Monday, August 31, 2009

Weekend of Music in Champaign-Urbana

A quick report from this weekend here in Champaign-Urbana.

On Friday night, I was back at the Research Park at the University of Illinois to see an evening of bluegrass music. Because it had rained throughout the day, the crowd was a lot thinner than it had been for the Kathy Mattea show two weeks ago.

My new political science colleague Tiberiu and I had stopped off for a beer on the way to the show, so we arrived at the end of High Cotton's set. A traditionally-oriented bluegrass band based here in Central Illinois, we caught "No Hiding Place," "Man at the Mill" and "Orange Blossom Special." I wish that we had made it there to see their full show, and I look forward to catching them next time around.

The headliner for the evening was Hot Buttered Rum, the West Coast acoustic string band. My first exposure to these guys was my first day in Indonesia. I met a couple from Berkeley that was staying at the same homestay in Jakarta as me; mentioning bluegrass, they asked me if I knew Hot Buttered Rum and hooked me up with a disc. Friday was my first time seeing them live.

Their set started off fairly slow, I thought. I wasn't feeling the groove all that much. We were seated off to the side, so the sound was a little more muffled than if we had been in the direct line of the speakers, so that might have been it. We also struck up a conversation with Jim from John Deere who is running the John Deere research center at the Research Park, so maybe it was learning about dry-land farming in Montana that kept me out of the groove.

But then -- after a while and toward the end of their set -- things started to pick up. "Blackberry Pie" brought me in, and then they laid down some serious groove on "Up on Cripple Creek." There was a funkified version of "Walls of Time" and then some solid flute-playing on the final song, which -- I'm serious about this -- made the dance pit come alive. In fact, I think I would have had a much different concert-going experience if I had been down in that dance pit. A lesson for next time.

The most interesting thing, I thought, about Hot Buttered Rum was the quality of the drumming, which propelled even the songs where I wasn't feeling the groove. The rhythm was steady and only fancy when it needed to be. I also was surprised that the solos were not a bit more aggressive; the band played in a pretty chill fashion, not letting the individual members shine as much as they might. Maybe that's a West Coast thing.

On Saturday, at the Urbana farmers' market (Market at the Square, if you like), there was good and/or interesting music at every corner. The guys who really caught my ears were Tom and Matt Turino, a father and son playing accordion and guitar respectively. They had a great sound together and played a couple of really nice tunes while I was picking out some handmade soap and considering the merits of a second loaf of bread.

Matt and Tom will be having a CD release party this Saturday at the Iron Post -- just a few blocks from my apartment. Unfortunately, I will be in Toronto, attending to professional duties.

Tom is a member of the music department at UIUC; he studies Andean and Latin American music and has written a book on the music of Zimbabwe.

Little did I know that I would be seeing more of Tom later in the day. While I was at home working on my lecture notes, the Urbana Sweet Corn Festival was going on two blocks away. When some seriously good Zydeco music started floating in the window, I decided to make my way over to see it in person. The group was Big Grove, featuring Tom Turino on accordion and vocals (and fiddle on a tune or two), Ben Smith on fiddle, Ben Hay on guitar, J.B. Faires on bass and Gordon Kay on the drums. (Matt Turino plays with the band, too, I guess, but he wasn't on stage with them on Saturday.) They had plenty of two-step swing and played some lovely waltzes. There was lots of room for dancing, although only a limited number of people doing it, but I saw some lovely waltzing and some smooth two-stepping.

They'll be playing at the Alto Vineyards tasting room in Champaign on September 12th.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mandolinist Doppelgangers

I'm listening to The Moonshine Show this morning, where James Reams is sitting in with Jeff Kandel. (They were kind enough to dedicate a song from The Bray Brothers' Prairie Bluegrass album to me. When Jeff announced their Urbana address (419 W. Main Street), I realized that I sometimes walk by it on my way into the office!)

They just played a track from Ricky Skaggs' forthcoming solo CD, Songs My Dad Loved. (Ricky plays all the instruments and does all the singing on the disc.)

