Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 2)

April 24th, 2015

Continued from Part One

“When you’re working with a producer like David Kahne or Ed Stasium, they care about the process, too,” Steve Barton notes. “Everyone has an interest in how the final record is going to sound. So it’s all of a piece: the punkier stuff on the demos, and how the records ended up sounding.” There are any number of approaches a band can take in the studio. One is to attempt to capture a performance that more or less captures and documents the group’s live song. Another is to employ a studio-as-instrument philosophy, crafting a work as you go along. Barton believes Translator did both. “On the first album, Heartbeats and Triggers, we were trying to capture ourselves live, but then we would do a few little [studio] touches here and there. On the second album [1983's No Time Like Now], we purposely wanted it to be more ‘produced.’” Barton says that the group liked some of the “production qualities” found on classic albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. They modeled their approach on those records. “If we could have afforded it,” he laughs, “we probably would have put flutes and strings on some of the songs.”

Barton continues a chronology of Translator’s albums and the aesthetic mindset for each. “With the third album [1985's self-titled release], we wanted to do something a bit more stripped-down. And then with the fourth album, we again wanted to capture ourselves live.” In fact, the original idea for Evening of the Harvest was to record the songs live in the studio. “I like all of the albums, “Barton says, “and we never wanted to make them all sound the same, anyway.”

Shortly after the release of their second album, Translator issued a three-song 12” EP called Break Down Barriers. That disc featured a cover of a very early Beatles song – in fact, the only composition credited to George Harrison and John Lennon – called “Cry for a Shadow.” In 1983 the Beatles Anthology project remained off in the distant future, so the song was little known outside the cadre of Beatles fanatics. Barton was just such a fanatic. “We were a trio in L.A.,” he recalls. “and a friend of ours was getting married. We were going to play at her wedding. And another band was going to play there as well. The guitar player in that band was Bob Darlington, who later would be my Translator brother.” At one point, the groups decided that they should play something together. “I don’t know how we ever came up with ‘Cry for a Shadow,’ but obviously it was on all of our radars.”

Barton had grown up with the song. “As a little kid, I remember calling a radio station in Los Angeles.” Affecting a child’s voice, Barton continues. “’Hi! Can you play The Beatles’ “Cry for a Shadow”?’ I don’t know how they did it, but [the deejay] hung up the phone, and the song started. So the song came naturally to us, especially with the two guitar parts.” And once the group became a four-piece, the song was part of their set.

But Translator has always been mostly about original songs. Though guitarists Barton and Darlington both compose prolifically for their band, they only rarely write together. Yet Barton insists that there was never a sense of competition between the two songwriters. “If there is any competition,” Barton says, “it’s healthy. Especially for the third and fourth albums, we had this spurt of songwriting. I had a little room in my flat in San Francisco where we’d write. Bob would come over, and he’s say, ‘Look, I have these four songs.’ And they’d be really good. So I’d say, ‘Oh, I’d better write some more, too.’ We kind of sparked off of each other.” He says that “the handful of songs that we wrote together came out of jams.”

Barton is initially lost for words when asked to characterize the differences between his songwriting and that of Robert Darlington. After considering the question, he says, “I know that when Bob first came to the band, one of the songs he brought to our set was ‘Pablo Picasso’ [by The Modern Lovers]. And he knew all of the John Cale stuff; Paris 1919…he turned us on to all of that. I had mostly known Cale as part of the Velvet Underground.” That music informed Darlington’s songwriting, Barton says. “Bob has always been willing to really embrace the idea” of just using a couple of chords in a song. “I tend to write like, here’s a verse, chorus, and bridge. So I think we have unique styles that really complement each other.”

That contrast between Barton’s music and that of his fellow guitarist was placed in stark terms via a production choice the band made for Evening of the Harvest. Barton’s guitar parts on the record are all hard-panned in one stereo channel, while Darlington’s guitar is panned to the other. For his part, today Barton doesn’t remember why the band and producer Ed Stasium did that, but he thinks he might have been influenced by Neil Young and Crazy Horse employing that approach on one of their records.

All four of the group’s 1980s albums have in fact been reissued in the 21st century. “About eight years ago, maybe,” Barton says. But those Wounded Bird reissues were widely criticized for their subpar sonic quality. Diplomatically allowing some level of dissatisfaction with the quality of those CD reissues, Barton says, “That’s something I’d like to revisit, eventually.”

