Concert Preview: Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath

October 22nd, 2014

Shine a light into some of rock history’s less well-lit corners, and you’ll discover some strange yet intriguing detours. Among the most remarkable of these is the conceptual mash-up: combining not two different songs, but two different musical sensibilities. The results can often be noteworthy.

Take, for example, the one-off music film clip made for early 1990s Australian television by tribute group The Beatnix: their reinvention of Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” as a Meet the Beatles-era raver is inspired beyond description. And speaking of Zep, the group Dread Zeppelin had a high concept of their own: a rotund Elvis Presley impersonator fronting a reggae band, covering Led Zeppelin. And so on: Hayseed Dixie got a surprising bit of mileage out of their inspired and hilarious bluegrass readings of classic rock songs by the likes of AC/DC.

The one quality that all these examples share, of course, is humor: in all cases they’re playing it for laughs. But the conceptual pastiche doesn’t have to be a joke. The latest (and perhaps the best) example of we-mean-it-man combining of styles has to be Brownout. The idea of wedding a Tex-Mex horn section and a soulful/funky heavy lead guitar to the songs of Black Sabbath might read like some sort of cosmic joke, but it doesn’t sound like one.

This Austin TX band describes their music as “hardcore Latin funk,” and this outfit – a spinoff from Grupo Fantasma — has long been folding other elements into their signature sound. And they do in fact have a sense of humor: how else to explain the creation of an instrumental that sounds like it could have come out of a Mexican ripoff of the Shaft soundtrack, and the titling of said tune “Brown Wind and Fire.”

The group’s third and latest album is called Brownout Presents Brown Sabbath, and it’s exactly that: clever and inventive reimaginings of seven classic-era Sabbath tunes. Three tracks from the debut album by Birmingham’s metal masters, three more from their 1970 followup Paranoid, and one from Masters of Reality make up the disc. (This leaves at least three – possibly five – Ozzy Osbourne-era Sabbath LPs to cover on a potential followup disc.)

And while when one hears these tunes, a grin is likely to spread across one’s face, it’s really about much more than humor. The uber-heavy dropped-E riffage of Tony Iommy is recast by Brownout as peppy horn charts that owe as much to Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass or early Blood, Sweat and Tears. And the melodicism of Sabbath’s group-penned music – a quality that didn’t always shine through on Black Sabbath albums – comes through loud and clear in the hands of this eight-man group.

As tasty as the album is, seeing the group live promises to be an even more attractive prospect. And if you’re in or near Asheville NC, you’ve got the perfect opportunity. Brownout will appear onstage at the Asheville Music Hall – as eclectic a venue as you’ll likely encounter – on Saturday, October 25. Advance tickets are a mere $12 ($14 at the door), and these Austin Music Awards winners will take the stage at 10pm. I’m going; if you make the show, find me and say hello.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part Two)

October 21st, 2014

Continued from Part One

By 1993, as the first signing of the reactivated Sun Records, Jason D. Williams released Wild. Sessions for that disc took place in the storied studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis. “A lot of big name entertainers who’ve recorded there use the word channel. They feel like they’re channeling the greats who have recorded there before them. Not me,” he insists. “That took care of itself. But my reason for being there was that, believe it or not, it was on my bucket list.” Jason had only played there previously, he says, “as a youngster, playing one song on a Johnny Rivers album.” In the 90s, while doing session in Memphis for Dale Watson, Williams thought, “Sun is right around the corner. Why have I never done a session of my own there? I know everybody who’s ever recorded here!” So he did.

“I had my little boy there with me,” Jason beams. “To see him asleep on the floor there at two in the morning was a real joy. My wife would be in the booth, and I’d be in the studio. We’d cut something, and I’d have to step over my son to get back to the engineer’s room. It was fun.”

Eventually starting his own label, Williams followed up Wild with a string of albums, and the titles set the tone: 2004′s Don’t Get None Onya; Rockin’; Killer Instincts; Recycled; and his latest, Hillbillies and Holy Rollers. While the sessions for 2010′s Killer Instincts were initially planned as a mostly-covers project, the strength of Williams’ original numbers – including the standouts “You Look Like I Could Use A Drink” and “White Trash Wife” – tilted the song selection toward new material.

Prior to Killer Instincts, Williams seemed uncomfortable trading on his genetic connection to Jerry Lee Lewis; even today he answers questions on that subject with uncharacteristically brief replies. Clearly he prefers to be measured on the strength of his own work. Still, there’s no denying that Williams’ visual style is highly reminiscent of a young Jerry Lee: stomping the upper registers of the piano with his right foot; his long forelocks dangling in front of his sweaty face; his overall playing approach that is equal parts mania and assured control.

On 2014′s Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, Williams serves up an assortment that is weighted evenly between originals and other people’s songs, but his renditions of the latter are Jason D. Williams through and through. Joe Ely‘s “Fingernails” ends up serving as a theme song of sorts: Williams pounds the daylights out of the ivories while explaining that “I leave my fingernails long so it clicks when I play the piano.” He’s as comfortable playing flowery licks on weepers like Hank Williams‘ (no relation) “You Win Again,” and though Elvis cut the most well-known version of “Mean Woman Blues,” Williams makes the tune his own. And Jason demonstrates his command of uptempo tent-revival gospel with the album’s two final cuts, “Old Time Religion” and “I’ll Fly Away.”