I went to the Skaggs Family website to check out the album and found this cover photo:

Ok, so is it just me, or is Ricky stealing some of Marty Stuart's hairstyle secrets?

You be the judge:

Long lost brothers? Maybe...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Radio Station Doppelganger

This photo from the New York Times article about legendary New York City salsa DJ Polito Vega has had me doing regular doubletakes. Taken at WSKQ-FM in New York, it looks quite a bit like WKCR's studios, as maybe can be seen below -- same racks, same board, same walls! Spooky.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mountain Stage Newsong Northeast Regional Round

Dr. Kari Groff-Denis -- who appeared on the Moonshine Show with the Kings County Strings back in January of this year and who also put together a band for my birthday party in April -- has let us know that her song "Sad is Not Forever..." as performed by Kristin Andreassen and Jumping Through Hoops (a group that includes Chris Eldridge, Rob Hecht, Paul Kowert and Kari herself) is one of the competitors in Mountain Stage's Newsong Northeast Regional Round. There are some other cool songs in the running, too -- including one from my and Ellen's old friend Teddy Goldstein -- so check it out!

Bye-Bye Album Format?

Back at the beginning of the month -- in response to Charles M. Blow's column in the New York Times -- I was speculating about the future of the music industry a bit.

Eric Pfanner's recent Times piece on Radiohead raises some interesting ideas, as well.
[W]hen Mr. [Thom] Yorke [of Radiohead] announced a change of course for the band, saying it planned to stop making full-length records and turn its attention to singles, it sounded like an epitaph for the album, the broken backbone of the record industry’s longtime business model.

“None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Mr. Yorke told the Believer, a literary magazine based in San Francisco. “Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with ‘In Rainbows’ because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”

Radiohead’s shift to singles reflects a change in music fans’ preferences. Instead of buying whole albums, they now stream or download just the songs they want. That, along with unauthorized copying, has decimated industry revenues.
Indeed it does seem to me like an inevitable transition: artists producing "just-in-time" singles (to borrow a phrase from the academic literature on "flexible production") instead of going album, break, album, break, album... Why delay getting a song out there if someone is just going to download that song only anyway?

Of course, for those of us who love the album format and have spent considerable time contemplating (for instance) the way in which U2 designed Achtung Baby to rise and fall from Side A to Side B -- oh, wait, I guess that is already an antiquated concept -- this is a sad outcome.

But I'm also the first to admit that there are albums that I bought for one song and that's the only song that I really care about (and consequently I listen neither to those CDs nor the single song on them all that much). The opposite is also true -- I've purchased albums based on one song and discovered a whole bunch of other great ones on the same disc. As far as the former is concerned, we should see much less of that: the days of paying for 12 songs based on the quality of one and then ending up with 10 or 11 duds should be over. And as far as the latter is concerned, I suspect that people will continue to release "albums" -- or some similar collection of songs -- when they are warranted.

I thought that the following bit of news was also quite welcome:
Apple and the major record companies are reportedly working on projects to include liner notes, lyrics, artwork, music videos and other extras with digital downloads.
Because if there is one thing that I don't like about downloading, it's the loss of information -- songwriters, musicians, stories about the songs -- that one can usually find in a CD booklet or on the back of an LP.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Wild Horses" Piano Playing

Memphis piano player Jim Dickinson passed away this week.

Here's the story of how he became the piano player on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses":
At a recording session in 1969 at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, Ian Stewart, the Stones pianist, abruptly left when it came time to record “Wild Horses.” Mr. Dickinson sat down and filled in.

“After we’re doing it for about 45 minutes, Jagger’s in the control room, listening, and he says to Keith, ‘What do you think about the piano?’ ” Mr. Dickinson recalled, referring to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. “I thought: ‘Well here goes. I’m going home now.’ And Keith says, ‘It’s the only thing I like so far.’ ”

Ten years later Mr. Stewart told Mr. Dickinson he left that day because he did not play minor chords.

Al Bell Back in Memphis

There was a great piece in the New York Times the other day about Al Bell, the one-time owner of Stax Records, who has now returned to Memphis to head the Memphis Music Foundation.

