I already know that the latter will be exceptional -- as always).

Friday, December 24, 2010

"My Life as Keith Moon"

I've been catching up on back issues of The New Yorker in between wrapping presents, and I really enjoyed James Wood's "The Fun Stuff: My Life as Keith Moon."

Like anyone interested in music, I've heard Keith Moon praised as one of the great drummers, but I've never really known exactly what that meant -- until Wood's article.

Over the course of a few paragraphs, he lays out the way in which Moon remained a constant innovator within the context of every song rather than a mere beatkeeper.
Drumming is repetition, as is rock music generally, and Moon clearly found repetition dull. So he played the drums like no one else--and not even like himself. No two bars of Moon's playing ever sound the same; he is in recolt against consistency. Everyone else in the band gets to improvise, so why should the drummer be nothing more than a condemned metronome?"
Woods makes good comparisons between Moon and other drummers and also between rock 'n' roll and the classical repertoire that Woods himself was brought up inside of.

He talks about Moon's out-of-controlness, of course -- "I don't give a damn about a Holiday Inn room. There's ten million of them exactly the same," he said after trashing one -- but the memorable parts of the article are those that compare Moon to Glenn Gould and describe his influence on punk music.

Worth reading!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Benefit for Half the Sky @ The Regent Theater, Arlington, MA, December 17th, 2010

Last night, I drove over an hour and half to Arlington for the Half the Sky benefit concert. Originally, four performers were scheduled to play, but Lucy Kaplansky had a family emergency that drew her away. That left us with Patty Larkin, Chris Smither, and Jorma Kaukonen, all people who have adopted daughters from orphanages in China. The latter two I heard play recently, at the Beacon Theater in NYC. Patty Larkin, on the other hand, I hadn't seen in a couple of summers.

This was my first time at the beautiful Regent Theater, and I loved it. I hope another show comes by that takes me there. It reminded me a little of Town Hall, but folksier, more casual. My only complaint was that the house music was repulsive. It took me about 5 minutes to pay attention long enough to realize how bad it was, but when I did, I realized that it wasn't bad, it was god-awful. Slow, schmaltzy, string-laden renditions of "classic rock" songs. First "White Room." Then, "Touch Me." Then "Like a Rolling Stone." Then I overheard an older gentleman, sitting behind me, mention to his friend that the Doors song "Light My Fire" came out in 1967, when he was a college freshman, and that it got played at every mixer he went to that summer. Then I heard him say...

"Hey, do you know if the band playing this stuff is in the house tonight? I hope so."
"So I can eliminate them."

The host for the show was Signature Sounds' Jim Olson, who has popped up at probably half or more of the concerts I've attended since moving to Pioneer Valley. He announced that the show was very nearly sold old out, that this was a good cause, and that his label works with Patty and Chris. I wonder how many attendees didn't know that last bit. Probably more than at most of the shows at which Jim announces it. The audience was more diverse than the Valley norm, which is understandable, since Arlington ain't the Valley, and because this wasn't any old concert. Half the Sky works to help orphaned children in China, and there were plenty of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the audience, and plenty of adopted Chinese children. Before the show began, I saw Jorma's wife, Vanessa, and their daughter Izzy, who skipped merrily down the aisles, as her mother reached for her hand.

The show itself was lovely. Each performer played four songs, then there was an intermission, and then there was a "round robin" bit, with all performers on stage together. Throughout, but particularly during the second half of the show, each performer took some time to talk about Half the Sky and the pleasure they've taken in adopting children. And, in Jorma's case, the practical dilemmas of the adoption process. "For instance," he told us, "did you know that fingerprints expire?" This led to a story about having to drive to Cincinnati multiple times to watch an intern at the Department of Homeland Security figure out how to use the fingerprinting machine. Patty gave an overview of the history of the organization. And the ever eloquent Chris Smither spoke simply and movingly about how important it was that we were all there.

I don't know that I had a particular favorite moment from the show. I will say that I have never heard Patty Larkin sound better. This is the first time that I have seen her outside of a folk festival and, in the quiet of the theater, with the spotlight on her, she shone. Her guitar playing was superb throughout. The third song of her four song set was "Dear Heart," played on the electric guitar. It featured some delicate, subtle playing that climaxed with her use of a violin bow. I winced when she picked it up, thinking simultaneously of Led Zeppelin and Spinal Tap, but the sounds she produced with it were haunting and beautiful. She mentioned that Jorma really liked the color of that guitar (a sort of bluish, aquamarine), something which she could now mention on her resumé. She talked about the stories her daughter makes up in the car, before playing "The Book I'm Not Reading." Later on, I found her song "Open Arms" quite moving. Given the time and setting to pay attention to her, I made a strong connection with her music for, essentially, the very first time.