Meanwhile, Sometimes People Forget is a worthy addition to Translator’s recorded legacy. A number of bands that rose to fame in the 1980s have seen retrospective releases of their material on Omnivore Recordings: Jellyfish, Game Theory, The Posies, and Trip Shakespeare are only four of many. “I’d love for Sometimes People Forget to be the beginning of a relationship with Omnivore,” Barton says. “We’ll see how it goes.” Translator are doing a number of shows in May to promote the release – dates in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and, of course, San Francisco – and post updates on their site,

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Sometimes People Remember: A Conversation with Translator’s Steve Barton (Part 1)

April 23rd, 2015

Though they’re perhaps best known for their 1982 single “Everywhere That I’m Not” – a quirky yet extremely catchy rock tune that subsequently found its way onto more than a half dozen compilations of the 80s/new wave era – San Francisco’s Translator released four excellent albums during their major-label run (roughly 1982 to 1986). The band’s sound combined then-current new wave textures with a psychedelic influence, but somehow Translator’s music steered clear of the (Los Angeles-based) “Paisley Underground” scene.

Part of that uniqueness may have been due to the fact that San Francisco and L.A. have always had separate and distinct musical undercurrents – nobody confuses The Grateful Dead with The Doors, or The Byrds with Moby Grape – but a bigger factor is likely Translator’s emphasis on inventive, powerful guitar. While other bands in the 80s folded synthesizer textures into their music – often to great effect – Translator was always primarily a guitar band, led by the two-guitar front line of Robert Darlington and Steve Barton, with able, muscular support from bassist Larry Dekker and drummer Dave Scheff.

Though the band’s string of first-run releases concluded with 1986′s Evening of the Harvest (this writer’s clear choice for their best, most fully-realized album), in some ways Translator never really went away. The band more or less went inactive after 1986, but all four members remain active musically. A highlight of their 21st century activity is Steve Barton’s 2011 album Projector, named by this blog as one of that year’s best releases. Translator reunites on occasion for live performances, and even released an album of new material — 2012′s Big Green Lawn — that’s easily on a par with their 80s work (and thus highly recommended).

For a band that only released four LPs during their initial run, Translator is well-represented with posthumous compilations: 1986′s (inevitably-titled) Everywhere That I’m Not: A Retrospective was the first, followed by 1985′s Translation, then by the less-imaginatively titled Everywhere That We Were: The Best of Translator, and most recently a UK-only collection titled, well, Collection. And there’s also Different Time, the hard-to-find 2008 two-disc CDR compilation of thirty demos, outtakes and live material.

So why, in 2015, another compilation of music from Translator? There are at least two very good reasons. The first is summed up in the title of the new collection released by Omnivore Recordings. Sometimes People Forget, so let’s remind them. The second, better reason is that the new compilation doesn’t travel well-trodden musical ground: Sometimes People Forget is 22 tracks of rare and previously unreleased material from the band, demos and outtakes spanning material that reaches back to the group’s earliest, pre-record deal days. (It’s worth pointing out there there is less than five minutes’ worth of overlapping music between Different Time and the new Sometimes People Forget.) And for those drawn in by Translator’s official canon, there are many riches to be found in these previously unissued tracks.

The band has always acknowledged a clear debt to The Beatles, but in Translator’s music there are strong echoes of the kind of guitar heroics found on albums by groups like Television. “Even in the really early days of Translator, we didn’t really think of ourselves as a cross between anything,” recalls Steve Barton. “But if we were forced to, [we'd admit to a] kind of a Beatles-meets-Cream [approach]. I love all of the Cream albums, but especially Wheels of Fire. And there’s some Translator stuff that evoked that for me. And the Television comparison: I get that, especially with two [lead] guitars.”

There’s arguably a more “punky” sensibility to some of the songs collected on Sometimes People Forget. As effective and fruitful as the official album sessions were for the band, sometimes those served to sand down some of the music’s rough edges as found on the demo versions. Barton describes the demos on the new collection as “warts-and-all.” He allows that the demos sometimes feature “Some flat singing, some things I would have fixed.” But he professes to love those recordings, aptly comparing them in some ways to “Let it Be before Phil Spector.”

The first couple of tracks on Sometimes People Forget – “Translator” and “Lost” – are from the band’s first demo tape, recorded “in someone’s garage,” Barton laughs. They recorded five songs in a single August 1979 afternoon, using a basic tape recorder. “So by definition, those are going to be kind of rough around the edges.” But Barton rightly believes that even the studio versions of the band’s songs avoid slickness. “I remember listening to [The Clash's] London Calling. It was a huge album for me in the early days of Translator. I thought, ‘Wow! This so polished for The Clash.’ But you listen to it now, and it’s this huge, sprawling mess of a record, in the best possible way. So while in the studio there is a tendency to go, ‘Oh, that might be a little flat; let’s fix that,’ or to do little things here and there, we tried to keep it as bare-bones as possible.” That approach is a big part of the reason why Translator’s music doesn’t sound “dated” as does the music of many other bands of the era.

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The Broadcast Will Continue Touring After This Important Local Message

April 22nd, 2015

“We can jam, but we are definitely not a jam band,” says Caitlin Krisko, vocalist and songwriter of The Broadcast. Her band’s albums feature shorter songs because “we write songs; we’re songwriters.” Krisko and guitarist Aaron Austin are co-writers on all of the group’s music, which is as tight and concise on record as it is soulful and exhilarating live onstage.

