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....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Alan Jabbour and Ken Perlman in Champaign

It's been quiet around here lately, huh?

Well, let me take you back to earlier this month -- November 2nd -- when Sarah and I headed over to the Techline furniture showroom, full of sleek home decorating options, to hear some old-time fiddle and banjo tunes from two great masters of the genre: Alan Jabbour and Ken Perlman.

I associate Alan Jabbour with the album American Fiddle Tunes. Originally released in 1971 and drawing on recordings in the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Songs (of which Jabbour had become director in 1969), Rounder reissued it in 2000 on CD. I immediately started spinning the CD on WKCR's Moonshine Show, pronouncing, "If you like old-time fiddle music, you must go out and buy this CD." Some of my favorites from the compilation were Luther Strong's "The Hog-Eyed Man" and "Cumberland Gap" and W.H. Stepp's "Bonaparte's Retreat," which Aaraon Copland famously used for inspiration for the "Hoe-Down" movement of Rodeo.

I associated Jabbour's name with the collection, and if you had asked me if he was performing, I would not have known the answer.

But now, having seen him play, I am quite pleased to report that he is indeed still performing and would be well worth seeking out to see live.

The two sets of music that the musicians played largely revolved around Jabbour's late-1960s field trips to the home of southwest Virginia fiddler Henry Reed. From the opening tunes -- "Billy in the Lowlands" and "Henry Reed's Breakdown" -- Jabbour walked us through the tunes that he had learned from Henry Reed, remarking on where Reed himself had learned them and what other known tunes they resembled. It was a history lesson of the type that I fear might be disappearing.

Reed's repertoire ranged from early African-American ragtime tunes like "High Yellow" to Tin Pan Alley's adoption of the ragtime sound in "Ragged Bill" to the more standard Virginia fiddle stylings of the "West Virginia Rag" and "West Virginia Gals."

Jabbour and Perlman's fiddle and banjo bounced off and around each other in delightful and complex ways. Although Perlman did not have much to say while Jabbour was telling the stories of Henry Reed and (consequently) his own musical education, his banjo played interlocked melodies with Jabbour's fiddle rather than just chunky chords or simple bass runs.

And Perlman twice stepped to the fore. In the first set, Jabbour talked about Perlman as the inventor of the melodic banjo style -- Bill Keith's name and claim to that to that innovation were not mentioned -- and about his banjo transcriptions of fiddle tunes from Prince Edward Island. From the Prince Edward Island tradition, Perlman played a "Scottish Set" solo, and then Jabbour joined him for "Jack Webster's Reel."

In the second set, one of Jabbour's fiddle strings started to fray, so while he tended to that, Perlman did a set of jigs, talking about New York City Irish sessions and how he would be expected to be quiet on the jigs (since they were not easy to play on the banjo) -- something that he took as a challenge, such that he went home and figured out how to play the jigs on the banjo.

All in all, it was a great night of stories and music. To find out what the "Flying Cloud" is in the "Flying Cloud Cotillion" or why the last tune of the show (before a well-deserved encore) was called "The Fiddler's Drunk, and the Fun's All Over," you'll have to go see them yourself.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Boilen: "Nobody Ruins Dylan Like Dylan"

Bob Boilen on NPR's All Songs Considered offers up some comments on Bob Dylan's performance at George Washington University that echo mine from Champaign, Illinois.

(HT: Neil Baer.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween at the Ginkgo: Cliff Eberhardt, Tim Fast & a Banjo

There was nothing scary at this Halloween gathering at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse. A packed house warmly welcomed Cliff Eberhardt and local opener Tim Fast. Probably the only thing remotely scary to some was my banjo (which made a brief appearance) and the witch hat and wig, which I donned on and off stage.

Tim Fast kicked off the evening with a nice opening set (including an enthusiastic encore), the highlight for me being his song "Get in Line." Then after a short break, Cliff did a long set with Tim sitting in on a bunch of songs and me also coming up for a few. Cliff was in fine form, funny and engaging as ever, feeding into the great energy of the audience. Here's what he played...

- After the Rain Falls
- Missing You
- I Want to Take You Home
- Have a Little Heart
- I Love Money (best version I've ever heard him do of this song)
- Your Face (w/Tim on harmonies)
- The High Above and the Down Below (really nice harmonica by Tim)
- Memphis (Tim on harmonca)
- Whenever I Sing the Blues (Tim on guitar & harmonies--nice energy)
- When the Leaves Begin to Fall (Tim on guitar)
- 500 Miles (me on banjo & harmonies, Tim on harmonica)
- Cryin' Time (the Ray Charles classic with me on harmonies & Tim on guitar)
- Land of the Free (Tim on harmonies & harmonica)
- The Long Road (solo)

Encore: Glory of Love (solo)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bob Dylan in Champaign, Illinois

How to assess a Bob Dylan show in 2010?