I will also say that, as gauged by audience reaction, Chris Smither basically stole the show. The applause after each song, the audience response to resonant lyrics, and his simple but earnest thanks for everyone for supporting a worthy cause...he had us in the palm of his hand. He began his set with Patty still on stage to accompany him on "No Love Today." As they began to play it, I wondered what all the children in the audience would make of it, if they were paying attention to it at all. It reminded me that Maggie Pesce once told me that her three year old daughter really likes that song. Anyhow, after that, he played "Don't Call Me Stranger," which never fails to hook the audience with the way he sings and slyly smiles through the line "I'm not evil / I'm just bad." Then came the song that I knew was coming, "I Don't Know," which is about talking to his child, interacting with the world, and the eternal search. It's one of his greatest lyrics, one of his greatest songs. And the beautiful love song "Time Stands Still" finished up the set.

When Jorma came onstage, it occurred to me that this was the first time I'd ever seen him onstage without Jack Casady there to play bass. Instead, it was just him and Barry Mitterhoff, who has been his stagemate for many years now. Chris stayed onstage for the first song, "Step It Up and Go," which they played together at the Beacon Theater show I saw two weeks ago and which sounded so good that I just searched for it on iTunes, but couldn't find it. After Chris left the stage, Jorma gave us "Izzy's Lullaby," a lovely instrumental piece. After that, there was a pause in the music as Jorma searched for his capo. Upon asking Barry if he had one, Barry helpfully informed him that mandolin players don't need them. "Rub it in, why don't you," Jorma grumbled, before going into "Come Back Baby," which elicited big applause and some tasty mandolin solos from Mr. Mitterhoff. Then, after a stagehand brought him a capo, they treated us to a new song, "Second Chances," which is about time, and "Hesitation Blues," which is too, sort of, to conclude the set.

It was the second half of the show, though, that made Chris Smither seem like the center of attention. He sat, literally, center stage, with Patty to his left and Jorma and Barry to his right. The performers were all attentive to each other during performance. But Patty and Jorma were noticeably impressed by Chris' playing and singing. Jorma also seemed to be very interested in what Patty was doing, probably because he's less familiar with his music, and her guitar playing comes from a different place than Chris' more blues-based stuff. But when Chris launched "Seems So Real" into the Arlington Theater, the propulsion seemed to move the entire theater, with the audience nodding and foot-tapping, and Jorma smiling and bobbing his head a bit. And when he did "Leave the Light On," the applause was the most enthusiastic of the evening, moving Jorma to say "yikes" and called it "a dandy song." Jorma did "River of Time" after that one, which is one of his best originals in recent years, plainspoken and rich. The only moment that made Chris seem less than dominant was when Patty led the assembled musicians in a bluesy version of John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me," which was her moment to shine and Barry's and Jorma's moments to play some sharp guitar solos. For the encore, it was Jorma's turn to lead everyone in an ensemble performance, this time of an actual blues: "That'll Never Happen No More."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hot Tuna @ Beacon Theater - December 4, 2010

Just saw a posting on about the Saturday night show, featuring such even more big-name guests like Bob Weir and Steve Earle! You can read about it here or on Jorma's blog.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hot Tuna @ The Beacon Theater, New York City, December 3rd, 2010

The key word for last night's Hot Tuna show at the Beacon--the first of two sold-out gigs there--seemed to be "yikes." At least, that was the first word from Jorma Kaukonen's lips after the band took the stage, and he said it at least two more times that I can recall. What could he have been referring to? I can think of a few possibilities: the fact that he was celebrating his 70th birthday with these NYC concerts, the presence of a number of old friends at the show, the extraordinary quality of musicianship on the stage, and/or the huge, adoring crowd that was there to celebrate with him. Most likely, it's all of the above. But I'm just guessing.

I grew up with Hot Tuna, along with the first of Jorma's great bands, the Jefferson Airplane. They were the first rock groups that really felt "mine" when I was a teenager. I felt at the time like I was in the know about something really important, particularly since this was music that was recorded almost entirely before I was born. So whenever I see Tuna, it's always something special for me. Sentiment aside, however, this is one of the truly great rock and blues bands I have ever heard or seen. The material, whether blues numbers transformed into rock and roll or Jorma Kaukonen originals, is high quality, and Jorma and bassist Jack Casady are players without peer. At the moment, those two are playing with a fabulous drummer, Skoota Warner, and the multi-instrumentalist Barry Mitterhoff who, at the last few Tuna shows I've seen, came damn near to stealing the show. And Tuna at the Beacon--where I have now seen them 5 times--is something truly special. The greater NYC area has a whole bunch of Hot Tuna fans, and they pack the Beacon whenever the band comes to town. A number of years ago, Jorma referred to the Beacon as one of the "crown jewels" of gigs and, whenever I see them there, I think I know why.

