J. Gordon Holt
As We See It
Listening / Art Dudley
The Fifth Element / John Marks
Music in the Round / Kal Rubinson
Fine Tunes / Jonathan Scull
Recording of the Month
Records 2 Die 4
Give a Gift
More . . .
Kind of Blue Barcelona Posted Thu Nov 19, 2009, 4:13 PM ET
Representing the forces of authenticity was Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band. At 80 yearsold Cobb is a friggin’ miracle of modern science. The fact that he can fly over the Atlantic to play a string of dates in Europe that feature the music of a band whose members he’s outlived by decades is damned amazing. Unfortunately, Jimmy should consider staying home from now on. I understand that this is probably a lucrative gig for him, but he and his band gave a fairly tired, by rote reading of Kind of Blue. The crowd at Barcelona’s ungodly gorgeous concert hall, The Palau de la Musica, loved itto it a point. Even they could sense that the energy levels were not overly high. Or that what they were hearing and seeing was a band going through the motions to pick up the cash. Very talented tenor player Javon Jackson, alto player Vince Herring and trumpeter Wallace Roney did a decent job imitating the Trane, Cannonball, Miles lineup on the original album. But none of them smiled once or made even the most feeble stage announcement. It was all silence and stone faces. In other words, bullshit. Roney, who is reputed to be Miles only trumpet student, who played with Davis before he died, and is often derided as a Miles imitator, looked particularly aggrieved throughout the evening. Rather than try and reproduce the original solos which would have been tantamount to suicide, they kept their solo flights near enough the originals to be recognizable while still playing in their own style. In the end however, this show was just plain flat.
Cuban pianist Omar Sosa who has lived in San Francisco and currently resides in Barcelona, decided to take the opposite path from Cobb. Instead of faithful renditions, Sosa went the opposite direction, taking the music from that landmark album places it has never been before and probably will never go again. One of the sweetest guys in jazz, Sosa clearly worked at adapting Miles’ music. His interpretations were nothing if not elaborate. The problem was that they were so over the top, rhythmically, dynamically, melodically (which in this case meant a lack of melody) that it came off as too insider, too exclusive. What was supposed to be the Afro-Cuban take on Kind of Blue became strangely disconnected and not the warm, super rhythmic thing that the term Afro-Cuban usually signifies.
The guest for this show was Bronx-born trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez who has lived in Madrid for most of the last decade. Once the leader of the Fort Apache Band, Gonzalez has grown into a crustyashell MoFo, whose personality reminds you of a profane Popeye. His trumpet skills remain intact however and he played most of his solos in a Mileslike tone which worked and was probably the only obvious connection to Kind of Blue. Trying to compose music based on a masterpiece like KOB is damned near impossible no matter who you are and so Sosa gets points for certainly for even trying this kind of risky approach. In the end however it did not have much emotional impact.
The ace reliever in this trio of shows, the man who saved the day so to speak was Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez who’s flamenco interpretation of KOB, which actually sounded the strangest when I first read about the three on paper, ended up being a colossal success. His rearrangements which were recognizable as the songs they were, as well as lots of original music he wrote around those reimaginings, was sprightly and joyous; sparkling and full of high spirits; all of it both something new and something that paid tribute to Miles. Not surprisingly, snappy rhythms predominated. “All Blues” for example, was organically turned into a clap your hands tune which it is decidedly not in its original form. Chano’s solos were fluid and ingenious. The evening’s dancer Tomasito was the icing. The short bursts of his flourishes, lascivious looks and foot stamping elan that studded the evening were absolutely perfect. It would be nice to hear that Chano planned on recording some these piece but alas I heard nothing like that while I was in Barcelona.
Strangely enough, in what is a semi-stroke of genius (attain international attention) the 41st Barcelona Jazz Festival ends in New York City at the Jazz Standard with a repeat of Chano’s performance. It should a fun night.
In the end, the old conundrum faced with playing, covering if you will, an unassailable masterpiece like KOB, the choice in other words between playing straight covers in a solemn tribute or taking that masterpiece and stretching it beyond all recognition, is a matter of personal taste and one that ultimately leaves you damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The collisions in Barcelona, between the two approaches, and something in between, was fascinating.
Barcelona in Hi Fi Posted Mon Nov 16, 2009, 11:35 AM ET
I had a good feeling about the place when, as soon as I walked in, there were Stereophile reprints of Bel Canto gear displayed prominently. The owner of Werner, Vicente Viguera, who was a sly fox and a world class character/charmerinterested in the ladies he wastold me in a matter ofFact, everybodyknowsthistobetrue voice that the two Spanish Hi Fi magazines, Alta Fidelidad and On Off, were both “Stereophile knockoffs.” Upon investigation, both did indeed copy our format and according to Viguera, again spoken in a low, dismissive tone, were “inferior.”
I was given a tour of the place which included a loft in a building around the corner, that was stuffed with gear and used for auditioning equipment, although it was very secluded and could have easily been adapted for other less, ummm, business-like purposes. Given Viguera’s suave personality, I’m thinking that perhaps a mujer or two may seen the inside of that room.
Back in the main building, the downstairs space, again crammed with gear, some of it used, from manufacturers like Chario, Bel Canto, Viva, Balanced Audio Technology, PMC, Audium, Classe and B&W, has an exposed wall built by the Romans. An adjoining wall, while not quite that old, was also fairly ancient. The acoustics in this room were impressively cold and crisp to say the least. There’s something very awe inspiring about listening to Miles Davis in a room with a handcut stone wall built by the Romans. Roman ruins, which tend to be brutish and immoveable, always evoke the same response from me: These boys meant business. Steamrolling was the name of their game and ruling forever was the goal. Mercy was out baby. Get in their way and they’d flatten you!
Throughout our visit to Werner, Viguera was entranced with my friend Don Lucoff’s wife Maria who is from Columbia and so has the dark hair and skin tone the Spanish favor. He was laying the charm on thick and heavy and when I ask him to pose in front of the Roman wall, he quickly shot back in Spanish, and with a quick glance towards Maria, “Alone?” When I answered in the affirmative, he looked at her, smiled and said, “What a pity.” I’m telling you the man is a character. No audiophile visit to Barcelona can be complete without a visit to see Senor Viguera.
Back upstairs, Viguera ushered us into his BluRay surround sound room, the kind of haven very few normal folks can afford or build, and showed us excerpts from a performance by Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon (who is currently still recovering from having cysts removed from his vocal chords this past spring) and also a snippet of a concert by the group Naturally 7 who use no instruments but do everything, make the sounds of every instrument you can think of and also straight singing, with their voices. Needless to say it looked gorgeous.
When I was on my way out, Viguera said to me, via translator, that he loved great gear but he was also picky in choosing the music and video he liked to play on that gear:
“The quality of the content has to match the sound quality of the equipment.”
