Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Two Words: Dire Wolf

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf


The Grateful Dead album Workingman’s Dead was released in 1970. I was ten years old, but my oldest brother made sure I heard it right away. And so began my love of the music of the Grateful Dead. Dire Wolf was the song that won me over. I could not have articulated at the time what is was that drew me to the song, but I can now. It was the song’s folkloric quality. The narrative is steeped in the traditions and attitudes of the western cowboys and settlers. The Grateful Dead told stories of these people throughout their career, and these songs were not based on any historical figures. Instead, they were a retelling of an attitude. Women were idealized backwoods angels, as in Sugar Magnolia and Althea. Men were gamblers and gunslingers, but they were also loving fathers and uncles, interested in mentoring their sons and nephews about the ways of the world. That world would unfold for me over the course of many years and many songs. But Dire Wolf is simpler than that. It is a representation of how Death comes for a man like the ones in these later songs. Death is a menacing figure, yes, but he is invited in for a game of cards. The song’s narrator does not want to die, but the cards are literally stacked against him. Still the game is a friendly one, and perhaps it helps the narrator accept that it is his time. As a ten year old, I had no experience of death, but I knew at some level that the song’s theme was universal.

The mythos that the Grateful Dead introduced me to with Dire Wolf was one that also encompassed a wide range of musical influences. The song itself introduced elements I would recall years later when I began to learn about the traditions of country music. But the Grateful Dead also covered blues folk, and jazz, and they made an astonishing range of songs seem like natural part of a the world view that began to develop in Dire Wolf, even when the band was covering someone else’s song. I would later explore many of these musical styles based on these introductions, especially the blues.

Grateful Dead: Dire Wolf (live, San Francisco Civic Auditorium, 12/28/83)

In my tribute to the Grateful Dead, I could hardly neglect to mention their influence as a live band. I actually never got a chance to see them live, but I nevertheless bought into their ideas of what live performance should be. The vocals on live Grateful Dead tracks can sometimes be painful to listen to, which eliminated from my consideration several performances of this song. But the song itself is a living thing. Each performance is a snapshot in the life of the band and its members, and so how the song is performed changes and evolves. This version from 1983 is far removed from the country trappings of the studio version, but it is still definitely Dire Wolf. Now the song is a rock song, with interesting keyboard lines that reflect a lineup change from when the studio version was done.

There is no purchase link for this version of the song. The Grateful Dead catalog includes a dauntingly long list of single concert releases from shows starting in 1966, and ending in 1993. Surprisingly, only one release, Dick’s Picks 6, includes a show from 1983, and the band did not perform Dire Wolf that night. There are no shows at all from 1984. If the rest of the show was as good as this Dire Wolf, this is a show that should be made available.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Words: Summertime Thing

Chuck Prophet: Summertime Thing
[purchase the original]

Back in 2010, when few of the current Star Maker Machine writers were associated with the blog, we did a theme about songs with one word titles. It seemed like time to advance the counter, and focus on songs with Two Word titles. (We promise not to do a theme about songs with 27 word titles).

Where I live, in suburban New York, it has been hot. High-80s, low 90s, with humidity. I know that other parts of the country are suffering through record heat waves, as are parts of Europe (or so I hear from my daughter in Barcelona). Complaining about the heat during the summer, though, is kind of a waste of time. It is, as Chuck Prophet noted, a “Summertime Thing.”

Prophet is someone who hasn’t gotten nearly enough love on this blog, despite his long career, first in the 80s psychedelic Americana band Green on Red, and later as a songwriter, collaborator and solo artist. I’ve been a fan for a while, and he is near the top of my list of artists who I want to see for the first time (I’ll be crossing the Tedeschi Trucks Band off that list in October). I wrote more about Prophet here, so feel free to check that out, if you want more background.

Prophet was born in Whittier, California, near Los Angeles, where it gets pretty warm, but lives now in San Francisco, where Mark Twain famously didn’t actually denigrate the summer weather. “Summertime Thing,” from Prophet’s 2002 album No Other Love, was a bit of a radio hit. It is really a great summer song. The song has a mellow, laid back vibe, and talks about the hot sun, hazy skies, burning pavement, loud parties and skinny dipping in a river. Plus, he name-checks the Beach Boys. Add that to Prophet’s customary drawling vocals, which seem perfect for a hot day, and you just want to slather on the sun screen, grab a crime novel and sit under a big umbrella with a cold drink dripping condensation waiting nearby.