Jason returned to Sun Studio for Hillbillies and Holy Rollers, and the studio’s aesthetic formed an important part of the sound captured there. Williams says that all the album’s songs were recorded in “one take. On everything except ‘You Win Again,’ where I went in and added strings afterward. If we messed up, we’d just start over. And we just had a mic in the middle of the room.”

“You know,” Williams continues, “Roy Orbison said that he became a stronger singer every time he recorded at Sun. He had to sing over the instruments, the way they used to record. And I could certainly see what he was talking about when I recorded there, too.”

Though his trademark sound is to most ears an agressively-attacked acoustic piano, most days Williams plays an amplified Kawai piano. He favors a model that he says the company “stopped making in 1980,” and he has made an effort to find as many as possible of that increasingly-rare model for himself ever since. For live gigs – Williams tours to more than 160 dates annually – he’s joined by guitar, bass and drums. He chuckles and adds that the band is occasionally augmented by “another piece on the end: violin, saxophone, trombone…anything, as long as they can add to the show!”

These days, there are still a few items remaining on Jason D. Williams’ bucket list. Jerry Lee Lewis “lives just down the street; we visit from time to time.” And though it hasn’t happened recently (they have played together informally a select few times), Williams hopes that he will once again get to share a performance stage with his biological father. Until – and doubtless after – that happens, concertgoers will get the chance to see a high energy show that builds on the music foundation of old.

Jason D. Williams will appear onstage at the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands NC on Friday, November 28 (that’s the day after Thanksgiving). Visit his website at www.rockinjasondwilliams.com.

Note: An edited version of this feature originally appeared in print in the September 2014 issue of Stomp and Stammer Magazine.

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Jason D. Williams: A Mixing Bowl Combined With a Sponge (Part One)

October 20th, 2014

Though his in-the-grand-tradition bio sheet asserts that Jason D. Williams first played a piano at age three, when I ask him about it, he concedes that his serious interest in the keyboard commenced around his ninth year. “I started taking piano lessons from a local piano teacher. I had a lot of great influences, from [African American blues pianist] Booker T. Lowery to Memphis Slim to classical artists. A lot of jazz greats like Phineas Newborn, too, plus a lot of good, left-hand boogie woogie players. And all points in between.”

Jason grew up in a small south Arkansas town called El Dorado. And there, his schooling in music would expand into some unlikely directions. He recalls, “There was a group of kids – they were a little older than I was – and they were into some of the west coast record labels like Takoma. We’d listen to people like John Fahey, Leo Kottke, George Winston, and Doc Watson. At the time, those were as big an influence on me as anything.” He also consumed a steady diet of big bands and jazz greats; he mentions Della Reese as a favorite.

As a direct result of distilling those influences, one of the most fascinating dimensions of Williams’ own music is its variety. Jason is sometimes pigeonholed as a rockabilly pianist, but his style is too expansive to fit neatly into any such box. In his original and carefully-chosen covers, one hears blues, jazz, r&b, country, gospel. And that all-encompassing approach might remind listeners that the music of the early pioneers of rock’n'roll – Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, even Ike Turner – didn’t fit neatly into any one of those boxes, either.

“I was a mixing bowl combined with a sponge,” Williams says, mixing a couple of metaphors in that bowl. “I could watch anybody entertain, from Al Jolson to Jerry Lee to Cab Calloway. And I would take a little bit from each of them.” He muses on the all-around-entertainer nature of vaudeville performers who inspired him: “You had to be able to tap dance, balance stuff on your head. And play upside down. And I got all that from people like Sammy Davis, Jr., and watching old episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show.”

And in fact, though Williams was raised by a pair of loving adoptive parents, he eventually learned that his biological father was none other than the man known as The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jason was conceived mere months after Jerry Lee’s “High School Confidential” (from his debut LP on Sun Records) scaled Top 40 pop, country and r&b charts. So while he had studied and absorbed the work of many performers and composers, Jason is convinced that heredity played a part: “The style was probably genetically already there.”

Showing that he has at least a touch of his biological father’s bravura, Williams asserts, “I’m a combination of Joe Namath, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jackson Pollock.” I laugh and then pause, giving him space to elaborate. He doesn’t, leaving me to ruminate on this name-checking non sequitur.

The Jason D. Williams story – or at least the performing and recording part of it – began when he left El Dorado at sixteen. He joined the touring band of rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef; he still occasionally performs with the guitarist. At the tail-end of the 1980s, he – or at least his hands – starred on the big screen in the feature film Great Balls of Fire, performing the songs made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. That same year Williams signed with RCA and cut his first album, Tore Up. On that record, his original songs fit in seamlessly with rocked-up readings of chestnuts like “St. James Infirmary” and Larry Williams‘ 1958 classic “Slow Down.”

A regular solo gig at Memphis’ famed Peabody Hotel (the one with the ducks) increased Williams’ profile. A vertigo-inducing 1990 music video of Williams and band atop Knoxville, Tennessee’s iconic Sunsphere (performing “Tore Up” and “Everybody Rockin’ on a Saturday Night”) does a good job of capturing the excitement of the pianist in a live setting, and showcases his dazzlingly precise speed-riffing on the ivories.