There are some great stories in the article, like the tale of his time with and then ultimate separation from Dr. King:
After high school, in 1959, Mr. Bell went to work under Dr. King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He spent a year in Georgia until “breaking rank” with the nonviolent-resistance ethos at a march in Savannah, Ga. When a hostile bystander spit on him, Mr. Bell pulled a switchblade from his pocket and plunged into the crowd. Fellow marchers restrained him, “fortunately,” Mr. Bell said, but Dr. King was not pleased.

Earlier, Mr. Bell said, he had brushed aside Dr. King’s concern about his switchblade by joking to him, “Well, Doc, Jesus had Peter with him, and Peter carried a sword.” But Mr. Bell said that after the march Dr. King, calling him Alvertis, rebuked him for his increasing advocacy of self-defense against the police and their dogs. “So I said, ‘O.K., Doc.’ And I left the next day, with love.”
Or there was his little gambling run in response to Otis Redding's death:
On Dec. 10, 1967, when Mr. Bell was attending a radio industry convention in Las Vegas, a loudspeaker announced that Redding, 26, had died in a small plane crash near Madison, Wis. “I lost it,” Mr. Bell said. That night he drank himself into a stupor while playing craps. He learned the next morning that he had made $85,000. “But Otis was still gone,” he said.
His roles in bringing Stax artists to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the production of Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul and the 1972 Wattstax Festival in Los Angeles are described in the article, too. And finally who can beat the buttery radio sign-on described here:
Back in Little Rock, Mr. Bell, while attending college, resumed his radio career, eventually graduating in 1961 to WLOK in Memphis, where he used this sign-on: “This is your 6 feet 4 bundle of joy, 212 pounds of Mrs. Bell’s baby boy, soft as medicated cotton, rich as double-X cream, the women’s pet, the men’s threat, the baby boy Al” — and then he rang a bell — “Bell.”
Oh, that is so good!

Also, in an example of the New York Times getting itself involved with awkward expressions because it won't print bad words, there was this:
his [1975 bank-fraud] trial included testimony that a local banking official had bragged, using a racial slur, about “running those” blacks “and especially the chief” black “out of town”....
The trial ended in acquittal for Bell, by the way.

Lawrence Lucie (1907-2009)

Jazz guitarist Lawrence Lucie passed away earlier this week. I wish I could say for certain, but I do think that I once had the pleasure of shaking his hand when he appeared on one of Phil Schaap's radio programs on WKCR.

The following from his obituary struck me:
He began studying banjo, mandolin and violin at an early age and played in a band led by his father.
It looks like he could have been in a bluegrass band!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kathy Mattea at the UI Research Park

Kathy Mattea's set last night was terrific. A mix of songs that I know by other people and songs that she's made famous and reside somewhere in my subconscious combined with a crackerjack band made for a wonderful evening of music.

Her latest album is called (and is about) Coal, and the songs from that disc formed the core of the set, although she did not shy from dipping into other parts of her repertoire.

The band was quite good, and they had their own crew man (originally from Champaign) running the sound and lights, which were both (for the most part) excellent. Fiddler/mandolinist Eamon O'Rourke was spectacular. Originally from Ireland (and recently married in New York, we were told), his nimble fingers and tight bowing produced an attack that was a mix of David Oistrakh and Michael Cleveland. He got better as the night went on, and by the end of the show, I was saying, "Wow!" every time that he soloed. David Spicher -- son of bluegrass fiddler Buddy Spicher -- was on bass, and he got to take surprising number of solos, and he never disappointed when he did. The soundman made sure that his solos were audible, although early on, he was pushing the bass a little too loud, almost to the exclusion of the other instruments. Bill Cooley provided solid lead guitar chops, although he didn't blow my mind the way that he has that of some other bloggers. The other great thing about the band using their own crew person was that the spotlights were always on whoever was soloing -- I've seen too many shows at clubs in New York where that's not the case.

