Album Review: Gramercy Arms — The Seasons of Love

October 31st, 2014

As a rule, I make it a point to avoid reading reviews of an album before writing a review of my own. I don’t want my opinion formed by the undue influence of some other reviewer’s point of view. But I do like to do a bit of basic research – to get some background – before I write about an album. And so occasionally I accidentally stumble across a review during that endeavor.

That’s what happened while I was looking for a bit of information on The Seasons of Love, the new album from Gramercy Arms. I got the CD some time ago, and by the time it came to review it, I had largely forgotten the background of the group (whom I had not heard of prior to this year). I had a vague sense that Gramercy Arms is some sort of supergroup (akin to The New Pornographers, who I’ll be seeing in concert next week) or perhaps someone’s side project. (Neither assumption was correct, as it turns out.) In my quick search for details, I found a review that described the group’s sound as “slightly cheesy.”

Whoa. Hey, I understand that one man’s Velveeta is another man’s fine fromage, but there’s nothing cheesy about The Seasons of Love. Yes, the songs do concern themselves largely with matters of life and love – the song titles make that plain – but this is some high quality stuff. Perhaps someone raised on a steady diet of 90s grunge rock might find the melodic quotient too high, but for anyone who appreciates the melodic sense of, say, Paul McCartney, Gramercy Arms’ new album is a real treat.

For those attuned to melodicism, The Seasons of Love ensnares the listener right out of the gate. “Always in Love” has a sprightly, upbeat, piano-and-drums led rhythm that strongly recalls Electric Light Orchestra‘s “Mister Blue Sky.” Or perhaps Ben Folds Five‘s masterful “Kate.” It sounds unlike either of those, really, but there’s a composition-in-the-proud-tradition vibe that tells you they know and appreciate a good, strong tune.

Knowing, lived-in lyrics come at you rapid fire; throwaway lines rush by quickly, but if you catch them, you might crack a little smile when you hear “you and whatshisname still goin’ strong” and such. Economic use of horn charts is a hallmark of the tune (and the album as a whole) too.

The minor-key soulful tip of “Beautiful Disguise” makes it clear quickly that Gramercy Arms aren’t all about sweetness and light. But there’s a sense of authenticity in this achingly beautiful song. Gramercy Arms is the project of Dave Derby, a songwriter who busies himself with all manner of projects including work for film and television. That commercial media focus shows itself in his accessible approach to songwriting. And Derby is a fan of that reliably melodic kind of music; on The Season of Love, he enlists some of his friends/heroes; their talent shines throughout the record. Erin Moran (not the actress but instead the artist also known as A Girl Called Eddy) is one; Lloyd Cole (who has his own excellent new album, to reviewed here soon) is another. Matthew Caws (Nada Surf) and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Belly) are two more.

Still, it’s Derby’s show. And not all of the songs are built around piano: “The Night is Your Only Friend” is a shimmering acoustic guitar-based tune that strikes a note halfway between the bright pop of “Always in Love” and the melancholy of the slower numbers. Strong melodies and sharp hooks are supported by memorable lead guitar runs and soaring , carefully-placed horn charts.

“Novemberlong” is another winning tune in that classic pop mold, but “Playing With Fire” weds reverbed, spaghetti western guitar and a sting section (violin, voila and cello) and what sounds like a pedal steel guitar to create an intimate, somber, contemplative mood. “Yours Untruly” launches with a slow-as-molasses drum beat that gives way to a soaring arrangement that is reminiscent of Polyphonic Spree; the massed vocal chorus strengthens that connection, but the distorted lead vocal and stabbing, soaring guitar leads keep it more in rock territory.

“The Season of Love” (note the slightly different spelling) features lead vocal from Donnelly and Verena Wiesendanger; oddly enough, it sounds like Elliot Smith supported by a Burt Bacharach arrangement. Put another way, it’s pure pop bliss, and if Mike Myers ever makes that rumored fourth Austin Powers film, it belongs on the soundtrack.

“Say the Word” is another unassuming yet lovely pop tune with lots of oooh vocalisms. “Thin” wraps up the album in somber fashion, with a funereal pace punctuated by sustained piano minor chords. As the tune unfolds, more instruments – gurgling organ, single-note electric guitar lines – are added into the mix. It has the feeling of a slow-waving goodby on a misty morning. And then it’s over. But those who dig solid songwriting with a high melodic quotient would do well to keep an eye and ear out for the next Gramercy Arms album, whenever it happens. Meanwhile the absolutely-not-a-bit-cheesy The Seasons of Love is short-listed for Musoscribe’s best albums of 2014.