“My favorite artists are storytellers,” Krisko adds. “I think that it’s really important that we continue to tell stories about our lives,” she says, describing music as a means to create “a sense of oneness between artist and listener.”

Coming out of a tumultuous year that saw two of its founding members depart, Asheville-based (though originally from Brooklyn) The Broadcast is gearing up for what looks to be its busiest year yet. The buzz around the group’s set at 2014’s Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam led to an invitation to perform at an Allman Brothers Band tribute event being planned for this summer. And while preproduction for a second studio album is well underway, The Broadcast scheduled a local performance (Saturday, April 11, at The Grey Eagle) before returning to the road and then to the studio.


Photo by Jenn Ross Photography

“So much has changed since last year,” Krisko says. “I am really proud of the core members who were able to make it through this transition,” and now the band is “committed on an even deeper level.” Krisko and Austin and percussionist Tyler Housholder remain from the original lineup. Observing that making music for a living is not the easiest path, Krisko believes that “you have to be willing to lose everything for it.”

The Broadcast’s members are savvy users of modern technology as a means of building relationships with fans and potential fans. While acknowledging the advantages of that technology, Krisko believes that instant, accessible quality also disconnects the listener from being able to discover new music. That means in order to break through, a band has to be better and then market itself better. Krisko is optimistic and determined: “Touring on the road has given me a sense of hope that there still are people who want to come together, connect and share in a joined experience.”

Krisko focuses on two important components of the band’s overall strategy: “The live performance emotionally grabs people; the vibrations literally have an effect on their bodies.” And the album is a souvenir, a package that concertgoers can take home to relive the experience of the show. “You can’t completely capture the live experience on an album,” Krisko says. “Where a great producer comes in is being able to capture that energy.”

For The Broadcast’s first album (2013’s Dodge the Arrow, recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios), the band worked with producer Eric “Mixerman” Sarafin. “We were so blessed to have one of the most positive first-album experiences,” Krisko says. But the musicians came away from that experience knowing what they would do differently on the next album. For their second recording, Krisko and Austin wanted a producer who truly understood how to record a female-fronted band. They wanted someone like Jim Scott, who produced and engineered albums for the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Wilco and other big names.

“So I emailed [Scott] last November,” Krisko says, “and when I woke up the next morning, I had an email from his people. I screamed!” Scott said yes. And with a large catalog of new material from which to choose, Krisko is confident that The Broadcast’s upcoming album (out early 2016) will please longtime fans while earning new ones.

An edited version of this feature was previously published in Mountain Xpress.

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Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 2

April 21st, 2015

Continued from Part One

I laughed and expressed my surprise that the sometimes singer/songwriterly Lloyd Cole is a fan of 1970s krautrock. “I’m going to be in Berlin in September, making my debut as a modular synth player onstage live,” he told me. I asked him if he’d be wearing a cape. “I haven’t thought about my outfit yet,” he said. “More importantly, I have to compose some pieces specifically to perform live. Which is,” he said with dry understatement, “a bit different than playing a song live. There will be all monosynths, though you’ve got some polyphony via the use of oscillators.”

On one level, the project represents some uncharted territory for Cole. “I haven’t exactly mapped out what I’m going to do yet,” he said. “I’ve only just accepted the contract to do it.” But the endeavor is not wholly without precedent for him. “Six months before Standards came out, I released an album with a guy called [Hans-Joachim] Roedelius, from Cluster. We made a record called Selected Studies Vol. 1. And I made an instrumental record in 2001 called Plastic Wood. And frankly, if you knew Cluster and you knew Roedelius and you listened to Plastic Wood, you’d say, ‘Ah, Cole must be a Cluster fan.’”

Roedelius is a fan of Plastic Wood. “He even took a copy of the album and put overdubs of his own on it,” Cole told me. “He said, ‘Why don’t you put it out?’ I said, ‘But I can’t! I’ve already released the album!’ So he suggested that maybe we could do something else like this together. It just took ten years for us to get around to doing it.” The two composers brought deliberately unfinished pieces to the project, completing each other’s work. Their working methods are a study in contrasts. Cole said that Roedelius “is a virtuoso, and he can think on his feet. I, on the other hand, construct structures which allow other people to be virtuosos on top of them.”

Cole is clearly excited about the upcoming project. “In Berlin in September is the celebration of [Roedelius'] 80th birthday. And they’re having a festival, or a series of events, for it. And they’ve invited me to perform. Maybe something on my own, and maybe something collaborating with him. It’s exciting, and slightly frightening.”