Kathy offered up what seemed like a genuine compliment of opener Ryan Groff's voice, complimenting his pipes and joking, "It ticks me off that he sings higher than I do!" I thought it was very professional of her to provide such honest thanks of a local opener.

The set list went like this:
  • Dark as a Dungeon

  • Goin' Gone - beautifully done, and a great choice to jump into a big hit after the opening Merle Travis tune

  • Untold Stories

  • The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore

  • You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive - a fairly standard treatment of this Darrell Scott classic, but what a great song

  • Red Winged Blackbird - a Billy Edd Wheeler song, not to be confused with the David Francey song of the same name; from the Coal album

  • Coal Tattoo - back-to-back Billy Edd Wheeler

  • Love at the Five and Dime - Kathy told two good stories about her (and Nanci Griffith's) first hit, one involving a bug flying into her mouth on the last chorus the first time that she ever sang it live and one about connecting with her mother (who was suffering from Alzheimer's) through the song

  • Time Passes By

  • Come from the Heart

  • 18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses - Kathy got all of us to sing and then to sing louder, and then she said, "That was lovely. Now can someone tell me what an Illini is?"

  • Harley

  • Gimme Shelter - a very solid acoustic Rolling Stones moment with excellent work on the lights

  • Where've You Been - written by Kathy's husband Jon Vezner

  • Mr. Smith Had an Oldsmobile

  • ENCORE: Black Lung - Kathy sang this Hazel Dickens classic a capella

  • And then -- to end the show on a slightly more upbeat note than "Black Lung" -- the band came back out, and Kathy picked up the penny whistle, and they played a set of Irish tunes.
All in all, it was a great show with everything in place: solid musicians, beautiful vocals, good sound, a good-sized crowd, good lighting and a beautiful prairie sky.

Friday, August 14, 2009

First Post from the Prairie

Not only is this my first post about live music in Champaign-Urbana, my new home, but I'm writing it on my iPhone, also a first.

I'm sitting in a big grassy area at the UIUC Research Park. The crowd here is substantial, probably upwards of 500 people. It is a free outdoor concert sponsored by the Krannert Center.

Opening act Ryan Groff just finished. The highlight of his set for me was his acoustic guitar cover of The Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight." On that song and others, he made extensive and worthwhile use of a digital voice recorder to add his own backing vocals and harmonies. After he finished that song, he played one about a woman in downtown Champaign who used to pretend that she was homeless, much to the consternation of local business owners.

The intermission music has included some contemporary bluegrass and right now an old-time fiddle tune!

Main act Kathy Mattea should take the stage soon. There has been significant conversation behind me -- sadly to the detriment of me being able to hear Ryan Groff -- about whether she will play country music or Appalachian music. I'll let you know soon...

Having to Live with "United Breaks Guitars"

Nerissa and Katryna Nields just sent out a long update detailing in stories and pictures their trip to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, for the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. As a postscript -- not a Postrcypt, mind you -- Nerissa added:
When we arrived at customs this morning to leave Canada, the flight attendant made me sign a waiver for my guitar, which I checked. I joked, "So this is so if United Breaks My Guitar I can't sue you."

"Interesting you should bring that up," she said drily. "I was the attendant who took that guitar from the guy who wrote that song. And it was in a soft case, not a hard one like yours here."
Ouch... Wonder how often that comes up?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Finding Work in the Arts in China

One of the most e-mailed stories on The New York Times website right now is about young people from the United States going to find jobs in China.

I thought it was particularly cool that some of them are going to find job in arts administration -- and even more so that one is from Barnard:
Sarabeth Berman, a 2006 graduate of Barnard College with a major in urban studies, initially arrived in Beijing at the age of 23 to take a job that would have been difficult for a person her age to land in the United States: program director at BeijingDance/LDTX, the first modern dance company in China to be founded independently of the government.

Ms. Berman said she was hired for her familiarity with Western modern dance rather than a knowledge of China. “Despite my lack of language skills and the fact that I had no experience working in China, I was given the opportunity to manage the touring, international projects, and produce and program our annual Beijing Dance Festival.”