If one has a certain baseline level of information about where Bob Dylan is at these days, there are some expectations in place. Dylan's voice is going to be rough in patches. He's mostly (or entirely) going to play from the keyboard. He'll play a mix of classic and newer material, but the classic material might be reworked to the point of not being immediately recognizable. There will not be stage banter or a stage show.

To a certain extent, going to see him live is going to pay tribute. He is, after all, the man who penned some -- many? -- of the greatest songs of the 20th century. And I bring with me some curiosity about what the songs will sound like -- how will things be rearranged? And of course, Dylan has good musicians in his traveling band. (If Larry Campbell is playing with Dylan, that is -- without a doubt -- all the more reason to go.)

But the tradeoff is knowing that you are going to see an artist who cannot sing the way that he used to, cannot play the way that he used to and does not have new songs that can stand up to the old ones in a fair fight.

And so despite the foreknowledge about what the show was likely to be like, I left Assembly Hall a little disappointed last night in what the show had been. The expected shortcomings were there, and that's fine, but what disappointed me was that I didn't find any transcendent moments to make up for those shortcomings.

Dylan opened -- as he has frequently on this tour -- with "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," and the song was perhaps a high point of the set: Dylan was behind the keyboard, but he was playing with energy, and the rest of the band was playing with energy. It looked like the show was off to a good start.

Dylan stepped from behind the keyboard, picked up his guitar and went to center stage. It looked like things would be getting even better. As my brain processed the melody for "It Ain't Me Babe," I got even more excited. But Dylan just could not hit the notes on this one -- the vocals were painfully restricted, a very far cry from the "No, no no!" of 1964. And on the one hand, that's fine: Dylan's vocal chords are 45 years older, and his whole frame is 69. But on the other hand, Mick Jagger can still get "Satisfaction," you know?

I don't recall another moment in the set where Dylan's voice came up so short on him -- once he moved into the more recent blues material like "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "High Water (for Charley Patton)" and "Ain't Talking," there was no problem -- but having the second song of the set fall so short dimmed the lights somewhat early on.

Dylan's guitar playing actually seemed quite good, and I was disappointed that he didn't return to the instrument again. He picked up the harmonica on the strange near-ska version of "Shelter from the Storm" that they played. (Even after hearing the chorus clearly, I turned to my friend Nate and said, "What song is this?") The crowd kind of ridiculously cheered every time that Dylan successfully blew three notes on the harmonica, although his playing on "Forgetful Heart" helped make that one of the most memorable songs of the night.

The other major shortcoming of the show was Charlie Sexton's lead guitar work. I think that perhaps there was a sound issue here because the guy certainly looked like he was working hard. But there was space for four solos during "Desolation Row," and I didn't hear anything worthy of mention played during those spaces. And during the encore of "Jolene," the hook that makes that song so convincing on Together Through Life -- the "doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-do-do" that comes after each line of the chorus -- was somewhere in the background, not really audible. It's perhaps too much to ask for Robbie Robertson or G.E. Smith, but I was hoping for just a little more juice on the lead guitar.

Donnie Herron's multi-instrumental work, on the other hand, deserves the commendation that it normally receives. On "High Water (for Charley Patton)," he played this great bouncing banjo in the background. And then he followed that with some solid droney fiddle riffs on "Forgetful Heart" that paired up quite nicely with Tony Garnier's bowed bass. The performance was a lot less dark than that found on Together Through Life.

The juice also was lacking on the second song of the encore, "Like a Rolling Stone." (Dylan has ended shows on the 2010 tour with "Thunder on the Mountain" going into "Ballad of a Thin Man" and then an encore of "Jolene" and "Like a Rolling Stone" (and sometimes "All Along the Watchtower" -- we were not so lucky).) Throughout the crowd, raised arms asked, "How does it feeeeel?" but the energy on stage wasn't quite as strong. It was great to hear the song live, but I honestly kept flashing back to singing it around the coffeetable in a cottage in Maine with Sarah and her family, where we were belting out the lyrics and hacking away on a couple of guitars with the gusto that the tune deserves.

I'll see Dylan again in New York in November. I hope that both the band and I will be feeling the energy a bit more at that point.

The complete setlist can be found here at the comprehensive Bob Links site.

For some similarly negative comments on Charlie Sexton's mojo, see the thoughts here about Thursday night's St. Louis show and here about the Nashville show from earlier in the week.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bob Dylan and Champaign, Illinois

Bob Dylan is coming to town on Friday night to play at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall.