We went on to discuss the Big Ears Festival, taking place in Knoxville the day after our meeting. Cole mentioned his love of the work of Steve Reich. I observed that composers like Reich and Philip Glass approached minimalism from a classical background, compared with Brian Eno, who came from the rock idiom. “But where they ended up,” I said, “isn’t all that different.” Cole agreed. “I discovered all this type of music as a kid, purely through the fact that I liked Eno and [David] Bowie. I went to see Steve Reich at the South Bank Centre in 1979 in London. I didn’t know anything about him; all I knew was that Bowie liked him.”

Our conversation eventually rounded back to Standards. The album was initially a more or less self-released item. “I gambled on people liking it,” Cole said, with the hope that eventually an American distributor would pick it up. “It still took a little longer than I wanted,” he said. He got several offers, in fact, but settled on Omnivore Recordings. “They were the ones who seemed the most enthusiastic about it. There’s only four people there, but they have a lot of energy.”

Between all of his current activities – live gigs, chatting with journalists about Standards, writing more songs, preparing for the Berlin show – Cole is quite busy. But there’s even more. He told me that later in 2015 there will be a Lloyd Cole and the Commotions box set, a “sort of semi-completist thing” that will gather all of the group’s material in one package.

Cole has been writing and recording his songs for more than thirty years now. As we finished our drinks, I asked him how his approach to songwriting has changed over they years. “I think one of the negative things is that I know what I’m doing now,” he said. “On Rattlesnakes, I just had an idea, and everybody trusted me. And we got lucky. As soon as I started to analyze what I was doing, I got worse at it.” He said that knowing what he is doing is “sometimes an advantage, and I think I’ve got to the point now where I’m past the point where it’s not a disadvantage any more.” He cited the adage of talking [actually writing] about music being like dancing about architecture. “Trying to explain music with language is very difficult. You’ve got to give people a frame of reference, when you’re trying to tell people what you want them to play. So you have to give them reference points.”

Cole went on to make a thought-provoking observation. “Having naivete when things are going well can be a huge advantage. Because you never think of the worst; you never think you’re going to fail. So that’s lovely. Trying to make a record almost thirty years later, you don’t have that. And you can’t fake it. I think that now I know how to make records. I don’t necessarily think I’m very good at it in terms of being a producer, but I think I know what a good producer is. I wish – and I’m not sure if there is enough time in my life to do all these things – I don’t know if I could be that person. A good producer is not somebody who tells people what to play. A good producer is somebody who makes people feel good about themselves when they’re playing. And if they’re not going in the right direction, he somehow or other points them in the right direction by making them think it’s their idea, not his.”

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Lloyd Cole: Standards and Practices, Part 1

April 20th, 2015

Lloyd Cole and the Commotions debuted onto the music scene in the 1980s, a period that dovetailed nicely with my college years. Their debut Rattlesnakes came out in 1984, and Mainstream, their third and last album (not counting posthumous live and compilation sets) was released in 1987. Cole went on to a highly regarded solo career, releasing ten albums of new music between 1990 and 2010. His eleventh studio release, Standards, was released in the UK and Europe in 2013, and in 2014 Omnivore Recordings released the album in the USA.

Concurrent with – but not strictly in support of – Standards, Cole mounted a series of live solo dates. “I don’t feel that I’m really out here supporting an album,” Cole says. “I’m just letting people know that I’m still here.” That tour brought him through Asheville NC in late March. I attended the lightly-populated (but well received) show, and met Cole for drinks and conversation afterward. We quickly discovered that we’re both serious music fans (and fans of serious music), and as a result our time together was less an interview than a freewheeling conversation.

We discussed the evening’s show and its light turnout. “Am I wrong? This town has got something of a modern hippie-punk feel to it,” he observed. “Which is not really my audience.” He related a quick account of a lunchtime stroll he had taken through town earlier in the day. “On that particular walk,” he chuckled, “I saw examples of stereotypes, people who I knew would not be interested in my music.” He noted that he lives in Northampton Massachusetts, a place “with a similar vibe,” but smiled wanly as he recalled becoming “filled with loathing” and dread about the evening’s show. But then he walked into a popular and informal local eatery, looked around, and thought, “These are my people. This will be nice.”

Cole wasn’t being flippant; the people he first encountered – a small but vaguely menacing lot of semi-homeless types dressed in ragged military fatigues – do indeed give off a certain vibe, and not one of them did in fact come to The Grey Eagle for Cole’s engaging one-man performance. It’s fair to say that those who attended the show really enjoyed it. And Cole agreed with that assessment. “It was a nice gig. It was a little bit more spontaneous show than my normal ones, because I usually play two sets.” This one-off paired Cole on the bill with Peter Mulvey. “This is the only show we’re doing together,” Cole said. “We’ve never met before. He’s a nice guy. I’m kind of glad I went on before him,” Cole said. “Because his guitar playing is…he’s much more of a musician than me. I’m more of a songwriter.”