Spanish Admirers Posted Mon Nov 16, 2009, 11:21 AM ET
The Loft aka the room we all need but never get Posted Mon Nov 16, 2009, 11:17 AM ET
As soon as I walked in the door... Posted Mon Nov 16, 2009, 11:12 AM ET
Concha Buika Posted Thu Nov 12, 2009, 11:48 AM ET
Later that night I went to the Palau de la Musica, Barcelona’s ungodly concert hall (more about that later) to see Concha Buika, a singer I’d never heard of, whose family is from Equatorial Guinea but who was raised in Majorca and has a strong gypsy influence. The woman blew me away. A powerhouse singer who can really move a lot of air and push her voice to a very loud, very ragged edge, Buika has a new record El Ultimo Trago on Warner Music Spain that features her singing Mexican Rancheras, a form of sad love song usually written and sung by men. In “Luz de Luna” for example she sings lyrics that loosely translate as:
“I want moonlight/for my sad nights/in order to dream/the illusion that you brought me/to feel you mine/mine like no other/since you left/I haven’t had moonlight/I feel your entanglement/like hooks that grab me/and drowning in the beach of my drunken pain. I feel your chains dragging/in the quiet night/and the light of moon/blue like none other/because since you left me/I haven’t had moonlight.”
“Drowning in the beach of my drunken pain”? Wow! It’s heavy, no doubt. The interesting part is that she sings these laments not with a dejected tone but with a defiant edge to her voice. It makes for a very different experience than is usually the case with rancheras that are more commonly sung by a bunch of drunken men, sitting around a table, bemoaning the one that got away. Concha also dances, has an engaging stage presence and wears dresses that um… don’t leave a whole lot to the old imagination. Seriously though she’s a serious talent, one that could obviously sing whatever she wanted and do it well.
Hola! Posted Wed Nov 11, 2009, 11:57 AM ET
Transatlantic flights wipe me out. Chalk it up to being an old man I guess. But after a connection through a dark deserted Heathrow, I arrived in Barcelona for the 41st Barcelona Jazz Festival and within a couple of days, semi-disaster had struck. Not to me mind you but to American jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano who fell, not once but twice and broke an arm and a shoulder. He had to cancel his show here in Barcelona, his European tour and then had surgery with the chief orthopedic surgeon of Barcelona’s much beloved soccer team, FCBarcelona, presiding. I saw Lovano this morning as he was leaving for a flight home. He had both arms strapped up in this elastic, soft cast contraption but was in good spirits and ready to head back to NYC. He says he’ll be able to play again in about 15 days, but he’ll have to lay off performing until after the first of the year. No word yet however on what caused his tumble, which is the bigger question.
American saxophonist Javon Jackson, who played the festival with Jimmy Cobb’s Kind of Blue Band who is staying in the same hotel that I am, unloaded his luggage while checking in, and unfortunately allowed his NYC guard down and turned his back. In seconds, it vanished. Passport, credit cards, the works. Thankfully, he did keep ahold of his horn. After a trip to the consulate, he continued on with the band to Italy but it was a colossal hassle.
CMH Posted Wed Oct 21, 2009, 4:16 PM ET
Even better than the STAX museum in Memphis however, is the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I had friends in Nashville give me the whole rap about… “You don’t have to even know the music to love the museum”…to which I rolled my eyes, but it’s actually true. The CMH integrates music so beautifully in the museum. It could be an utter disaster in there musically, with listening stations bleeding into each other until it’s just a cacophony of noise. But through the intelligent uses of curled Nautilus shell shaped listening booths that control the sound yet still allow the listener to hear what they’ve chosen, the CMH is a model of keeping the music nearby yet allowing folks to look at cases of artifacts and talk among themselves without being blown out by music playing.
Again some highlights:
In one section they had six interactive screens devoted to “The Songwriters Craft,” which I thought was putting the emphasis in the right place although Miss Emmylou Harris, whose quote is splashed across one wall said it best: “The way to study it is to put it on the stereo and turn it up as loud as you can.”
A Williams Family exhibit was fascinating. I had no idea Hank was treated by a “selfdescribed addiction therapist” before he died, who prescribed the Chloral Hydrate that, along with morphine and beer, killed the poor man in the back seat of his Cadillac in Oak Hill, W.V. on New Years Day, 1953. I loved the newspaper clipping about his death that were up on the wall, one of which, from his home state of Alabama asserted tests performed on his body found, “No indications of narcotics or other drugs.” Amongst the many cases of stuff that belonged to Hank was his liquor cabinet which I thought was very apropos.
In the actual rotunda that is the Hall of Fame it’s interesting to see who’s in and who’s not. I have to commend the powers that be there for keeping out useless pop assholes like Reba and Garth while inducting true engineering/producing pioneers like Ken Nelson and Owen Bradley. Vince Gill and George Strait are about as contemporary as the choices have gotten so far. Everyone who knows the music has a bitch about who’s not in so here are two of mine: Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins, two of the greatest stars of California country music.
Otis Lives! Posted Mon Oct 19, 2009, 5:18 PM ET
Still on the road in Memphis. At the center of any music trip to Memphis is the odd but very telling juxtaposition of Graceland and the relatively new Stax museum. Elvis was always very up front about where his influences came fromblack blues and R&B, along with gospel music, both white and black, and Tin Pan Alley’ most of which is honored in the Stax museum. And for the record let me say that I will never understand how Memphis, THE big city for all the delta blues pioneers, not to mention the town’s subsequent musical history, B.B. King, Elvis, Alex Chilton, Ardent Studios, etc. took their eye off the ball and lost the Rock Hall (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) to the mistake by the lake. Such a pity. It would have given this town a triple threat of music tourism. Whoever was Mayor then, not to mention the city council, the local state legislators and oh yes, the fine guntotin’, God Afearin’ folks of the Tennessee delegation to Congress ought to be beaten.
But enough of that. Museum studies has come a long way from dusty cases and reading little cards placed next to artifacts, and the Stax museum is perfect example of how music museums in particular can integrate sound, pictures, video and historical artifacts into a beautiful whole. From Thomas A Dorsey (aka Georgia Tom) the first gospel composer of note and the man who once put together a band for Ma Rainey, to the end of Stax Records in 1974 and the soul music that happened in Memphis even after that, the Stax Museum is world class. And such a bizarre, shiny, modern change from the hillbilly grandeur of Gracelanda sight that rendered my urbane wife nearly speechless, “shag carpet on the ceiling?”
Other great stuff at Stax: A photo of the great Louis Jordan and his father at the Hippodrome Club on Beale Street in 1950. Jordan came from nearby Brinkley, Arkansas.
An interesting display on clubs across the river in Arkansas where upstanding white folk could go incognito to see black musicians play.
A great display on the late James Brown that included many of his original King albums. Pure Dynamite recorded in “Vivid Sound!” at the Regal Ballroom in Baltimore in 1963 has a super cool cover shot.