A while back, my father called my attention to the song "Champaign, Illinois," co-authored by Bob Dylan and Carl Perkins back in 1969 while Dylan was working on Nashville Skyline -- the two met on the Johnny Cash show. Dylan allegedly had a single verse written, and after Perkins had worked on the song a bit, Dylan told him, "Your song. Take it. Finish it." And so Perkins recorded it for his album On Top.

The lyrics are fairly straightforward blues fare (with a slightly more international perspective):
I got a woman in Morocco,
I got a woman in Spain,
Woman that's done stole my heart,
She lives up in Champaign.

I say Champaign, Champaign, Illinois,
I certainly do enjoy Champaign, Illinois.

Now my friend Nate has called my attention to an Old 97s song also named "Champaign, Illinois" and also co-authored (kind of) with Bob Dylan. The band took the melody from "Desolation Row," kicked the tempo up a notch and took a bit of a different line on the pleasures of Champaign:
Roll on blacktop highway
Circles toward the sun
Springfield's in the distance
And that's the last big one

After that comes judgement
And judgement will be swift
You will be eliminated
But here's a parting gift

If you die fearing God
And painfully employed
You will not go to heaven
You'll go to Champaign, Illinois
No, you will not go to heaven,
You'll go to Champaign, Illinois

So Bob Dylan has co-authorship credit on not one but two songs about Champaign, although I don't think we'll be hearing either of them on Friday night.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

ItWasGreat: Rose Cousins & Edie Carey

For those of you familiar with Rose Cousins and Edie Carey's beautiful EP itsgonnabegreat, you know that they have great musical chemistry. For those of you who have seen them live or read Jess' blog posting, you know that they have a similar charm and self-deprecating sense of humor. So it's no surprise that their double CD release show at the Ginkgo was a treat.

Rose Cousins played the first set with Edie guesting on several songs...

- Lost in the Valley (one of my favorites)
- The Send Off
- White Daisies (w/Edie Carey--really great)
- I Were the Bird (done as a sing-along)
- Go First (new song, played on keyboard)
- Home (w/Edie)
- Celebrate (written for Edie's wedding)
- For the Best (new song)
- All the Time It Takes to Wait (Rose on keyboards & Edie on harmonies--beautiful)

After a nice break where I caught up with Rose and Edie, Edie took the stage, starting with a couple solo songs...

- Come Inside
- The Night
- Red Shoes (she sent this out to me!)
- With You Now (Rose joined her on keyboards and harmonies and stayed up on stage for the rest of the show--yay!)
- I Need You (great version of this old favorite)
- Love (really lovely)
-Easy Now (nice sing-along)
- Enough
- Hollywood Ending
- Falling Slowly (from the EP itsgonnabegreat)

Monday, October 18, 2010

The C-U Folk and Roots Festival, Year Two

Ok, ok, ok! So I know that I've been a little delinquent about writing this review, and I want you to know, Sound of Blackbirds readers, that your whole reverse-psychology, we're-not-going-to-complain-about-the-fact-that-you-haven't-posted-yet thing has worked pretty well. The complete silence from you about this lapse has just been intolerable. So at long last, I will meet your unspoken demands and provide a run down of the Second Annual Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival.

David Llewellyn

The festival started on Thursday 23 September with a 6:00 p.m. performance by Welsh singer-songwriter David Llewellyn. With a strong and pure voice, David sang two sets of mostly original songs. A month later, the two that stick with me most are "Lover's Spoon," about an intricately carved spoon made (as apparently the tradition goes) to give to your beloved, and "Silent Aberfan," about the disastrous collapse in 1966 of a pile of runoff from a coal mine in Wales that covered a school, killing 116 children.

In addition to the Welsh musician, Jan Chandler, the owner of the Heartland Gallery, where the concert was being held, also had acquired some simply magnificent Welsh cheeses -- one with mustard seeds and one with horseradish. Insofar as the gratis cheese and cracker spread became my dinner, I was most grateful.

The Mean Lids, the Duke of Uke and Those Darlins

The rest of Thursday evening took place at the Independent Media Center and featured The Mean Lids, the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra and Those Darlins.

The Mean Lids are a terrific trio featuring Ben Smith, mostly on fiddle, Matt Turino, mostly on guitar, and Miriam Lawson, on "flute, kazoo and ticky tackys" (and she's not kidding about the ticky tackys). I think that these guys are great. They mash together lots of different folk styles -- there's Matt Turino click-clacking his feet in Quebecois style alongside an Irish-sounding fiddle tune that's actually an original and on which Miriam Larson will play some nose-flute. (Seriously -- that's what it's like.)

The band members take turns singing, and when I walked into the IMC, they were singing John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," and that's a pretty great song. My favorite moment though -- as was my favorite moment when I had seen them a few weeks earlier at the Iron Post -- was when Ben Smith picked up an electric fiddle that sounds like a cello and laid down this low groove while Matt Turino fiddled away on a more traditional violin: just great stuff played fully in the pocket. Highly recommended.