The original version is great, but I’ve linked above to a live version from a 2013 performance at a club in Martinez, California, outside of San Francisco. It stretches the 5 minute song out to past 9 minutes, mostly by adding a long, languorous jam that adds to the easygoing, summertime feel of the song. Even though the performance was in March.

Friday, July 21, 2017

On/ Off: On the Amazon

Don McLean: On the Amazon

[purchase On the Amazon from Amazon]

I am not a big fan of Don McLean. He is an artist I know mainly for American Pie, and it has taken me many years to come to appreciate him for that. However, my wife was a big fan at one time. That is why I knew about the song On the Amazon. The song is a deep album track from McLean’s self titled 1972 release. It is best considered to be a novelty song, with the singer presenting a catalog of imaginary Amazonian denizens with some highly unlikely names, and the song is quite amusing. On the Amazon also presents us with a musical mystery. Unlike most of the material Don McLean recorded, On the Amazon is a cover, and a very unlikely one.

Bobby Howes: On the Amazon

[Not available for purchase]

The original version was recorded by Bobby Howes in 1929. It was written for the musical Mr Cinders, but was apparently left out of the London production that was mounted that year. Still, the song was considered to have enough merit to warrant a recording by Bobby Howes, who played Jim, the character who would have sung the song in the show. Mr Cinders is a gender reversed version of Cinderella. Jim goes to the ball disguised as a famous explorer, and On the Amazon supposedly boasts of his adventures in a place Jim has actually never visited.

The question I can not answer is, how did Don McLean come to hear the song? The show was a modest success in London, playing for about a year and a half. It made its way to Europe, where a translation into German was also successful. But the show never made it to Broadway. On the Amazon was not even the best known song from the show. That was Spread a Little Happiness, which did become something of a standard in England. So maybe McLean heard that song and wondered what else the songwriters had done. He would have had to do some research, at a time when there was no internet to help. It is clear to me as well that McLean didn’t just find the sheet music for On the Amazon. His performance includes some vocal mannerisms that are clearly from the Bobby Howes recording.

On the Amazon is still hardly a standard today. Spread a Little Hapiness and the show Mr Cinders have however seen some renewed interest. Sting had a minor hit with his recording of the song for the film Brimstone and Treacle. That may have led to a London revival of the show in 1983. The only record I could find of a US performance of Mr Cinders was a 1988 production that was mounted in Connecticut. There have been a number of covers of Spread a Little Happiness since then, although none have come near charting.

One final note: On the Amazon by New Riders of the Purple Sage is a completely different song.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On/Off: Turn It On Again

Genesis: Turn It On Again

If you are a fan of Genesis, as I have made it abundantly clear that I am, there are a number of turning points where people jumped on and off the band’s wagon. Genesis’ rise to popularity probably began with their second album, Trespass, which introduced the band’s dense, theatrical progressive style (their debut, From Genesis to Revelation, sounds mostly like a cross between The Moody Blues and pre-disco Bee Gees). From there, the band gathered followers until 1974’s epic (and epically confusing) concept double album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Then, lead singer and focal point, Peter Gabriel climbed up Solsbury Hill and out of the band.

Gabriel was, of course, replaced by Phil Collins, and while the next few albums were somewhat lighter and simpler than in the Gabriel-era, they were still recognizably prog. Many Gabriel lovers were reflexively turned off, but Collins’ greater accessibility (and even a love song) retained some fans and attracted more. But when guitarist Steve Hackett defected, and Genesis released …And Then There Were Three…, with an actual pop hit, much of the old guard jumped off.

Not me, though. I had moved to college at that point, and was working at WPRB, at a time when our staff included both lovers of prog and punk (and lovers of both), when the rock music world was really changing. And while it seemed that Genesis might have been done, instead, we got Duke, which I liked. It had long, proggy songs, but also harder rock, and maybe one of the band’s most divisive songs, “Misunderstanding,” an obvious attempt at a pop hit that sounded like nothing the band had ever done. Collins reportedly based the song on The Beach Boys' "Sail On, Sailor", Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and (ugh!) Toto's "Hold the Line.” The album was the band’s first to top the UK charts, and hit 11 on the US Billboard Hot 200. I remember long discussions in the WPRB studios as to whether Duke indicated that the band was staying on course, or whether “Misunderstanding” and some of the other poppier tracks were an indication that they were off the tracks.

