Sunday, June 25, 2017

Right: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

Billie Holiday: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues


Our new theme offers a wonderful variety of possibilities. That’s because the word right has multiple meanings. You can put three of these meanings together in one not very profound sentence: I had the right to make a right turn, but was it the right thing to do? From that sentence, I have chosen to start us off with the first meaning.

In recent years, there has been an attempt to restore to the Broadway show a place it once had in popular culture as a birthplace of popular songs. The music on Broadway has become more varied, and there is more of a contemporary influence. But that is still a far cry from where things stood 85 years ago. Earl Carroll’s Vanities was an annual event on Broadway. It was a revue, a mix of sketches, songs, and dance numbers. The 1932 edition had music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by the less known Ted Koehler. A house band backed all of the singers, and the actor in the cast that you might have heard of was Milton Berle. The playbill called Lillian Shade “the most promising of young singers in modern American music.” She came on after a comedy sketch called The Hospital to sing I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.

I think it’s fair to say that the song was an immediate hit, although it did not make Lillian Shade the star that the playbill suggested she would be. Vanities debuted in September, and Ethel Merman and Cab Calloway had their versions out before the end of the year, with Louis Armstrong following in January of 1933. The Merman version was the first recorded, and this is where the title got changed to I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues. Billie Holliday did not record her version until 1939, but she immediately took possession of the song. Holliday validates the feelings of every woman who ever had her heart broken with this performance. The sound quality is remarkably good for a recording of that vintage. Holliday is probably more heard of than heard these days. I hope this post will make you want to hear more of her work.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Hard: Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival

Photo by Katharine Swibold

Last week, I stretched our Hard theme as a way to discuss the founding of a new jazz club in my hometown. Today, I’m going to stretch it again to write about what I did last weekend—listening to great music outdoors at Clearwater’s Great Hudson Revival, or, as I think most people call it, the Clearwater Festival. Because not only is it hard to put on a two day, multi-stage outdoor music, environmental and progressive festival, it is actually pretty hard to attend—but well worth the effort.

I’ve written about Clearwater experiences before, but I’ve never really focused on the whole experience. The event started in the mid-sixties, as Pete Seeger held fundraising concerts to raise money to build a boat, to highlight the need to clean up the Hudson River. The sloop Clearwater was launched in 1969, and began its educational mission, as part of a larger charitable organization. In 1978, the first large-scale event was held at Croton Point Park, right on the river, and the “Great Hudson River Revival” name was coined.

Unfortunately, ten years later, pollution from the park’s landfill forced a move to a nearby, inland college campus. My wife and I went to the festival one year during this period, with our young children, and my two strongest memories are that the one musical act we wanted to see was Dar Williams, and that while we were at a playground with the kids, Pete Seeger appeared with his banjo and just started playing.

The festival returned to Croton Point in 1998, but soccer obligations and the fact that the festival is usually on Father’s Day, kept us from returning. In 2010 Steve Lurie began booking the festival, and started to bring in bigger names to perform. When the 2011 lineup was announced, including many favorites including the Drive-By Truckers, Martin Sexton, Indigo Girls, Josh Ritter, Suzanne Vega, Jorma Kaukonen, Billy Bragg, and Dar Williams, among many other great acts, we got the courage to tell my mother that we were not coming for the traditional Father’s Day family event, and instead went to the festival. We’ve gone every year since, except for last year, when they cancelled it to focus the organization's efforts on rebuilding the sloop.

I can only imagine how hard it is to get this event off the ground. Acts need to be booked to fill as many as eight stages, in genres ranging from the traditional folk that is at the root of the festival, to rock, dance and folk music from cultures around the world, story tellers, and other performers.  There are lots of jugglers. The site needs to be set up, vendors engaged, employees and volunteers trained, and the various activist booths and environmental education booths that are a hallmark of the festival have to be set up and staffed. The organizers need to make sure that the attendees can get to and from the site, there’s a campsite that has to be organized, the performers need to be taken care of, and the sound systems have to deal with the vagaries of outside shows, including heat, rain and dust. There’s a huge group of “access” volunteers to make sure that people with mobility issues are able to enjoy the weekend, and, I think, an even larger group of “Peacekeepers” to make sure that the thousands of people all get along. Then, there is breakdown and clean up.  And I’m sure I’m leaving something important out.