The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra put on a solid set of groovin' good time music with uke-man David King sweatin' away while Lorene Anderson alternated between pumpin' tuba and grab-you-by-the-hair vocals with additional help on vocals and tenor sax from Anna Hochhalter.

Those Darlins came out like the Ramones with their blaring brand of cowpunk. I was expecting a little more cow and a little less punk and so wasn't prepared (e.g. no earplugs), so only being able to take so much, I had to make a break for it after a few songs. I hear that the set was killer, and that I missed out on some stage-diving by the band.

Andy Cohen

I was quite excited to see Andy Cohen play. When I was a kid growing up in the dirtpile and muddy streams world of the Old Songs Festival, Andy Cohen was one of those bluesmen who grabbed me by the collar (in a metaphorical way -- he was on stage, and I was in the dirtpile) and said, "Listen, kid, you need to learn about the Rev. Gary Davis." (There were no hyperlinks at the time either.) So he was definitely one of a handful of performers who convinced me to dig out and give some spins to dusty old blues vinyl that I found in the basement box labeled "Blues." (Thanks, Dad, for the good labeling.)

He played some Rev. Gary Davis, and he played his dulceola, and he did a raucous version of "Hard Luck Blues," and he complimented me on my singing-along on "Johnny Booker" over at the cheese and cracker spread. It was great to see him again, and amazing to watch his fingers bounce around that fretboard and great to hear some of the history of the music that he had to share.

Henhouse Prowlers

In 1999, a bluegrass band out of Fort Collins, Colorado, came screeching out onto the national scene. Called Open Road, those guys played the music the way that Jimmy Martin and His Sunny Mountain Boys used to -- blistering tenor harmonies, string-scorching mandolin solos and really sad songs played faster than your momma would allow. Sadly, they stopped touring in 2006.

The Henhouse Prowlers are maybe picking up their torch. They acknowledge the debt -- they played the Open Road original "Mandy Jane." They also acknowledged their country forebearers with a strong version of "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down," the Harlan Howard song that Charlie Walker, Faron Young and Hank Thompson all had hits with. They did a screamin' version of the bluegrass gospel song "I Know How It Feels" (which Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time have a great recording of). During a broken string fix, they pulled out Guy Clark's "Homegrown Tomatoes."

All of those songs were quite strong. The first of two highpoints though was the magnificent transition from the fiddle standard "Back Up and Push" into Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues." If I were to say that it was the best version of "White Freightliner Blues," I'd be going up against New Grass Revival, Steve Earle and a ton of other people, but ... it was pretty damn hot. The second was an original by banjo player Ben Wright. Based on his encounter with a 75-year-old man who had just robbed a bank and was waiting for the Metra at the Ravenswood Stop and then his subsequent encounter with several armed police officers, it was called the "Ravenswood Getaway." I'm not sure how I would feel about the tune without the story, but with the story, it was a great ride to go on.

These guys were really solid, and I hope that I get to see them again soon.

Liz Knowles

Over at the Iron Post that night was Irish fiddler Liz Knowles. She was joined by Pat Broaders on bouzouki, and then Johnny Connolly on button accordion and Kieran O’Hare on the uilleann pipes. This set was straight-ahead: one fiddle tune after another, names invented as necessary to keep the crowd on its toes.

The set didn't quite have the intimate energy of Liz Carroll's set from last year, but it was solid. Toes were tapping, people were clapping. The band seemed to be enjoying itself. No complaints.

Hot Club of Cowtown

Wow. I mean, wow. I mean, hot damn wow.

Elana James, Whit Smith and Jake Erwin showed up at the IMC to play, and they near about blew the roof from Urbana to Champaign. Jake Erwin's slap-bass solos are definitely on the list of 100 Things You Need to Hear Live Before You Die -- every time around, he went thumpeta-thumpeta-thumpeta-thumpeta at a whiplash-fast speed, and the crowd went wild. It was pure energy and incredibly skillful.

They got us with "Ida Red"; they got us with "'Deed I Do"; they got us with "Chinatown." It was one after another.

And then -- when they encored -- they got me with "Orange Blossom Special." And that might not seem like much, but I've adopted the reaction to the classic tune that the late Doug Tuchman taught me at a Rhonda Vincent show once: "Grrrrooooaaaaannn... Who wants to hear this one again?" But Elana James fiddled the hell out of it -- playfully, modally, jazzily, swingingly and then just horsehair shreddinly' good. It was a great version -- one of many great tunes that they played over the course of the night. They were having fun; we were having fun; and it felt like it could have just kept going.

