Tuesday, December 25, 2012

CESOTW - December 25, 2012

What could be a more precious sight than children on Christmas? Their joy is irreplaceable on this most magical day, and it becomes yours. They are arbitrary little things, grasping onto that last-minute stocking stuffer while the big present you spent half your Fall planning goes ignored. I takes them awhile to soak up That Which Santa Brought. It cannot be forced upon them. As always, they do things at their own time. It is only later in the day, when everyone's tied up in the kitchen and they've taken inventory of it all, that they fix their attention on That Which They Like Most. It's such a joy to catch them when everyone else has vacated the living room for appetizers and wine and the fire has died to ashes. The pressure to exhibit happiness is off, and it is only then that they begin to play on their terms instead of yours. How much louder do they sing when they don't know you're listening?

Your Christmas Edition Early Evening Song of the Week for December 25, 2012 draws its title from the holiday and its inspiration from the faces of the young on Christmas Morning. An early-mid climax from the Who's opus 1969 masterwork, Tommy, this gear-shifting anthem jumps into my mind every year when I open my eyes on the morning of 25 December. To be certain, a Christmas song that ponders the fate of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball champion makes for a quirky holiday tradition! I hope that You and Yours have had a blessed Christmas day. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

SOTW - December 21, 2012 - Newtown

We human souls toil painfully to explain bad things. Our minds struggle with the hows and whys of inexplicable evil like that visited on Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. It is among life's angriest endeavors, one that is ultimately to no avail. It's beyond us. But one emotion cuts through the confusion and helps us make sense of our human role in these events. Compassion for the victims is the Guidestar that leads us through the agony. Whether we stand at Ground Zero staring at those thousands of names carved in bronze, or watch the faces of the 20 precious Angels now with God (and the brave Guardians who went with them) float from our television screens into Eternity, comisseration for those lost and those left behind takes over. It helps us heal.

Newtown, a nation of 300 million and a world beyond shares your pain. We cannot explain why, so we will not try. We can only hold our arms out for you and pray for your comfort in this darkest hour. We pray that these lives were not lost in vain, and that the un-fillable void they've left behind can be displaced in part by a national resolve to act; to do what it takes, whatever the cost, to stop this scourge of violence in our society.

I do not purport to be a wise enough man to have the Answers, to know definitively what the source of this problem is and what will work (and not work) to wipe these tragedies away. But I do know that we are facing a very real, present, and dangerous problem. This is no time for closed minds and obstinance. Staying the same course will bring these tragedies to other communities, sooner rather than later. So, as a nation, what are we going to do? We must decide.

Your Early Evening Song of the Week for December 22, 2012 carries a message of empathy and awareness. Newtown, we hear your cries. We are there with you, and we are listening. God bless you in your time of need.


Friday, November 30, 2012

The Championship - SOTW November 30, 2012

What heady times to be a Georgia Bulldog! Finally, the chips fell on our way. The Ghosts of 1980 are summoned. 24's and 8's and 34's float through our collective dreams. "Run, Lindsay!" October's agony has turned into November's ecstasy. One. More. Game. Dawgs. Wide open. No nerves, just a little trip to Miami. Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?  

No matter what happens tomorrow, this has been an unforgettable week. All around us, people smile intermittently just thinking about what will happen inside the _Georgia_ Dome in 19 hours. It's been like slogging a 40 pound pack up one of the 5,500 foot peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains and seeing the blue sky over the top for the first time. Almost there. Almost there. 

Sports, like music, are part of the fabric our lives. This week's about as good as it gets for a lifelong Georgian and third-generation Bulldog. (Pop, I miss you buddy. This week would have made you chuckle. I'll pull 'em through.) The anticipation can be the best part. It's how we build the mental power to will them through. 

For your Early Evening Song of the Week for November 30, 2012, we must go kinetic. Searching backwards for the most fired up song in my catalog, my thoughts drifted back to 1991 and MTV's Headbanger's Ball. 
(Metallica's "Harvester of Sorrow" and Pantera's "Walk" were under consideration, but seemed a bit serious for the occasion.) I'd sit up well past midnight watching Riki Rachtman perform his clown routine, hoping upon hope that this bone crusher would tax the speakers of the old 27 inch Sanyo woodgrain tube TV in our playroom. It's a cross-genre collabo par excellence; a combination made more powerful by its sheer unlikeliness. Surely, Flavor Flav could see this day coming when he selected the Red and Black jumpsuit for the off-stage interludes. Tomorrow, Bulldog fans, heed Chuck D's advice. Bring the noise! It's not like we've waited since 1983 for this day to come. 

Go. Dawgs. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Turkey Waltz

What better holiday than the one focused on taking stock of our blessings? No gifts, no pressure, no feigned excitement; just all of us expressing thanks for gifts already received. But, before the thanking begins in earnest, we all know that there is a little down time. It starts around 9:50 a.m., once we've had breakfast but before preparations for the Big Meal begin. It's too late for coffee and too early for beer. The relatives aren't in town yet. Football doesn't start for hours and the turkey isn't even in the oven yet. I know, I know, there's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But whatever its (dubious) historical merits may be, is watching overly made-up actors lip sync stale songs whilst frolicking amongst giant inflatable comic book characters and super-happy elves your idea of entertainment?

For a more enriching Thanksgiving down time tradition, consider The Band's opus masterpiece, The Last Waltz. A full discussion of their brilliance is for another time. Jumping forward to the end, by 1976, they were spent. Star-driven egos (Robertson), addictions (Danko), infirmity (Manuel), and exasperation (Helm, Hudson) had reduced the former Hawks to a less functional state. The Greats have an instinct for knowing when the end is near. They know when to pull the Plug. So it was in November 1976 for the Band. A simple press release was no fitting end. Instead, on November 25, 1976 (your author's first birthday; Karma), they packed the old Winterland Arena in San Francisco with 5,000 fortunates and had a Bill Graham orchestrated Party. It was Thanksgiving Day. "Mom, I'm not going to make it home this year."

In a twist, the concert did not start immediately; Thanksgiving dinner was first served to the assembled mass. This surely was the most raucous Thanksgiving dinner in history; a supercharged throng of post-hippie Woodstock vets dining patiently on turkey and salmon while waiting for their Heroes to take the stage. To have been a centerpiece on that table! Once satiated, the mass saw a show for the ages, with a Hall of Fame parade of guests ranging from Muddy Waters to Neil Young to Neil Diamond to Bob Dylan. It is not known to be their greatest live performance (for a superior live recording, see Rock of Ages, which documents their excellent 1971 New Year's show), but its historical significance is outsized. Rolling Stone has described the Martin Scorsese directed video documentary as the greatest Rock film ever. (I would place it somewhere around number 2, with the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter being a clear 1). It is a marvelous and artful portrayal of legendary musicians as idols and human beings, jamming for their last time together. It is the Citizen Kane of Rock documentaries, an essential study for any Music Fan. So, as you sit around twiddling your smart phone at 10:00 a.m. this Thanksgiving, or next, do yourself and your family a favor. Show them The Last Waltz. You will all be enriched.

An Early Evening Thanksgiving Reminder. We are ALL blessed. This Earth is a wonderful place, full of color and laughter. We are lucky to be here together. For those of you dealing with trials and tribulations this Thanksgiving, we are all pulling for you. There are better days ahead. Hang in there! If health and good fortune are the order of your day, then the blessings are more apparent. Do not take them for granted. No matter what, if you are reading this, then you have reason to give thanks. Take a moment tomorrow. Think about it. Be thankful. Count your blessings. One. By. One.        