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Album Review: Halloween Nuggets

October 17th, 2014

Halloween’s coming: October 31 is a mere two weeks away. Personally, it’s my favorite holiday: for several years I lived on one of my city’s busiest residential streets, the go-to location on Halloween. This upscale neighborhood (we were firmly at the bottom of of the street’s socioeconomic scale there, by the way) was very popular with trick-or-treaters. So much so, in fact, that people chartered vans and buses – I kid you not – just to drive their kids to our street where they could collect candy. One year, we had over 500 kids ring our doorbell.

Leaving other family members to dispense the loot, I stood out front in a creepy mask, hood and gloves, playing (well, playing after-a-fashion) my Theremin. The spooky tones fit perfectly for the play-fun that is modern Halloween. Music – especially music laden with eerie, gimmicky sounds – has long been a staple of this fall holiday.

Like Christmas, Halloween has engendered a fair amount of its own theme music. But not a lot of it has hit the charts in a big way, despite its quality. And so when an artist records a Halloween-themed tune, it usually slides quickly into obscurity. I mean, who wants to hear spooky music once November rolls around?

Well, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Me,” then I have a treat for you. Rock Beat Music has put together a box set – three discs packed to the limit – of 1960s music loosely built around the theme of ghosts, goblins, witches and monsters. Drawing mostly from among the era’s hopelessly obscure sides, Halloween Nuggets: Monster Sixties A Go-go is a fun if modest collection of ninety-plus tracks.

Because from a cultural point of view “the sixties” really began circa February 1964, there are a number of 50s-sounding tunes here. Most lay on the gimmicky theme a bit thick – loads of spooky sonds, scream and whatnot – but the underlying theme is an undeniably kitschy sort of fun. While there are a few duds – Ralph Nieson and the Chancellors‘ manic psychobilly raver “Scream” is repetitive enough to give even the most die-hard listeners a headache – there are plenty of gems here. The song titles (“Tombstone No. 9,” “Cha Cha with the Zombies”) and one-off band names alone (Frankie Stein and His Ghouls, The Graveyard Five) are entertaining enough, and a lot of songs are goofily wonderful.

Some of these tunes will be familiar to connoisseurs of garage rock obscurities: Positively 13 O’clock‘s reading of The Count Five‘s “Psychotic Reaction” has been comped many times, as has Kiriae Crucible‘s “Salem With Trial.” But for every one of those, there’s a too-rarely-heard track like Baron Daemon & the Vampires‘ “Ghost Guitars.”

The track sequence is peppered with laughably awful audio tracks from B-movie trailers. You don’t really need visuals to know what The Astro Zombies or Night of the Blood Beast are about; their inclusion here doesn’t impede the flow of the music. Instead they just add to the fun.

James Austin – the label’s leading light when it comes to compilations: see also Los Nuggetz – has done his usual fine job of collecting and choosing the songs. What he hasn’t done – and where Halloween Nuggets leaves me a bit wanting – is to provide anything along the line of discographical information, or any sort of liner notes, for that matter. So listeners are left to wonder exactly what was behind an admittedly ace number such as Ervinna & the Stylers‘ “Witch Queen of New Orleans” or the good-timing garage jangle of The Circus‘ “Burn Witch Burn.” (The exceedingly tiny type used for track listing on the box’s back is frustrating to readers of a certain age, too).

But those are minor issues; we’re here primarily for the music. And Halloween Nuggets digs deeply into the graveyard of rock’n'roll (and pop) obscurities for this set. And this 3CD set might be just the ticket to enjoying a little bit of lightweight fun before the Christmas decorations come out. (How’s that for scary?)

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Album Review: Caleb Hawley

October 16th, 2014

While it might come off a bit melodramatic to say so, sometimes I experience some emotional rollercoasterism when receiving new music in my mailbox. Case in point: not long ago I went outside to collect the mail, only to find a box leaned up against my front door (it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox). The familiar cardboard dimensions – a bit over 12” x 12” – made all but certain that it was vinyl.

I love vinyl.

The return address indicated that said package was shipped to me from a publicist in whom I trust, one with whom I share similar musical tastes; further, she”gets” my specific likes and dislikes, and tends to steer toward me music that is likely to get a fair listen. She turned me on to The Explorers Club, in fact. In short, a professional.

I took the package inside and opened it. What I found was a record with cover art as you see above. A guy who looks a bit like Noah Wyle, the actor who rose to fame on ER. My first thought was, “Oh. A singer songwriter.”

My heart sank.

But knowing the publicist as I do, I was more than willing to give the record a spin. How bad could it be? So I removed the shrink wrap and put the vinyl platter on the turntable. The first track, “Would You Even Try,” blasted out of the speakers.

I was thrilled.

And so it goes. One can’t always judge an LP by its cover. The self-titled debut from Minneapolis-born Caleb Hawley has much more in common with, say, Mayer Hawthorne – another white guy who creates authentic, heartfelt soul music – than any navel-gazing, overly precious singer-songwriter.