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Album Review: R.L. Burnside — Too Bad Jim

October 30th, 2014

Here’s something that can be described as the sweet spot in a Venn diagram charting a curiosity, a history lesson, and an authentic modern-day reading of country blues. R.L. Burnside‘s Too Bad Jim – newly reissued on vinyl; more about that presently – sounds for all the world like a classic country blues session, the kind of thing Alan Lomax might have captured for the Smithsonian decades ago. Burnside’s delivery – vocal and guitar – is deeply redolent of Mississippi delta bluesmen of old (most notably Fred McDowell), but the production values are positively 21st century.

Which isn’t to say that Too Bad Jim has been gimmicked-up, akin to some sort of White Stripes dilettantism. No, Burnside is indeed the real deal. His blues tunes are true to the spirit of those old field recordings in that his blues is not confined to modern/commercial notions of how long each verse should be. In that he shares a sensibility with artists such as John Lee Hooker: Burnside uses the blues form more as a jumping off point than as a framework. He’s a bluesman, to be sure, but he bends the form to suit his needs. His electrified approach is supported on Too Bad Jim by the sparest of backing: this 1993 recording finds him joined only by bass and drums. Not only is their contribution simple and basic – keeping the spotlight where it belongs – but it’s relatively low in the mix.

And by “mix” I don’t wish to imply that Too Bad Jim has the sound of a multi-track studio recording. The sound is crystal clear and uncluttered, but it very much has the feel of one mic hanging from the ceiling (alongside perhaps a lone, naked incandescent lightbulb). There’s a late-night feel to the ten tracks on Too Bad Jim; that vibe pervades Burnside’s mix of originals, traditional numbers, and a cover of Hooker’s “When My First Life Left Me.” His original numbers – take “Short Haired Woman” for as good an example as any – could have been written ninety years ago, but in Burnside’s capable hands, the songs are timeless. His singing and playing is in turns heartfelt, impassioned, assured, and it’s always authentic.

Too Bad Jim was originally issued on the venerable Fat Possum label. A new subscription service called Vinyl Me Please featured Burnside’s second and highly regarded album as its October 2014 selection. Thick, sturdy heavyweight vinyl is packaged in a higher-gauge cardboard sleeve, along with a download card giving purchasers access to 320kbps (read: high quality) MP3 files. A nice foldout poster will evoke warm memories among those who came of age in vinyl’s 1970s heyday. As part of Vinyl Me Please’s good-natured approach, the package for Too Bad Jim also includes a recipe card for a relevant cocktail, in this case a variation on the Bloody Mary, one that was reputedly a favorite of Burnside’s.

With its monthly offerings, the Vinyl Me Please catalog explores a wide array of genres; the only unifying characteristic seems to be high quality.

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Book Review: Vinyl Lives On

October 29th, 2014

Florida-based author/journalist James Goss digs his vinyl. Though he never writes about his own interests or collection, his abiding fascination with the medium of vinyl records shines through loud and clear in his writing. His first two books on the subject – Vinyl Lives and Vinyl Lives II – offered profiles of many of the more notable independent record shops that have endured through the years and/or popped up in the wake of vinyl’s mini-resurgence. Goss’ knowing questions elicited illuminating responses from the shop owners, and that raw material – deftly combined with his own research and existing knowledge – resulted in some very interesting pieces.

That format is used in Goss’ newest book, Vinyl Lives On: Profiles of Musician Collectors and Record Store Owners. As its title makes plain, this book enjoys a widening of Goss’ scope to include collectors of note. And while a good chunk of Vinyl Lives On still focuses upon indie shops (happily, their number has been growing since publication of Goss’ earlier books), the chapters devoted to profiles of collectors provide a balance and an added level of insight.

Goss’ interview/profile of Henry Rollins is in itself worth the price of admission. Rollins is an unfailingly rewarding interview subject, and Goss’ experience was clearly no exception. The subject of record collecting clearly stuck a chord with Rollins; his numerous quotes are unceasingly interesting, shedding light on his voracious appetite for music (and other recorded material) across a wide array of genres.

Some of the author’s profiles of other collectors are marginally less interesting, but that has as much to do with what they have to say (or don’t have to say) as anything else. Goss’ chapters on Bill Frisell and Billy Vera both focus more on overall biographies of the musicians, so their interest in vinyl represents a smaller part of the content.

Not to focus too greatly on form versus content, but two points deserve mention here. First, Goss’ series of books – though published under the imprint of Aventine Press – are for all intents and purposes self-published works. This does show through in the relatively simple cover art and (to my mind, anyway) questionable choices of font and type size. But those issues are largely matters of taste, and don’t appreciably affect the quality of the books one way or another.