As it happened, “Turn It On Again,” our featured and theme-appropriate song, was probably the song that showed the direction that Genesis was heading towards. An apparently fairly straight ahead rocker about a man obsessed with television, it nevertheless had sections in odd time signatures (13/4 and 9/4). (Aside—the first song I thought about for this theme, The Tubes’ “Turn Me On,” another TV focused tune, was actually the subject of this piece I wrote back in 2014).

When the band reconvened to create their new album, they reportedly decided to focus on simpler songs, and the result was Abacab. That album’s harder edges, punchier synths, “gated” drum sound and even horns, led to commercial success, reaching number one on the UK Albums Chart and number 7 on the US Billboard 200, but I think that it is fair to say that fans of songs like “Supper’s Ready,” jumped off the bandwagon in droves. A popular (mostly) live double album was next, followed by a self-titled disc in 1983, that, while still retaining a few longer pieces, is probably mostly remembered for its pop hits, and the catchy, but ultimately very embarrassing song, “Illegal Alien.” The album reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 9 in the US, so clearly their fanbase was increasing, but, I suspect, even more longtime supporters were turned off.

I flipped the “off” switch on my fandom after the next disc, Invisible Touch, which had some well-crafted songs, but ultimately left me cold. Although I heard some of the songs on the next album, We Can’t Dance, on the radio, I didn’t buy it. The next album was recorded without Collins, and I think it is fair to say that most Genesis fans were put off by Calling All Stations—I know that I never turned it on.

That all being said, there have been rumors over the past few years of a Genesis reunion, now that Phil Collins has rescinded his retirement notice. If I were a betting man, and I’m not, I’d say the chances of a Collins/Rutherford/Banks reunion is high—it would incredibly lucrative to get them on stage (and probably a popular album, if they cut one). Hackett, who often tours playing old Genesis songs, has indicated a willingness to join, but I’d bet that scheduling would make that a less likely option. And I think that the chances of Gabriel signing on would be low, although the concept has been bandied about. I’d be interested in seeing them, increasingly so depending on how much of the “classic” lineup was on stage, but suspect that it would be a stadium tour, which turns me off.

Monday, July 17, 2017

ON/OFF : Electricity

Jings, me too, this is a real toughie, scouring the interweb for songs relating "on" with "off". My initial idea had been to find equal and opposite songs. Like You Can Keep Your Hat Off as a riposte to  Tom Jones, Eat Stuff on the Sidewalk as a riposte to the Cramps, but no such luck. It's enough to make me go off on one, a peculiarly english phrase that would make a wonderful song title, meaning to lose my rag or blow my fuse. Which, like a lightbulb in my head, gave me the answer. OK, abetted by the illustration to the side of this column. A switch. The ultimate off/on being of electricity. (Let's ignore water as that would "faucet", boom boom!!)

So then, Electricity, the initial single from UK synthpop pioneers, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, back in 1979. Inspired by Kraftwerk's earlier Radioactivity, this song is a paean to the wastage of the earth's resources, truly ironic in a band who relied so totally thereupon. (OMITD unplugged would just be singing!) Over this side of the pond it seriously seemed, for a while, as if guitars may have had their day, such was the plethora of electronic keyboard bands bursting forth, from the Human League through Depeche Mode, Tubeway Army through Soft Cell. OMITD did have a bass guitar to complement the drum machines and synthesisers, but I was never sure whether this was for real, or a prop for the vocalist to fill his hands with. Suspicious at first, it wasn't long before I was converted. It was touch and go whether I preferred this band or the Human League, they were certainly the two leaders in my pack. I don't know how well, if at all, this style translated stateside, or even if any impact was felt at all. My usual sources, thanks, Wiki, suggest little.

Riding the crest of their wave, OMITD followed this single, and the album it led, with the even better Enola Gay, about the plane that dropped the initial H bombs, perhaps the ultimate on/off, before a brace of songs about Joan of Arc (both, confusingly, of the same name), no moon in june dilettantes these. Frustratingly, I think it was this arguably cod-intellectualism that pissed me eventually off, along with the expansion to include more traditional instrumentation, guitars, real drums, brass. The band split, Paul Humphreys, synths and straight hair, leaving Andy McCluskey, bass and curly hair, to lead whatever session men were about him. Even that imploded, before a chance request to do some gigs brought the original duo together and back to life in the mid noughties, a decade or so ago. How do they sound? Not a clue. I haven't had the heart since about '83. But what a heart it was then. And we are supposed to be conserving power, aren't we. Or most of us.....