After two years of living and working in China, Ms. Berman is proficient in Mandarin. She travels throughout China, Europe and the United States with the dance company.

Willy Tsao, the artistic director of BeijingDance/LDTX, said he had hired Ms. Berman because of her ability to make connections beyond China. “I needed someone who was capable of communicating with the Western world.”
Well, if the Chinese Bluegrass Association is looking for a president, I hope that someone gives me a ring.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

RIP Mike Seeger (1933 - 2009)

Mike Seeger passed away on Sunday.

There are many people out there who can remember him (and memorialize him) much better than I can. But I'll share a few thoughts.

Early on in my radio career, I conducted a phone interview with Mike and his New Lost City Rambler bandmate Tracy Schwarz. (I am pretty sure that it was on Tracy's 60th birthday, which would mean that it was November 13, 1998, but that was a Friday and not a Sunday, so unless I was prerecording it, that doesn't make sense. Maybe it was just the date of his 60th birthday party.) Although I had prepared my questions for Mike -- I was eager to talk about his CD Southern Banjo Sounds, which had just come out -- Mike suggested rather strongly that I should ask Terry about his recordings, and so I tried to reorient myself to doing that.

My memories of seeing the New Lost City Ramblers similarly involve Mike as a team player. I can barely picture him -- I more or less just picture them: the whole band together, leaning in toward the microphone.

That CD, Southern Banjo Sounds, was an old-time music geek's CD: different songs from across the history of the banjo played using different picking styles on different banjos with extensive liner notes (including photographs of the instruments) to document it all. That's the kind of thing that we love on WKCR.

Fans of old-time and folk music are heavily indebted to Mike Seeger for all of the work that he did collecting songs, writing informative liner notes and articles and recording older generations of musicians. His field recordings gave the world American Banjo: Three Finger and Scruggs Style and Mountain Music Bluegrass Style, two Folkways albums that helped to spread the gospel of bluegrass to the folk revival community.

Smithsonian Folkways has posted some material here, including the following video:

How to Make a Violin

I found the obituary for Carleen Hutchins to be quite fascinating, as I had never heard of her family of eight violin instruments (which differ from the standard string quartet instruments of violin, viola and cello (and even moreso the bass) by replicating precisely the timbre of the violin even at different octaves).

In particular, I liked the final story in the article, in part because of its Columbia connection:
Mrs. Hutchins was known for her pragmatism. In 1957 her friend Virginia Apgar, a doctor and amateur violin maker, began to covet a shelf made of perfect maple. The shelf was in a phone booth in the medical school of Columbia University, where Dr. Apgar taught.

One night she and Mrs. Hutchins stole into the building with some tools and a replacement shelf, stained to match. As Dr. Apgar stood guard, Mrs. Hutchins set to work. To their dismay, the new shelf was a quarter-inch too long.

Mrs. Hutchins had a saw, and there was a ladies’ room nearby. As The New York Times reported afterward, “a passing nurse stared in astonishment at the sounds coming through the door.”

Dr. Apgar could think quickly. (She had, after all, devised the Apgar score, used worldwide to measure the health of newborns.) “It’s the only time repairmen can work in there,” she said.

Spirited out of the hospital, the shelf made a magnificent viola back.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Radio Commemoration

While walking around the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington yesterday, Sarah and I came across this plaque:

It strikes me that there is no such similar plaque outside of WKCR's studios...

Amazing Wedding Choreography

(HT: Ben Fishman.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

More from Newport

As an addendum to Ken's report on George Wein's Folk Festival 50 in Newport, Lys Guillorn has sent along some photographs from the day. One of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and then one of the grand finale.

More on Michael

In light of Sunday's Heavy Metal Tribute to Michael Jackson, my friend John calls my attention to Alien Ant Farm's version of "Smooth Criminal." (The YouTube embedding option is "disabled by request.")

Report from Newport

Ken Dixon checks in with the following report from this past weekend's folk festival in Newport, known as George Wein's Folk Festival 50:
The ridiculously terminal line of vehiculists departing the farther reaches of Fort Adams State Park in Newport Saturday night was a small price to pay for the harmonic convergence that was the “50th anniversary” folk-music celebration, culminated by an hour-long sing-along with Pete Seeger and the entire day’s lineup of performers.