“Would You Even Try” has slinky, soulful guitar riffs and thundering bass as its foundation, but Hawley’s strong voice – supported by hot Latin-flavored percussion, bright horn charts and subtle Motown-styled strings – is the focus here. It’s undeniably retro, and it’s also exciting as hell.

“Sometimes a Good Feeling (Just Can’t Last)” is another pop delight. It’s as strong as any soul/r&b 45 from the early 70s. The sax work and female vocal chorus are standout elements, but it’s a deftly executed tune all around.

Hawley slows things waaay down for “I Just Want You,” heading for a gospel-flavored Wilson Pickett style. The thrill quotient is lower, but that’s clearly by design. Hawley’s neo-soul approach here is reminiscent of James Morrison‘s debut (let’s hope Hawley can maintain the quality of his music, a feat Morrison hasn’t quite been able to master).

While “When My Baby’s Gone” is a fine tune, here Hawley oversteps the boundaries just a bit: the tune is a too-direct lift of The Supremes‘ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The not-exactly-original lyric “just my imagination running wild” doesn’t help things, either. Still, let’s give Hawley a one-time pass on this one: Mayer Hawthrone gave us a similar product with A Strange Arrangement‘s “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” and he’s done okay for himself since.

Some tasty Memphis-styled guitar funk forms the basis of “Crying Wolf.” On “Let a Little Love In,” Hawley and his players build the song around some lovely piano work; the resullt feels like Tapestry-era Carole King, and that’s never, ever a bad thing.

The vocal chorus fades slowly in on “My Hell,” a tune much more upbeat than its title might suggest. Hawley’s impassioned delivery is heightened by massed handclaps moving the tune along. The drum corps intro of “Little Miss Sunshine” is fascinating, and it leads into a slinky dim-the-lights-baby jam.

“Bada Boom, Bada Bling” puts the focus more on the instrumentation. Wahwah guitars and a super-funky beat make the tune; the melody isn’t as strong as most of what’s on Caleb Hawley, but perhaps as a dance floor number it works.

A few odd production choices mar “Long Life,” and the seemingly autobiographical lyrics detract from the fun a bit. Too gimmicky by half, it’s the album’s weakest track, and sticks out like a sore thumb ion an otherwise fine disc.

Hawley gets back on solid footing with the Earth, Wind & Fire-styled “Give it Away.” His command of falsetto is impressive; it’s a testament to his (or someone’s) restraint that the vocal technique isn’t splashed all over the album. Leaving ‘em wanting more is always a good strategy for a performer new to the scene. Musically, it feels not unlike something Michael Jackson might’ve done in the mid 1980s.

Caleb Hawley wraps up with “Find It,” a number that starts out understated, only to unfold halfway through as a pull-out-all-the-stops big finish. Vocals and instruments go all-in here, and “Find It” sounds to these ears like the perfect live set closer. It fulfills that role equally well on this album.

Perhaps a bit oddly, Hawley initially released an EP called Side 1; his latest short-form release is – wait for it – Side 2. The first focused on 60s styles, while the second has a more (but not too) contemporary feel. His self-titled vinyl LP includes both sides, and it’s the way to go.

In the future, when and if I receive a package indicting Caleb Hawley’s involvement, I’ll be expecting good things.

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Album Review: Orgone Box — Centaur

October 15th, 2014

Looking backward for one’s musical inspiration (and/or sound) is not a new approach. Countless bands and solo artists have built careers out of recreating a style that has come and gone, and quite a few of them have won critical and even commercial success for their efforts. But more often than not, when this approach is employed, the results manifest themselves as overly studied: they may impress aficionados of the style, but they fail to offer much in the way of anything new or exciting.

What that means is that when an act that creates a pastiche of an old style comes along and does manage to be new and exciting, it’s a rare thing. And that is what has happened with Orgone Box. Another in a proud and long line of bands-that-are-mostly-one-guy (see also Karl Wallinger‘s World Party, Trent Reznor‘s Nine Inch Nails, etc.) Orgone Box is the brainchild of Rick Corcoran. Corcoran’s approach is to make music that sounds as if it were written and recorded either in 1967 England (think of The Pretty ThingsSF Sorrow and much of the music on Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond) and/or the late 1980s (think of the so-called “Paisley Underground” groups out of Los Angeles), and/or the 1990s Britpop explosion (See: Oasis, Cast, Blur). In my estimation, one could do a lot worse than reference those musical touchstones.

Orgone Box’s new album Centaur isn’t really a new album, though: the group’s 2001 self-titled debut contained a dozen songs, and 2014′s Centaur (released on the Kool Kat Musik label) reprises seven of them, albeit with slightly altered titles (and possibly different takes/mixes/versions). (A 2005 album called My Reply may be the source for some Centaur tracks; I haven’t done an A/B comparison.) But the fact that Orgone Box failed to make any impression stateside a dozen-plus years ago more than justifies Kool Kat bringing this fine music to the attention of contemporary audiences.

The entirety of Centaur hangs together nicely, but there are true standouts among the ten tunes. The mid-tempo “Anaesthesia” is vaguely reminiscent of The Church, and features a straightforward and brief but exceedingly memorable lead guitar solo. “Mirrorball” leans on the phase shifter a bit heavily, but it delivers a hypnotic vibe.

