Big Ears Festival 2019

Big Ears Thursday evening: Welcome to Knoxville! Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan at the Standard were superb. I’ve wanted to see Bill for a long time, and getting to stand three feet in front of him and watch his fingers was mesmerizing. Since they play so quietly the sound was excellent. Can’t say the same for Mercury Rev at the Mill & Mine. The music would’ve been nice, but it was overpowered by a booming cloud of muddy bass guitar colliding with oh-so typical howitzer-level body-assaulting kick drum. Obnoxious “rock” drum sound in general. Do sound guys go to asshole school to learn this technique? I’ve seen so many concerts ruined by this kind of drum mix… On the other hand, I loved the Mathias Eick Quintet at the Standard — Norwegian jazz (piano, bass, drums, violin, trumpet) — inventive, dynamic, and soulful — and played at a very comfortable volume, so you could hear every element.

Big Ears Friday: Breakfast at our regular spot, Three Rivers Co-op. Biscuits and home fries! Friday was a great music day — started at the Knoxville Museum of Art with Ron Mann’s sweet documentary Carmine Street Guitars. Then over to the Mill & Mine for Lonnie Holley backed up by the Messthetics, a surprising combination that meshed very well. I stayed at the Mill for one of the day’s highlights: Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and the soulful vocals of Amirtha Kidambi). Meanwhile, Valerie enjoyed Coupler’s electronic set at the KMA. Ralph Towner was technically dazzling in the beautiful St John’s Cathedral. Evening show at the Standard was ABSINT (Aurora Nealand, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, and David Torn) — exciting freeform improv. We closed the day at the Tennessee Theatre with Roomful of Teeth’s moving evocation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s life and work.… Continue reading

Delirious desire

It’s easy to understand why we remember songs when we’ve heard them dozens or hundreds of times. But there are also songs that seize a permanent spot in our memory despite being heard only, say, four or five times.

For me, one of those songs is “Say You” by Ronnie Dove. It barely cracked the Top 40 in late September 1964. It was the last track on the B-side of Ronnie’s Right or Wrong LP — kind of a weird position for a single… The follow-up single, a cover of Wanda Jackson’s great “Right or Wrong,” and a bigger hit, was the last track on side A. (Incidentally, Wanda’s song is another of those I heard only a handful of times back in the day, but never, ever forgot — like “Say You,” it’s one of my favorites.)

“Say You” is a great-sounding Nashville record (maybe recorded at Studio B, like Dove’s “Right or Wrong”? Listen to that gorgeous echo chamber…). But I think what made the song stick for me was the vocal delivery. Even as a kid in ’64, I sensed something unusual in its emotional intensity, seemingly relaxed and frantic at the same time.

“Say You” is a fantasy (“I think you’re gonna be my girl”), but it’s not just some guy dream-dream-dreaming in the privacy of his own home. It’s a story with a real setting (a party, a nightclub?) and real characters: a guy named Ronnie and a “girl” across the room (we don’t know her name, ‘cause we haven’t been introduced). There’s the awkwardness of a first encounter: “I know we’re strangers, from different places… don’t be afraid…”

It’s all about desire, and desire is one of the most sung-about topics in all of music. Sometimes, though, desire gets expressed in a way that’s almost out of control.… Continue reading

Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Mary Mary” (1966)

For aspiring musicians in the 1960s, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was hugely influential. If Bob Dylan turned rock into “music for adults” on a lyrical level, the Butterfield Band did the same thing musically.

The band had a ferocious, street-tough sound, best heard early on in What’s Shakin’ cuts like “One More Mile” and “Good Morning Little School Girl.” The performances on their first full (eponomously-titled) Elektra album were great, but despite the instruction on the back of the jacket to play it loud*, the sound itself, the production, was a tiny bit distant, as if you were standing at the back of the club. What’s Shakin’ put you right at the front edge of the stage. (I don’t think Butterfield achieved that degree of in-your-face toughness again until 1969’s Keep On Movin’, produced by Jerry Ragovoy.)