But, as I noted, it is also sort of hard to attend this, or I suspect, any outdoor festival (my experience in the torrential rain at the Newport Folk Festival is discussed here). First, you have to get there. Our first year, we drove the 10 miles from our house to the site, only to sit in horrible traffic. We started taking the train after that. You need to bring in chairs, a cooler with food and beer, blankets and other items. Then you have to load all of this onto a school bus not designed for large adults, unload it at the end, then schlep everything to the stages.

As I mentioned above, the festival now has eight stages, but we usually spend most of our time at two-the largest Rainbow Stage, and the second largest, Hudson Stage, which literally abuts the river. The Sloop Stage also often has good music. I’ve rarely, if ever, ventured to the Dance Stage, Story Grove or Family Stage, and skipped the new Workshop Stage this year (despite the fact that there was some good stuff there). Last year, I visited the Circle of Song to support my wife’s decision to join in the singing, but not this year. So, you are often forced to make hard choices as to which of the many simultaneously performing acts you will see. Sometimes we run between the stages catching partial sets.

Then, there is the weather. Usually, it is hot, and there isn’t much shade at the Rainbow Stage. That’s what we got on Sunday. Often it rains, sometimes torrentially, like two years ago, or steadily, like this year’s Saturday in the early afternoon. By Sunday evening, I’m usually beat, and my wife sometimes leaves earlier than me.

But it was well worth it. Here’s what I saw this year: On Saturday, we arrived early, got ourselves a nice spot at the Hudson Stage, then wandered around checking out the activist and vendor booths. At 11, we were back in our seats for a tribute to Pete and Toshi Seeger by mostly older folk and blues musicians, including David Amram, Tom Chapin, Guy Davis, Holly Near and Tom Paxton.

The great Nick Lowe was next, in the rain. (Note—all videos were taken from YouTube, and not by me)

Next up on the Hudson Stage was Joan Osborne, performing Bob Dylan songs, in advance of her soon to be released album of Dylan covers. During her version of “Tangled Up In Blue,” when she sang the line “Some are mathematician,” someone up the hill to my left, presumably a mathematician, gleefully cheered. No carpenter’s wives did the same. After Osborne was done, we walked over to the Sloop Stage to catch a little of Guy Davis’s excellent folk/blues set.

But then it was time to see Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely, one of the true highlights of the weekend. Reagon, who is Seeger’s goddaughter, and named after Toshi Seeger, has performed at most, maybe all, of the festivals. She is the daughter of civil rights activists and former Freedom Singers Bernice Johnson Reagon (also a founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock) and Cordell Hull Reagon, and comes by her musical chops and political activism naturally. I can’t find a video of her from this year, but here’s one from 2012, also on the Hudson Stage, that gives an idea of how powerful a performer she is.

I got a nice picture of Joan Osborne watching the performance from back stage

Then came Los Lobos, who I have seen great, and I have seen not so great, and when they took the stage without singer/guitarist Cesar Rosas, I was worried. But they did a fun, rocking set.

The cool night ended with the hot sounds of Lake Street Dive, who are just an incredibly talented band. Great songwriting, strong musicianship and powerful, charismatic singing. It was an exhilarating way to end the long, wet day.

Then, back on the school bus, to the train, to Tarrytown and a well-deserved hot shower.

We were up again early on Sunday, packed our cooler, and decided to drive up, hoping that we wouldn’t get caught in traffic on the way up. We didn’t, and again schlepped our stuff onto the school bus which took us to the site. It looked to be a nice, hot day, but the forecast was calling for a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. We set up at the Rainbow Stage, walked around some more, until the music started at 11. Although I enjoy going to Clearwater to see musicians that I am familiar with, some of the fun is discovering someone new. Sunday, we started at the Hudson Stage to hear Jerrod “Blind Boy” Paxton, who is part African American, part Native American, of Cajun descent, and who is a practicing Jew (he has one Jewish grandmother, who he discussed during his set). Performing on piano, fiddle, banjo, guitar and harmonica (and the spoons), Paxton’s focuses on blues and jazz from the 1920s and 30s. I don’t have a video from his set, but here’s a video of part of a Black Banjo Music workshop he gave later in the day.

I stuck around for a 50th Anniversary tribute performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Brother Joscephus and The Love Revolution, a New Orleans style band. It was great fun, all the songs were well-played, but they didn’t try to sound like The Beatles. My wife ran over to the Circle of Song to sing a little, but came back to see most of the set.