The shimmering, folk rock of “Ticket With No Return” sounds like The La‘s fronted by Robyn Hitchcock. And that points out a quality of all Orgone Box music: Corcoran’s voice sounds a heckuva lot like the former Soft Boy. As Corcoran’s themes center more around love and other workaday concerns, he does answer the question “what would Robyn Hitchcock sound like if he didn’t sing about spiders, frogs and lightbulb heads?”

“Hello Central” adds a Help! era jangle to an 80s-style arrangement. But one of Centaur‘s two finest tunes is the earworm of “Judy Over the Rainbow.” Yes, the title alone evokes thoughts of 1967, but the hard-driving guitar riff (effectively doubled in places by the bass guitar) has more in common with Revolver. If you don’t nod along with this tune, you’re probably wasting your time with this review. The song is a delight.

But “Judy” isn’t even the best tune on “Centaur.” That honor goes to “Find the One,” a gentle, breezy We Five-styled folk rocker with impeccable production values. The volume peal work on the signature riff is reminiscent of The Beatles‘ “Yes It Is,” but the tune itself is timeless. Corcoran’s densely overdubbed vocal harmonies (full of la-da-da vocalisms) float effortlessly atop lovely acoustic guitars and softly jangling electric guitars. Some very subtle string synthesizer work adds the finishing touch. Notably, it’s the only track on Centaur that exceeds the four-minute mark.

Much was made at the time of Orgone Box’s debut about the album’s so-called lo-fi production aesthetic. That DIY spirit remains on Centaur, but there’s enough polish here to make one thin the songs were cut at Abbey Road. It’s a fully realized sonic effort.

If you like the sonic approach used on this album, you’ll love the songs. If retro-minded music isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere for your new-music fix . As for me, I’ll be hoping that Centaur sells well enough to spur the recording and release of more new Orgone Box tunes.

Centaur is available on CD from Kool Kat Musik.

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that Centaur was also released earlier (2013) on vinyl; it’s available from UK-based Sugarbush Records.

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Book Review: The Next Elvis

October 14th, 2014

There have been countless books written about Elvis Presley and/or the early years of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. But a new book by someone who was there (for a time, at least) sheds some new light on the tiny yet famous and incalculably important label. Barbara Barnes SimsThe Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records is a quick, episodic trip through the period 1957-1960 at Sun Records. The author (then known by her coworkers at Sun as “BB,” short for her then-unmarried name) effectively replaced legendary figure Marion Keisker and worked as assistant to Sam Phillips for more than four years.

Viewed from one point of view, it can be said that during Barnes’ time at Sun, she was firsthand witness to the steady decline of the label: Elvis’ contract had already been sold to RCA; Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison both cut material for Sun and left for greener pastures; Jerry Lee Lewis‘ promising career effectively imploded in the wake of his marriage to his “almost fourteen year old” cousin Myra; and –as Barnes recounts in vivid detail – the promising talent of Charlie Rich was overlooked as not worth nurturing.

Barnes isn’t afraid to shine a light on the shortcomings of her boss and co-workers; she never does it from the standpoint of a dirt-disher; rather, as someone who knew these people as flesh-and-blood humans rather than iconic figures of pop culture history – she merely calls ‘em like she sees ‘em.

There’s a Mad Man-esque quality to Barnes’ reminiscences of her trips to the big (New York) and comparatively bad (Chicago) cities to take part in the old-boys networks of record company execs, mobbed-up jukebox companies, and the like; the sense of wonder experienced by the young Barnes (then in her mid-twenties) is palpable. Clear, too, is the impression that she was nobody’s fool, no pushover, no shrinking violet.

If you’ve ever read the (relatively brief) liner notes on the back of such treasured LPs as Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar! or Dance Album of Carl Perkins, you’ve read Barnes’ prose already. Her writing in The Next Elvis is every bit as clear and concise, but the book’s pace – a slightly choppy series of one- to three-page vignettes (the one-page “Sam Tells Me His Life Story” is an illustrative example) – feels a bit more like a manuscript than a finished book. Also – and, one supposes, befitting a Southern woman now in her late seventies or beyond – The Next Elvis has the feeling of a book that has left out some of the juicier bits.

A few characters from Barnes’ story leap off the pages, characterized by the author as in possession of more talent than their overall success might suggest. Billy Riley (aka Billy Lee Riley) is one; Jack Clement is another. And some of the characters – people you might think of as somewhat lovable – come off as just the opposite (Orbison is one, painted by Barnes as a deeply depressed figure). Of course Jerry Lee is every bit as volatile as one might expect. And The Next Elvis tells the reader more about the overlooked Jud Phillips (Sam’s brother) and his role in the label’s operations than any other book of which I’m aware.

Still, the author’s depiction of the man at the center of it all feels a bit too circumspect: Barnes seems to be trying mightily to walk the fine line between sketching a full and accurate portrait of Sam Phillips and honoring his memory by not going too far into the dark corners. To be fair, her characterization of Phillips (whose family cooperated to a great extent in providing images for the book) does suggest a divided, flawed man capable of greatness and its opposite, just like everybody.