At Cole’s leading, our conversation quickly turned to an abiding interest of his, one I had no idea was part of his musical makeup. “Make Noise is located here in Asheville,” he said. “They’re a synth company founded by a guy called Tony Rolando, who used to work for Moog Music” [also in Asheville]. The company hand-builds synthesizer modules and systems for the serious musician and hobbyist alike. “They’re an amazing company, and world-renowned,” Cole said. But what, I wondered, does that have to do with a transplanted Briton who sings his songs while (mostly) playing an acoustic guitar?

“I’ve been making music with modular synths for the last three or four years,” Cole told me. “There’s a tiny, tiny bit of modular synth on Standards, too. And I visited Moog and got a Moog guitar the last time I was here,” he said. “’Period Piece’ has modular synth and Moog guitar on it. But the record I’m working on making next will have a lot more of both.”

I mischaracterized his albums prior to Standards as mostly acoustic. “They weren’t really acoustic,” Cole replied. “They were just quiet. And they weren’t even all that quiet, at times. They just weren’t electric rock records. Standards is the first electric rock record I’ve made since Negatives in 2000.”

“Why? I just wrote some songs that needed to be treated this way,” he said. “The choice I had was either discard these songs and make quiet music, or I follow the lead of the songs.” For awhile, Cole expected the resulting album would be “half loud and half quiet.” But he contacted Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet (“they had played on my first two solo records in the late ’80s, early 90s”), telling them, “I’m thinking of making this rock record. Would you be interested in playing on it?” Happily, both said yes. Standards was cut in Los Angeles, since both Maher and Sweet live there. “I got into a groove, finishing writing the songs for the album,” Cole said. “Knowing that I was going to be working with them – knowing what kind of record I’m making – seems to influence my songwriting.”

“So,” Cole said, in the end, “what I thought was going to be an album of half quiet, half loud songs turned out to be loud and slightly-less-loud.” Cole reflected on the development of the album that would become Standards. “I had ten weeks to get all of the songs finished. And I knew I had to finish, because once I got to L.A., I would have to be the producer as well as the singer. And it’s just a nightmare to be the producer when you haven’t finished writing the songs.”

That restriction affected the creative process. “I decided, I’m not making any demos for this record,” Cole said. “I’m just going to finish [writing] the songs, and then present the songs to Fred and Matthew. And then the three of us will figure out how to do them.” The approach yielded a collection of finished songs that have an energetic, band-oriented feel. “Basically what I did every morning was say to them, ‘Listen to this. I want it to be as insistent as this.’ I made them listen to Neu! every morning.”

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Coming Attractions

April 17th, 2015

Lots in the hopper right now at Musoscribe World HQ. Here are some teasers of what you can expect in the coming days:

Translator were one of the more exciting bands to come out of the (or my) college rock era. With the songwriting and musicianship of the two front men Robert Darlington and Steve Barton, they brought the idea of guitar heroes to alternative rock or whatever you’d care to call it. The four albums they cut in the 80s have worn well, but now there’s more: a new Omnivore Recordings compilation of demos and other assorted material called “Sometimes People Forget.” I chatted with Steve Barton about the album and the band’s history. Look for that feature next week.

I just put the finishing touches on my Lloyd Cole feature; we met for drinks after his recent show here at Asheville’s The Grey Eagle. Our conversation touched on everything from Sting to The Beatles to crowdfunding to Steve Reich to Hans-Joachim Roedelius…and we even discussed Cole’s latest album, Standards, out now on Omnivore Recordings. There was no practical way to include all of our chat, but I’ve collected the best bits into a cohesive two-parter. Watch for it next week as well.

Moviegoers know him from his Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose, and from the Dumb and Dumber flicks. Those with HBO enjoyed him as star of the acclaimed (and recently concluded) series The Newsroom. But Jeff Daniels is also an accomplished musician/singer/songwriter with several albums to his credit. On the eve of a concert date in Asheville NC, I’ll talk with Daniels about the similarities and differences between his music and his acting career, and more. Coming in May.

Matthew E. White recorded the music that became 2013′s Big Inner as a sort of demo of what the label/collective he had put together could do; it wasn’t even originally intended of release. But it did come out, and launched him on a career of his own, one that combines haunting soul, chamber-pop and the kind of music that’s influenced by people like Van Dyke Parks. His brand-new album is Fresh Blood. We’ll talk about all that and more in a feature that will preview his upcoming show in Asheville. Coming early May.

Not long ago, I reviewed an excellent music documentary called Scarred But Smarter. It chronicles the rise, fall and rise-again of Kevn Kinney and his band Drivin N Cryin. The group’s recent musical activity included an excellent series of thematic EPs (I reviewed most of ‘em). Now the band has collected the best from those four discs on a vinyl LP, Best of Songs. I’ll chat with Kinney about the film, the CDs, the record, the future, and a lot more. Feature soon.