The story of Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, brother and sister, who started the label and created a colorblind family of musicians who made Stax go, is fascinating. Also fascinating was Steve Cropper and others on digital video, talking about how the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968, is what really killed Stax. Until then there had been no racism either way. None of the players had seen beyond the music and thought of each other as black or white.
Stax began when Estelle took a second mortgage on her house so Jim could buy a $1500 Ampex 350 Monaural tape recorder to put in a wooden shed in Brunswick, TN in the spring of 1959 and begin making records under the name Satellite Records. The operation moved to what was then the Capitol Theatre, on the corner of College and McLemore in 1960. That is where the Stax Museum now stands, in a building the replicates the original theatre that was torn down in 1989 by the Southside Church of God in Christ who owned it by then. There’s nothing that says “organized religion” quite like the tearing down of a secular palace.
A Scully 2 was cool if rudimentary (Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” and “Respect” were taped on it) but it was the big, nasty baby blue cabinet speakers from the original studio and Booker T’s original Hammond B3 that he used on the recording of Green Onions that are the stars of the room that is a reconstruction of the Stax studio space, complete with a sloping floor replicating the one in the original old movie theatre.
And over the whole place is the shadow of Otis Redding hovering in the rafters. One of the two best music museums in this country. Now I’m off to the other one.
Put the cowhorns back on the cadillac Posted Sat Oct 17, 2009, 12:31 PM ET
It’s that kind of place. Despite it’s economic distress, the empty streets, the halfassed Bourbon Street mess that Beale Street has become (goddamned is it bad!), and what seems to be a full on crime wave in certain parts of town, in Memphis you cannot keep the music out of your head. It may be the wash over that comes from being so close to the Delta, but I couldn’t keep, “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen or the words to one of John Hiatt’s greatest songs, (and that my friends is truly saying something because John Hiatt has written a shitload, okay, like 25 genuinely great songs) “Memphis in the Meantime” out of my head. “If we could just get off a that beat little girl Maybe we could find the groove At least we can get a decent meal Down at the rendezvous” Needless to say, I wasn’t in town half an hour and I was at the Rendezvous (www.hogsfly.com), down in the basement as it were, wolfing down chopped chicken, pickles, big hunks of cheddar cheese, cole slaw with vinegar and cumin, sweet tea, fries, red beans and rice (laced with sliced mushrooms?) and the best ribs I have ever tasted. The best. All covered in that secret shake mixture of spices that makes this place world famous. My God it was good. It’s so damned nice to find a “legendary” restaurant that actually lives up, or in this case exceeds its billing.
But enough about the foodalthough the BBQ’d spaghetti at Interstate BBQ is truly a dish to remember. Memphis is Elvis country. The man’s visage stares at ya from billboards everywhere you look. “Experience Graceland” And clearly there are many many factories in China cranking out nothing but Elvis plastic crap. I mean mountains of trinkets with his face. Funny part almost none of it, even the stuff sold at the 42 gift stores that operate at Graceland, looks like Elvis.
If you’ve never been, and you are musicallyinclined, Graceland despite all the crap you’ve heard, is a MUST trip. In a word, two actually: profoundly strange. The first stop on the cheesy iPodlike thing that you wear around your neck and listen to through borderline spoogey earphones, plays Elvis singing “Welcome to my World,” as you roll across Elvis Presley Boulevard in the shuttle bus and through those famous musical staff gates of Graceland. You also hear daughter Lisa Marie say that Elvis “permeated” Graceland. Each brick in the walls on either side of the gates, has somethinga signature, a shout out, something profanescrawled on it. That wall, you have to cross the street from the “visitors center” to see it, is perhaps the best part of Graceland.
Right up there with the TV Room and the Jungle Room. You have to fight the ill-mannered Japanese tourists and older, fatter, redneck-y Americans, to see the rooms in Elvis’ house but it so worth it. I’ve been several times but my wife was amazed by their um…décor. Downstairs in the rumpus room we’re talking bright blue and yellow color schemes, not to mention acres of fabric billowed on the ceiling and walls. Upstairs, in the Jungle Room, there’s a gurgly indoor fountain, carpet on the ceiling and a carved African chair that has to be seen to be believed. It’s the embodiment of Elvis famous comment about antiques which went something like, ‘I grew up with nothing but old shit, I want my furniture to be new.”
The Jungle Room is the site of Elvis last recording sessions. By then the pills had made it impossible for him to leave Graceland, unless he was on some sort of buying spree or a run to the dentist for a midnight cleaning and more pain pills. I was actually impressed that the audio to the guided tour mentioned his “years of abuse of prescription drugs” as one of the causes of his death. A new feature, at least since I’ve been there last, is the opening of the racquetball court, where he spent his final hours, and which is now filled with gold records and the collection of his most outlandish costumes from Vegas. The Aztec sundial number from 1976, white with a huge gold embroidered sundial on the front and doodads up and down the sleeves, made by the IC Costume Company, may be the topper. Next to it are framed tickets from a show at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, in Rapid City South Dakota on June 21, 1977. Approximately two months before he passed. Watching him doing a performance of “Johnny B. Goode” from the Aloha broadcast in 1973 on a TV monitor while my wife availed herself of the facilities, I found myself playing air guitar and rockin’ out. James Burton had a lot to do with it, but under the cheese, and the pills and the selling out, there was always a bit of the heart of something real still beating.
Blue Eyes, Gray Hair Posted Sun Sep 20, 2009, 2:27 PM ET
Show me a music writer who has no guilty pleasures and I’ll show you someone you don’t need to waste time reading. Anyone with passion for music, which is what drives you to try to put what you hear into words, has a brain studded with funny little weaknesses. Many is the music writer who has a Bobby Sherman record stashed somewhere. I have a friend, a blues nut extraordinaire, who one dark night admitted to me under the influence of single malt that he “had a few Beatles albums” hidden away under his bed like girly magazines. And then of course there’s always the issue of hipness overload. No one can be cutting edge all the time. There are times when you just want to hear Hall & Oates or Karen Carpenter’s dusky tones and you don’t care who knows. I like Grizzly Bear fine for example, but sometimes you just gotta give in, shed that uber skin and dive headlong into some accessibleashell Whiz.
This is all a preface for the fact that among my many musical weaknesses, some wildly egregious, others more forgivable, I spent last night at the always glorious Beacon Theatre watching the two grand old men of blueeyed soul hold court. Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs rocked the house. Or at least made it sway. I’m aware that on some levels it’s completely indefensible. Both are cheeseballs. McDonald’s foray into covering the Motown catalog makes some queasy. And former Stereophile managing editor Debbie Starr had a sort of involuntary physical revulsion to McDonald that she could never quite explain. It may have had something to do with the hair. Or the twinkly 80’s keyboards. I alas never had that problem. What can I say other than for one night, it was 1980 all over again, and I didn’t mind paying the Beacon ten bucks a drink. I did notice quite a few sheepish 50 somethings milling around during intermission. The whole experience fulfilled some unnamable, unrequited desire deep within my twisted psyche to be a bit player in the cast of Urban Cowboy. That or I wanted to hear “Lowdown” and “Here to Love You” one more time.