Start here!


purchase [Dixie Chicks music]

I've been a Dixie Chicks fan for a while: maybe it's the Dixie element (my years spent in North Carolina), maybe it's the chick element, maybe it's just the music.

Maybe it's the politics. Not so much unlike the Russian Pussy Riot in terms of staking a position.

Yes, there are a couple of slips in this recording (if you listen carefully you can hear them), but this song has a lot what it takes to turn me on: (aside from the theme requirement (Baby Hold ON) - decent harmony, mostly coordinated backing (but off in a few places - bass, drums etc))

Saturday, July 15, 2017

ON/OFF - 2 from Creedence Clearwater Revival

purchase Willy and the Poor Boys

Judging from our output on the ON/OFF theme, you would be inclined to agree with Darius, that the pickings are slim. Actually, my standard process for a theme is to see what Songfacts.com lists for a particular phrase, and for "on" it shows 1976 possible avenues to explore.

Like of lot of other teens in the late 60s early 70s, I listened to a lot of Creedence. CCR had a ton of hits between 69 and 70. Heck, they were one of the headline bands at Woodstock. And then they disappeared in a mist of acrimony,

I havent listened to them much since, so it's mildly entertaining to see that the band are still touring 50 years later, albeit under the name Creedence Clearwater Revisited without John Fogerty, who - incidentally - also still performs. On and on they go. Apparently quite successfully: one review claims that at a recent concert he witnessed "timeless, historical music performed to perfection.."

Looking back, I have to say I'm not sure quite why I "liked" their music.  That said, I recognize that they had a unique sound and their hits like Susie Q, Willy and the Poor Boys, Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising, and more - a remarkable number of major hits in such a short time - are rightfully part of the pantheon of essential rock.

There must have been something to their success regardless of what Jon Landau's critique of their final album as "the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band". You can decide for yourself if it stands the test of time:

Sunday, July 9, 2017

On/ Off: Left Turn on a Red Light

Blackfoot: Left Turn on a Red Light


Our new theme is once again rich with possibilities, but it is surprisingly hard to research. A Google search I did for songs with “on” in the title yielded a list of songs that begin with the letter O. Songs with “off” produced similar results. Useful, but limited, and with a lot of items that are not relevant. It turns out that searching YouTube for phrases containing one of our keywords was far more helpful, which is how I got here.

This post is something of a goof for me, and I will get more serious as our theme progresses. I wanted to see if I could find a song that transitions from our Right theme into the new one, so I searched for “Right Turn on”. As you can see, it didn’t quite work. However, this song combines our actual theme with what I had guessed our theme would be. I thought we might go from Right to Left, which is why I couldn’t resist sharing this.

So, as to the song itself. I don’t think I had ever heard Blackfoot before I found this one. I had heard of them, but the name turned me off, because I thought they were a metal band. In fact, at least on this evidence, they were a southern rock band. This song is no Sweet Home Alabama, but it is a fine example of the genre. This one is from 1979. If it was released now, it would probably find a home on country radio. At the time, however, there was still a war going on between country purists and this upstart musical form. I can remember how horrified country music people were by the music of the Eagles, and this song probably would have been equally terrifying to them. Times have certainly changed, to the point that I would think someone could have a hit on country radio nowadays with a cover of this one.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Right: Tom Waits - Step Right Up

purchase [Step Right Up]

SMM has posted about Tom Waits in the past (link to those posts), but Step Right Up isn't one of them. The album from whence it appeared, Small Change, has so many of my favorite Waits' pieces that I could choose almost any one of them. The album comes from his darker days, likely influenced by the too many days on the road - with repeated references to the seamier side of life.

It wasn't just the man's gravel-ly voice that piqued my interest; it was partially the minimal musicality of that style (something as simple as a lone bass accompaniment) and partially his way of twisting a word half way through such that it changed meaning from what you thought it was going to say. The song is like a rap before rap was conceived and the words just go on an on and on - no 2 and half minute Beatles pop lyrics here!
it's effective, it's defective, it creates household odors,
It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection
It gives you an erection, it wins the election

Step Right Up is an indictment of commercialism/advertising and so it is informative that Waits has had to resort to the legal system to keep marketers at bay (see Frito Lay).

Incidentally, there's also a tribute to Waits album by the same name.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Right: Red Right Ankle

The Decemberists: Red Right Ankle

We’ve heard much about Right hands since this theme started, but not so much about other body parts. So, here’s one about a Red Right Ankle, from the Decemberists.