After that first "yikes," Hot Tuna launched "I See the Light" out into the Beacon as their first offering. This happens to be one of my favorite songs in the Tuna catalog, particularly because of the ensemble playing and the way it builds and builds toward its climax. After that came "Corners Without Exits," a song about overcoming the internal hurdles that otherwise stop you from striding unafraid into the future, that featured some particularly excellent singing. Both of those were originally released on The Phosphorescent Rat (1973). After that, the volume and distortion levels went up a notch with two songs originally released on Hoppkorv (1976), "Talkin' Bout You" and "Can't Get Satisfied." The latter was played maybe a touch slower than I'm used to hearing it, Jorma soloing with particular intensity and Skoota funking it up beautifully.

The first of the special guests then took the stage, Happy Traum, with acoustic guitar in hand. They played "Sportin' Life Blues," a song that I actually associate with Chris Smither (who recorded it for his Small Revelations album). Happy sang it, and he sang it well. "Ode to Billy Dean" from Burgers (1972) and another Phosphorescent Rat song, "Living Just for You" came next, the former slow and bluesy and ominous, the latter fast and upbeat.

The second special guest was the blues singer John Hammond. I didn't know the songs they played, but John was in fine vocal form. In my own humble opinion, his voice has improved with age. It doesn't always work that way, but with him it has. And his cherry-red guitar is gorgeous.

Bill Kirchen from Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen and the maestro guitarist and fiddler Larry Campell took the stage next to ponder the crucial question: "Are you talkin' 'bout love, or are you talkin' 'bout chicken?" After that, the great Warren Haynes, from the Allman Brothers Band and from Gov't Mule, joined the assembled cast for a long, searing jam on "Come Back Baby," featuring great solos from every one of the guitarists, to end the first set. That was also the longest jam of the first set, a great way to leave an adoring audience craving a short intermission.

The second set featured some particularly inspired collaborations. It began with "Water Song" and "99 Year Blues," both augmented by bassist Byron House. Of all the collaborations of the night, this one may have been the most ingenious, in terms of matching guest with material. I would never have guessed it, but the second bass took "Water Song" to another level and added a touch of menace to "99 Year Blues." Larry Campbell then joined the boys on "Genesis," playing some Mark Knopfler-esque guitar, which beautifully suited the song (one of my favorite Jorma originals). Warren Haynes came back on stage for "Bowlegged Woman, Knock-kneed Man," one of my favorites of the older, intense electric jams.

The next guest, Bruce Hornsby, treated us to something different. I associate Bruce Hornsby with the piano (and there was a lovely one on stage), but he came onstage with a dulcimer. With Larry Campbell on violin and Jorma on acoustic guitar, Bruce led the band in a performance of "Children of Zion." It was quirky and unusual in this context, but I certainly enjoyed it. After that one, he moved to the piano to join the band on a song that has been in the Tuna repertoire from the beginning, "Know You Rider," with Skoota revving the tempo for the instrumental jam in the middle and everyone playing great solos. This was another example of a good match between guest musician and material; the piano playing was really kicking in that song. After that one, the guests left stage and the core four-piece band played "If This Is Love I Want My Money Back," which they are recording for the new Hot Tuna album. I remembered this one from their Beacon show last year, which I described here, and was happy to hear it again.

One of my other songwriting and guitar-playing heroes came onstage next. It was Chris Smither and, as is his wont, he sat and stomped as he played and picked. The song was "Step It Up and Go," an old Blind Boy Fuller song that Chris and Jorma recorded a few years ago.

The rest of the second set consisted of two long, electric jams, one slow and smoldering, "Rock Me Baby," and the other fast and funky and crazy, "Funky #7." The first was a platform for the guitarists to take off. The second included Bruce Hornsby on piano and, with all the jamming, went on for well over 10 minutes. For the encore, the core band performed "Hit Single #1," with Barry Mitterhoff soloing over Jorma's performance of the climactic instrumental bridge.

This was the longest Hot Tuna show I've ever attended. The band went on about 5 minutes after 8:00 and did not leave for good until 11:45 or so. The variation between acoustic blues, country-rock, and searing electric jams mirrored the various musical styles that Jorma Kaukonen has tapped into throughout his musical career. And Jorma was clearly enjoying himself. "I could get used to this," he enthused at one point, watching his guests get set up for a particular song. His introductions were a combination of affection for his friends and excitement with the event: "yeah, that's right--Bruce Hornsby!" He mentioned that Happy Traum was the one buddy of his who was actually a few older than he was, "and I want to be just like him when I grow up!" When introducing Bill Kirchen, he mentioned having once played in a band called Jefferson Airplane, eliciting big applause. He spoke warmly about having met John Hammond at Antioch College 50 years ago. And I don't think I have ever heard him play better. With all that guitar-playing talent on stage pushing him a bit, his solos and his singing were some of the strongest I can recall hearing from him.