McDonald, who is 57 [Boz is 65] acknowledged that he was a little long in the tooth by admitting at one point between songs that he was a card carrying member of AARP.
“You get these things in the mail from them when you’re like 40, 45 and you’re like what the hell is this. And then after awhile you go, hmmmm, that’s a pretty good deal.”
He also did a fine job delivering the key punch line to this obviously rehearsed bit about age when he mentioned that he and his longtime saxophone player Vince Denham, who he said has been with him 20 years, were once “pretty good looking guys” but had now begun to look like “Popeye and Bea Arthur.” Guess which one was Maude.
As for the man with the white mane’s music, I don’t care what anyone says. This man who came up with Steely Dan, first singing and playing with them on what is arguably their best record, Katy Lied, can still sing his ass off. His Doobie Brothers era stuff still sounds great although he did not play enough of it last nite. No “Here To Love You” though the well-oiled crowd loved “Minute by Minute” and “What a Fool Believes.” And despite his vaguely smarmy move into the Motown catalog, few have ever sung “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” since Marvin’s original, better than the very white McDonald. And oh by the way: he has recorded a new seven inch with Grizzly Bear.
Boz, who headlined, is a different case. For me that tale, and Boz’ credibility, begins when he recorded “Loan Me a Dime” with Duane Allman for his second record in 1969. It’s one of those moments that makes you remember again what a truly brilliant instrumentalist the other, the genuinely great Allman really was. Gregg had Cher and Duane, well, he got all the musical talent.
From there of course Scaggs story shoots into the stratosphere with Silk Degrees, the unjustly underappreciated Down Two Then Left and finally 1980’s harderedged Middle Man. The band on Middle Man was the kind of ensemble that either defines all the cool, precise LA studio scene of the late 70’s [that’s bad] or embodies a whole bunch of talent and muscular playing [that’s good]. Steve Lukather and Ray Parker Jr. on guitars, Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Hungate on bass and the kingpin/antichrist of that scene, David Foster on keys. Like or hate `em, those boyz had chops.
Not surprisingly both singers had full on monster bands full of old pros on Saturday, both keyed by young black women. In McDonald’s case it was Memphis native, drummer Yvette "Baby Girl" Preyer. In Scaggs case, it was vocalist Monet Owens, who can wail. Scaggs emotionally cooler music, and his more taciturn stage demeanor was a change from McDonald’s sweaty seated gyrations, but the blueeyed soul vibe was the same. Boz may be pushing just how long he can be out on tour these days, because his voice painfully cracked during “Georgia” and his drummer played behind a pretty extensive Plexiglas shield. “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle,” and “Breakdown Dead Ahead” with a sweet guitar solo from New Yorker Drew Zingg all sounded wonderfully in the groove. A newer tune, “Desire” from his 2001 Dig that was released on 9/11/01 also came off well.
One thing has changed since those two were young: cellphone cameras make the old ‘No cameras, no recording” warning that used to be printed on tickets completely moot. I watched all nite as security personnel played hide and go seek with various members of the crowd who were using iPhones mostly to record video of the event.
The Beatles 2009 Posted Thu Sep 10, 2009, 4:29 PM ET
I even had a call from one of my writers. For shame. No, not really. I fully understand times are hard and shelling out $179.99 (on Amazon.com) for the full Stereo Box enchilada may be too much for some. I have to say though that one hundred and eighty bucks for the entire Beatles stereo catalog in its U.S. configuration is pretty reasonable. The boxed set is very basic and no nonsense which is good because often times boxed set designers get too fancy and outstrip the capabilities of the manufacturing end of things. Just a two bay rectangular box with CDs stacked on top of a ribbon for easy accessibility. Also if you can’t afford the entire apple (or in this case, Apple), then the bites at $11.99 (again Amazon.com) for the individual volumes seems very reasonable.
Reasonable that is if the sound is demonstrably better than the original CDs, which came out in 1987. As I mentioned in my feature on the new reissues in the October issue of Stereophile, the chief engineer on the project Allan Rouse doubted whether the average listener could tell the difference between the new reissues and the original CD transfers.
An average listener aside, the bigger question for audiophiles is can the trained ear using good gear detect a difference? Again, as I mention in my article, the differences between the old and new CD masters are significant and for fans and audiophilic types, more than worth the money.
One complicating factor with closely examining the sound of the new reissues was the fact that Apple/EMI would not let any music out until the week of release and that edict included critics, deejays and music biz folks although I’m sure some folks somewheregroundlings at Apple Corps for instancemust have been exempted from the embargo. Having now received my actual finished copy of the boxed set, I’ve dug into several tracks in depth to see what the differences really are.
Let me first say that I think the LPs will always sound superior to CD versions no matter how much tweaking of the sound of the original mixes goes on. If someday new mixes are commissioned then perhaps the CD sound will give the LPs a run for their money. But in terms of dynamic range, imaging and that wonderful overused analogue bugaboo term, “warmth,” the LPs get the nod. Why LPs are not part of this new sprucing up of the Beatles catalog is unknown. Rouse had no idea when I asked him. Seems to me that would have been as much a win-win as the new Mono Set whose initial pressing of 10,000 units sold out faster than its admittedly more numerous Stereo counterpart. No worries though kids, both CD sets will be reprinted ad infinitum until every last ducat has been squeezed outta this project.
Using my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D CD playerwhich by the way is a great machine that I have always adoredat the exact same volume, the first thing you notice when you A-B new against old is that sonically the new transfers make the originals sound flat and onedimensional. There is a newfound fullness, multi-dimensionality and also a sense of space that the originals lack. On first listen, this new sonic heft can easily be mistaken for loudness, for compression, but it’s really just a wider dynamic range and the presence of more music that you’re hearing. In the stereo CD of Rubber Soul, I AB’d “Drive My Car” repeatedly against the 1987 originals and the audible differences for me came down to several things: increased separation and clarity between instruments, a more expressive, luxuriant emotional tenor, and an exquisite and exacting sense of bringing out and enhancing details like the roundness of the bass line or the edge on the vocals, which were always there but which are now so much more alive and present in the mix.
After listening for the past few days, several sonic constants have appeared. The contributions of Paul and Ringo, alone and as a rhythm section are now more prominent. Paul’s bass is now something you can regularly hear and be impressed by. Ringo’s tambourine on “Got To Get You Into My Life” (from Revolver) now sounds like a glorious idea come to fruition. Another “Gee, I never heard that before,” moment comes from the layering, particularly of the vocals, which is now so much more defined. On “Doctor Robert,” again from Revolver (a lesser tune that I, of course, have a cheesy affinity for), the harmonies have a new energy.