I’ve made it abundantly clear, both on this blog, and elsewhere, that I’m a big fan of the Decemberists, while acknowledging their penchant for pretentiousness, bombast and prominent use of words even too obscure for the SAT verbal.

Back in 2007, lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy was interviewed by the A.V. Club, and was asked:

AVC: You are known for writing novelistic lyrics about obscure historical figures. Have you ever been tempted to write about something more typical, like your girlfriend or something else in a personal vein? 

CM: I do write songs about my girlfriend. They just come out in different ways. Specifically, once we had a fight and she drove all the way to Vancouver to get away for the weekend, and I sat down and was like, "I'm going to write as many songs for her as I possibly can." "Red Right Ankle" came out of that, which was probably more of your typical "write a song about your girlfriend" song. 

So, “Red Right Ankle” is a song about Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now-wife, Carson Ellis, a book illustrator who also does the artwork for the Decemberists. And while it is a relatively simple song, and beautiful in that simplicity, Meloy cannot help himself but to refer to his beloved's  “muscle, bone and sinews,” a “gypsy uncle,” and a “hide-out in the Pyrenees.”

Because even in a love song, Meloy insists on the unexpected.

Right: Something So Right

Jeanne O’Connor: Something So Right


Something So Right can be called a classic song by Paul Simon. It has certainly been covered often enough. But I had a hard time finding a version that came close to what I hear in my head. That has everything to do with how records were produced in the 1970s. The song originally appeared on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. It started well enough, but soon the production starts to swell with unnecessary strings that I have always felt provide a level of artificial emotion that this song does not need. The genuine emotion in the writing should be enough. Even so, the song does need a small ensemble to move it along. So, Simon’s live version on Live Rhymin’ suffers from the opposite extreme. Here, Simon strips the song down to just voice and guitar, but now the song sounds desolate in a way that still does not do justice to the lyric. So I went in search of the perfect cover, a version that heard what I hear. Phoebe Snow’s version is marred by the pop-jazz arrangement that worked so beautifully for Poetry Man, but became a cliché for her. Annie Lennox did a cover years later that Simon blessed with his backing vocals and guitar playing, but here again I find the production overdone. There is a DVD of Paul Simon and Friends where Dianne Reaves takes the song and gives it a promising small band jazz reading, but Reaves loses her mind at the bridge, and falls into the trap of oversinging the song. I was afraid to even sample versions by Barbara Streisand and Celine Dion with the Muppets.

Finally, I stumbled upon this version by Jeanne O’Connor. I had not heard of her before, but by this time I knew the version I wanted would be by an indie artist. It would be someone who avoided the temptation to overproduce the song by the simple expedient of not having the budget to do so. This is a small ensemble jazz take, which suits the song well, but O’Connor keeps her voice under control. By not forcing things, she allows the emotion of Simon’s writing to shine through as it always should have. O’Connor’s vocal has enough heart to make the song completely convincing, but she does not impose her will on a song that is too fine to need that kind of help. There is still room for someone to record the perfect version of the song, perhaps with guitar and a small folk combo. But until that version is recorded or finds my ears, this will do nicely.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


Couldn't resist. Or at least I think I couldn't, but maybe not. Fate. Kismet. Call it what you will, it's all pre-destined, yeah? Maybe.

In keeping with my last posting, I thought I would again follow on the dextrous direction that began with red and was followed by the devil. In truth, I am not sure of what fate's right hand, or indeed left, might mean, or how they may differ, unless the former is the butter side up, the latter, butter side down. Indeed, is luck the same as fate? Is fate the same as luck? I am uncertain whether this metaphysical troubled Rodney Crowell much when writing the song. It just sorta sounds good, the lyric then being one of those stream of consciousness lists like Reasons to be Cheerful (right hand) or We Didn't Start the Fire (left hand), the words as important for their order and sound as their meaning, yet entirely also dependent thereupon. Clever, if confusing.

Rodney Crowell feels to have been around forever in my musical lifetime, first as the callow youth alongside Emmylou Harris in her Hot Band, writing the knock-out (and album stand-out) side one closer, Till' I Gain Control Again, on Elite Hotel. That was back in 1975, and he has kept on keeping on. Marrying into country royalty, becoming husband to Roseanne, daughter of Johnny, Cash in 1979, until 1992, will have done no harm either, but he was already successfully penning material for a range of significant other artists, including Bob Seger, as well as a roster of more typical country performers. Having had limited success with his solo records, he effectively put his career on hold to helm her own, writing much of the material and producing. In the 80's he hit his own paydirt, with a run of records that cemented his reputation. 1988's Diamonds and Dirt managed 5 (country) number ones alone. Here's one of 'em.