The author’s work at Sun – or, more accurately, for Phillips International, an associated label – included the key responsibility of writing and laying out an industry tip sheet of sorts called Scandal Sheet. In this periodical, Barnes not only highlighted current Sun and Phillips International releases, but weighed in on worthy material put out by – gasp! – Phillips’ competitors. Such a broad-minded vision is all but unthinkable in the modern marketplace, but Barnes was a pioneer of this even-handed approach. It’s the sort of thing only a true fan of the music (and a gifted writer) could think of pulling off.

While it’s a worthy gambit to draw interested readers, the book’s title is ever-so-misleading as well: there’s little in Barnes’ written history that suggests anything along the lines of a talent search. More representative is the throwaway line about Sun staffers making an enemy of the postal carrier by refusing any and all unsolicited “audition tapes” sent in the mail. And though Barnes’ own tastes in those days often ran toward the harder rhythm and blues stuff, she makes it clear that Phillips’ failure to appreciate the importance of country music (not to mention his failure to anticipate its commercial rise) helped lead to the demise of the label’s best years.

The Next Elvis tells one person’s story of her experiences at Sun during an important period, and so for anyone with even the mildest interest in the history of rock’n'roll, it’s a worthwhile read.

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DVD Review: Money for Nothing

October 13th, 2014

I approached this DVD with more than a bit of trepidation: would the filmmakers attempt to bestow great and weighty cultural importance upon the music video format? Or would they take a History Channel sort of approach to it, adding melodrama where little actually existed?

I was delightfully surprised when I viewed Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video. The whole affair is aimed squarely at the sort of viewer who’s closely familiar with music videos in general. The 78-minute DVD is paced for the ADD generation(s), with the narrative broken into a long menu of bite-sized pieces, none lasting much longer than two minutes.

Money for Nothing charts the history of the music video via two timelines, two points of view. First, the form itself. After tossing a red herring or three the viewer’s way – suggesting that music videos began with MTV’s broadcast of The Buggles‘ “Video Killed the Radio Star” – the film tells us, hey, wait a minute. The BeatlesA Hard Day’s Night, right? But no: Money for Nothing rightly (if in exceedingly brief fashion) points to Scopitones (from the 1960s) “Soundies” (from the mid ’40s) and finally Walt Disney‘s Fantasia (1940), and even to early animated color films out of Germany in 1933.

But Money for Nothing never goes all academic on the viewer; like the subject it’s chronicling, the film keeps moving, never lingering on any image of idea for more than a brief second. Certainly the arc of MTV’s rise and fall is followed, since the Viacom cable channel was the embodiment of the medium for many years.

Money for Nothing isn’t afraid to chart the downfall of the form, and even makes its own suggestions as to why music videos became moribund on television (and why they still exist, albeit in a different form). The film rightly categorizes music videos as “advertisements,” but concedes that quite often it wasn’t clear what exactly was being sold.

Well, except when it was: fantasy and sex (and often both) are unsurprisingly the top items being pushed by music videos. Music videos have rarely been a means of delivering subtlety, and the film concedes that as well. But neither does Money for Nothing ridicule the form: it seems to suggest that music videos are a bit like a painter’s canvas, or a blank piece of paper: what is done with them depends largely on the artist.

And the “artist” is the focus of the second timeline the film follows: not the music artist, but rather the filmmaker. As the hundreds (literally hundreds) of film clips flicker across the screen, the bottom corner info lists the artist, album, director and year, just like good ol’ MTV did back when it broadcast music videos. And the second timeline explores the work of notable filmmakers. After giving props to the music video heavweights (Godley and Creme chief among them), I was surprised to see the names of so many well known motion picture directors among the credits: Julien Temple and Jonathan Demme, sure. But Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese? Their participation helped legitimize the form. Or did it just help them pay some bills in a lean era? Money for Nothing leaves that call to the viewer.

The DVD isn’t without its flaws. While mentioning The Monkees as a key component in the early history of the music video, no mention is made of Mike Nesmith, the man who pretty much invented the idea of a channel that showed music videos all the time (he sold that idea to Viacom). And no mention is made of Paul Revere and the Raiders, even though they appeared on television mugging and miming to their songs more often than any other musical artist before or since. And while I’m not a particular fan of the videos, not a single clip (nor mention thereof) of the 1980s’ most ubiquitous music video trio, ZZ Top, shows up in Money for Nothing. (They also missed mentioning Todd Rundgren‘s important and pioneering work in music videos, but I’ll give ‘em a pass on that one since he’s not the household name he deserves to be.)

Near its end, Money for Nothing largely concedes that the era of the music video has long since ended, but it makes the case that some interesting work is still being done in the form. (It manages to do so without mentioning YouTube; neat trick, that.) Like the ephemeral and ultimately fun if insubstantial form it chronicles, Money for Nothing isn’t a wholly satisfying film, but it’s the best look at the history of the music video that’s been done so far. Recommended.