So my thanks to the organizers of the festival for another great year. Looking forward to next fall's edition already!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dylan iTunes Review

Of Bob Dylan's most recent album, Together Through Life, iTunes user Bobby Deee writes:
When you've finished your eighth bourbon and the cops have left, this is what you want. It's great music to black out to. Everybody in the trailer park complains when I play this, but they all listen to Tesla and Cinderella, this is real music. The kind you want to listen to when your [sic] cutting up pictures from People magazine or playing with matches.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Poets & Songwriters at 20th Anniversary of Sinclair Lewis Writer's Conference

Last Friday Red House Records artists John Gorka, Meg Hutchinson and Storyhill's John Hermanson joined my alter ego Mother Banjo, former Minnesota Public Radio DJ Dale Connelly and poets Robert Bly and Freya Manfred to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Sinclair Lewis Writer's Conference. The songwriters and poets performed a special concert in the Pulitzer Prize winning author's hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. It was a really lovely evening of great writing and fun collaborations. It was also wonderful to see Dale behind a mic again, and he was in fine form, cracking jokes and providing the witty banter that fans so much miss on the Minnesota airwaves.

Here are photos from the concert taken by Dave Simpkins, the editor of the Sauk Centre Herald...

John Hermanson kicks off the concert

Minnesota Poet Laureate Robert Bly charms the crowd

Sitar player David Whetstone joined Robert Bly

They got a standing ovation after their performance

I followed Robert Bly and was joined by John Hermanson, who sang with me on "Revival Train." He then had to head back to the Twin Cities to perform on A Prairie Home Companion.

After an intermission, Meg Hutchinson plays a set

John Gorka joined Meg on her last two songs--"See Me Now" and "Home"

Freya Manfred made us laugh with her stories and poetry

John Gorka finished off the night in fine form, playing his musical interpretations of the poems "Let Them In" and "Where No Monuments Stand," a William Stafford poem featured in a documentary about the Oregon Poet Laureate and activist. Meg joined him on his last song "Branching Out."

At the writer's conference the next day, storyteller-actor-NPR contributor Kevin Kling delivered a wonderful keynote address, hilarious and moving.

All of us were put up at the historic Palmer House, which is famous, not only for being immortalized in Main Street but also for being one of the most haunted inns in America.

The town that once resented Sinclair Lewis' seminal work Main Street now honors him. We all found the Sauk Centre to be extremely proud of the Sinclair Lewis heritage and very welcoming to writers.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rock n' Roll Animal (1999)

Some wonderful soul has posted the entirety of a documentary (that I didn't know even existed) about the great Robert Christgau on youtube. See here.

I love the look of his office.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Weekend @ The Iron Horse: Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, and Erin McKeown

The Iron Horse hosted consecutive evenings of fine singer-songwriters this past weekend. All three are folks I’ve seen live at least once each over the past decade, all are artists I first became acquainted with at folk festivals, and all of them have, at one time or another, had an affiliation with Signature Sounds, the wonderful Valley-based recording label.

Friday night, the husband-wife combo of Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst played around 90 minutes of music together. They shared the stage for most of the evening, with each taking a turn to play a few songs without his/her partner. The feel of the evening was off-the-cuff, casual, improvised. Kris mentioned that her task had been to think of 3 songs she’d wanted to do, a task which she’d failed to accomplish by the time she hit the stage. Having a two-year old child at home probably had something to do with that. Several times, it was mentioned that they had not rehearsed much at all and that, despite their intimate relationship, they rarely had the opportunity to perform together. I’m sure they were referring solely to live performances. No duo can harmonize so beautifully together without spending plenty of time working out the tunes. And I have to believe that, as a happily married couple, there are multiple levels to their harmonies. Which reminds me, I haven’t listened to Buddy and Julie Miller in a long time….

Anyhow, on to the music. I recognized very few of the songs they played, apart from Kris’ “Hummingbird” and Jeffrey’s “Ghost Repeater.” As it turns out, plenty of the songs they played were new songs, as yet unrecorded. It sounds like Jeffrey Foucault in particular has been doing plenty of writing lately. He has a very rich, warm singing voice, which I recall from the one time I’ve seen him live, at the Green River Festival two summers ago. The one CD of his I own, Stripping Cane (2004), didn’t connect with me at first but, after repeated listening, I’ve discovered some really good melodies and writing on it, not only “Northbound 35” (covered by Richard Shindell) but “Cross of Flowers” and “Doubletree.” Kris Delmhorst I remember from the Postcrypt, back in the fall of 2000, and I think she’s been at Falcon Ridge at least one of the times I attended. The two of them played separate sets at Green River in 2009, and I remember preferring hers to his. After consulting my review, I’m also reminded that the band that backed up Jeffrey really rocked out. If you know any of his albums, you know that “rocking out” is not exactly what they do. At any, the quiet, almost staid sound of his (and some of her) recordings was brought to lovely life on Friday night.