However, for me it is his later trio of recordings, starting with The Houston Kid, in 2001, that hold the strongest appeal. Biographical in style, I strongly commend these three, with Fate's Right Hand, containing the eponymous song of this piece, and The Outsider making up the triad, now commonly referred to as the Houston trilogy. This period of his life also produced his book, the commendable and likewise autobiographical Chinaberry Sidewalks: a Memoir, covering the same somewhat tumultuous childhood as do the songs. Wonderful stuff. Here's a song:

Into the last decade he has again teamed up with Emmylou Harris, producing a brace of duet albums and going on tour with her, still managing other output as well. This years Close Ties reveals him now to be an elder statesman, performing alongside ex-wife Cash and Sheryl Crow, amongst others. I have seen him twice within the last five years, once with Emmylou, and once as a featured singer with the celebrated Transatlantic Sessions, the show that brings together the best of scots/irish with american musicians, held every year over here in the UK. On both occasions he shone, the grittier counterpoint to Emmylou at the one, and an altogether americana tour de force at the other.

A final word, lest all this talk of country be off-putting. This isn't and never has been any saccharine "& western": his genre has always been in those slightly rougher roadhouses, where rockabilly meets western swing, leaving always room for a weeping steel barroom ballad, ahead of another rousing rocker. I'd like to shake his hand. Right hand.

Choose Rodney!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Right: Dr. John's Right Place, Wrong Time

purchase [Right Time, Wrong Place]

The Nite Tripper indeed. Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, better known as Dr. John has been making music since the late 50s- from time to time finding himself in the right place. The list of musicians he has worked with is so long that it is almost shorter to list those he hasn't played with at one time or another.

In '72, a year before he made a name for himself beyond being known as a great session player, he came out with Iko Iko. And then followed it up in '73 with "Right Time".

The lyrics for his classic <Right Place, Wrong Time> point out how close you can get and still miss the mark. Kind of like "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades". I appreciate the "brain salad surgery" reference to the Doctor's state of mind - which Emerson Lake & Palmer picked up on. And this phrase leads to my more favorite and related line: "refried confusion" . I also note the multiple references to missed opportunities such as "right vein... wrong arm" and "right road ... wrong car". And yes, Dr John has been clean since the 80s, before when he was definitely on the wrong path.

The song is such a classic that you'll find a number of friends performing it with the man himself.

There's a pleasantly informative interview done by SongFacts that will give you some additional perspective.

with Johnny Winter:

with Eric Clapton:

Friday, June 30, 2017

Right: Night Time is the Right Time

Ray Charles: Night Time is the Right Time


Aretha Franklin: Night Time is the Right Time


Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas: Night Time is the Right Time


Count Basie and Big Joe Turner: Night Time is the Right Time


R&B, the musical genre, bears no resemblance today to its origin as Rhythm and Blues. In particular, all traces of actual blues have been scrubbed out of today’s R&B. But it was not always this way, and Night Time is the Right Time is a perfect song to make the point. The earliest recorded version of the song was a midtempo blues by Roosevelt Sykes in 1937. From there, many other blues artists of the day recorded their versions, with varying lyrics and moods. Nappy Brown added the background singers, and chose the lyrics we know now in 1957. But it was Ray Charles the following year who created the version that has become the starting point for any subsequent versions. Normally, when you perform the song, you are covering Ray Charles in some way, at that is certainly the case with all of the versions I have chosen. Charles sped up Nappy Brown’s version, giving the song the feel it has now.

Aretha Franklin takes the song and turns it into a piano blues, but her vocal line reveals her roots in gospel. It is a combination that has real power. Rufus Thomas and Carla Thomas showcase the state of Rhythm and Blues in 1964 with their version, and show how the song can work as a duet. Finally, in 1974, there is this wonderful take by Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. Basie and Turner go way back. They often worked together during the big band era, with a full band behind them. But, in 1974, such artists who were even still around were working with much smaller groups. Basie and Turner did not fight that here. The album this is from featured a four piece horn section, but they are not heard on this track. Instead, Basie and Turner offer a stripped down version that takes the song back to its blues roots.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I don't know what colour the devil's right hand may be, but it would not surprise me if it were, too, red, what with what he has in it, as the theme moves to another right hand. (And there are a few other right hands out there, should the rest of the team choose to follow.....)