By this time, it was very hot, and the occasional clouds only briefly gave some respite, so we killed time in the shade until it was time for Tommy Emmanuel, who I only knew was supposed to be a great guitarist. Wow! His fingerpicking was unbelievably fast and it often sounded like two or three guitarists were playing. Here he is doing “Classical Gas:”

Then it was back to the Hudson Stage for one of my favorites, Alejandro Escovedo, who started out rocking hard, before doing a bunch of acoustic numbers, including “Five Hearts Breaking,” his tribute to late Austin musician Billy Smith:

As he was trying to decide what to end with, someone in the audience yelled out “Castanets,” which he decided to play, and then joked that they were becoming a request band, “and you can catch us at the Holiday Inn.” During his set, the crew began to cover the speakers and other equipment, as the skies darkened. But, mercifully, it didn’t rain.

We moved back to the Rainbow Stage, for the end of Valerie June’s performance—she was wearing a skin-tight gold dress that must have been very uncomfortable. It was time to get out of the sun for a bit, so I got a banana-strawberry ice pop to cool down, and sat in the shade watching little kids play on the swings. But then it was time to go back and see another favorite, Richard Thompson, who, as always, was amazing:

We beat a retreat to the shade to listen to a few minutes of The Kennedys at the intimate Sloop Stage—They are so good, and I would have liked to see their set at the Hudson Stage on Saturday, but they were up against Los Lobos. Here’s something from that performance:

Finally, we returned to the Hudson Stage for the much-anticipated reunion of Cry, Cry, Cry, the trio of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, who had not performed together in 18 years. Which kind of blew me away—it didn’t seem like that long ago. They were clearly having fun on stage together, and while they definitely could have used a bit more rehearsal, and they weren’t in the best voice, it was special:

They’ve announced a mini-tour (and I have tickets for the Tarrytown Music Hall show in October!), and indicated that there might be a new album in the offing. During the show, the clouds rolled in and it looked like we were going to get, as Dar Williams noted, “the apocalypse.” But, again, we dodged the bullet.

After the long weekend, and knowing that Monday was a work day, we reluctantly skipped out on Arlo Guthrie’s closing set (as well as Brother Joscephus’ performance at the Dance Stage) to load back on the bus, to our car. About halfway home, we noticed that the road was soaking wet, so it looks like the apocalypse passed just south of Clearwater. So, was it hard? It was. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly. Do I expect to be there next year? Yup.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hard: Hard to Handle

Otis Redding: Hard to Handle



I remember that when I first heard the Blues Brothers do this song, I wondered why they were covering the Grateful Dead. Hard to Handle was a staple of their live shows in the early days of the Grateful Dead. Pigpen was the Dead’s designated blues singer in those days, and this song appeared to give him more trouble vocally than most. There are many concert versions that don’t say the best things about his voice if you listen too closely. Now at last I know why. Blues singing of the kind Pigpen did best is very different from soulful R&B shouting, as practiced by a master like Otis Redding. This is what Pigpen was trying for, and the Blues Brothers came closer. But there is simply no substitute for Otis Redding. In Redding’s hands, all of the power of this soulful boast is revealed, and you can hear why anybody would want to cover the song in the first place. But Redding delivers a performance that sounds so natural that the challenges of covering the song do not become apparent until you try it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


This took me back in an instant. Forget what David Hepworth says about 1971, for a brief window 1989 was the year and well nigh wonderful, cranked up by songs like this. So history says the 80s were naff, does it? Since when was history driving along a road on a summer day, windows open, cassette player blaring this out, for the good and the education of all in earshot? I bloody love(d) the Fine Young Cannibals, from their intricate minimalism to the legs everywhere dancing of the guitarists on Top of the Pops. Life affirming and some.

A candle that burnt only briefly, the Cannibals burst into my consciousness in about '84, with 'Johnny Come Home', instantly branding their template of rudimentary drums, spluttery guitar riffs, and whiffs of trumpet and keyboards, all topped by Roland Gift's, if you will, constipated style of vocals. The band had evolved from the break-up of the (English) Beat, with the guitar and bass players, Andy Cox and David Steele, eventually choosing Gift from a shortlist of 500. But no evidence of the ska so representative of that earlier band, pulling in influences from all over, as exemplified by the Elvis cover, Suspicious Minds, that gave their first international hit.