The first album was straight blues, pure Chicago. Sam Lay was probably the best blues drummer in the world at that point, but when he took ill on tour in Boston, the band recruited a jazzier drummer, Billy Davenport, to take his place. The band’s musical landscape was broadening; the landmark second album, East-West, features traditional blues (Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”, Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” and the probably public domain “I Got A Mind to Give Up Living” and “All These Blues”); New Orleans R&B (“Get Out of My Life, Woman”); hard bop (“Work Song”); modal jazz-raga-acid-rock (the title cut); and an old-style jazz ballad, “Never Say No,” that would be at home on a Billy Eckstine (or Billie Holiday) record.

Then there’s “Mary Mary.” The Monkees’ version of this Michael Nesmith tune is cute, it’s bubblegum. The Wrecking Crew (and Micky Dolenz on vocals) play it straight for the band’s teen audience; Micky delivers the vocal in a dry, non-syncopated style that seems disconnected from the lyrics’ plea.… Continue reading

Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Painted Bird” (1982)

In the early 1980s, when I was the guitarist in The Nebulas, one of my main inspirations was John McGeoch’s work in Magazine and the Banshees. Not only his playing, which was and still is some of the most inventive in all of pop/rock, but his skill at orchestrating a song — or an entire album — with his wildly varied guitar sounds. He did this to some extent in Magazine, but there he was sharing space with Dave Formula’s excellent keyboard arrangements. The Banshees were a guitar-bass-drums outfit, so John’s layered guitar parts usually featured the hooks; they carried the songs, instrumentally meshing with Severin’s simple but crucial basslines (check out the Severin-McGeoch harmonies opening “Cascade”) and Budgie’s propulsive drumming.

In fact, I consider Ju Ju one of the greatest guitar albums ever, not because of “guitar hero” showoff pyrotechnics, but precisely because of McGeoch’s inventiveness in orchestrating the songs — and his skill at translating his ideas to the fretboard (and incidently, although some of his riffs may seem simple, they are not easy to play well!).

Making the two Banshees albums that came out during his stay with the group, Ju Ju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse (and a good part of Kaleidoscope as well), McGeoch mined a seemingly bottomless well of sounds, almost exclusively using a simple toolkit: the grey MXR Flanger pedal, a Yamaha rackmount analog delay, and a distortion pedal.

Unlike nearly every other post-punk guitarist (or rock guitarist in general), John had a great fondness for dominant 7th, minor 7th, minor 9th and add 9th chords. He loved the complex sweetness these voicings bring to a song. Check out Magazine’s “Parade,” “Feed the Enemy,” or “Philadelphia”; Siouxsie’s “Happy House,” “Night Shift,” “Spellbound,” “Green Fingers,” etc., etc. (Personal note: I learned these types of chords from Mel Bay and Micky Baker books in the ‘60s, and use them constantly in my playing.… Continue reading

Leon Russell/Joe Cocker, “Delta Lady” (1969-70)

If you had been leafing through Rolling Stone in 1970, this A&M Records ad for the latest Joe Cocker single might’ve caught your eye:
Delta Lady ad 1970

The visual pun stuck in my mind; years later I googled and found the image (it doesn’t seem to be online any more). The song, written and recorded by Leon Russell the year before, fits in two traditions, which can also be thought of as two fantasies:

1. Back to the Garden, which in ’69 would’ve meant Eden/Woodstock, Nature.

Please don’t ask how many times I found you
Standing wet and naked in the garden…

The country vs. the city (countless songs about this at the time) was a big part of the Garden myth:

There are concrete mountains in the city
And pretty city women live inside them
And yet it seems the city scene is lacking
I’m so glad you’re waiting for me in the country

2. You’re far away; I’m missing you (“I’m over here in England*/And I’m thinking of you love”). Oh what the heck, why beat around the bush: “You’re not here, and I’m horny.” “Now I’ve found you” = I have your image in my mind. Could be a long-distance call we’re listening in on:

And I whisper sighs to satisfy your longing
For the warmth and tender shelter of my body…

“Please don’t ask how many times I found you” seems like an odd question for the singer to ask his love, unless you think of the whole song as the fantasies of an absent lover. [Biographical “evidence” backs this up, as Rita Coolidge, the real Delta Lady, says she was never actually naked in Leon Russell’s garden.]