Saturday, October 13, 2012

SOTW - October 13, 2012 - John Prine

John Prine is an understudied legend. His decades-long catalog is a Transcendentalist portrait of Americana. Perhaps best known for 1971's "Angel From Montgomery," Prine broke out of the Chicago folk scene in the late 60's (what is it with the Midwest and its folk singers?) and has built his 40-plus year legacy working in modest obscurity. Never experiencing the popular forces that tear so viciously at the Bob Dylans of the world, he has maintained vigor and perspective. I saw Prine at the Fox Theater last winter and it was mystifying. Sitting deeply in my pitch dark seat watching him and his guitar under a single pillar of light, I felt confident he could give me the Key to Universe if given another hour.

Ever noticed David Allen Coe's reference to Steve Goodman in 1974's farcical hit "You Never Even Called Me By My Name?" Well, that's only half the story. Prine actually co-wrote the song with Goodman, but (smartly, I think) declined songwriting credit. Prine's share of the take ended up being a jukebox from Goodman purchased with the resulting royalties.

For the uninitiated, start with his eponymous 1971 debut or 1976's early-career compilation, Prime Prine. For a late career highlight, 2005's Fair and Square is an hour well spent.  

The late '00's brought a Prine revival of sorts as current popular artists expressed their appreciation. A series of performances with Prine and My Morning Jacket's Jim James (or, at the time, alter ego "Yim Yames") culminated in 2010's superior tribute, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows. With an artist lineup ranging from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to the Avett Brothers to Old Crow Medicine Show to Mike Cooley of the Drive By Truckers, Broken Hearts is that rarest of species, a tribute record with artistic vitality. It's like a group of youngsters opened a closet at grandma's house and found a dusty old toy that, while different, was of such quality and significance they couldn't resist getting it out and playing with it. The highlight of the record, My Morning Jacket's richly-textured cover of Prines touching All the Best,  is your Song of the Week for October 13, 2012. If you have no John Prine, there is a hole in your collection. Fill it.   

Saturday, September 22, 2012

SOTW - September 22, 2012

Fall approaches! Outside, things change ever so slowly. The oppression of the heat eases. The morning air is crisp. Sleeves become necessary for the first time in months. The sky is less hazy and the afternoon light takes a longer angle off the leaves. As we all know, fall Saturday mornings are best. Whether you are walking through the woods, towards a stadium, or simply around your yard, an early fall Saturday is just inviting.

To Your Writer, the Early Evening Song of the Week for September 22, 2012 feels like a fall morning. Nashville eminence and Berklee College product David Rawlings is one of the world's most gifted guitarists. Historically serving as accompaniment to the brilliant Gillian Welch, Rawlings was less known for his vocals. That changed with the formation of the Dave Rawlings Machine in 2009 and the release of the timeless A Friend of a Friend. That album's first and best track, "Ruby," is so chock full of imagery it sounds like Wordsworth written for the early '00's country-folk set. Enjoy, and have a great weekend.


Friday, September 7, 2012

SOTW - September 7, 2012

I admit it. I am a sucker for a cover. Tasteful covers are good. Smartly-chosen cross-genre covers are even better. Think the Gourd's unforgettable take on "Gin and Juice." Anybody ever heard Phish insert themselves into un-jam Warhol-era NYC via The Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll?" How about the 'Stones going straight Motown with a late 70's take on the Temptations' "Just My Imgination?" In my favorite recent example, hear the Futurebirds channel mid 80's VH1 (minus Helena Christensen) with a scorching take on Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game."

We could play this game all day, but I will instead suggest an inviting recent example of the cross-genre cover. In your Song of the Week for September 7, 2012, non-trippy indie smugsters The Decemberists dust off a sacred passage from ... The Grateful Dead of all people. This non-Skeletons from the Closet Dead classic was a sure-fire crowd pleaser and is a welcome addition to any setlist (the '73 vintage is choice to this listener). The Decemberists give it a light-hearted take that encourages the rolling down of windows on a not-so-hot September Friday. Have a great weekend, and stay safe out there!


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Old Crow Medicine Show - album review

Old Crow Medicine Show
Carry Me Back 
ATO Records 

Nobody ever accused the Old Crow Medicine Show of being a bunch of phonies. Drawing from a bottomless pit of energy and smiling all along, this modern folk acoustic experiment branded the music world with their old-time Americana beginning with 2004's superb O.C.M.S. With perfect focus, they plug the listener into their hand-blown tales of the new/old South. In terms of subject matter, think Bill Monroe meets Drive By Truckers. After lighting off the mid '00's Folkgrass revival with their debut, they rode a wave through 2006's superb Big Iron World. On those first two albums, we hear a band of telepathically-linked troubadours gathered around, and pouring their full souls into, a single microphone stand. The days of busking on the sidewalks of Boone were never far behind, until now.

2008's Tennessee Pusher represented a welcome change of pace. The raw material of the early output was there, but in a more refined form imposed by producer Don Was. Sprinkles of electric instrumentation added a charge to the presentation. More serious themes (addiction and assassination) were interspersed with their typical tongue-in-cheek bootlegger comic book material. Pusher hummed. 

A four-year break in recorded material followed while the band toured tirelessly. By August  of 2011, burnout set in and Old Crow went on hiatus. The big shock to the system came in early 2012 with the news that Willie Watson was out of the lineup. [Sigh.] While Ketch Secor is rightfully the Captain of this ship, Watson was the unshakable First Mate. The Wee One's pristine wail vividly painted essential early material such as "Tear it Down" and "Down Home Girl." 

Enter Old Crow's fourth studio effort, the listenable but unspectacular Carry Me Back. The post-Watson era finds a band less willing to take risks. The synergistic fire of the early records is diffused, an apparent a result of our troubadours being sent into separate foam-padded rooms with their instruments during recording instead of playing as one. What you hear are highly-competent professionals playing it safe. Opener "Carry Me Back" is rollicking folkgrass, but misses the spitfire of Pusher's "Alabama High-Test." Album co-highlight "We Don't Grow Tobacco" is about the only number that would find itself at home on O.C.M.S. "Bootlegger's Boy" and "Mississippi Saturday Night" are competent but strain thematically, leading the educated listener to long for the simplicity of Big Iron's "New Virginia Creeper." Even the slow numbers fail to fully connect. Carry Me Back's "Levi" is a simple cousin of Big Iron's "James River Blues" and "Ain't it Enough" is a less-earnest stepsister to "I Hear Them All." Pardon the comparisons, but they are hard to escape when listening to the mighty Medicine Show play it too close to the vest.     

While Watson's departure leaves the manic energy of the earlier albums in short supply, the re-introduction of original DNA in the form of Critter Fuqua and new blood in the form of Chance McCoy is welcome. Fuqua's "Sewanee Mountain Catfight" is a back-to-basics energy flash that propels the back half of the album. McCoy's co-highlight, "Genevieve," is stirring country, if slightly out of place in this context. 

Carry Me Back reaches for the past indeed, just not quite far enough. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

SOTW - July 27, 2012

As the summer drags towards its bitter end and the days become ever so shorter, the earth seems to hold accumulated heat like a giant cosmic sponge. There are no brisk mornings. Even when the great burning ball of helium and stuff has been out of sight for 8 hours, heat radiates off the pavement in waves. The humidity out there at 7:00 a.m. is enough to choke you during vigorous exercise. Forget 3 in the afternoon, the pre-dawn is painful when August comes in Georgia!

Need a way to beat the heat but already taken your beach trip(s)? Head down to the Normal Bar in Athens, GA on a Thursday happy hour for a fresh squeezed citrus cocktail (the Salty Dog is a good start, or finish). I swear it's 10 degrees cooler in the parking lot behind that place when the Farm cart is set up, ablaze with Christmas lights and Phish bootlegs, serving grass-fed double "cheesy burguhs" (as my dear Wellie calls them). The recently added post-Navy Supply School sundown amplifications of "Taps," "Reveille," and a full-length "National Anthem" (no Rusty, not the Radiohead version) add charm. It's very local and a good way to spend an evening.