Under the proscenium of the fading afterglow on the western horizon, my friend, singer-songwriter Lys Guillorn and I were sitting in our folding chairs, watching the bumper-to-bumper cars go nowhere for the better part of an hour.

We shooed away a few mosquitoes and waited for the inevitable, but only beeping horn, before a few actually moving tail lights signaled it was time to squeeze back into the Honda for the drive back to Connecticut, ending a sun-splashed, inspiring day whose peak was the rare appearance of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but whose historic moment was the nonagenarian legend and grandson Tao Seeger, leading thousands of people in a sundown serenade.

If the transportation theme for the day was bumper-to-bumper traffic and butt-cheek-to jowl seating around the main Fort Stage, the musical undertow was harmonic, from the moment we staggered out of the school bus from the park-parking provinces at 10:45, to nine hours later, when we eschewed the shuttle-bus queue and joined the folkie Diaspora, walking back up the grassy hill to the promontory overlooking the ocean, in search of the car.

First up was Tift Merritt, whose striking voice set the tone for the day.

As we squeezed into the humanity, about 40 yards from the stage, we caught the last few songs of her set, playing the inevitable game of “what kind of guitar is that?” before agreeing it was most likely a refinished small-body Gibson B-25 from the 60s.

“He told me to go because I was impatient and impossible,” she sang.

Billy Bragg appropriately (references to Dylan in ’65 were scattered throughout the day…) plugged in and turned up the politics with the volume in a solo set, talking about how 40 years after the world was wowed by the US moon landing, it’s waiting to become similarly impressed if we can succeed in enacting universal healthcare.

In a concession to folkland, Bragg also played a few tunes on a Taylor acoustic cutaway.

“The more I think about it, the more I find accountability incredibly sexy,” he said before leading a reggae sing-along: “One love, one heart, let’s cut the debt and we’ll be alright.”

Gill and Dave came on at 2:44, seemingly surprised to have made the gig after a five-hour delay in LA and an actual police escort through Newport. “We’re really happy to be here,” she said at the start of the 13-song set that included an extra chorus on “I’ll Fly Away” for folk icon Mike Seeger, who’s dying.

By the 10th song, the heat of the day was getting to Gillian, whose contacts were probably still circling around on the luggage carousel at Logan and the sweat was pouring into her near-sighted eyes.

She admitted her relative blindness. “You’re all like a batik of polka dots,” she announced to the crowd. “I really feel like I’m on drugs.” She asked for some massive vocal reverb as they started slowly into…yes…”White Rabbit,” that 60s warning – or substance-beckoning - song about the “hookah-smoking caterpillar” and other characters from Alice in Wonderland.

Lys caught what she said was a great set from Iron & Wine over at the extremely crowded Harbor Stage tent and got back to our chairs for most of the interesting Decemberists performance, which included an impromptu re-enactment of the apocryphal power-line-cutting moment of ’65, when Pete Seeger suggested that an ax to Dylan’s cable could get him back to acoustic.

Finally it was 7 p.m. and Pete and Tao came out after a short video recollection of the Newport Folk Festival, which was put on hiatus back in the 70s, at the height of the rock years.

“I can’t believe you’re still with us,” Tao said to Pete in what was the most impolitic thing said on stage all day.

After “Turn Turn Turn,” all the musicians joined them on stage for another seven tunes. David played Gillian’s banjo, she had his ’35 Epiphone Olympic for a while. Lys and I put our heads together to find a harmony on “Worried Man Blues” and then it was time for “This Land is Your Land,” followed by applause and cheers for the possibilities and powers of music.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dangerous Tribute to Michael Jackson at Bowery Ballroom

After a delicious meal at XO on Hester Street featuring the house special seafood fried rice, sesame paste pancakes, shrimp dumplings, Japanese-style dumplings in zesty mayonnaise, chopped up braised ribs and the like, Allan, Sarah and I made our way over to the Bowery Ballroom to -- at last -- pay our hard rockin' respects to the late Michael Jackson.