Also coming soon: reviews of box sets (Stax singles, Jethro Tull, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane and more), reviews of DVDs (Jack Bruce, Yes, Queen and more), reviews of new music (Aristocrats, The Rubinoos, Metallic Taste of Blood, The Grip Weeds and more), books (about The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Grateful Dead), along with so so so much more. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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Album Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Fire Meets the Fury

April 16th, 2015

To a lot of people in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the guitar hero they had been looking for. Seemingly bursting on the scene without warning, the Texas guitarist had in fact been paying his dues for some time, and he was quite well known locally and regionally. His pre-fame activities included a stint in a band called the Nightcrawlers, where he was lead guitarist but not lead singer; that task was ably filled by bassist (and later songwriting collaborator) Doyle Bramhall II. That band recorded an album that remains unreleased to this day.

Vaughan went on to more acclaim, eventually capturing the notice of David Bowie. Vaughan played lead guitar on the blockbuster album Let’s Dance, and was in rehearsals with Bowie and band to play on the subsequent tour (bootlegs of these rehearsals do exist). As one story goes, Bowie forbade band members – especially SRV – to do interviews about their own work while on the tour, and so Vaughan, having just finished recording his debut Texas Flood, quit the band days before the tour was to begin.

Vaughan’s albums were released to greater and greater acclaim (and sales), and he can rightly be credited for ushering in a new era of appreciation for hotshot guitarists. But as his fame grew, so did his problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time I first saw him in concert (November 7, 1985 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), he was in the depths of addiction, yet he showed signs of having turned a corner of sorts: throughout the show he was uncharacteristically loquacious, making repeated comments of a positive and uplifting nature. Mere months after this date, SRV returned to Atlanta, this time not for a concert but for a four-week rehab program at Peachford Hospital, mere blocks from my home (no, we never saw him around the neighborhood).

Newly clean and with a markedly improved attitude toward life, Vaughan’s playing only improved, and his stature grew further. By 1989 he was taking part in a co-headlining concert tour with Jeff Beck; the tur was billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” The shows consisted of a set by each of the acclaimed guitar slingers, and often ended with them appearing onstage together for an encore.

Near the end of the tour were dates in Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 28) and Denver (November 29); both were recorded for broadcast on the Westwood One radio network. Highlights from those two shows are collected on The Fire Meets the Fury, a new single-disc live concert set. (The error-filled liner notes erroneously refer to these dates as the tour’s final performances when in fact two more dates – Los Angeles and Oakland – followed.)

While none of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onstage collaborations with Jeff Beck are featured on the set, The Fire Meets the Fury nonetheless represents an excellent live document of SRV’s playing near the end of his life (he’d perish in a tragic helicopter accident nine months after these dates). The compilers have wisely chosen not to duplicate songs from the shows, so the finished disc (six tracks from New Mexico followed by five from Colorado) approximates a full concert set.

Vaughan and band – which by this time included keyboardist Reese Wynans alongside mainstays Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon – are in fine form throughout, and the set list runs the gamut from the hits (a very brief opening run-through of “The House is Rockin’”) to the classic covers (“Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck; and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”). The Hendrix cover in particular is an extended affair, running in excess of eleven minutes. Another long cut is “Life Without You,” wherein SRV engages in a monologue about his journey to sobriety (the title of his then-current album In Step was a reference to his working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program).

While there are other live albums in the man’s catalog (1986′s Live Alive and the 1983 Albert King collaboration In Session, to name two of the most well-known), the well-recorded The Fire Meets the Fury is the only officially released document of late-period Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Note #1: There also exists a promo-only CD issued by Epic and also titled The Fire Meets the Fury; compiling then-current and back-catalog studio tracks from both Vaughan and Jeff Beck, it was intended to promote the then-current tour and should not be confused with this release.

Note #2: This album was also released in the UK as a 2LP (vinyl) set with the same track listing, featuring tracks from the Albuquerque show on one record, and the Denver performance on the other. My review concerns the CD release.

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Album Review: Art Pepper — Neon Art, Vols. 1-3

April 15th, 2015

Art Pepper was a white jazz saxophonist who specialized in a West Coast style of jazz popular in the 1950s and 60s. His catalog is vast and varied; his recorded career as bandleader began in the early 1950s on the Savoy label. His work as a sideman found him working with many of the jazz greats including Hoagy Carmichael, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and a host of others; in his early days he was part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Pepper died in 1982, leaving behind not only that catalog of sixty-plus albums, but a treasure trove of finished yet unreleased material. His widow Laurie Pepper created an imprint of her own – waggishy dubbed Widow’s Taste Music – to release the best of this previously-unheard music, In 2012 three of these were released on vinyl by Omnivore Recordings as volumes of a series titled Neon Art. Now in 2015, these titles are out on CD. Drawing from live performances in 1981, Neon Art Vols. 1-3 are crystal-clear recordings of Pepper playing onstage with some very talented cats.