Energy, in fact, may be the word that best describes the positive sonic alterations inherent in the new remasters. What you really hear is an audible new jolt of energy. Words like cogency, potency and sparkle also apply. This music, on the medium of CD, is suddenly more alive than ever before. Best of all the CD format’s worst quality, that cold digital brightness that’s made so many CD transfers damned near unlistenable, has actually been used, very judiciously, to great effect. I would venture to say that the Abbey Road team has finally harnessed this demon and made it serve rather than harm the music making.
On Lennon’s “Rain” (from Past Masters) one of the band’s most elaborate sonic creations, one that used a series of overdubs at different tape speeds to achieve an odd tonal effect and near the song’s end, backward vocals, the new remaster when compared to the original CD transfer, focuses and revitalizes the panache of this underrated curiosity. The guitars have more bite, Ringo’s snare pops with new vigor and the background vocals are separated more than ever before.
Finally, after listening to the The Beatles (aka The White Album), which despite much love for Abbey Road has always been my favorite Beatles album, the proof as they say, is in the air. The sound is appreciatively better, richer, more intense. The overdubs on this record have always sounded clumsy to me but on the new remaster, that problem has been minimized. AB’ing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is yet another example of how clarity has been strengthened while the music that was always there, the Harrison/McCartney harmonies float above the mix with a new urgency and Clapton’s guitar has a thrilling new sting. Anyone who cannot hear he differences here needs to upgrade their gear or perhaps retune their ears. It’s easy to fall back upon metaphors when describing the exciting new sound that rises from these remasters but I’ll use only one. In listening to these new reissues, it makes me think that the music was like a half-opened flower that has now been brought into full and beautiful bloom.
A word about packaging: The glossy paperboard packs that the new reissues come in are well thought out and a definite success. If you like Beatles photos, many rarely seen (at least by non-fanatics), these new packages are a bonanza. The Rubber Soul package for instance contains 11 photos, only four of which were included in the original CD package
Les Paul Posted Thu Aug 13, 2009, 3:48 PM ET
I know that every time someone dies, it’s now customary to intone about what a hero they were, how much they were always had a smile for everyone, how they were great family men, husbands, fathers, etc. etc. etc. Speak no ill of the dead, I get it.
Les Paul who died last night in White Plains, NY was one amazing pioneer of both the electric guitar and recording techniques like overdubbing, phasing, multi-track recording, use of delays have all, for better or worse, become a very regular parts of making records. He is also the brains behind prodding Ampex into building the first 8 track recorders and of course, Gibson’s iconic Les Paul guitar. One of the most memorable moments in a two hour interview I had with him in 2005 was Paul’s description of his first guitar, dubbed “The Log” which was a piece of lumber, fitted with a guitar neck, a bridge and a pickup. It will be interesting to see who mounts the first Les Paul museum exhibit.
That piece that I did on him in the October 2005 issue of Stereophile was pure pleasure. Hanging with him backstage at the Iridium in Times Square was special, although I’ll always remember it as one of those interviews where you sit down with someone and suddenly the enormity of what they’ve done in their career washes over you and you don’t know where to start. I could have written five different Les Paul pieces. The other thing that stands out in my memory is what fun the man was still having into his 90’s, mostly via really hilarious and bawdy stories that he recounted from the stage at the Iridium. Most involved females in various states of undress and the man was not shy about naming parts. As those old Wendy’s commercials used to say, “Parts is Parts,” and man, could old Les make up or recount, it doesn’t matter which, some funny things about those parts. Blessed with such a long life, he went out not only revered for his art but also having a hell of a good time. What a guy.
Freakin' at the Beacon Posted Fri Aug 7, 2009, 2:31 PM ET
Now, the six or eight beers they each sucked down in rapid succession certainly had something to do with their uncontrollable urges, but I have to say that I’ve never seen anyone this horny drunk at an Americana show before. Or any show for that matter. I mean these two were damn near knocking boots right there. I knew if a bra flew over my head, it was time to git. The whole time I was standing right behind them and it was like I was invisible: they never saw me. Or heard me laughing. It was pretty classic, I have to admit. A little live porn with my Woody Guthrie covers, I’ve got no problem with that. The fact that they didn’t go down [ouch!], as in falling [oh], was a minor miracle. Who says rock concerts ain’t what they used to be? A little pot smoke wafting by and it would have been 1977 all over again.
What’s billed as The Big Surprise Tour, is in reality four likeminded acts, all in the Americana/Altcountry sphere, who are touring together, joining in on each other’s sets and clearly having a very good time. Justin Townes Earle is clearly the star. Blessed with the uber confidence to schmooze from the stage&3151;or as he mentions in a song about his father, no ability to shut up, Earle is a talent on the rise. Channeling Hank Williams as well as many of the masters of ceremony who have kept things running at the Grand Ole Opry over the yearsthe late Porter Wagoner comes to mindEarle, who is Steve’s oldest child, was dressed adorably in a bow tie, plaid jacket and striped shirt. The only problem was that he opened this four band show, and to my ears was probably the best act on the bill. A tough act to follow as they say. Perhaps the highlight of the entire evening was Earle’s version of Paul Westerberg’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which originally appeared on the `Mats Pleased to Meet Me but was first attempted in the sessions that led to the band’s major label debut, 1985’s Tim. The bluegrass picking of Earle’s version brings out the tune’s wonderful melody. I’m a sick `Mats fan but even those who aren’t will agree that this is one of Westerberg’s most transcendent tunes and also that Earle’s prescient cover is extremely clever and inspired.
One act that will never be accused of looking ahead, or even being fun to see and hear is David Rawlins and Gillian Welch. They are the most BORING act to ever take a half wild crowd and turn them into a line at the bathroom. In my opinion, those two could suck the life out of anyone, anytime, anyplace. Everyone sitting around me at the Beacon decided en masse after about two songs of their set, that it was a good time to pee or get another round of weak, overpriced drinks. They dragged down the emotional tenor of the evening and sent a lot of folks to the bar. Or the doors. The major problem is that those two cannot stay away from sadness. Ballads. Big, mournful ballads. That’s all they want to sing, all they want to do is sing those samey ballads over and over again. After a half hour of their whining, you want to buy a drum kit. A couple of tunes and you get exactly what they are trying to do in its entirety. They really haven’t changed a lick over the 15 years they’ve been performing together. As much as David, in his straw cowboy hat and big goofy grin was trying to be one of the boyz, he and his wife constantly returned to their natural groove which is dirges; same harmonies, same singing range, same basic song structures, same, same, same. Those two need to get a gig in some East Tennessee mountain music repository or something. Some place where they can sing sad songs in a historical context and where draining the energy out of rooms might be looked upon less egregiously as a good thing. Their presence on this tour presents yet again the old dilemma when it comes to these two: if you have four bands on a bill as this show did, where do you put their Captain Bring Down act. Not first and certainly not last. Best to bury them in the middle where their braying can do the least amount of harm.