Speaking of summer and citrus cocktails, your Song of the Week for July 27, 2012 is a near-perfect piece of swinging indie rock that always makes me feel like I'm staring out over the ocean, wind in my face on a breezy July afternoon. Here, we find Jeff Tweedy at his mellow best; contemplative yet hopeful, with a dose of post-Uncle Tupelo space. Have a beautiful and blessed weekend, and stay cool however you have to do it!      

Friday, July 13, 2012

About the Velvet Underground

It doesn't matter whether we define Rock and Roll as attitude or art; the Velvet Underground were unqualified Masters. But fame and fortune do not always accompany mastery. Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker comprised the most under-appreciated band in the genre's history. Their legacy is one of influence instead of album sales. To the few that know and appreciate their music, they are Giants, artists' artists. Peter Buck said it best: "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."

They were the original purveyors of aggressive East Coast chic rocker cool. Ever seen a stoic cooler-than-thou garage band rocker in all black with wraparound shades and boots (pants tucked in, of course)? The Underground did it first. Ever heard a punk band ride a 2 or 3 chord drone to glory and wonder who invented the mode? I've got your answer. Ever heard (great underrated American Ballad) "Sweet Jane?" That's a Velvet Underground song. Ever seen this Warhol piece?

It's the cover of a Velvet Underground record. That takes us to the beginning, in mid 1960's New York. Dylan wrecked his motorcycle in '66 and moved to Woodstock to recuperate. He had become such a global commodity by that point I doubt the locals still viewed him as their own. There was thus something of a hole in the mid-60's New York music scene. Simultaneously, Andy Warhol's star was exploding. After his first major display in the City in 1962, Warhol moved on to set up the cultural and artistic supernova known as the Factory. Every legendary scene needs a house band and 1965 was a big year for legendary scenes. It was then that Warhol became the Underground's manager and wove them into the fabric of his ongoing artistic project at the Factory. Simultaneously, on the Left Coast, Ken Kesey served as cosmic midwife to the Grateful Dead at the Acid Tests. (Coincidentally, both bands originally performed under the name "Warlocks" before switching monikers). Realizing that he was on to something, Warhol brought supermodel Nico into the flock, made them the centerpiece of his deep space "multimedia" extravaganza, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and took them out on the road in 1966.

It was during the Expolding Plastic era that the band recorded their first, most famous, and most influential album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Legend has it that the album was recorded in a mind-boggling four days at a rundown studio in New York at a total cost of $1,500 to $3,000. It's influence has reverberated ever since. Owing to the metropolis where the band cut its teeth, it paints a stark urban landscape of drugs, S&M and prostitution. This was not your everyday mid-60's Rock subject matter. The album is musically and lyrically brilliant; frank and hard-hitting. Here, you see artists doing exactly as they intended. No words are minced. To borrow a favorite line from my scholarly uncle, Tom McIntyre, Nico demands to be listened to. This is an album for driving down a dark highway, alone and in a serious frame of mind. I am a late comer to Nico. I bought it for the first time recently on a long drive and listened to it twice without stopping. I would have listened a third time, but I ran out of road. It's that good, but you have to be patient. This album appeared at number 13 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list and is essential material for any serious music fan's catalog.     

Though their vitality never faded, the Underground's post Nico era became a typical Rock story of artistic differences, in-fighting, course shifts, and evolution. After firing Warhol and seeing Nico quit, the band released White Light/White Heat in January of 1968. Those who were shocked by Nico were surely appalled by White Light. None of the sporadic elegance of Nico is present here. With the volume increased beyond clarity, the music is sharply angular and piercing; the themes more abstract ("Lady Godiva's Operation") and disturbing ("The Gift"). The signature piece here is the bleak chaos of "Sister Ray," which takes the listener through 17 plus minutes of fuzzy droning gutter poetry that plays like "A Day in the Life" for junkies. It's a must-listen for serious fans only and is guaranteed not to leave you in high spirits.

A single step into the abyss beyond White Light would have robbed the band of its legacy and relegated its following to a small population of noise freaks. Instead, the Velvets did what Legends do when a wall approaches. They shifted gears. A listener bothered by White Light will find herself smiling comfortably at the summer afternoon yard music of 1969's The Velvet Underground. Per Wikipedia, the shift we hear here from abstraction to sing-along was driven by the resolution of the artistic rift between Reed's pop instincts and Cale's art deco compulsions. Reed prevailed, and Cale left the band in 1968. The result was a palette of earnest and accessible near-pop. Highlights are the growing-up revelations of "Beginning to See the Light," the jubilant rolls of "What Goes On," and the late-night lonely lover's mediation, "Pale Blue Eyes."

After a year spent largely on the road in 1969 (see The Velvet Underground Live), the band returned to the studio in 1970 under a new label (Atlantic). By that point, Country had begun its percolation through Rock, fueled by the late 60's Ry Cooder/Graham Parsons influenced 'Stones material (see "Country Honk" and "Dead Flowers"). Not even New York based art rockers like the Velvets were immune. They made a slight course alteration, embraced just enough Country, and reeled off their most accessible record, 1970's Loaded. If you don't have Loaded and you buy it, you'll wonder what took you so long. It's pure classic, like someone took the Flying Burrito Brothers and turned them into country-rock superheroes. The Americana of "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" (anybody else at 3/1/03 Phish in Greensboro?) plays like On the Road for post-hippies. Lock into the bass line on "Cool it Down" and try not to bob your head. "Head Held High" is the perfect soundtrack for a movie bar fight scene. The whole thing ends with the spiraling mellow elegance of the greatest song you've never heard, "Oh, Sweet Nuthin'." It's "Can't You See" for Hipsters!

As we've discussed before, the truest legends know exactly when to quit; it's a component of their greatness. Thus, Loaded was the Velvets' parting shot. (We do not count here 1972's counterfeit hijacking of the VU badge, Squeeze.) They never found commercial success as a band. But as between mountains of money and a giant Legacy, which would you prefer?


Friday, June 29, 2012

SOTW - June 29, 2012

[Publisher's Note: For my (3 or 4) loyal readers, I'm sorry to have been asleep at the switch for the last month. Busy times plus vacation plus lost loved ones cut my creative writing time to zero. More on that later.]

Returning to our recent conversation on Supergroups, you apparently cannot form one these days without John McCauley. The fast-rising Deer Tick front man is finding his way into some quality side projects. This week saw him join local hero Hardy Morris and the rest of the Diamond Rugs on Letterman for a hot take on "Blue Mountains." The new 'Rugs disc is worth repeated listening. Check it out. 

McCauley is equal parts bombastic Rock and Roll hero and tortured poet of the Kurt Cobain vein. He is alternately caustic and soulful. I left a recent Deer Tick gig at the Georgia Theater blown away by his stage presence and dexterity, at least when he wasn't trying to make out with girls in the front row or drink 16 ounce Coors lights at an ounce per second. There is a harmless self-destructiveness about him. You find yourself pulling for him to keep it together while harboring zero confidence that it will happen. In a short 8 year career, he has released a deep catalog of honest power folk that demands hearing. 

Your Song of the Week for June 29, 2012 is from one of McCauley's recent side projects, Middle Brother. Here, he is joined in fine spirits by Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit. The band's eponymous debut of hyper-accessible country-tinged indie pop is carried by instant classics like "Blue Eyes" and "Portland." The bubblegum catchy Paul Simonesque bounce of the title track is what hooked me. Need an instant good mood? Check out some Middle Brother. Have a great weekend, and stay out of the Great Outdoor Georgia Microwave! 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

SOTW - May 18, 2012

It seems last week's post created a bit of confusion. After "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World, Part II" went to press, I received a series of misplaced Spence-has-finally-seen-the-light-and-is-in-the-Beatles-camp now emails. C'mon guys. You know better. An explanation is in order. I do not have permission from Derek Wildstar to disclose his identity and may never. The true origins of GRRBITW, II will likely remain a secret for the Ages. However, let's assume for the sake of this discussion that I did have some creative input. As a lawyer, a critical skill is the ability to see and argue both sides of the same coin. Sometimes, in furthering a client's interests, I must argue a position that I do not necessarily agree with. Agree or disagree, I must be able to put myself in the other side's Cole Haans.