With members of Tragedy, the heavy metal tribute to the Bee Gees and then an all-star cast of folks from every New York tribute band that matters, Dangerous took the stage. The group included several members of Satanicide, one of my all-time favorite bands -- the greatest Spinal Tap-esque band since Spinal Tap.

Jesus H. Juice was on lead vocals and guitar and sang "Thriller" to open the show. Most of the lead vocal duties were farmed out to guest vocalists -- too numerous for me to recall. Blanket Peterson, the "lead lead guitarist," who was sporting a very cool lace shirt and black pantyhose, also took a fair number of turns at singing the lead vocals.

"Rock with You" followed quickly upon "Thriller," and the show was in full swing.

The band featured not one but two keytarists: Cowboy Neverland Raunch, adorned in black leather chaps and a bandanna, and then a pink teletubby with large metal cones over its breasts whose name I never caught. Cowboy Neverland Raunch rarely seemed to be playing all that much on his keytar, preferring to use it for the purpose of gesturing in a phallic fashion, although he did pound out the rhythm on a cowbell during a song or two.

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Billie Jean" were both quite solid. The lead singer for "Bille Jean" was forceful; she had me quite convinced that Billie Jean was not her lover.

For "Black and White," a black-and-white hip-hop duo came out and had the nearly all-white crowd sing "I'm white / He's black" at appropriate moments.

"Smooth Criminal" was done in hardcore fashion with the verse lyrics flying by at pounding warp speed. "I'll Be There" playfully segued into Night Ranger's "Sister Christian."

Faux evangelist Tammy Faye Starlite came out and got us all down on our knees as we prayed in completely off-color fashion in Michael's memory. (This is the woman who once reduced a WKCR DJ to tears with some highly questionable anti-semitic humor and then released the recording as a bonus track on a CD.)

"Bad" and "Beat It" wrapped up the regular set, and then the band back came out with all of the special guests, some new special guests and maybe a dozen to 20 members of the audience, to rock out on "We Are the World."

Eddie RU OK was a little quiet on the bass -- I would have liked to see him get on the microphone a bit more. Andy Action Jackson was killing on the drums: he really drove the songs along.

All in all, it was solid entertainment, particularly with the endless string of guest stars. (The mighty Kevin Hunter on guitar? You got it!)

(Thanks to Sarah for keeping the setlist and knowing the names of the songs.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

RIP Recorded Music Industry

In this morning's New York Times, Charles M. Blow describes the decimation of the music industry, noting in particular how teenagers are using streaming services rather than purchasing music. As he says, "They’re moving from an acquisition model to an access model."

I found this statistic truly amazing -- bordering on the unbelievable:
A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.
Really? 10 million songs that not a single person bought? (I did not look at the actual study to confirm the number.)

Where does the trend lead us? Will people be opting not to pursue music as a profession because they cannot sell albums or songs? Or will people continue to put out music but just be more oriented toward doing so as a hobby rather than a profession? (There are some pretty talented people that you've never heard of floating around YouTube, for instance.) The information age, after all, does seem to be about providing for free those things that people used to pay for (e.g. news, intelligent commentary on music).

One question that I have is when we will see ticket prices for live music rise to compensate for the fall in album and song sales. My stomach gets grumbly whenever I'm forking over more than $15 for a concert, but if performers are making money only through performing, then these prices will at some point have to rise.

But it really is a simple supply-and-demand issue. Insofar as there are a lot of people out there making music, then the equilibrium price for a concert given by the average performer is going to stay pretty low. (Also, there is competition from other forms of entertainment. Am I going to pay $30 to see a show if I've got a Netflix DVD arriving in the mail?)

So I'm still wrestling with the implications. Is the quality of music available going to decline? I don't think so. I think that the ego rents -- the non-monetary rewards to being a songwriter and performer -- are too great. People will want to play just for the pleasure of playing, even if the money is bad. But will the number of people who can do music as their full-time gig decline? That might be the case.