What I remember best were the covers they played. There was Simon and Garfunkle’s “Baby Driver,” and, for their encore, Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” While my companion for the evening, the marvelous Maggie Pesce, was out making a phone call, they played Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles,” a song that I have a fond recollection of having heard at Falcon Ridge 2008, as performed by Jason Spooner and his band. It’s a great one, no doubt.

The crowd was big for that show, but Saturday night’s Erin McKeown concert was sold out. And no wonder: not only does Erin make Northampton her home, but this was part of her special Distillation 10th Anniversary tour. That means that she plays two sets of music on this tour, the first set comprising the entire Distillation album--working her way backwards, starting from “Love in 2 Parts” and ending with “Queen of Quiet”--before a short break. Then, she returns to play requests, along with a couple of new, unrecorded songs. It also means that, while performing the album, she wears the same outfit she wore for the cover photo on the album—-see here.

I’ve said, on a couple of occasions on my old blog (here and here) that Distillation is one of my favorite singer-songwriter albums of the past 10 years or so. I’ve also said that I’d like to write an entire essay about why it’s so great. That hasn’t happened yet. But I’ll say this for now: the writing, singing, arranging, performances, and overall feel of the album mesh in a way that just doesn’t happen very often (at least, not over course of an entire CD worth of music). The “feel” of the album is something truly strange: it’s nervous and vulnerable, while somehow seeming sly and cocky at the same time. There are strange mutterings and whisperings, showtune melodies, folk-pop, and jazz and country songs, with heartbreak that is muted by the music’s sense of fun or ironic twists to the singing or lyrics or both. It does not sound like Ani Difranco. But it sometimes sounds like Randy Newman, and if you know who both of those folks are, then you understand that, in a way, the Newman comparison is a bigger complement.

McKeown’s band for the evening was comprised of Distillation’s producer, the multi-instrumentalist Dave Chalfant alternating between guitars and bass and keyboards, and a drummer whose name I didn’t catch. I’d seen Dave Chalfant wandering around the Iron Horse before the music began, and it made me think that some of the Massachusetts folk music circuit would be hanging around that night. I was right: there was Katrina Nields, there was Dave Olson from Signature Sounds. I overheard Dave greet someone I’d never seen before as Lorne, and I instinctively knew that this was Lorne Entress, drummer for the luminaries of the folkie scene in this part of the world. And I noted that, during Erin’s set, she occasionally shot little looks in particular directions, looks that said “I know you—thanks for coming!”

She hit the stage at a few minutes after 7:00, and launched “Love in 2 Parts” out into the Iron Horse. I hadn’t realized she’d be playing Distillation in reverse, but that was fine by me. It meant that several of the stranger, slower, more emotionally difficult songs from the album would come first. For “How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps,” the harmonist from the album, Katrina Nields, came up onstage to duplicate her harmony part from the recording. After that, Lorne Entress played the drums for one song, “You Mustn’t Kick It Around.” For “The Little Cowboy,” Ben Demerath, the cowboy yodeler, came onstage to recreate his part from the album. And he and Katrina were both onstage to do harmonies for “La Petite Mort.” There was time for plenty of anecdotes and stories, mostly about the recording of the album. She was in college at the time, finishing up her senior year at Brown University. After a Monday-through-Wednesday class schedule, she’d head to Amherst for long weekends at Dave Chalfant’s house to record the album. It was during that time, she noted, that she and Katrina Nields, Dave’s husband, became close friends. This was the luxury of playing a hometown show: all these folks were there to help recreate the album. I felt pretty lucky to be there.

Other notable musical moments….The eeriness of “The Dirt Gardner” was gripping. As she and Dave Chalfant hissed their whispers into their mikes, the drummer was silent, allowing the guitars to curl around the whispers. I’d forgotten how important the harmony part is to “How to Open My Heart in 4 Easy Steps” until hearing Katrina Nields perform it with Erin. In the middle of “Fast as I Can," Erin noted that the bass overdubs sucked on the recording and that they had therefore opted not to reproduce them in concert, a comment which made Dave Chalfant nod and smile. She noted about halfway through the set that “the big guns were coming out,” songs that she had continued to play, with different arrangements, for years after Distillation, even as other songs from the album faded away altogether. But for this tour, she not only was playing the entire album but was reproducing the exact arrangements. That made “The Little Cowboy” a particular treat. I’ll never forget her opening with that one at Southpaw in Brooklyn, many years ago, and playing a punk rock version of it. It was fun, but the original arrangement is priceless. And having Ben Demerath on stage to yodel his part was a lot of fun. She mentioned that “La Petite Mort” is never played in the middle of her sets and that it felt strange not to be playing it at the end of the show. She took care to instruct us not to shout out “oh Estelle!” the first time the refrain came around, so as to be true to the recording. “Didn’t They?” remains one of my favorites, with its muted pain and vulnerability, and “Blackbirds” is another great one, which features her under-appreciated guitar playing. And “Queen of Quiet” rocked. Some of the nervousness you hear on the album, whether simulated or sincere, is gone in performance. But the energy level was so high Saturday night that whatever might have been lost in tone was more than made up for in concert. Really: I got to watch a great singer-songwriter reproduce her first major CD release, an album that is quirky and catchy, eerie, melodious, and strange, not to mention of some sentimental value to me.