The song, 'Devil's Right Hand', written by Steve Earle in the very early 80's, yet appearing first on 1989's 'Copperhead Road', down to an earlier record label owning the rights to it, on an album they never released. So already typically part of the Earle paradigm of paradox, luck never quite in step with his profligate writing talents. And, since then, much as Earle's fortunes have changed in every which way, down, up and sideways, so the song has morphed with him, appearing in many styles and with, often, subtle symbolic shifts in the lyric.  It was still his encore when I saw him live last year.

At face value it is a simple and almost traditional folk ballad, warning of the dangers of gunplay. Earle himself fought initially shy of citing it an overt anti-firearms/anti-handgun song. But, at at time when his own private life was under some federal scrutiny, there came a surprising life imitates art moment.  I will let Earle take up the tale:

And I make no bones about including a 3rd version, this time the re-recording for the 'Brokeback Mountain'. Why a re-recording? It seems there was some disquietude in having a film set between 1963 and 1983 featuring a song (nominally) from after that time. This faster version is designed to be in the style of relevant time period. (And you thought filmmakers just slap any old song in to fit a mood, with neither thought nor consistency! Well, of course most do......)

With a song of this sort, a message with a moral, a good ol' tale of ornery folk, it has been hardly surprising that it has been much covered by the great and the good, with the royalty of country outlaw chic leading the way. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings have each performed it separately, as well as together, in tandem with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, as the Highwaymen. Webb Wilder, Bob Seger and, english folk giants, Show of Hands (not on youtube), have also done the song proud. (Strangely, and I cannot quite see why, youtube shows me that not a few white supremacist bands have taken it up. I had never quite seen them on that side of the gun lobby, not least as I might be reasonably happy to see them all shoot themselves up, but I digress...)

Devil's Right Hand, buy it and make him one-handed!! Even more versions than featured here!!!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Right: Red Right Hand

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Red Right Hand
[purchase the album]
[purchase Seasons 1-3 of Peaky Blinders]

Sometimes, a song seems to have been written for a specific event, but it turns out to be a coincidence. I remember just after 9/11, at least three songs were being played on the radio that appeared to relate to the attack—Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.,” with its references to tall buildings shaking, skyscrapers scraping together and smoke, Afro-Celt Sound System and Peter Gabriel’s “When You’re Falling,” with its references to falling off of buildings through smoke and clouds, and Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York,” which sounds like a love song to the devastated city. But each of these songs was written before the attack and have nothing to do with it (the Ryan Adams song is actually a love song to a city resident, and the video was shot 4 days before, and includes shots of the World Trade Center).

Which is a long way around saying that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ song, “Red Right Hand,” sounds like it was written specifically to be the theme song for the BBC TV show, Peaky Blinders, but, in fact, was written two decades earlier.

For those of you who are living under a rock, or under an outdated belief that television sucks, it is currently the age of “Peak TV,” where there is just so much great stuff available to watch, on streaming platforms, cable, and even on broadcast TV, that it is literally impossible to see everything good. A few years ago, my friend Tom suggested that I watch Peaky Blinders, a show about a Romani/Irish gang run by the Shelby family in Birmingham, England, after World War I, and I decided to give it a try. The Peaky Blinders gang, which actually existed, supposedly derived their name from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peak of their flat caps to use as weapons, but that story may be apocryphal.

I was hooked, immediately. The central character, Tommy Shelby, a damaged, decorated veteran, is ambitious, ruthless and apparently fearless. His goal appears to be to consolidate the family power, then to expand their influence to London, and maybe further. As is common in such stories, such as The Godfather, or Boardwalk Empire (to which it is often compared), there is a plan to begin to move toward engaging in legitimate business, which turns out to never be as easy as it seems. They are opposed not only by other criminal gangs, but also by the authorities, who want to both use the Blinders for their own agenda, while ultimately bringing them down. This ambiguity includes an uneasy relationship with Winston Churchill.

The show is, often, over the top, with choreographed and hyper-dramatic scenes of violence and mayhem, but it is also a family drama, as Tommy needs to deal with his brothers and other gang members, a headstrong sister who ran off with a Marxist, and his aunt, who ran the gang while the men were off at war, and still wields substantial power. There are, of course, love interests and interactions with Downton Abbey-esque nobility, Italian and Jewish gangsters, and IRA fighters.