Other faraway-lover fantasy songs: Billie Myers’ “Kiss the Rain” (“If your lips feel lonely and thirsty… If you feel you can’t wait till morning/Kiss the rain… whenever you need me”); Roy Orbison’s “All I Can Do Is Dream You” (“I’ve been away from you for so long… But all I can do is dream you… I close my eyes/I don’t even have to try/It comes so easily”); The Band’s “Chest Fever” — which turns the whole thing into an off-color joke (“It’s long, long when she’s gone/I get weary holding on”).… Continue reading

Dionne Warwick, “(Theme from) Valley of the Dolls” (1968)

There’s an art to making a catchy pop song in an odd time signature — “odd” meaning something other than the vastly popular 4/4 and 3/4 (“waltz time”) meters. Despite the overwhelming popularity of those two meters, if a great song has time changes that flow naturally, no reason it can’t top the charts.

Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (1959) was the pioneer, a huge hit in 5/4 time (counted “ONE-two-three-ONE two” — listen for the kick drum on those “ones”).

The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” shifts from 4/4 to 3/4 (or 6/8) in the turnaround (the phrase “Strawberry Fields Forever”), with a possible bar of 7 thrown in…

Redbone’s “Witch Queen of New Orleans” (1971) is in 4/4, but adds in a bar of 2/4 — that little hiccup — after every other measure in the chorus:

Marie Marie la voodoo veau
She’ll put a spell on you (hiccup)
Marie Marie…

The Beatles went crazy in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” — you can hear 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, maybe 9/8, 10/8, — all over the place. But the time changes are abrupt and jarring — they’re meant to be — and anyway, the song wasn’t a hit single.

In Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Burt Bacharach sneaks in a 2/2 bar in the middle of the 4/4 verse, and a 3/4 bar in the middle of the chorus. The b-side of that record is “(Theme from) Valley of the Dolls,” which sounds Bacharachian, but was written by the husband-and-wife team of André and Dory Previn. Both songs were million-sellers; together they’re one of pop music’s biggest-selling double-sided hits.

I’ve seen musicologist types claim “Valley” is “in 17/4” — so what? Musicians count time in chunks that feel right and make sense. And there are a lot of chunks in this song!… Continue reading

Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon,” OGWT 1976

Every time I watch this video from the Old Grey Whistle Test (and I’ve watched it many times over the years) it has the same effect — it just floors me. The band’s in total command, yet at the same time they seem possessed by the music — as is Stevie, for sure. The only word I can think of to describe her performance is “electrifying.”

The sad part is — I can’t imagine anything like this taking place today.

watch “Rhiannon” on YouTube

Steely Dan, “Here At The Western World”

Some song lyrics are cryptic, but we don’t need to “figure out” the meaning. We can suspend disbelief and just live in the mood or the world they create.

“Here At The Western World” is certainly an oblique lyric (like those of most Steely Dan songs), but it’s one of those where the details are so specific, and hang together so well, that it’s hard to resist trying to sleuth out the story.

The music is laid back, smooth, almost innocuous (but this is SD, so the lyrics scratch the surface to reveal the darkness underneath). There’s an implied bossa nova rhythm (similar to “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”/“Song for My Father”), which brings us to… South America.

No way could I pin down this song’s meaning on my own, so I googled a few times over the years, and found that the most coherent explication was this: it’s about Nazi war criminals who found refuge in South America after the war. The narrative zeros in on one character, who happens to be a junkie, a heroin addict in search of a fix.