Over the years, for purely academic reasons (of remote interest to about 0.056% of the populace), I've put on my advocate's hat and tried to defend some unpopular musical positions. On that fateful night back in the spring of '95 in Room 18, did I actually believe that the Goo Goo Dolls were better than Phish? No, Cliff, of course not. I was just trying to make an impossible argument. Post Partridge Inn at Kirk's place back in '99 did I really consider Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas to be Eddie Vedder's superior? C'mon Katie! That's borderline treason against the Seattle Crown. It was those Sunday before Monday Practice Round "Strong Island Iced Teas" from Somewhere talking. We've all heard of "the sake of discussion." The phrase means nothing if it's not employed from time to time.

But let's not lose sight of one immutable fact. I am a Stones man. Always will be. Their music is engrained in me. It's there in those cherished slivers of time: Mary Katherine at Wes's Rapper Mansion deciding one "Tumbling Dice" wasn't enough (thus violating Music Commandment 3: Thou shalt never voluntarily play the same song more than once in a night.) At least two different times in my life, having an uninitiated Stones fan look directly at me with an impossible smile on his face and exclaim something close to: "I don't know what this is, but it is bad as hell!" in reference to a Stones album. (Jason Hill about half way between Americus and Cordele on highway 280 at 12:48 a.m. in the back of Mitch's red Sunbird after a Get Yer Ya Ya's Out version of "Sympathy;" James Versaggi back in Room 18 part of the way into Track 3 on Exile during a late night "jam session.") Sitting Indian style on the floor of the Country Club Apartments in Americus with Mitch and Pheil exploring England's Newest Hitmakers like middle schoolers on their first trip to Six Flags. The weight of these experiences is pleasantly overwhelming. They keep me anchored to the Truth. I am a Stones man.

Your Song of the Week for May 17, 2012 is one of their masterpieces. Lyrically, it's chock full of stirring imagery laid against the hazily interspersed instrumental layers so prevalent on Exile. The song substitutes piercing shots of piano for guitar ornamentation as it builds to the greatest mid-song Crescendo in Rock history. On a long ago night in Buckhead, we were at Wes's apartment at the Manor. It was late. Very late. There was a party in progress. Sensing a moment, my dear (and incredibly open minded) friend Jason Wallis pulled a vinyl chair in from the porch and positioned himself, alone, directly in front of the 5,000 whatever watt speakers. For a reason we will never know, he had on sunglasses. This song was playing loud enough to be heard from there to the Disco Kroger. Jason was singularly engrossed. He was seated with his back to all other revelers. It was him and the speakers. As the Crescendo was reached, he felt motivation from deep within, the kind that brilliant music inspires. In a measured display of sheer joy, he balled his hands into two tight fists and slowly raised them as far above his head as he could reach.

"What a beautiful buzz!"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World, Part II

by Derek Wildstar

[Editor's note: For those readers new to this blog, the below represents a response of sorts to the prior post, "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," which ran on September 29, 2011 and can be viewed here.]

The 'Stones? Really? They are perhaps the greatest purveyors of rock imagery ever. Fine. But to say that Rock and Roll is an attitude frames the question so as to beg the answer. We are talking about music, not behaviors. Music is art. Rock and Roll is a genre of music. Rock and Roll is thus art. In music as in life, God is in the details. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but some don't seek to dole compliments. The greatest musicians have something More in mind. They are driven not to refine, but to reprogram; to take the old mold, smash it to pieces, and set it out with the Monday evening trash. We didn't put a Man on the Moon by putting a larger engine and sleeker fins on a 1963 Chevrolet. No, getting there took something More. Rock will always be about something borrowed, but most importantly, it's about something new.

Once the question is properly framed, the answer becomes clear. The Beatles were the Greatest Rock and Roll band that ever was and ever will be. Why? [Deep breath.] It's not a simple matter. Their brilliance is so multi-faceted, so dense with so many overlapping layers, it would take an army of much smarter men than your writer a very long time to deconstruct it; assuming that is even possible. But we can try. Let's break what sets the Beatles apart from the 'Stones (and every other band in history), down into three discrete parts: Imagination, Ability, and Instinct.

Imagination. It all starts here. Like the greatest artists in our history, they did not innovate, they re-imagined. Never has a band so thoroughly created its own plane, it's own mode of existence, as did the Beatles. While outrageousness was sometimes present, it was always focused and employed for the sake of the music, not in the public creation of a marketable brand. While the band forged an eternal image in the popular consciousness and became icons among icons, they were much more concerned with the sound that resulted when they picked up their instruments.

Their creative implements were crude. Harnessing the voices inside their heads was a challenge unto itself. Per Wikipedia, the first practical sound recording and reproduction device was the phonographic cylinder, patented by Thomas Edison in 1878. So, when the Beatles first entered the studio in earnest in 1962, the World was just over four score into the reliable recording of sound. It was like Michelangelo trying to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel with a only a five-gallon bucket and a six-inch wide horse hair brush. The Beatles grasped the challenge and used it as inspiration.

Their evolution was stunning. Within the first 12 months of their recording career, the they came up with this. By late 1966 (that's roughly 48 months later), they made it here using techniques such as "bouncing down," "varispeeding" combined with wah pedals and fuzzboxes (now common, then unknown), all on a four-track recording system that was designed to record a singer, guitar, bass, and drums. Just a year later, they were able to produce this. If the Wright Brothers had gone from flying 120 feet to circling the globe non-stop in the time it took them to finish high school, their advancement would have been no more remarkable. To make such a swift progression, the Beatles had to think in grandiose, but very well-defined, terms. What they sought to create was so massive, yet they could see it so clearly. It's like they could see the forest, and every single leaf on every single tree simultaneously. Even today, over 40 years later, their imagination is staggering. Perfectly realized art never fades into obscurity.

Ability. As a species, we are anxious to ascribe greatness to a person or thing. We overuse superlatives. Anyone who comes up with a good technological idea is "brilliant." Such brevets must be used more sparingly. True brilliance is much more rare than we try to make it. It is most clearly demonstrated in art. You can see it and Hear it, and know that you've never experienced anything like it before and never will again. (Don't believe me? Go the Museum of Modern Art in New York and stand in front of Starry Night for 10 minutes.) It wraps itself around you and drenches your thoughts. Such brilliance cannot be learned. It is 99.99% nature. It will emerge from the artist whether he is born to a seaman in Liverpool or a landed nobleman in Venice. I refer to such artists as "Supernatural." Their ability is so far beyond that of the mortals that surround them (even the merely great artists of their peer group; Eric Clapton is a great guitarist, Jimi Hendrix was Supernatural) that it cannot be explained by any Law of Nature.

To a man, the Beatles were not just good or great. They were Supernatural. Their talent ran so fantastically deep that, when it was unleashed, it did nothing less than change the entire world. It shone from them like summer sun off a windshield. Like William Shakespeare picking up a quill, its emergence was inevitable. They had that Look in their eyes; that singular focus that tells you that a person was put on this earth by some power that we cannot comprehend to do a very specific thing. There is no other way you can describe the response they generated from those that saw them at peak vitality. There was no luck to what they did. It was programmed in them at some sub-microscopic level that we will never understand. Ability.

Instinct. Nothing lasts forever. Art evolves. The masters can see around the next corner before the world gets there. They create what lies around the bend. As good as the Beatles were as musicians, they were equally astute at knowing what to do and when. First, they hooked the world with smiles, short hair, innocence, teen hijinks, and kinetic energy. Then, perfectly on cue, they reached out past the edges of the world as they knew it. They expanded their minds and mode of thinking, soaking up something very foreign and weaving it perfectly into an evolutionary musical fireball. This fearless departure from the path that made them famous is a badge of their instinct. In hindsight it seems like a natural and foreseeable progression. At the time, it was the boldest of strokes. (What if the world had tuned out?) Then, as the energy of psychedelia ebbed, they stripped down and moved back towards their roots, with avant-garde embellishments that laid a creative foundation for genres and sub-genres to follow. It was a exhilarating and dynamic process.