One very pleasant surprise at Thursday night’s show at the Beacon was the presence of one Benmont Tench, who played keyboards, on and off, all night and added much to the proceedings. His B-3 work was especially apparent on the set by the Felice Brothers. If you haven’t heard the tale, the Felice boys are a hairy, testosteronedriven tribe from upstate New Yorkas in poverty stricken, middleofnowhere upstate New Yorkwho squatted in Brooklyn for a time before finding themselves and becoming a band. I use the word band very loosely here. Watching them live is a train wreck to behold. My God, they are everywhere and nowhere onstage, running to and fro, mouths open, banging on guitars, jumping around like it’s their first gig ever. Imagine if someone filled a garage full of musical instruments of all kinds, and let a bunch of rowdy as hell teenagers go at it. Harmonies which is supposedly a strength between brothers right?are non-existent. Everyone just launches in, in whatever key they feel like.
But what they lose in musical raggedness, they make up for in enthusiasm and a big, loveable spirit. They are one WILD act. There’s a stream of this kind of thing out there today. The Avett Brothers have it as well. It’s family bands who play a cross between The Band and Bill Monroe in a slambang style. The Felice Bros were fun to watch, charging around, bouncing togetheraccordion, fiddle, electric guitar, acoustic guitaron every downbeat. They all had Yankees shirts on to salute their competition for Thursday night’s entertainment dollar, the Red Sox/Yankees game up at Yankee Stadium. By all accounts, big bearded James Felice is a teddy bear sweetheart. And brother Ian, clearly the rock star of the group, also represents the Rico Suave side of the family. With his arm around some woman’s shoulders, he passed my friend Traci and I in the aisle between sets and without even a blink cracked, “Hey beautiful” to Traci. Ahhh, rock stars…is there anything they won’t say?
Old Crow Medicine Show was the evening’s closer and clearly the favorite amongst the crowd members. The lusty couple in front of me knew every word of the songs, which they began immediately singing every time their lips unlocked for a minute or two. The Nashvillebased act has the advantage of having writtenor is that borrowed? Or collaborated?on a anthemic tune called “Wagon Wheel” which seems to have come from a Bob Dylan outtake that band member Ketch Secor heard and sort of made his own. He and Bobby Z. signed a co-writing agreement on this song a couple years ago and it has now become a singalong favorite. OCMS has built themselves a jam bandlike fanatical following. One of these fans even boomed out his preference of them over Justin Earle during the second song of Earle’s set. Justin, much to his credit, swatted it away easily like the pro he is becoming, informing the loudmouth that they’d get to the band he wanted in due time. By the end of their set, the crowd was literally howling, after which everyone joined them onstage for a mass ending jam session. To their credit they do have singers who can sing and players who can play. And by the time guitarist Willie Watson was doing his best Chuck Berry across the front of the stage you could color me semiimpressed. I may not be a full blown fan yet but they’ve got my attention.
Santa Monica of the East Posted Fri Jul 31, 2009, 12:10 PM ET
The free one was King Sunny Ade and his 12 piece band. For those who’ve never seen him. Ade, born Sunday Adeniyi, is quite a performer; his Nigerian grooves, which make use of talking drums, electric guitars and synthesizers are long and build momentum as they go along. Needless to say long grooves that build draw multicultural white folks like flies. They were all there dancing, such as it is, along with a lot of Africans who were very happy to be touching a little bit of something from their home.
In the show I saw, the band was dressed resplendently in matching yellow, white and black costumes. The four singers (including Ade) are, along with drums, at the center of the show. The music, which first came to the attention of western ears thanks to Island Records 1982 album, Juju Music, is most often called Juju in the west although it includes lots of oral traditions from King Sunny’s Yoruba ancestry. Many of the vocal lines are spoken rather than sung. But behind it all are the drums. And the electric guitars although I have seen King Sunny in recent years with more guitar players, and interestingly enough, a pedal steel guitar. The longer I write about music the more I realize there is very little music that the pedal steel cannot add something good too. Even if it’s jus atmospheric chords in the background, the pedal steel is a wonderful instrument.
The other show was Jackson Browne, which was a benefit and so not free. Now I’ll readily admit, I’m a huge fan and yes, I know that makes me a bunch of controversial things beginning with 70’s SoCal folk rock goon and ending with P.C. liberal. I have to say though it’s Browne’s political records that really don’t do much for me or I have to say, his musical reputation.
After a string of great records that ended with 1977’s Running On Empty, Browne fell into a fallow period which is no surprise or shame considering how great his first quintet of records was. His great single of the 1980’s “Somebody’s Baby” was still top flight Browne: even though until 2004’s Very Best of Jackson Browne it was only ever available as part of the soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Browne having a hit in a teen movie has always seemed very odd, but whatever, artists need to be eat too. But by the time you get to 1986’s Lives in the Balance and World in Motion three years later, his songwriting is taking a back seat to his political beliefs. By 1996’s Looking East Browne is beginning to regain his footing. And his more recent pair of Solo Acoustic records, Vols. 1 and 2 show that the man is back on his game and has happily found a blend between politics and folk rock tunefulness that works for him.
In the show I saw it was the usual push pull that you see between older artists who want to remain vital and write and their new songs and the crowd who is aching for the golden oldies. I will admit to tilting my head back and singing most of “Fountain of Sorrow,” at the kind of volume that does not make friends at a sit down show. My wife let me know in no uncertain terms that there would be no repeats of that shameful practice. At one point he mentioned that out west Brooklyn is being called the Santa Monica of the East, which elicited a satisfied murmur from the crowd of hard boiled locals. You can’t help but feel bad for an artist like Browne, who dutifully chugged through much of his latest record, Time the Conquerer to polite, low key applause, only to have the crowd explode when he launched into a older hit like “Jamaica Say You Will,” “Doctor My Eyes” or the closer, “The Pretender.” The highlight of this show was Browne and his band including longtime guitar player Mark Goldenberg and a pair of teenaged singers from Los Angeles, Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, jump started an in the pocket version of the Browne/Frey tune, “Take It Easy.” It is easily one of Browne’s best tunes. Loved the line about “Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona…”
Celebrities trying to blend in should stop wearing baseball caps. It’s a dead giveaway. Right in front of us at the Jackson Browne show were Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and a teenager who had to be their son. Both mom and dad had on baseball hats and raincoats, but they still stuck out like sore thumbs. Happily, we were in New York where seeing celebrities stopped being a big deal, at least to the natives, back when Jimmy Walker was mayor. Sarandon is proof that it’s all about having good genes. The woman was luminous in her Pearl Jam hat and striped rain boots. Those big round eyes and that skin like butta...most normal humans have never, and will never look that good.
Monster Magnet Posted Fri Jul 17, 2009, 4:43 PM ET
You know there are days and then there are DAYS. Yesterday I had one of the latter, but music in the end was what saved me.