After the show, I met up with Ellen and Red House Records' Eric Peltoniemi to chat and meet with the band. Backstage, people were floating around the rather cramped hallways, where Jorma was greeting folks. Ellen introduced me to him, we shook hands, and I wished him a happy birthday. I suppose it's a sign of emotional growth that I don't experience an emotional freakout when I meet one of my musical heroes. Ellen chatted with Jorma and his wife Vanessa for a few minutes, before we made our wade through the little backstage crowd (which included Happy and Bruce...and I think I spied Michael Falzarano back there too) and out into the night.

One final comment....Hot Tuna is recording a new album for Red House Records. From what Ellen tells me, and from what little I overheard Ellen and Eric and Jorma discuss, the new album is going to be a beauty. Beyond that, I happen to know a little secret, which I am happy to share with all you readers: there is no such thing as a bad Hot Tuna album. They don't exist and I can't imagine that they ever will. So be on the lookout for the new offering this spring and, in the meantime, watch out for the band playing at a venue near you.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

James McMurtry w/ Ray Mason @ The Iron Horse, December 1st, 2010

On a whim, I snapped up a ticket for the James McMurtry show at the Iron Horse this evening. I've been hearing good things about him for years, and "We Can't Make It Here" was not only chosen by Christgau as one of the best songs of 2005, but Bernie Sanders picked it up for his campaign theme. Not bad. Plus, I now see from my archives that I did indeed see him perform once before, back in the summer of 1993, the first time I ever went to the Newport Folk Festival. I'd be lying if I said I remember anything about that performance.

Anyhow, I went into the Iron Horse curious, and I walked out converted. James McMurtry is a meticulous songwriter, packing more details into his songs than almost anyone I can think of, and he picks and strums with amazing precision. He began with a song I later learned is called "Down Across the Delaware," and I was hooked after the first verse, involving "the gods that seem to rule our home," which is a reference to landlords, seemingly in New Jersey, or at least that's what I guess from the line about "the Garden State giving way to the real world." Class and poverty and capitalism are this guy's great themes and, with a few touches of surrealism and a few dashes of local color, they lock in and hold on every single song. Not one thing he played this evening, not one, just lay in the air. Each one felt like either an attack or a defense or a little of both. The second song was one of the two that I recognized upon hearing, "Red Dress." I'll quote the same verse from this song that Matt quoted in an earlier review because it's just too damn good: "Yes I'm drunk but damn you're ugly / Tell you one thing, yes I will / Tomorrow morning I'll be sober / You'll be just as ugly still." Ouch! Later on came "Choctaw Bingo," which I think I first heard on WFUV in New York.

The performance was dominated by the music. The man radiated confidence and authority and, with a few exceptions, he neither spoke or smiled between songs. Instead, he played and played and played; a 12-string guitar for the first half dozen songs, over to a 6-string for a few, and then back to the 12-string for the final half dozen. He introduced "Choctaw Bingo" with the line, "I'd like to play a medley of my hit," which he stole from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him follow that line by telling us that he hoped that he didn't scare away anyone who knew where he'd stolen the line from. Well played, I thought. Beyond that, there was hardly any banter from the stage, and I was glad.

As I said, not a single song lacked at least one amazing line, a turn of phrase, a snappy aphorism that sunk its teeth into my brain. There was the blood pressure pill washed down with a Red Bull, the one about Carlos and Ruby, the one with "mama used to roll her hair / back before the central air," and the one that began "she gets a little restless in the spring." I will seek this man out in the future.

The Iron Horse was sold out, or close to it. Plenty of people standing at the bar. There was even someone standing in front of me who, as soon as I realized he was planning on staying there, I had to ask to move. Twice, in fact. The crowd was mostly middle-aged, although I met a Mount Holyoke student (and Valley Advocate writer) there, who was sitting behind me. It was full even for the opening act, Ray Mason, whose most notable attribute was his guitar, a beautiful, beat-up 1965 Sears Silvertone. He introduced it at the same time as he introduced the one cover he performed, a Barbara Mason hit from the same year, "Yes I'm Ready," which I actually recognized. His self-written material was ok, his banter in between songs less so. The peak, however, came at the end, when he played a song from the first of his dozen CDs, "When I Meet You on the Moon," in which he showed off his guitar chops a bit, throwing in licks from "Day Tripper" and at least one other recognizable tune, though I forget which.

I head to the big city on Friday for the first of Hot Tuna's two nights at the Beacon, to celebrate Jorma's 70th birthday. Then, on Saturday, back to the Iron Horse for some Crooked Still. I'll be sure to report on them both....