After Distillation-in-reverse was over, she took a break and returned for a bunch more songs. After two new ones, she took requests, whispering which ones she’d decided on to her bandmates. There was “White City” and “Aspera” and “You Were Right About Everything” from her wonderful 2005 album, We Will Become Like Birds. There was “Santa Cruz” from her newest album, Hundreds of Lions (2009), which I’ve only heard parts of, but which sounds great. And there was “Cinematic,” “A Better Wife,” “James,” and, for the encore, “Cosmopolitans,” from Grand (2003). That encore was finger-picked on the electric guitar and sounded especially good.

I decided against hanging around to say hi. One of these days, I’d love to get her autograph and find out if she remembers ever meeting me. I was the one and only American in an audience at Café La Java in Paris, about 7 years ago, singing along with all her songs at her first-ever Paris gig. Afterwards I walked up to say hi, but before I could say a word she told me how weird it was to look into a presumable French audience that didn’t know her music and see someone singing along with every single song. Another time….

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Peter Ostroushko's Anniversary & CD Release Show

Playing the second of two sold-out shows at the Open Eye Figure Theatre, Peter Ostroushko began his concert Saturday with a limerick that Garrison Keillor had written for him 35 years ago. This was a hilarious and perfect opener for a night dedicated to his 35-year recording career. It was 35 years since he recorded on Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and 25 since he recorded his first solo album. Also celebrating the release of his new album When the Last Morning Glory Blooms, he played a lot of the new tunes.

First Set:
-"Tecumseh" (great fiddle tune he wrote in Ohio while on tour with A Prairie Home Companion-- old-timey opening)
-"Maycomb, AL" (in celebration of 50th anniversary since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird--written for a production done in Kansas City a couple years ago)
- a funny blues song written by Garrison Keillor (Nice jamming by band and Peter on the mando. My favorite line: "I ain't got no home, got no address/I never knew such happiness." He also had some funny banter afterwards about the blues in Minnesota. "The south has the Delta Blues, but we have the Headwater Blues.")
- Southern Baptist gospel song "Little Bessie" (full of death--Peter said afterwards: "Yeah those souther Baptists really no how to party. But then again I'm Ukrainian. I could be in an orgasmic frenzy right now, and you wouldn't be able to tell.")
- "B & B Waltz" (wriiten on the occasion of Red House Records founder Bob Feldman's wedding to Beth Friend)
- after a hilarious play by play of today's Twins game, he invited 15 year-old fiddler Sedra Bistodeau to play a tune he wrote for her called "Sedra's Waltz"
- fiddle tune featuring Sedra and Peter on mando
- Sedra played solo piece by Novacek

Second Set:
- "Down Where the River Bends" (written for the national park service)
- "The Nine Years Waltz" (he said he first heard this decades ago at the Whole Coffeehouse at the U of M and recorded it for the new album with Norman & Nancy Blake--one of my favorites on the CD)
- medley of "Muddy Creek" and some tune from Moldova
- "A & A Waltz" (also written for a wedding--that of Andra Suchy and Andrew Pierzina)
- fiddle tune featuring Sedra and band
- solo tune by Sedra

This was a great evening of music in a lovely little historic theater, built around 1902. Before Susan Haas and Michael Sommers took it over (and did such a fabulous job of refurbishing it), it was the home of Patrick's Cabaret, and rumor has it, the building was once a mortuary--one of the first African American mortuaries in Minneapolis. That probably explains why the room has such powerful mojo. A very cool space that is worth checking out.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Monday, September 20, 2010

White Shoes and Landmark (or, 1982 was a good year)

Forget what I said here, White Shoes (1982) is Jack Hardy’s best album. It’s hard for me to say now why my first couple of efforts at appreciating it didn’t do the job. It just sounded like a busted extension of Landmark’s (1982) production values to me. But the more I’ve listened to it, the less easy it is for it to fade into the background. The songs are on average better than Landmark’s, the title track is one of his best-ever ballads, and the hooky production combined with some unusually ambitious singing (relative to this period in his career, not to Omens (2000), which contains his greatest vocal performances), and even some rock and roll howling, generates some fantastic heat, especially on the tracks that bookend the CD, “Broken Heart” and “The Subway.” The former is a nasty folk-rock song, hooked around the line “I like you far better with a broken heart” and featuring some beautifully chiming chords and slow rock beat. The latter sounds like one of the Byrds’ (or even the Beatles’) more psychedelic numbers, combined with some Dylanesque fancy and Elvis Costello-ish bile in the lyrics, whose refrain sounds like a mockery of the Arthurian stories whose gentility and courtly romance Hardy has drawn from throughout his career: “get off your high horse / and who the hell knighted you anyway?” In between, there are blues-rock, country, and folk songs that rank among his best.