Down at the Lido (Italian for a beach resort, but here probably a night club/restaurant) there’s sausage and beer, a German tipoff right off the bat. Search Wikipedia for “Klaus,” and Gestapo mass murderer Klaus Barbie — “The Butcher of Lyon” — is in the top five. He ended up living and thriving in Bolivia, hobnobbing with fellow fascists in high places, including dictator Hugo Banzer Suárez. Suárez was part German (the Banzer part), and has been called “a bantam rooster in uniform.” Klaus and the Rooster.

Our character, though he’s welcome at the fancy spots — he’s one of the boys — is headed for a seedier joint, a place where the mayor, not the president, hangs out, and where you might find a sailor “blacked out on the stairs.”… Continue reading

Steely Dan cast of characters

For no particular reason, here’s a list of named characters who appear in Steely Dan songs:

Felonius (my old friend)
Cathy Berberian
Dr. Warren Kruger
Kid Clean
Ann de Siècle
Charlie Freak
Kid Charlemagne
Lady Bayside
Deacon Blues
Aja (? a woman or a drug ?)
Doctor Wu
‘Retha Franklin
Jill St. John
Marilyn 4.0
(oh) Michael (oh Jesus)
(the corpse of) William Wright
Good King Richard and Good King John
(my) Louise
the Queen of Spain
Hoops McCann
Jive Miguel
Miss Fugazi
Dave from Acquisitions
Franny from NYU
Bobby Dakine
Mr. Parker (Bird)
Little Eva
Klaus (Barbie?)
The Rooster (Hugo Banzer Suarez?)
Mr. LaPage
Babs and Clean Willie
Papa (Doc Duvalier)
T-Bone Angie
Madame Erzulie
Brother Lou Garue and the Jerry Garry
Chino and Daddy G (Gordon Liddy)
Rose Darling
Snake Mary
Janie Runaway (and her friend Melanie)
Lucy (still loves her Coke & Rum)

Music we enjoyed in 2018

I say “we” because Valerie and I discovered and experienced most if not all of these together. Not necessarily stuff that was released in 2018, but that we discovered (or rediscovered) and enjoyed this past year.

Various Artists, A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper
Each song re-imagined by a contemporary jazz artist, sometimes recognizable, sometimes not so much, always invigorating.
Hear Mary Halvorson’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” on YouTube

Donny McCaslin, Blow.
The new fusion? Smart jazz-rock with hooks. Great show at The Sinclair in Cambridge.
Hear Donny McCaslin’s “Club Kidd” on YouTube

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, Live at KEXP
Old school soul, baby! These guys burned it up at Atwood’s Tavern last June. Love Jimmy James’ guitar work!
Watch the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio’s half-hour KEXP set on YouTube

Jenny Scheinman live at Big Ears
The Mischief and Mayhem outfit veered between punk and jazz, klezmer and noise; Jenny’s violin and Nels Cline’s guitar trading ferocious licks and squonks.
Watch Mischief and Mayhem on YouTube

The Curtain Society 30th Anniversary show at Bull Mansion, Worcester
Wonderful to see and hear these guys, with years of experience under their belts, reprise their catalog to a full house of fans.
Hear The Curtain Society’s “Two Wonderful Stars” on YouTube

Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is a Reptile
Jazz beyond genre, black power, nine songs, nine queens.
Watch Sons of Kemet’s “Your Queen Is A Reptile” video on YouTube

Schaun Tozer, Intelligence OST
Vancouver-based crime drama from the mid-2000s. The series is addictive, with sympathetic characters on all sides of the law. And Schaun Tozer’s score (beats, synths, sitars) is perfect (and memorable).
Hear Schaun Tozer’s theme music for Intelligence on YouTube

Olafur Arnalds, Broadchurch OST
Understated, evocative music for a great British detective series.
Hear Olafur Arnald’s theme music for Broadchurch on YouTube

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels, Vanished Gardens
I’m sure this made lots of album-of-the-year lists – how could it not, with Lloyd, Lucinda Williams, Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz involved?… Continue reading