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Concert Review: J Mascis, Asheville NC, Septermber 28 2014

October 10th, 2014

A Guest Feature by Annelise Kopp

J Mascis is the loudest acoustic show I’ve ever seen. During his September 28, 2014 show at Asheville NC’s Grey Eagle, J was seated onstage with two guitars nearby, and surrounded by three large guitar amplifiers. By his side were two large bottles of coconut water. For nearly the entirety of the show, Mascis sang and played with his eyes closed, occasionally opening them to turn a page in his song binder, switch guitars, or on rarer occasions look down at the stage, or – rarer yet – into the crowd.

Mascis is most famous for being a founding member of Dinosaur Jr, the influential band who have been playing since the 80s. I had the pleasure of seeing Dinosaur Jr play at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse in 2009. It was the loudest show of any kind that I’ve seen to date. Seeing J Mascis play in the intimate context of the Grey Eagle offered a new, and welcome, perspective.

Watch “Freak Scene” (Dinosaur Jr, 1988)

Mascis has steadily maintained his solo career alongside his involvement in Dinosaur Jr; his solo dates began as a string of one-man acoustic shows. Dates on his 1995 tour were recorded, and yielded his first album, Martin + Me, which was released in 1996. Though he’s considered a guitar virtuoso, Mascis’ solo work has been more subtle in its musical expression.

Watch “Listen to Me” (J Mascis, 2011)

Though he’s taken on an acoustic, folky sound in much of his solo work, what J is doing to a guitar can be classified as shredding. His raspy vocals layered over fuzzy – albeit more delicate – guitar melodies illuminate not only what J has contributed to Dinosaur Jr and the role he has played in the development and growth of their sound, but also the parts of his expression that just don’t fit into that vessel. When one listens to J’s solo work, it’s easy to think, “this is Dinosaur Jr!”

In 2011, Henry Rollins (once Black Flag frontman and now public speaker, actor, activist, musician (and the list goes on), opened for Dinosaur Jr on their Bug tour, revisiting their 1988 album in its entirety. For Rollins’ opening set, he broke from the spoken-word format he’s toured with in recent years, instead choosing to interview Dinosaur Jr, one of his favorite bands. Rollins, in a related radio interview for Seattle’s KEXP, queried the band: “You guys have been touring consistently throughout the 80s the 90s, and bravely and triumphantly through this new century as well. What does touring and playing as often as you all do mean to you? Still enthusiastic about playing every night? Is it still fun?”

Mascis, infamous for his elusiveness and brevity in interviews, came out with, “More than ever, yeah. I like it a lot better now then when I was a kid. I was… I dunno… more ungrateful I guess… and just kinda depressed or something.”

And you’d almost have to feel that way. Mascis has hardly taken a break from playing shows since playing in hardcore band Deep Wound with Lou Barlow (with whom he founded Dinosaur Jr just a few years later). That was in the early 1980s. Some twenty years later, Dinosaur Jr and J Mascis are still touring. Amidst this, Mascis has continued to release new albums with Dinosaur Jr, release solo material, and be involved in innumerable other projects.

Mascis has recorded with Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene; played banjo on one of The Hold Steady’s albums; played guitar on GG Allin’s Hated in the Nation; and provided lead guitar tracks on Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy (which was also recorded in Mascis’ home studio).

It’s through his music that J connects with his fans. In spite of his insular stage presence and disinterest in exposing himself to interviewers, J communicates volumes of meaning through his work. His most recent solo albums, Several Shades of Why and Tied to a Star are accessible to Dinosaur Jr fans and new listeners alike. Still, like an intimate conversation with old friend, the experiences are different and illuminate interesting, sometimes profound, parts of who J Mascis is. Apart from J’s solo work in the context of Dinosaur Jr exists a catalog of work that speaks for itself through its different stages of maturity.

At the end of the show, Mascis exited stage right, eyes mostly to the floor as he stepped just outside the door, lingering briefly before returning to the stage. True to everything we’ve ever known of Mascis, the charade of the ever-standardized-encore was performed listlessly. He returned to play one final song and killed it. The crowd cheered, respectfully, because seeing J Mascis play live is seeing a modern legend.

Watch the full KEXP interview with Henry Rollins & Dinosaur Jr

Watch J Mascis’s 1993 interview with kennedy on Alternative Nation

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In Memoriam: Paul Revere (Part Two)

October 9th, 2014

Continued from Part One

All that said, Paul Revere‘s understanding of his band’s place in history was informed by that attitude. He was often willing to be interviewed, but would quickly tire of questions about “the old days.” By all accounts, he simply wasn’t interested in “preserving the legacy” of the band he started more than a half century ago. Thus, one never got much in the way of a quote from him to the effect that Paul Revere and the Raiders occupied an important place in music and/or pop culture history. He left others to make that argument, and he did little or nothing to back them up in their efforts. He was too busy lining up another show to just plain entertain the audiences.

What that meant in practical terms for this writer became clearer and clearer as time wore on: even before his illness, Revere wasn’t all that interested in sitting down for a series of career-spanning interviews designed to form the basis of a Raiders history. Even though I had (directly or indirectly) secured commitments from a long list of people in or around the band’s orbit, the whole proposed project hinged on Revere’s cooperation.