The first disc in the series features only two pieces – “Red Car” and “Blues for Blanche,” but both tunes time out at around 17 minutes. The thrilling performances feature Pepper on alto sax, joined by the stunningly expressive piano work of Milcho Leviev, and the rhythm section of bassist David Williams and Carl Burnett on drums. Built around blues figures, both tracks on Neon Art Vol. 1 come from a single performance at a small Seattle venue, Parnell’s.

The second and third volumes in the series feature cuts that are sometimes shorter, sometimes even longer than the ones on the first volume. Neon Art Vol. 3‘s “Make a List (Make a Wish)” clocks in at over 24 minutes. But never does the energy or excitement flag. Pepper’s band on the second and third discs – sourced from four November 1981 performances in Japan – again features drummer Burnett and bassist Williams, but the piano chair is ably filled by George Cables. (Vol. 1‘s liner notes chronicle the defection of Williams after the Seattle dates, but he did return for the tour of Japan.)

The Japan dates, though recorded in concert halls, retain the intimate you-are-there vibe of the Seattle sides. When pianist Cables doubles Pepper’s sax lines, it’s a thing of beauty; when the two diverge, one comping while the other solos, it’s inviting and intriguing. As is standard with jazz, each player takes his turn in the spotlight, the tunes winding and twisting before returning to the head to wrap up. While most of the tracks are quite melodic, Pepper and band are unafraid to set out on music explorations that embody the hard-bop style, sometimes even venturing into free jazz territory. But the bulk of the music on these three volumes stays in a very accessible bag.

The early 1980s was no classic era for jazz; the worst elements of “smooth jazz” had rendered much of what passed for jazz as musical wallpaper, late-night FM musical fodder of the most blandly inoffensive kind. But Pepper’s jazz of that era as represented on the three Neon Art albums is nothing of the sort. Folding in elements of soul jazz (especially on the Seattle dates) and hard bop, Art Pepper’s music is finely textured, subtle and exciting. Fans of classic jazz that leans in a melodic, non-avant garde direction would do well to pick up all three of these new Art Pepper titles.

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Book Review: How to Talk to Rockstars

April 14th, 2015

Like most writers, I read a lot. But I rarely read fiction; I think the last work of fiction I read prior to last week was Stieg Larsson‘s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. But when I learned that Alli Marshall – Arts Editor at Asheville’s altweekly Mountain Xpress – had published a new novel with a music journalist as its central character, I was intrigued, and happy to make an exception.

I quickly discovered that How to Talk to Rockstars is not a work of autobiographical fiction; the book’s Bryn Thompson bears only the most superficial resemblance to Marshall. But the author has clearly drawn upon her considerable experience as a music writer/journalist in the development of this story.

There’s not a great deal of what one could term traditional dialogue in the pages of How to Talk to Rockstars. Much of the book is given over to a sort of inner monologue, in which Bryn agonizes over an upcoming major interview. And while there are certainly fundamental differences between the book’s central character and myself, I found myself identifying with many of Bryn’s innermost thoughts.

The story arc – which Marshall unfolds in nonlinear fashion – concerns Bryn’s upcoming interview with a sort of singer/songwriter/rockstar, one with whom’s work Bryn is deeply enamored. The tension rises from the question: How far should I go in connecting with him? But mercifully, How to Talk to Rockstars is not some romance potboiler. It’s about deeper issues than that. The character lists a number of so-called “rules” to which a music journalist should best adhere. These rules are sometimes mere realizations of facts on the ground: you will not become great pals with the rockstar. Don’t try to impress him/her with your knowledge. Ask a penetrating question, then shut up and let them answer. And Bryn/Alli notes a rule that it took me some time to learn: when the interviewee finishes answering the question, let some silence hang in the air. Give them a moment, and as often as not, they’ll pick right up again, giving a deeper, more heartfelt, more thoughtful, more revealing answer than before.

How to Talk to Rockstars subtly points out the added perils of being a female in the male-dominated worlds of music and music journalism. Suffice to say that women interviewers must contend with a whole range of issues when conducting an interview – especially if it’s an in-person one – that are simply not part of the male journalist’s experience. From an ethical point of view, that’s neither right nor wrong; it’s simply how things are. And Bryn’s character never complains about the situation; she merely struggles to find the best ways to deal with it.

All of the characters are the products of Marshall’s imagination, save one. (A vignette involving meeting and chatting with Brian Eno seems likely drawn from actual experience.) And while ever-so-occasionally Bryn seems to be reaching a bit to impress the reader with the eclectic nature of her musical interests (a series of long name-checking lists that include hipster favorites), those lists serve to place her in a context with which readers in their 20s and 30s can best identify.