First, came a meeting with Pierre Schwob, the founder and owner of Classicalarchives.com. A website that has been up in some form since 1994, Schwob’s numbers look like this: 620,000 recorded tracks, representing 7,800 composers, 27,000 artists from 110 plus record labels. The deal is $9.95 a month or $99.50 a year. For that you get unlimited streaming for free, and a ten percent discount on anything you download.
So how is this different from any of the other classical websites? In actuality it isn’t that much different. The individual records are cross-referenced extensively and the navigational tools seem a bit more advanced than other sites. But just a bit. The website does have a lot of proprietary content (I’m only repeating what I’ve been told, no vouching here for legality), made up of live/unreleased recordings of solo artists and orchestras, that has been obtained from sources in Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s what Schwob refers to as “the Russian stuff.”
While Archivmusic.com is more about selling actual CDs and Classicstoday.com is the best editorial/review site, Classicalarchive.com is easy to use, well-organized and very intentionally non-threatening for novices to boot up and use. In my opinion there can never be enough non-threatening outlets for classical music on the web. The site is also heavily info intensive but then so is Amazon.com. Schwob showed me some of the great tools the site has incorporated including one that searches the site and brings up all the comparison versions of a certain piece. In other words if you’re listening to a version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, you can bring up all the other version on the site of the same piece. As an aside, Schwob assured me that if I wanted “to get laid” then listening to Sibelius’ Violin Concerto was the way to go. In a less intimate vein he says he has content from all the major classical labels on board with the exception of Warner Music. From my searching, I do not see anything from Harmonia Mundi, which has to be considered the most successful, both in terms of business and musical standards, classical label out there today. One large downside for audiophiles, at least at the moment, is that there are no hi res lossless downloads available on the site.
After my encounter with Classicalarchive.com, I trundled across the southern reaches of Central Park to Sloan Kettering’s Digital Imaging Center where I underwent an MRI. Quite an experience. I don’t have claustrophobia, however after an hour in the very tight quarters of the MRI tube, I was beginning to contract a pretty raging case of GET ME OUT OF HERE. These amazing, non-invasive machines are a boon to medical science I’m sure, however, all the banging and buzzing they go through is mildly alarming, at least initially. Fortunately, a friend told me that he listened to music during his MRI, so as soon as I laid down on the tray, I asked for music. What they had made me smile and realize that if there is a cosmic force active in the world, it has a wry sense of humor. The only music available was the local Classic Rock station. So I whiled away my hour in the tube listening to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” ZZ Top’s, “Legs,” Aerosmith’s, “Dream On” and mercifully, because its nine minute running time gave me a way to track how long I’d been under the magnet as it were, Don McLean’s “American Pie.” I had to smile a number of times at the rather strange conundrum I found myself in: listening to Steven Tyler shrieking whilst being told to lay absolutely still. In the case of ZZ Top, I could also see the video to “Legs” playing in my head; those little white ankle socks, the pink high heels and yes, the fuzzy white guitars that spin around. Life is all about the small mercies, so thanks a lot Q104.
RIP MJ Posted Tue Jul 7, 2009, 4:03 PM ET
If you like freak shows, then the current travails of the Republican Party are incredibly sweet. Marc Sanford’s “I’m gonna try and fall back in love with my wife” nonsense [need dental work? try repeating that one to your wife?], Palin’s rambling, basketballanddead fishladen resignation speech, and now the pride of Long Island, U. S. Rep. Peter King, calling Michael Jackson names on the day before he is buried. “Lowlife,” “pedophile,” “child molester,” oh yeah, King hit `em all. The run of bad news on Jackson is about to begin againhis toxicology report is gonna cause a circus, not to mention the end of several medical careersso I’m thinking King coulda waited a day or two before giving us another dose of some righteous Republican extolling the heroism of firefighters, cops and soldiers. The fact that all three of those professions are paying gigsno one is being drafted latelyis clearly beside the point for King. And okay, we all know Jackson had some unhealthy sides to his life, but couldn’t King have waited a day or so before becoming a new hero to the haters in the Republican Party. The appetites for hating and hypocrisy in the GOP are apparently insatiable. I loved it when one of King's colleagues questioned whether this outburst would help or hurt King by saying that it might help if has a lot of racists in his district.
The Staples Center. No Liz Taylor. No Diana Ross. Audio problems? Audio problems from the same company that was going to produce his London shows? Not such a good sign I’m thinking. And speaking of trash from Long Island, no one does bad hair like Mariah Carey. My God, her flip, bangs on steroid thing at the Jackson memorial was so goofy. Mimi need a haircut. And no one has ever had less top end to her voice than Carey. Her signature feathery, whispery thing is not a style point; it’s a sign that she has a thin voice. Now Stevie Wonder, who gave the memorial service’s best performance, Jermaine Jackson being a close second, still has a massive voice left there, no doubt about it. Always great to see Stevie. The man is and has always been the real deal.
The Jackson Brothers common outfit--black suit, yellow tie, one sequined covered glove—was a little strange. I guess those old Jackson Five habits die hard. Liked the shades though.
“Michael made us love each other” and [spoken to Jackson’s children] “There wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy.” Two gems of understatement [and bad grammar] from Al Sharpton’s speech. The man never met a TV camera or an event he couldn’t turn his way. Forget about wind or solar or any other alternative energy source: if his pomposity and self-impressedness could be harnessed and made to run turbines, we could air condition this entire country.
And then there’s that dope John Mayer. Sorry dude but having a beat up Fender doesn’t automatically make you cool. Why does this man have a career? He’s the Kid Rock of the jam band set. Useless.
You had to feel bad for Brooke Shields. She choked up immediately and almost didn’t make it through her speech. Allowing Paris, Michael’s daughter, to speak was surprising. The poor kid obviously felt compelled to answer folks like Peter King. And what is with Joe Jackson, Michael’s father, wearing a hat the entire way through what is essentially a funeral service? The guy has real class. This is not the way to convince people you’re not the monster they think you are.
Too bad we never got to see more from the upcoming DVD of the rehearsals from the Staples Center. It’ll be really interesting to see what Michael had left in the tank at this late date.
The Chair is not my Son. Posted Fri Jun 26, 2009, 4:10 PM ET
There’s no way not to feel sorry for Michael. The guy’s life had become an absolute disaster. Yes, some of it was of his own making. And the child molestation stuff is obscene and wrong and I was among those who thought that perhaps a little jail time, i.e. a dose of REALITY, might do him some good. But then you have to consider his upbringing. As much as some magazine editors want to coo over the Jackson Five, those were the years when Michael’s life basically went over the falls. He never really had a chance for happiness after he was about 10 years old. His life was predestined to be a head-on collision before he was even a teenager. The myriad of bad decisions he made afterwards proves this out. Sharing his bed with young boys? And then defending it on camera? Absolutely perverse. Clearly, he was not properly equipped to deal with life, or reality, or anything approaching normalcy. Adding fame to that kind of twisted personality is a sure recipe for nihilistic narcissism. There is some truth to the fact that the damage was done early. It’s always been fashionable to bash Joe, and in the end who knows how much of it is true. Although Michael talked openly about his father beating him, let's just say that in my opinion Joe has always looked mean, what with those pointy sideburns and those burning eyes.