A successful first album was later eclipsed by their second, and last, the Raw and the Cooked, discounting a remixed version and more greatest hits albums than they had actual albums. This was simultaneously more stripped back and more adventurous. Huge worldwide success ensued, with 2 U.S. number one singles in She Drives Me Crazy and Good Thing. I remember being slightly shocked by it when it appeared, the shock of the primitive sophistication taking time to imprint. Then? Virtually nothing. The odd charity song, the  spin-off duo of Two Men, a Drum Machine and a Trumpet, featuring just Cox and Steele, whilst Gift set off to an expected glittering film career. That too faltered after a promising start. Since then occasional promises of a new start, never fully materialising. Gift has said he has merely been happy being a father to his children, possibly the truth. Two years ago he was recording new material. Did it ever appear? And of the other two, Cox seems to have more or less disappeared, Steele occasionally popping up as a producer or sidesman, notably on the debut of british R'n'B maverick, Gabrielle.

A brief word as to the origin of the band name, this being inspired, perhaps only by the title of 1960 movie All the Fine Young Cannibals, arguably a loose bio of jazz trumpet icon Chet Baker, starring Robert Wagner (as jazz trumpeter "Chad Bixby") and Natalie Wood. So maybe that explains all the trumpets!?

I miss this band and I miss that time, with a slew of UK bands pumping out original music that has, largely, stood the test of time.

Buy! (And yes, I had noticed that, whilst the song is called "gets', it sure as hell sound like "is" he is singing.)

Hard: The Who - It's Hard

purchase [It's Hard]

One of the first cassette tapes I ever bought for my brand-new SONY Walkman back in 1982 was the Who's <Face Dances>. And now that I think back on it - the first 33 1/3 album that came with my new SONY "stereo" in high school was <Who's Next>. Guess I've always been a Who affecionado. And yes, I certainly chuffed at the Who's Super Bowl performance - more pleased that they were still able to do their thing at that age (more or less) than at their current abilities- after all, it's the show that matters for that kind of thing.

As I previously noted, my departure from the US music scene at the end of the 70s probably played a role in why I missed the <It's Hard> album. Yes, I picked up on the songs Athena and Eminence Front, but I didn't buy the album in any form (vinyl or tape) - again, my bad.

The 1982 <It's Hard> album comes just before their <Who's Last>, intended to signal the end of the road for the group (more or less true). The muscial style showcases the transitional stage between the late 60s and 70s (My Generation >>>Who's Next >>> Face Dances) and sounds an awful like <Face Dances> in many places.

The "hit" Athena from <It's Hard>

The equally well-known Eminence Front from <It's Hard>

All said and done, I think my favorite Townshend is <Rough Mix>, with Ronnie Lane. Nothing I could find there about "Hard", How about "... easy .." @ 2:46?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hard: Heroes Are Hard To Find

purchase [Heroes Are Hard to Find]

How our music tastes can change over time.

Fleetwood Mac's <Heroes Are Hard To Find> was one of my favorite albums way back then. (Yes, I bought it - see my previous!) The album came out at about the height of the band's fame: that would be just before the addition of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and just after the release of < Mystery To Me> , which - at the time - I couldn't get enough of. On cassette tape, of course.

Admittedly, (still after all these years), there are several great pieces on the <Heroes>  album - many of them better than my choice of "Heroes Are Hard to Find" , but they don't meet the current theme criteria.  There's the mesmerizing "Bermuda Triangle", the take on Elmore James' "Coming Home" .. lots of Bob Welch before he left the band ... and some other good music here. The fact is that Fleetwood Mac was pretty big stuff in the mid 70s. Mick Fleetwood had put together a  group that moved the Fleetwood name from a mildly successful 60s band to the top of the charts - repeatedly- throughout the 70s.

The funny thing to me is how - 40 years later -  the title track (Heroes) no longer does much for me. You know how they talk about songs that maintain their allure/stature over the years? My take is that this isn't one. Admittedly,  I made good use of it a few years back in one of the courses I taught. The unit's topic was heroes, and the song seemed to fit in alongside Tina's <We Don't Need Another ...) and Little Feat's <Time Loves A...> ... but now, it just comes up a little short.

That said, I wouldn't be  bringing up a song that didn't have some kind of value. The value for me is mostly in memories. The value for you ... ? Possibly a song you hadn't heard before? Possibly a new perspective on the song. Maybe just a reminder of a bygone era. Then again, as I cued the song for one more play before posting, I was struck by the similarity with my previous post (Little Feat's Don't Try So Hard) - as Fleetwood began to roll, I might have been listening to Feat - close to the same beat. Guess it says something about my musical taste.