I compare White Shoes to its predecessor, Landmark, because, as noted above, the production style is quite similar. Never before or since these two albums has Jack Hardy put so much effort into making his songs come to life, or at least that’s the illusion that they invoke. The signature sound of the album is the male harmony singing, which is something that appears now and then on all the early Hardy albums, but never more often or more effectively than on Landmark and White Shoes. Short of the Roches, Jack’s bassist brother Jeff is my favorite Hardy harmonist. On Landmark, in particular, the male harmonies are all over the album, and they give the album a strangely warm feel, like mariners’ hymns, like folk-rock Schooner Fare. The two albums were recorded with a lot of the same musicians, including Jeff Hardy on bass and Frank Christian on lead electric guitar. The drummer on White Shoes isn’t noted, but it sure sounds like Howie Wyeth, who played on Landmark. A lot of the heat on both these records is due in no small part to Wyeth and to Christian, whose lead guitar work, especially on Landmark, sounds a little like Mark Knopfler or maybe Robbie Robertson from The Band. Christian is a great songwriter himself; check out Nanci Griffith’s version of “Three Flights Up” or his own recording of “Where Were You Last Night?” The drumming is some of the best I’ve heard on Jack’s albums. Listen to the way Howie Wyeth’s power drumming, along with some choice guitar playing, works against the slowly sung, harmonized refrain on “Citizens,” a song that argues that, not only are the migrant illegal workers not citizens, but neither are the farmers who employ them and, just maybe, the rest of us aren’t either. I’m not entirely convinced by that, but Wyeth and Christian help him make a pretty strong (musical) case.

Even by this man’s high standards, I think White Shoes is among his best collections of songs; I’d put it in the top 5, maybe top 3. Thematic coherence is provided by a familiar idea—anger, if not outright hostility, toward a member of the opposite sex—turned a few different ways. There are clever turns of phrase, aphoristic snaps and crackles, and some creativity and detail in the one narrative song, “Incident at Ebeneezer Creek.” With its blues-rock stomp and political lyrics, “The Circus” makes me think of Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues." “The High Line” is countryish and fun. There’s some great wordplay throughout “Femme Fatale.” As already mentioned, "Broken Heart" and "The Subway" rock. And the title track. Did I mention the title track? I’ve joined audiences at the Postcrypt Coffeehouse to sing quietly along with this song several times, including once a couple of years ago, as mentioned here.

Landmark is real good, maybe my second favorite Hardy album, or third after Omens or Civil Wars (1994). The opening track, “The Inner Man,” inspired by a story about Hardy’s favorite Irish poet, Clarence Mangen, features a hooky acoustic guitar part and solid drumming. “Citizens” comes next and, with its steady, rocking pulse (not something I usually associate with Jack Hardy) and Mark Knopfler-esque lead guitar part, it is reminiscent of early Dire Straits, a band that was pretty popular in the early 1980s. After that comes “Nobody Home,” and it may just be the best thing on the album in terms of how the production works with the song and the singing. The hissing wind that blows through the song sounds hauntingly close to Jack Hardy’s voice, and it echoes the sadness in the words, especially when the harmonies call out, “adieu, mon ami.” Later comes one of the man’s greatest moments, “The Tinker’s Coin,” with its tin whistle melody, slowly strident drumming, and flourishes on the fiddle and electric guitar. And “Wheelbarrow Johnny” tells the story of a 49er who winds up without any gold, but still makes good by building wheelbarrows for the other gold-seekers. There’s a good guitar lick to that one, usually played with the fiddle duplicating the melody, and those male harmonies again.

I just wrote an entire paragraph about a Jack Hardy album that barely touched on the lyrics. With the possible exception of Omens, I don’t think I could do that convincingly about any of his other records. I would pay money to hear Jack Hardy sing his songs in front of an audience in full confidence that I would be moved. But when it comes to listening to his albums, I’m more discriminating. And Landmark and White Shoes are at the top of the stack, with their careful arrangements accenting the great songwriting that, with this guy, is a given. Omens and Civil Wars are close behind those two, along with The Cauldron (1984) and his two most recent ones, Noir (2007) and Rye Grass (2009).