At every step, their timing was perfect. There was never a misfire. It always felt not just fresh or new, but revolutionary. Never once, did they pause too long in a movement. They were always just up around the bend from the mortals who chased them. The brief arc of their career was marked by sustained, intense brilliance. They never let addictions drive wedges between them or adulterate the music; substances were used, but as a propellant. They knew that where a concert was a brief moment in time for the fortunate few who saw it, albums live forever. There wasn't time for everything. Thus, in 1966, they played their last proper concert just 30 months after their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Energy staved not running around stages in loud dress was funneled into recorded excellence. (Does the Beatles' relative lack of stage performance legacy detract one iota from their place in history? Of course not!) The result was beyond criticism.

Alas. Nothing lasts forever. Viciously strong forces tore at them. They could never have been the exception to the rule. But the last resounding mark of their brilliance was how they responded when they felt their Light threaten to dim. There could only be those four. They had to be perfect. They had  to evolve. When that became impossible, when the path that led to the End became visible, there was only one solution. It was the impossible choice. The world would have loved them forever. The fortunes they could have amassed (on top of the ones they did) by simply continuing to exist defy the imagination. New personnel could have replaced the disgruntled. But at some very near point, the music would have suffered, and they knew it. The scholars and critics would have tuned out, replaced by nostalgists buying the music because of the name attached to it, and nothing more. No way. They could never let the perfection of what they created be spoiled by their own obsolescence. So, in a final, masterful stroke of brilliance driven by their unfailing instinct, they pulled the Plug. Just eight short years after they became the Four, the Greatest Rock and Roll Band that ever was or will be resigned to the Ages. Could it have been any other way?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Diamond Rugs Album Review

[Editor's Note:  As anyone who knows me even casually will tell you, I have strong opinions on music. It is a topic of deep philosophical interest for me. I love to debate it; to hear both sides of the same coin when it comes to a given band or album. My tendency to debate makes me prone to published music criticism. I've been a sucker for it since my teenage years. Where some kids wanted to be like Larry Bird, I secretly aspired to be David Fricke (likely because I was a slow and clumsy athlete). I am happy to report that, two decades later, my first bona fide Rock and Roll review has been published. My friend, local indie eminence Hardy Morris, kindly asked me to review the album from his new side project and I (nervously) agreed. The below review ran in this week's edition of the world famous Flagpole, Colorbearer of Athens, Georgia. You can see it on the Flagpole's website here. Special thanks to Music Editor Michelle Gilzenrat for lending me a little sliver of paper.]

The Diamond Rugs
Diamond Rugs
Partisan Records

In their eponymous debut, The Diamond Rugs -- John McCauley and Robbie Crowell (Deertick), local hero Hardy Morris (Dead Confederate), Ian St. Pe (The Black Lips), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, not a misprint) and Bryan Dufrense (Six Finger Satellite) -- shoulder the tattered "supergroup" banner for indie bands everywhere. They're good enough to handle it. The result is a punchy collection of post-hardcore power pop that diverges from the artists' historical work just enough to keep things interesting. Morris reports that the album came together naturally. It shows. 
Any mystery about the sound is answered in the first 145 seconds with the superb St. Pe country punk, "Hightail"; think Buddy Holly after listening to the Ramones for two days. No time is wasted from there. The longest of the 14 tracks (the chaotic pedal steel infused buzz of Morris's "Country Mile") clocks in at 4:33, and half the songs are under 3 minutes. It's a concise piece of work. 

McCauley carries the majority of the vocal water. Deer Tick fans confused by the recent Divine Providence will be comforted to hear him in a more-listenable pop incarnation here. His propensity for lyrical laziness is present, with an overly repetitive focus on beer, women, or both ("I'm a kinda feeling, like a lion, or a tiger, listening to my baby purrrr" from the unfortunately-titled "Gimme a Beer;" the even more unfortunately titled "Hungover and Horny"); but when he's on—the irresistible brass-drenched Springsteenesque romp, "Call Girl Blues" or the verse-verse-verse coming-of-age mediation, "I Took Note"--you're smiling.   

Morris adds focused muscle to the proceedings. The taut march of his menacing "Motherland," complete with ethereal harmonica details, is an album highlight. He steers the new punk gallop of "Big God" like he's made a living in the genre. Most listeners will find this more accessible than his work with Dead Confederate.  

The presence of Berlin and Dufrense brings flourishes of instrumentation into the mix. Berlin's brass accents add authority to the biting "Tell Me Why," and a plaintive tone to (album lowlight) "Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant." Even an accordion shows up in the Gene Autry high plains drone of "Totally Lonely" (the album's endearing oddity).   

Who knows if there's a future here? For now, viva la "indie supergroup!"

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

To My Gam

Will the Circle, be unbroken?
By and by Lord, by and by.
There's a better, home awaiting,
In the sky Lord in the sky!
Valrie Chambliss Spence was my maternal grandmother. She was "Gam" to me. While she wanted to be "Gram," my developing tongue's inability to produce "r's" shortened the nickname. She called her husband by his last name, which is the same as my first. That was confusing, so she would more commonly call me "Bruise" (short for "Bruiser," which is what my infant pediatrician called me) or "Sugar." The latter term, when drawled by a native Sumter Countian, sounds like "shugah." That pronunciation always amused me, so that's what I took to calling her as an adult. "Shugah." That's the last thing I ever said to her. "Bye, Shugah."

Gam was a guiding force in my and my sisters' lives. She relentlessly encouraged us to read, write, listen, and learn. Never content for us to merely do something (write a cursive uppercase "R," for example), she wanted us to do it well. It was a by-product of her eternal pride in us.When I wasn't trying hard enough, she'd say "Bruise!" with a graciously disapproving stare. She taught us to do right; to be gracious, courteous, and honest. Like every mortal, she was imperfect. But when you've done as much as she did for as many people as she did for, your blemishes are less relevant. I could go on for pages about how much I loved her and how much she and the other "Spence" did for me, but there was something about her that is more germane here. She loved music.

She was born on April 9, 1922 and grew up on Bond Street in Plains, Georgia. Then, and now, Plains is a small town in a great wide open space. Honesty and integrity took root when the place was settled and grew like kudzu on a blazing summer day. Plains is a genuine place. Neighbors love each other. The fact that our 39th President grew up in such a place seems impossible, until you visit. Gam grew up surrounded by decent and honest people who did right. What they lacked in sophistication they made up for in perspiration. There were a limited number of ways that people living in Plains in the 1930's could entertain themselves. Nearly all of them involved music. It's no wonder that Gam loved it as much as she did.

She lived through a depression, world war, and the advent of the automobile, radio broadcasting, electric sound amplification, telephones, televisions, computers, and virtually every other major invention of the 20th century. In her nostalgic moments, she told me of going to the old Windsor Hotel in Americus during the war and swing dancing with the British pilots who were at Souther Field for training. (What an image! I can just see her whirling away on the heart-pine floors and grinning ear to ear as a rendition of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" blared). Thank goodness she didn't fall for any of the Johnnies; instead, she married the other Spence (Lewis Lafayette, or "Pop" to me) on July 15, 1944. Pop was in the war at the time, so she had to ride a train with her mother to Abilene, Texas to marry him. (It must have been a bit strange having her mother along for the honeymoon, but like I said, Plains is a small town.) They would be together for 67 years and loved each other for every day of every one of them.