Fortuitously, the clip above includes both Christine McVee and  Stevie Nicks.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hard: Hard Times Come Again No More

Hard Times Come Again No More is a song that dates from well before the Great Depression, but it’s easy to see why you might not think so. The song is a secular hymn, a plea directed to the comfortable for compassion for those less fortunate. It speaks to times when those in power would have the poor and the middle class compete against each other, rather than risk us joining together to find common solutions to our problems. We are in such a time now, and the Great Depression was a period that brought about such a joining together for an all-too-short moment. The song, however, shows that the need for compassion is much older. Stephen Foster wrote Hard Times Come Again No More in 1854, and it became a favorite on both sides of the Civil War. In seeking out versions of the song for this post, I found that some of the best versions express the idea that none of us are alone in the way the song is arranged.

Jennifer Warnes: Hard Times Come Again No More


Jennifer Warnes finds a stark beauty in the song with the sparest arrangement here. She gets a small group of friends together for an a capella version that expresses solidarity with the sounds of human voices alone.

Mavis Staples: Hard Times Come Again No More


Mavis Staples is best known for her work with the Staples Singers, although her solo work has become better known lately. Either way, she is a gospel singer at heart. Even a secular song like this one becomes a prayer when she sings it. This jibes perfectly with Stephen Foster’s intent, and results in a powerful performance.

Nanci Griffith: Hard Times Come Again No More


Nanci Griffith makes a specific connection to the hard times that have been experienced by the Irish people. Her version includes notable Irish musicians such as Dolores Keane and Sharon Shannon. Griffith starts with a small ensemble, and gradually builds to the full arrangement, which is a great musical device for expressing the theme of the lyric.

Paolo Nutini and the Chieftains: Hard Times Come Again No More


Finally, I could not resist closing with the Chieftains’ version with Paolo Nutini. The universality of the theme of the song is still very much intact, but the Irish connection is now explicit. The Chieftains find a perfect fit for the song as an Irish ballad, and deliver a version that lingers after the last note. Stick around for the coda played on pipes and drums; it really takes this one home.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

HARD: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Nooooooooooo, not that one!

This is no syrupy Sedaka or claggy King, this is Studio One, Kingston, Jamaica, Hortense and Alton Ellis, a wonderful slab of early lover's rock from, um, much the same time. Probably. Don't get me wrong, the "other one" is a fine piece of music. For it's day. If not a little unbearably twee, not to say the image of  Neil Sedaka and Carole King in the clinch they once were seems a little not-in-front-of-the-children in it's euww-ness.

Brother and sister, Alton and Hortense were better known apart than together, with Alton, the 'Godfather of Rocksteady', being by far the better known of the two. Indeed, the duet in this song is probably not even that, with Hortense added as an overdub to an earlier hit for her elder sibling, and the LP in the frame for the clip being otherwise songs by one or the other, rather than both, even if Alton had originally produced some solo success with most of them. This is how show biz worked in 1960s Trenchtown. Or maybe even 70s, as the recordings didn't reach any much wider public until 1990. It is no less wonderful for that, and is a staple on many of the excellent retrospectives of the original era produced by Soul Jazz records amongst others.

Alton had a long and varied career ahead of dying from lymphoma in 2008, in a career stretching from the derivative jamaican ersatz american r&b of the 60s, in time for the birth of ska and, eventually, reggae. As these music forms blossomed, Ellis was often a lone voice in decrying the violent 'Rudeboy' culture that caused so much social chaos. After sojourns in Canada and the U.S. he eventually made his home in the U.K., arriving well in time to be greeted as an elder statesman for the emerging 2-Tone ska revival of the late 1970s, as the Specials and their kin made a stand for multiculturalism. His legacy includes many wonders including this version of this David Clayton/BS&T groaner, giving it a little less sweaty smell, and, less successfully, this curious version of 'Whiter Shade of Pale.' Fabulous bass, though.

Hortense, meanwhile, spent time both under and out the wing of her brother, recording constantly, alongside a couple of marriages and producing, at least, 8 children, before herself succumbing to throat cancer. Here is a staple from her live career in the States, a version of the Patti Labelle song, although her biggest hit was 'Unexpected Places.'

You can't have too much vintage reggae and I can't have too much love for it.