In any event, Tommy Shelby, as played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is one scary motherfucker. And “Red Right Hand,” describes

A tall handsome man 
In a dusty black coat with 
A red right hand 

The rest of the lyrics describe this man as terrifying, mysterious and dangerous:

You'll see him in your nightmares 
You'll see him in your dreams 
He'll appear out of nowhere but 
He ain't what he seems 

Not to mention the fact that the music, as is typical for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, is eerie and filled with foreboding. It sets a perfect tone for the show, and the song, and other Cave songs, are used throughout the series to great effect. There have been three seasons, so far, with two more promised.

But, as I said, the song was released in 1994, when Cillian Murphy was playing in rock bands, two years before he got his first acting gig. Prior to Peaky Blinders, the song was used in a number of films, including Dumb and Dumber, and the Scream franchise, and in an episode of The X-Files. It has even been used by the South Australian Tourist Board for a commercial campaign.

I have to admit that before watching the show, I was no fan of Cave. And I still don’t love all of his music—some of it is just too dark and strange for me. But Peaky Blinders turned me on to “Red Right Hand,” and other songs of his that I’ve grown to love.

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 backstage

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.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Hard: Hardgroove


I’ve written many times about how lucky I am to live in Tarrytown, New York, in part because the Tarrytown Music Hall is within an easy walk from my house. I’ve seen so many incredible rock and folk music shows there, that I’ve lost count.

This week, the musical landscape of Tarrytown got even better, as a new jazz club, Jazz Forum, opened last weekend, also within walking distance. My wife and I attended the early show on Saturday, featuring the Roy Hargrove Quintet, and were completely blown away. The club itself is beautiful—a minimalist L shaped space with room for 85 patrons without crowding and the walls are covered with art from local artists that will rotate over time. There is a gorgeous, specially made bar and a back room with comfy chairs and a pool table. The current menu is limited to dips and tapenades, charcuterie and cheeses, all of which looked delicious (we didn’t eat on this visit). The service was professional, friendly and not obtrusive, which was remarkable considering that we were at only the third show after it opened.

So, how does this fit our theme? Simply because opening a new jazz club is hard. Opening any business is hard, opening a music club is harder, and I suspect that opening a jazz club is even harder still. Google the statistics for new business failures, and you can see that it ain’t easy. But I think that Jazz Forum has a good chance to succeed. The main reason is that its owners, Mark Morganelli and his wife Ellen Prior know what they are doing. Morganelli, an excellent trumpeter and flugelhorn player in his own right, has been promoting jazz shows for almost four decades. He has promoted jazz shows and festivals in Westchester County and other suburbs for years, including for many years at the Tarrytown Music Hall and his connections in the business are myriad. Not only do these connections and friendships give him a leg up in luring top talent to play a small suburban club, Tarrytown’s location, an easy drive or train ride from New York, make it an attractive place to play and for audience members to come and listen. Also, I heard at least one patron tell Prior how happy he was to be able to hear such great music without having to head into the city. So, while the endeavor itself is hard, and it may be hard to keep Jazz Forum alive, I think that it will beat the odds.

Jazz it also hard, but Roy Hargrove and his band made it look almost easy. Hargrove was a trumpet prodigy, discovered in high school by Wynton Marsalis (a future Jazz Forum headliner? Maybe….), who has created a Grammy Award winning career, and regularly is considered to be one of the top trumpeters of his era. His soloing was incredible, but he also was willing to cede the spotlight to his fine band, fiery alto sax player Justin Robinson, subtle pianist Tadataka Unno, the rock solid Danton Boller on bass and creative drummer Willie Jones, III. Here’s a brief snippet from the show we saw, stolen from Mark’s Facebook page. You can sort of see us in the video, at the end, looking blurry.

The featured song was chosen for its title (a pun on Hargrove’s name), and not because they played it last night. It is from a project called RH Factor, featuring Hargrove and other jazz musicians along with non-jazz musicians including Erykah Badu, Common, D'Angelo, Meshell Ndegeocello, Q-Tip and Karl Denson. Hargrove has long experimented with “crossing over” to popular music, which is either a way to broaden the audience for jazz, or selling out, depending on the critic. The track is more of a soul/funk groove than a traditional jazz piece, and it really is great.

I know that my wife and I are looking forward to future shows at Jazz Forum, and thank Mark and Ellen for doing something hard to make hearing great jazz easy for us.