Gam educated herself well, eventually earning a masters degree in education. She taught lower and middle grades in the Sumter and Terrell County school systems for 28 years. I can only imagine that there are hundreds and hundreds of souls walking this earth who she pressed relentlessly to learn, and who still appreciate it to this day. Among her students was a future First Lady of the United States, then Rosalynn Smith. We hardly ever went to a lunch at the old Town & Tourist restaurant in Dawson when one of her former students didn't walk up exclaiming, "Miss Spence!"

Her mother taught her to play piano as a child. She never forgot, and continued to play into her 80's. Though her father had what she described as a lovely tenor voice, she didn't get much of it from him. Her mother gave up on voice lessons for her pretty quickly. Gam was by no means a great singer or pianist, but she tried hard, and what came out of her musically was earnest and driven by feeling.

Having grown up a devout Baptist in a place of deep Faith, most of the music that she learned and loved was old-time gospel. It was at her core. She had an old upright Steinway piano in her living room on Lee Street in Dawson. There was always a dusty brown Methodist hymnal on top of a bunch of Rogers & Hammerstein sheet music inside the little wooden piano bench. The inside of the bench had a deep smell of musty oak. When she lifted the heavy lid, she'd always say: "Be careful, Bruise, don't get your finguh" when she let it back down. Most often, she was going for the hymnal. Any time she could coax a family member near the piano she'd get it out and start reeling off hymns in her left-hand chord heavy style. My family had some wonderful times (not necessarily me; youthful protest) around that piano singing Christmas carols and the like. A song was rarely finished; she was too excited to have her family singing in her living room to be patient.

She kept my sister Beth and me as children when my parents were out of town. She'd make us get dressed in our finest (white and black saddle oxfords, pastel knit tie with short-sleeved dress shirt in kids M) and go to the First Methodist church in Perry, Georgia. Every single time a hymn went up, she would do her best to get me to sing.
"Oh for a thousand tongues to sing, my Great Redeemer's praise ..." 
I can just see her looking down at me with an amused smile scrunching her eyebrows together and mouthing "Bruise! Sing!" I'd try. Sometimes. When I did, she would look back up with a smile on her face. When I didn't, she'd just roll her eyes. I do not sing particularly well and never have. But she loved me so much, and she'd convinced herself that her Bruise could sing. It was an article of faith in her, and it inspired me to at least try.

As time went on, I slowly realized that Gam had been right all along, and that music was one of those human endeavors in which it is better to try hard, and fail, than not to try at all. I bought myself an acoustic guitar as a young adult and taught myself to play it. I would take it to Dawson with me on some of my final visits to her house before she moved to the nursing home. Almost three decades after she'd paid me as a child to do my "woka woka" routine to Jim Croce's "Bad Leroy Brown" (see Moment Zero), I stood there next to the little Steinway in the living room with her trying to master the song's 7th chord swing. The years had stripped away most of her ability to play, but I could feel her joy. It was written in her smile and the nod of her head. There was nothing she'd have rather been doing. Her Bruise was finally trying right there next to her.

When I woke up last Wednesday, March 28, 2012, I picked up my phone to see what email I'd received overnight. Gam had been very ill and was in the hospital. The first message I saw was one from my mother with only the date as its subject. Her message was simple; grief would allow her nothing more. Before the sun rose, Gam moved on to the Sweet By-and-By. Choking back the tears, all I could think to do was to lie there and sing a couple of lines for her:
I'll fly away oh Glory!
I'll fly away!
When I die, hallelujah by and by,
I'll fly away. 
I'll miss you Shugah. But I'll sing from now on, because that what's you taught me. I promise.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

To The Beacon

Juxtaposition.  Taxis, concrete, Picassos, glass, bagles, steel, tie-die, furs, martinis, brownstones, loafers, taxis, reubens, Birkenstocks, old fashioneds, hipsters, bankers, doormen, pinot (you pick it), concrete, truffles, neon, Van Gohs, parks, markets, bikes, flowers, taxis, overcoats, plastic bottles of Budweiser, tapas, joggers, beggars, concrete, skyscrapers (modern), skyscrapers (post-modern), skyscrapers (gothic), Wayfarers,  Southern Rock, Warhols. Notice a pattern? 

That's what makes the anachronism that is the Allman Brothers Band's annual residency at the Beacon Theater so special. It is charmingly out of place. When you close your eyes and listen to a gritty '70 version of "Statesboro Blues" ("I'm goin' to the country ...") a $10 bottle of Heineken is not the first thing that comes to mind. You don't see many Harleys in New York. I'm not sure how the Beacon run started (in 1999) or how it has survived, but it is one quirky tradition. I checked off a decade-old bucket list item when Cress and I went this year on March 17. 

The Beacon.  For someone expecting the Fox Theater North, the first thing that strikes you about the Beacon (on Broadway, between 74th and 75th) is its size. Designed as an early motion picture and vaudeville house and opened in 1929, like so much in New York, it's intimate. The seats that my friend John Lyndon had been so kind to line us up with were perhaps 120 feet from the stage but 50 feet from the back wall. (Close quarters are automatically a good thing at any concert worth attending.) It's also ornate; a recent restoration brought it back to its original glory. It's something to behold. Per Wikipedia, "[t]he Beacon's ornate neo-Grecian interior features thirty-foot-tall Greek goddesses flanking the proscenium arch of its curtainless stage, which can rise from its basement level carrying a full classical orchestra." I don't have enough architectural vocabulary to do it more justice, but this was the view from our seats. 

Revival and Relevancy.  No man (not even Keith Richards) is immune to the drag of time. Contrary to the refrain of the night's opener, the road does not go on forever for a Rock band. It's a finite thing. The Allman Brothers are no exception. Following Barry Oakley's untimely death (yes, motorcycle accident in Macon) in 1972, the band was steadily sapped of its vitality as drugs, alcohol, and dissension took their inevitable toll. By 1982, they were done. While a reunion was inevitable, there were two directions it could take. One would have found a couple of the original members performing with a supporting cast of no-names on the Southeastern casino circuit under a banner that lost its true meaning long ago (the pure commercial sell-out). 

Instead, they chose the High Road. They put themselves back to together and did the hard work that is necessary to remain relevant after decades in the business. They reinvented themselves. Beginning with the introduction of Warren Haynes, Allen Woody, and Mark Quinones in 1989, the band fused explosive young talent with the four remaining original members (Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Jaimone, and Butch Trucks) to exhilirating effect. The real evolution came with the dismissal of Dickey Betts (sniff sniff; but for the better) and the introduction of then guitar prodigy Derek Trucks in 2000. That began a period of rebirth that saw them dig back into their catalog and re-invent their classics while unveiling a seemingly endless catalog of new covers ranging from Derek & the Dominoes to Dr. John to John Coltrane. A musically-vital project now more than a decade old has resulted. 

Music people are motivated to go and see this band today not because of what they are playing, but how they play it. (Could the same be said for an Eagles reunion crowd or a modern Jimmy Buffet audience). While every ABB crowd is inevitably sprinkled with Decade of Hits devotees waiting for a "Rambling Man" that will never come, the bulk of the people there are real music fans genuinely interested and invigorated by what is happening on the stage. (It's the way I console myself over Duane Allman's untimely death. As great as he was, would he have followed the same course of self-destruction that pushed Jerry Garcia out of musical relevancy in his later years? At the ripe old age of 65, would he still have the volcanic fire that Derek Trucks puts out night after night? Not likely. As a matter of pure music history, it's better for the artist to be gone early than to wither for years in irrelevancy. I'll still never get over it.) Thus, Cress and I ducked out of the chaos of the Broadway sidewalk into the Beacon about 8:00 p.m. 