How to Talk to Rockstars breezes by quickly, and it’s a very enjoyable read. For those who have ever wondered what it’s like to interview notable musicians (and you do wonder, don’t you? Please?), How to Talk to Rockstars provides an illuminating window into the sometimes frustrating, occasionally boring, sporadically exciting and always unpredictable work of the music journalist. More importantly, the book also shines light on the human inner dialogue – full of self-doubt, recrimination, trepidation and just-plain-fear – with which anyone breathing can identify.

The national release of How to Talk to Rockstars is June 1, but author Marshall will host a local launch on Friday, May 15 at Asheville’s venerated independent bookstore, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. That free event begins at 7pm, and will feature “treats, live music, a reading and Q&A session.”

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Book Review: Geek Rock

April 13th, 2015

Rock’n'roll and scholarship make strange bedfellows. At first blush, the idea of approaching the work of rock bands from a scholarly point of view is patently absurd; such juxtapositions give rise to the aphorism (of indeterminate origin) “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But it can be done – and successfully – if the writer has his or her feet metaphorically balanced in the two camps of popular music and academia.

That’s the chosen formula for the intriguing new title, Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, edited by Alex DiBlasi and Victoria Willis. Across a wide swath of scholarly essays, the book endeavors to characterize, examine and dissect what the editors term “geek rock,” a subgenre of rock music that places an emphasis on, well, being self-consciously intelligent.

As such, there are no Geek Rock essays expounding upon the literary antecedents of Ramones lyrics. The artists explored within Geek Rock are, one might observe, many of the usual suspects: Frank Zappa, DEVO, They Might Be Giants. But the collected essays also dig deep into obscure corners of rock/pop subculture, exploring the, um, geekiness of artists whose names will be unfamiliar to even the most inveterate rock fans (Darko Rundek, anyone? Bueller?).

The bulk of the artists covered in the eleven scholarly essays fall into that nebulous “indie” category; neither fish nor fowl, neither rock giant nor obscuro. Discussions of the work of The Mountain Goats, mc chris, Man…or Astroman?, The Magnetic Fields, and even Crash Test Dummies (remember them?) make up the bulk of Geek Rock.

Apparently there’s a rather rigid format to which scholarly essays must adhere (hey, I went to business school, so my experience with such is mercifully limited). I do recall from my high school years the experience of the “five paragraph essay”; an admittedly useful template for creating a brief examination of any given topic. My English teachers drilled the template into my consciousness, and to this day I can crank out a five-paragraph essay on nearly anything. (Once in college, tasked with coming up with one on the spot, I crafted a five-graf essay explaining how to open a door. I got an A-plus).

And though that essay/thesis template may be a useful guide for the crafting of scholarly essays, to casual readers it can come off as more than a little stilted. Such essays fill the pages of Geek Rock, resulting in a sometimes mind-numbing sameness to very disparate subject matter. It’s often a case of, “Now I shall tell you about blank. Here I am telling you about blank. Allow me to summarize my observations about blank.” You get the idea.

But if one can get past that, the essays are illuminating and thought-provoking even at their worst (and/or densest), and provocatively insightful at their best. Happily, most of Geek Rock‘s essays lean toward the latter. Of particular note is DiBlasi’s “Frank Zappa: Godfather of Geek Rock.” DiBlasi is not only a keen observer of Zappa’s massive catalog, he’s an insightful one who understands (as opposed to merely shrugging about) Zappa’s so-called Project-object, the philosophy that all of his output – records, live performances, interviews – are truly components of one single, large, unified work. To those who remain on the fence about Zappa’s importance, DiBlasi’s essay is recommended in the strongest terms.

And Ian Steinberg‘s thoughtful comparison/contrasting dissection of the work of DEVO and that of the early 20th century Italian Futurist art movement makes for irresistibly fascinating reading, even if one doesn’t fully buy into the author’s analysis. (It helps, I should think, if one has viewed Futurist art; certainly no great art scholar myself, I happened upon a Futurist exhibit less than a year ago at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Absent that background, I would have had to refer to Google or Wikipedia to navigate my way through Steinberg’s essay with any sort of understanding.)

Sometimes, though, the topics wade far too deeply into the woods for the casual reader and/or non-scholar. Willis’ exploration of the Lacanian subtext of They Might Be Giants’ music is the sort of thing that won’t appeal to most readers, TMBG fans though they may be. The titles sometimes tell the story. If “’A Very Subtle Joke’: T.S. Eliot, J.D. Salinger, and the Puer Aeternus in God Shuffled His Feet” doesn’t scare you off by its title alone, then you’re a braver reader than I. (I did read it, but…wow.) Some of the essays bear the fingerprints of a too-earnest college student, shoehorning deep and arcane knowledge of their pet band into a scholarly box. The fit and finish aren’t always factory-smooth.

But what they always are is geeky, which, at the end of the day, in a delightfully meta sort of way, is the point.

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