While his estranged co-bandleader Mark Lindsay had turned down my request for interviews connected with a planned book (“I’m writing my own book,” he says, which is, frankly, what they all say), I had a plan for dealing with that: once I had concluded my interviews with Revere, other band members past and present, roadies, friends and, er, former groupies, I planned to reconnect with him (I’ve interviewed him a few times in recent years) and give him the opportunity to help clarify a few things.

I had hoped that my 2010 trip to Branson would include a face-to-face interview with Revere, hopefully the first of several; many months earlier when I was researching for the Raiders cover story I wrote for Shindig! Magazine, I had endeavored to set up a phone interview. At the time Revere’s wife was dealing with some health issues of her own, so Paul was busy looking after her, and unavailable for comment. And in the end, I got only a few up-close-and-personal moments with Revere; we spoke briefly about the cover story and the group’s upcoming cruise gigs. The interview never happened.

I persisted through my intermediary for a long time thereafter; in fact I prepared a “Ten Reasons” sheet for Revere just three weeks before his passing. While there were others in recent years who had gone down a similar path, I was arguably unique in that I didn’t have a secondary agenda. Unlike another party who pitched Revere on a (different) project, I had no interest in engineering a rapprochement between him and Lindsay to serve as a tidy “wrapup” for my telling of the story. Thanks to unwelcome experiences like that, Revere was quite wary of people pitching him on books, films and the like.

As best as I can tell, Paul Revere never saw that “Ten Reasons” document; now I understand and appreciate why that was the case.

It was only the day before Revere’s death that a trollish woman posted on the band’s official Facebook page that “they were no good after Mark Lindsey (sic) left.” Revere wasn’t ever active online, but I’m certain he would have rolled his eyes at that statement, having heard it many times before. The point for him was never looking back. It’s a bit like telling a fifty year old, “You looked better when you were twenty.” Sure, maybe I did, but I’m here now and so are you: take me or leave me. And the heavy performing schedule that Paul Revere and the Raiders maintained up through the end of 2013 proved that plenty of people liked the current lineup just fine, thanks.

With Revere gone, the band has tweaked its branding a bit: they’re now Paul Revere’s Raiders. Paul’s son Jamie Revere has rejoined the group, and concert dates are scheduled well into 2015. To those who would argue that the band won’t be the same without “Uncle Paul,” I’d agree. It can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t. But neither was it the same without Mike “Doc” Holladay. Or certainly without the celebrated “power trio” of Phil Volk, Drake Levin and Michael “Smitty” Smith. Or Keith Allison. Or Mark Lindsay. Or Omar Martinez, for that matter. It’s about the music and the show, full stop.

And the show will go on. Paul Revere’s Raiders have a new single coming out very soon, issued on red 45rpm vinyl, a cut called “Still Hungry.” The title is an overt reference, of course, to one of the band’s biggest hit singles, 1966′s top-tenner “Hungry.” I’ve heard an advance of it, and while it has almost nothing musically in common with anything the Raiders did in the 60s, it’s a sturdy, rocking tune. As with pretty much every Raiders recording of note from ’65 onward, Paul Revere isn’t audibly present, but his (so to speak) spirit informs the performance, just like it did all the others. I’m certain he was proud of it, though he likely thought of the impending release more as either a show souvenir or a means to get more people interested to buy a ticket to one of his shows.

I expect now that longtime efforts to see Paul Revere and the Raiders inducted into the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may finally bear fruit. And while they deserve the accolade previously given to such noteworthy “rock and roll” acts as Randy Newman, Public Enemy, ABBA, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Cliff, James Taylor and Donna Summer, I honestly don’t think Revere would have cared beyond the award’s potential short-term effect on ticket sales.

Now, the central figure in the Raiders story — the only one there from beginning to end — has gone silent, and done so without leaving a first-hand document behind to tell that story. Of the “original” band (in other words, mostly guy whose names most wouldn’t recognize), only Mark Lindsay remains. Of the most popular Where the Action Is era and later 60s lineups, several survive, and many are still active in music. If I can come up with a way to tell the story as it should be told with the help of several of them, the book idea might somehow get off the ground, but for now it’s on indefinite hold.

I’m sure too that in the meanwhile, various players in and around Revere’s orbit will come out with their own stories. And as is human nature, some of them will portray themselves as the protagonist, the one who gallantly slayed the dragons, stood up to the formidable opposition, and kept the flame burning. And while they all have merit, don’t you be misled: as Revere told Ed Osborne in 2009, “It was my band, and I ran that son-of-a-bitch like a sergeant.”

And he did it dressed like Captain Crunch, laughing all the while. Again, quoting from the Osborne interview (which forms the basis of the liner notes for the 3CD set of the band’s Columbia singles),

“Looking back, we really had an incredible run. We owe so much to Roger Hart and Dick Clark and all the people that worked so hard…overall I can’t complain because we had an unbelievable amount of success that most groups never get to have. Any mistakes that were made along the way don’t mean shit after it’s all said and done. Everything turned out for the best.”

Paul is survived by his third wife, Syd; his adult children; his bandmates current and former; and the legion of Paul Revere and the Raiders fans. A funeral service this coming weekend will be open to the public; after that, a private burial will have him interred in his home state of Idaho.

Read more of my Raider-related writing here.

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