The Show.  For a Southerner with an affinity for Rock, the Allmans are the home team. They are tied inevitably to the history of Our State like the '91 Braves. Thus, it's hard for me to write about them objectively. What I can tell you is that they are still capable of powerful performance, but they are decidedly older than they were even five years ago. Like an aging quarterback trying to will his aching knees to carry him to one more win, the original ABB members now rely more on the supporting cast. That's not a bad thing. (If you like to hear electric guitar and have never seen Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes share a stage, do yourself a favor.) It seems like Gregg hands a couple more songs a show off to Warren on vocals these days and sits out the instrumentals more. Jaimone is looking a little frail (though I hear his playing past 2:00 a.m. at the post-show party this night was anything but), and I hear Butch Trucks's shoulder is going out on him. Derek and Warren are the focus now, as they should be. Still, this is a band I would rank in my top 5 to see live, on the merits.  

The March 17 Beacon show was a case in point. For a scholar of the genre, the recorded Bill Graham introduction was a goosebumps moment. Coupled with the 40th anniversary of the release of Eat a Peach, it gave the night historical context. Keeping with the theme was a rare "Midnight Rider" opener. (This is the first ABB song that I remember associating with the band. I think it was on a beer commercial that ran about '89; hot girl walking into a dusty bar in the middle of the desert and throwing a coin in the jukebox.) The song is not a platform for extended solos, so it's not on my shortlist for a modern ABB set. On this Saturday night, it worked perfectly as an opener. If there was a 16 oz Stella in the house below shoulder level by the end of the first chorus, I didn't see it. 

Things then got hot. Early. "Trouble No More" is a perfect example of a classic that Derek Trucks has set afire. His completely atypical no-pick cackling demon slide style is perfect for "Trouble," and my jaw was firmly clenched by the end. Before he launches into the solo on this one, you can just hear his SG straining at its reins. It's strong sauce. 

I'd been watching the setlists and knew that the now-patented "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" (Dr. John, believe it or not) was a possibility. Bingo. I can't think of a better example of the band taking a deep-track cover, stamping it with a smoldering ABB brand, and setting it loose on the crowd. It's a thick-steak groove with a screeching roller coaster laid on top of it. I pulled out my phone with the intention of texting a friend: "Derek almost just burned this place to the ground on 'Guilded,'" but I was too excited to type. This is when the fleece came off. Here's the intro (sorry for the abbreviate version, this is long as I could hold my cell phone steady before my Swerve On):

There was no rest for the weary. Having been relatively "quiet," by Guitar legend standards thus far, Warren Haynes took over for the slow Elmore James twelve-bar classic, "The Sky is Crying." Warren's style is powerful, but more precise and in the classical blues vein than Derek's. Warren's body may have been born in Asheville, but his soul was born on the Delta. Like Garcia (albeit with a harder edge), the man can play everything more competently than 99.5% of the world's guitarists can play anything. There's not a song he's afraid to tackle (as we saw later), but old, dirty Blues is right in his wheelhouse. Rock has no more honest, hardworking ambassador than Warren Haynes. He is the standing Godfather of what we call "jam." 

From there, the set stayed on the slow end of the metronome, with the very-new "Egypt" and an unexceptional version of the slow jazzy "Desdemona" that put everyone in their seats for the first time of the night. (Not because anyone was bored; it's just a sign of a 30-60 year old crowd.) The Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters standard, "Hoochie Coochie Man" offered what could have been a set-closing high point. On this night, they gave it a slow tempo intro (think "Mannish Boy" slow) that spilled a little awkwardly into their more traditional arrangement. I thought it fell a little flat. Historical sidenote: The band will never play a better version of this song than the 7/3/70 Atlanta International Pop Festival version.   

A new evolution at the Beacon this year is an acoustic mini-set after the break. The run is always known for eclectic and rare covers (e.g., starting this year with an interpretation of Rogers & Hammerstein's "A Few of My Favorite Things") and big ticket guest appearances. While Randall Bramblett (sax) and Bruce Katz (keys) contributed to the first set, coming out of the break, we were due for a big-time cover. Warren and Gregg took the stage for a mellow version of Jackson Browne's "These Days" (previously unknown to me). A bit of precussion was added for "The Dark End of the Street" (most popular as performed by the Flying Burrito Brothers/Graham Parsons). All in all, a slow start. In hindsight, they were saving up. History followed.

Darkness fell on the stage post-"Dark End." With the lights came the ethereal presence of  Grace Potter. After introductions, the band moved patiently into a mystifying cover of Fleetwood Mack's "Golddust Woman." ("Did she make you cry, make you break down, shatter your illusions of love!?") I've always been a Fleetwood basher. Nevermore. Beyond giving Fleetwood a measure of credibility in my mind, the eight minutes that followed left no doubt that Grace Potter is a Presence. This was a Moment she'd obviously waited for,  and she knocked it out of the park. If the crowd seemed quiet, it's because most of them were staring at her, mouth agape, enchanted as she moved around the stage like a hippie shaman in a trance. It was unforgettable. 

I noticed Warren screaming commands at the band towards the end of "Golddust" and Grace stayed on the stage. Anticipation. Once the electric instruments were handed back out, the band launched into screaming version of Neil Young's "Southern Man." Yes! Yes! "Waaaaareeeeeeeeennnnnnnnn!!!!!" Everybody loves Neil. (If your notion of him is that of a South basher warring with Ronnie Van Sant over her honor, hear the Drive By Truckers' side of this. It's not that simple.) Going back to our theme of juxtaposition, hearing the Long Islanders standing next to us (the guy to Cress's left had on skinny-leg acid wash jeans with '89 vintage black Reebok high tops and a mane of silver hair straight out of Wayne's World; you can't make this up; no, he wasn't trying to be funny) scream the lyrics while listening to Southern legends play an ornate theater on Broadway was apropos. It was an invigorating 12 minutes, frozen in time for me. 
Historical sidenote: What you see in that video is the first time in the 40 year plus history of the Allman Brothers Band that a song has been played on a stage with zero members of the original band present.

Once a venue is as overheated as the Beacon was after "Southern Man," the next step is always hard. The air really didn't get back in the sail until later in the set when they brought bassist Oteil Burbridge up for Hendrix's "Manic Depression." 

For the helpless Jerry fans in the audience (me included), an up-tempo version of Little Milton's R&B thumper "That's What Love Will Make You Do" was the late-show highlight. The peak saw Trucks, Haynes, jazz guitarist Jeff Acheson, and Bramblett repeatedly passing solos down a line like a possessed IBM Selectric.  

The recently revived "Jessica" brought the second set to a rousing close. Gregg reminded the audience that he could still blow on a clipped "One Way Out" encore (too short for encore duty IMO), and up came the lights. With smiles on our faces and ringing in our ears, Cress and I took the long walk back down Broadway in the brisk night air.   

I want to say a special thanks to John Lyndon for putting the night together. For years now, he has devoted hours and hours of his time and lent his (deep) connections to the band to make as many tickets as he can available to anyone who expresses a desire to go. If only I knew the number of smiles that he's created in the process. Thanks, John. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

J. Roddy - SOTW - March 10, 2012

"It's like Jerry Lee Lewis backed by Lynyrd Skynard!"

That was my friend Derek's observation two songs into an entertaining set by J. Roddy Walston & the Business at the Fabulous 40 Watt last week. While the front man of this four piece shuffle boogie powerhouse may not have The Killer's vocal or piano chops, he has the same type of contagious manic enthusiasm. If your looking for comparisons, I'd say the band is more Marc Ford era Black Crowes rhythm section and guitar with a biker-hippiefied Ben Folds on the keys (throw in a twist of MMJ just for flavor). The general style of the songs is what you'd expect from a piano heavy modern jam unit with heavy Jerry Lee musical influence; soulful intros that build into SG whirlwhind solos.

On a flat pre spring break Tuesday night, a lesser showman would've been content to put his first 40 Watt headlining slot in the books and move onto the next stop. Sensing an interested but not 100% engaged audience, J. Roddy refused to quit flailing his piano and exhorting the crowd until he had PBR tall boys (and my High Life) in the air. Any band (or person for that matter) is well-served by hard work and intense devotion to what they do. It makes you want to like them. For all their frenetic energy, these guys are intensely focused on their Mission, and it's effective.