Any yet, it seems as if when Michael got out from under Joe, he soon fell into a pattern of making bad decisions. In some cases, catastrophically bad decisions, that sapped his strength both as a person and an artist, and enmeshed him in costly legal swamps for the balance of his life. You got the feeling some years ago that Michael had ceased caring about much. Even music. His gluttony was too reckless and too empty. The marriage to Lisa Marie was a pathetic scam. Neverland Ranch which was intended to be his fantasyland, crawled with psychoses. And finally, his constant self-mutilation was a horrific sign that something inside Michael had turned terribly wrong. Even now I can’t stop looking at the frightening mask in the Santa Barbara mug shot. The greaseapint. The lips. What was once a nose. What besides an enormous of self-hate would possess a person to do that to their face? Related to that visage is the image of Jackson on South Park. The character, “Mr. Jefferson,” came complete with a fake mustache, a high, wavery Michael-like voice and Jacksonesque statements like “Noooo, that’s ignorant,” and “They have doody in the their souls.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out episode 117 from Season Eight that was first broadcast in 2004. His nose continually falling off is an unreal, unforgettable sight.
Despite America’s increasingly disturbing tendency to speak no ill of the dead, let’s agree that Michael Jackson’s impact on music was some 20 years in the past. It has been a long time since he made a good record. To my ears, Off The Wall will always be his best record. By Thriller you can hear the rot setting in. It could also be the fact that Off the Wall was not played to death by the radio. And also like everyone alive during Michael’s great run (the three Quincy Jones-produced records, 1979’s Off The Wall to 1987’s Bad), I can remember exactly where I was when his music first struck me. I can vividly recall when I first heard, “Don’t Stop `Til You Get Enough,” (on the dance floor of Dooleys, Tucson, Arizona) and the girl I was with (Tracy Dawn Stebbings). The raw power and immense talent that throbs off those records, aided immensely by the Q, is still astonishing. On Thursday, June 25, 2009, a very sad end to an increasingly sad life.
New Depression Songs Posted Fri Jun 19, 2009, 1:47 PM ET
Loudon Wainwright III has for years been that for me, but that’s all changed. Yeah, I know his hit, his nightmare come true that he has to sing every time he plays, “Dead Skunk,” but it was always clear that that tune was an anomaly, the unlikely hit that became the bane of his existence. This Wednesday at Madison Square Park in Manhattan I got a chance to see Loudon do his thing and it was superb. He’s currently working on a very cool project, an album of Charlie Poole songs, High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project. North Carolinian Poole (1892-1931) was sort of a crazier version of Jimmie Rodgers. He was a drinker, raconteur, baseball player, ladies man, the works. He died in 1931 after what has been reported to be a 13 week drinking binge. There's also a story about a doctor giving him a mysterious injection. Whatever the case, like a lot of great musical figures in American history, his death is shrouded in controversy. Not a songwriter, Poole nevertheless owned whatever material he chose to cover. He had an idiosyncratic way of playing the banjo that has influence players to this day and his band the North Carolina Ramblers had a number of hits the biggest being, “Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues."
Along with the Poole songs, Wainwright also did a number of new tunes that he wrote. A pair, “Fear Itself” (After FDR’s famous phrase) and “Krugman Blues” (which pokes fun at economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman), were full of the kind of intricately fitting lyrics that are a Wainwright specialty. At one point the singer/songwriter who is quite the jokester on stage, switched over to ukulele which was out of tune.
“This Ukulele is out of tune… (pregnant pause)…You know this is a free concert… (much laughter)… so I’m not going to tune it.”
Even better was his tune “Susie” about an incident he had where an airline broke his guitar. The lyrics are a hoot. Wildly funny.
Live shows being about the only way musicians make money these days, I also saw Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow get together and play again as The Posies. There are some positive linings to this recession, one being the return of customer service, especially in restaurants. Many formerly snooty, even outright nasty New York restaurant employees (and owners) are now much more solicitous of your needs. It’s about time. Uppity bastards. Another favorable trend in these economically challenged times is that bands are suddenly playing some of their best albums of the past, from beginning to end. Lucinda Williams did it last year. Steely Dan is doing it now. And The Posies did it last Friday when they played their best, Frosting on the Beater, in its entirety. God, it was good to hear those tunes and those two part harmonies again. It was 1993 all over again. Kurt Cobain was still alive and Bill Clinton was president. Don’t wake me I want to dream…all day.
Jay Bennett Posted Wed May 27, 2009, 4:36 PM ET
Sad to hear of the death of guitarist/keyboard player/singer/songwriter/mad genius Jay Bennett at age 45. I don’t want to be a hater here but like many others, his portrayal in the Wilco film, I Am Trying To Break Your Hearthas always been very problematic for me.
If you’ve seen the film it’s clear that Bennett had his issues. He talks too much, has an endless capacity for arguing over minutiae and can in general be scattered but insistent. Speaking from personal experience, an interview with both Tweedy and Bennett at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just after Bennett joined, the man chain smoked and was astonishingly disheveled, but he was an amiable, mildmannered guy. Unfortunately for Jay, Tweedy and the rest of the band oversaw the film’s editing and so Bennett comes off like an addled nutjob. In a strange way, the unbalanced portrait of Bennett, the way they piled it on, reflects badly on the remaining band members because the way Bennett is publically dismantled in the film makes them look more meanspirited and smallminded than they really were. You can feel the band’s emotional support for Bennett slipping away as the film wears on and he loses a power struggle with Tweedy. The part in the film where Bennett says that no one opposes Tweedy because no one in the band wants to lose their cushy gig is hard to watch. Jay is obviously shocked and floundering at that point. Having your public disconnection from the band become the highlight of the film had to have been tough. Bottom Line: I think they humiliated him more than was necessary.
After Bennett’s exit from Wilco, there were whispers about he and Tweedy trading accusations about popping pills and being difficult to work with, but the truth I suspect will always lie somewhere in the middle. Jay was clearly never the same person after his brush with fame. Much bad blood remained between he and Tweedy. Last week, he filed suit against Wilco for $50,000 for royalties he claimed he was owed for Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and, believe it or not, his appearance in the film! His postWilco solo records were craggy and had their moments but were generally nowhere near the brilliance of his work with Wilco. A really accomplished musician, he was one of those guys who could play keyboards as well as he could play guitar. His electric guitar work in particular added a lot of much needed heft and balls to Wilco’s early sound. His engineering skills meant that the band’s records also began to sound infinitely better. Because of Bennett, studio wizardry, to use an overworked term, also became part of the band’s arsenal of talents. He was also the first virtuoso in a band that has now become a collection of them. A very talented guy who is gone way too soon.