I've given the self-titled debut album several listens and, once you adjust your ears, it's quality top to bottom. The new material the band rolled out on Tuesday had similar promise on first listen. Keep your ear on these guys. They seem like a band with the work ethic and repertoire to leave a mark. Your SOTW for March 10, 2012 is their A list show stopper and spiraling rocker, "Brave Man's Dead."    

In other news, your faithful Editor heads off to the Big Apple next week with my Bride to satisfy a decade-long desire to catch the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater. I suspect I'll find the inspiration and time for a special Empire City edition of Early Evening. Have a great weekend and enjoy this weather!

P.S., SOTW Bonus Beer compliments of Early Evening for the first person who comments with the source of the drum intro on the song linked in the first sentence! Payable the next time I see you. This is an easy one. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Late Night" - SOTW - March 2, 2012

When you leave your last bar of the night, you are either going home to crash or you aren't. During your 20's, on those golden nights that never end, "last call!" was like a conductor tapping his baton for the Main Act to begin. (On the extremely rare occasion when I hear it these days, its more like a cry of mercy). The question then became, "what are y'all doing late night?" Not that time mattered, but "late night" ran from around 1:30 a.m. until approximately 4:00 a.m. (daybreak for the unfortunate). It most often involved a "party" at some unlucky soul's residence. Beverages were can beer and liquor drinks only. Even if there had been a keg at some point, it was gone before the revelers left for the bar hours earlier. The sub-activities depended on how depraved a group you were running with. One constant was noise ordinance shattering music played through overloaded speakers that someone's dad had purchased with a year-end bonus back in '78 and kicked down to the kids when he upgraded to Bose Accoustimass. To try and give "late night" any description from there becomes hard. It could involve anything from costumes and karaoke to property destruction.

Getting from the bar to "late night" typically involved a drive (by a hand picked designated driver, of course). The soundtrack for that shuttle was critical for setting the mood. That's why the "shotgun" call was so high stakes after 1:00 a.m. Given that the vehicle was often stuffed over capacity, it wasn't an easy call and drunk people aren't shy about advancing (lame) requests. That's why max volume was a necessity. In a car with predominantly women, something "fun" from the sorororock category worked best. In a car o' dudes, you'd usually choose something a bit more "angry." (Don't worry Zach, we'll give that one the full treatment later). The distance of the drive mattered. A swing from Buckhead to Virginia Highlands gave time for a something more "jammy." The shorter bar > late night haul necessitated something punchier. The ultimate late night short haul (with a longing nod to the Moondogs > Timm Valley Road gauntlet in Buckhead via Pharr Road) is the 2.4 miles of Lumpkin Street that lie between the old Gus Garcia's sector of downtown Athens and the little anonymous red brick house that sits on a curve on Westview Drive at the intersection of that street and ... Westview (a/k/a the most confusing intersection in Athens). That's where my friends Wes and Asa took up residence in the fall of 1997. It was the kind of gloriously decadent setting that would seem made up if it wasn't true. Minds were lost there and GPA's shattered. It's just a few hundred yards north of my home now. Every time I walk by it pushing one of my girls in the jogging stroller I just shake my head and thank Heaven that I'm alive.  

If last call at Tasty World came and went circa '98 and a Land Rover Discovery full of dudes poured out (not having managed to "hook up"), your Early Evening Song of the Week for March 2, 2012 was the ultimate soundtrack for the short haul back to Westview. Played at volume setting 32 (on a scale of 1 to 35 through a 400 watt sound system), this haunting quasi-literary flower power anthem is one that would have you staring out the windshield contemplating the Meaning of Life one second and pounding on the dashboard with exuberance the next. (Hearing it now, I can't help but imagine Hunter Thompson standing at the back of the Matrix Club in San Francisco in fall of '66 staring at Grace Slick and the "house band" work the kinks out of this song.) Here's to "late night's" past! Have a safe weekend, and get to bed early! 


Friday, February 24, 2012

SOTW - February 24, 2012

As I sat yesterday enjoying the buena vista on the shores of Lake Buena Vista, I became sentimental. (One is prone to nostalgia when experiencing the "magic" of the Magic Kingdom for the first time in nearly three decades). A thought occurred. Music always sounded a little better when blasting three inches from my ear out of the C pillar speakers in the back of Brian Pheil's '91 candy sucker blue Camaro (6 cyl, Ttops, A/C, auto, clean!); 60 mph with the windows down. In the ignorant bliss of youth, freedom gave music the type of sheen that only a $5,000 custom sound system could put on it today. Life itself was so high fidelity then it didn't matter if the soundtrack was played through an overloaded $10 Taiwanese crap speaker with one of those pointless cardboard cones around the tweeter. 7 o'clock on Friday night. Summer's over. Home football game. New pair of Nike airs. 11:00 pm curfew (one hour weekend extension). "I hope you brought your wood screws, cuz' I'm about to blow your doors completely off!"

Music was best then in short, intense doses. How many 10 minute guitar solos do you hear on an Alice in Chains record? There just wasn't enough time for the anything long; even "November Rain" tested the patience. (Were all those horns at the end really necessary?) The optimum song was long enough to take you out of the parking lot behind "E wing" during a skipped lunch hour and down Pecan Street (at 55 mph), through the hard right onto 16th Avenue, directly into the parking lot of the former DQ. There was never a better example than your Early Evening Song of the Week for February 24, 2012. The feedback statco whammy bar fuzz at the beginning was my first taste of psychedelia. About the time I got my head wrapped around it, Bam! Hard gut shot of Canadian-American electric jive: "I like to dream yes, yes ..." Who needs the trippy stuff when you're skipping lunch? 

There's a bit of very little-known history behind this song that need not be lost. For about 11 minutes, this was going to be the official graduation song of the Crisp County High School class of 1994. Before the class meeting where such matters were taken up, a series of smoky bathroom meetings and "coach, I don't feel so good today" locker room pow-wows resulted in a loose coalition behind this scrappy insurgent candidate. (Or maybe it was just a few outspoken class members who successfully hijacked the meeting from Zackary Wade's less than authoritative hand on the President's gavel). Once the ballots had been cast and counted, your SOTW held a narrow margin over the "Establishment candidate," Mariah Carey's "Hero." Victory! The supporters could just see themselves grooving out of the stadium in their mortarboards as a bona fide hippie anthem filled the Cougar Den! Democracy in action. Majority rules! Then, Principal Brinson caught wind of the disaster that was unfolding in the lunchroom and inserted himself quickly (with walkie talkie in hand). Realizing that such foolishness at what was supposed to be a solemn and inspring event could imperil his seat at the head of the Politburo, he did what any smart dictator would do; he changed the rules midstream and quashed the insurgency. The initial ballots were swept away in a cloud of controversy amongst some muttering about absentee and ISS students not having their chance to vote. "Folks, we forgot to mention this in advance, but this is going to be a two round balloting, and the second round wins." The dream born in molded plastic chairs under flourescent lights was thus shattered. The "re-vote" was a forgone conclusion. Mariah Carey it was.

Though it narrowly missed its place on the ultimate throne of history, your SOTW lives on. While Prinicpal Brinson got the best of me in the Great Senior Song Vote of '91, I snaked through the lunch hour DMZ that surrounded that place my fair share of times. More often than not, Pheil would be the driver in that old blue Camaro. Once we cleared the gravel lot good, we'd roll down the windows and fire up a Camel Special Light. He'd open the old cracked vinyl center console lid and fish out his casette copy of 16 Greatest Hits. (A couple of taps on the knee and a good strong blow would usually suffice to get the McDonald's french fry salt out of it.) The rewind button was long gone, so a Bic pen jammed into the dashboard had to suffice. Song 1, side 2. Turn it up to where he could hear the tape hiss good. Yes! A single hour of freedom never felt so good ....