The second point is more substantial. Though Vinyl Lives On and its predecessors aren’t published by a major or well-known house, Goss’ books have obviously received a much more thorough editing than is the norm these days. I’ve read innumerable books these last few years, and am relentlessly barraged with syntax errors, factual mistakes, poor and inconsistent spelling. Goss’ comparatively humble books have virtually none of these issues: they’re well-written and expertly edited. For a writer/editor, reading works filled with mistakes can be an especially distracting experience. With Vinyl Lives On and its earlier two volumes, readers are free to focus on the content, well-presented as it should be.

James Goss’ Vinyl Lives On makes it three-in-a-row for my recommendation.

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DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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DVD Review: Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland

October 27th, 2014

In 2012, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson mounted a tour to promote his latest solo album, Thick As a Brick 2: What Ever Happened to Gerald Bostock? The tour and album both represented a high point in the recent musical activity of the ever-busy Anderson.

I saw the Asheville date of that tour in my hometown, and got the chance to interview Anderson for a print feature in advance of the performance. At the time, however, I reviewed neither the album nor the live show. This new DVD (also available on Blu-Ray) is a document of the show, which is in part a document of the album.

While in the last several years, Anderson’s flute playing has actually improved (we discussed that in our first interview, back in 2007), his vocal ability hasn’t fared so well. In fact, a 2010 DVD (Jethro Tull – Live at Avo Session Basel) vividly illustrates what the ravages of time have done to Anderson’s pipes). Still, as the Thick As a Brick 2 album shows, his songwriting and arrangement skills (and, again, his flute playing) remain sharp, reliable tools.

It is clear that Anderson realizes his strengths and weaknesses. And his solution to this set of challenges is nothing less than inspired: he’s added a new character to the onstage lineup. The Yorkshire-born Ryan O’Donnell was born in 1982, the same year Jethro Tull released their fourtten studio album, The Broadsword and the Beast; around the time of O’Donnel’s fifth birthday, Tull received the dubious honor of a Grammy Award for “best heavy metal album.”

But while the young O’Donnell may not have grown up during the classic era of Jethro Tull (arguably 1970-77), his demonstrably understands and appreciates the Tull aesthetic. Leaping about the stage in a most theatrical fashion – and freed from the demands of having to play an instrument – O’Donnell is able to convey not only the sound of his voice (and let it be said that his vocal texture and phrasing are very similar to that of Anderson in his prime), but the movement and visual flourishes so critical to the narrative of Thick As a Brick 2.

O’Donnell’s onstage presence allows Anderson to have it both ways: he can play his delightful flute parts – including ones that overlay the vocal lines, something he’s obviously never been able to do before now – and he can sing the parts of his signature vocals that lie within his diminished range. And with O’Donnell’s help, it all sounds as good as it possibly can.

Thick As A Brick 2 picks up the story of the child character Gerald Bostock, now fully grown and full of modern malaise. Onstage, Anderson and his team make full use of video clips at key points in the story; these – starring Anderson in one of several character roles – show that in addition to his myriad other skills, the sixty-something Anderson is a fine and natural actor.

Thick As A Brick 2 is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, drama…and lots of good music. Similar to the approach used on the original 1972 Thick As A Brick, the work is presented more or less as a single piece (yet with its sections distinctly titled), and is built around a central musical motif. But unlike, say, Roger Waters‘ three-note riff that represented most of Pink Floyd‘s 1979 The Wall, the Thick As A Brick 2 motif is at its core quite musical, and involved enough to sustain its use across an entire album.

The 2012 performance in Iceland is – by design – nearly identical to the performance I witnessed that same year in Asheville. The choreography dictates that this is so. The first half of the performance is a live reading of the 1972 album; after a brief intermission ,the band returns to present Thick As A Brick 2. And while when I first heard the modern-day sequel (studio version), I sensed that it paled somewhat in comparison to the ’72 album, when the two pieces are performed live, end-to-end, Thick As A Brick 2 benefits greatly. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor. And with the flawlessly performed, filmed and (courtesy of King Crimson‘s Jakko Jakszyk) audio-recorded DVD Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland, fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull are presented with a must-have purchase. And that’s no mean feat for someone like Anderson, producing vital works some 45 years after releasing his debut album. If you like anything you’ve ever heard from Anderson, you definitely won’t want to sit this one out.

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Back to Bassics: A Chat with Tony Levin

October 24th, 2014

Among musicians, Tony Levin is as close as once can come to being a household name. Among the wider public, he’s not well known at all. That may be because recordings under his own name have had a relatively low profile, despite Levin’s having played on several hundred recordings with and by other artists. He’s one of those stellar musicians about which one can say, “you may not know his name, but you’ve heard his playing.” His instrument (chiefly but certainly not exclusively bass guitar) and voice have graced recordings by everyone from John Lennon to King Crimson, from Alice Cooper to Pink Floyd, from Buddy Rich to Yes. This dizzyingly versatile musician has just finished up a highly acclaimed tour with the three-drummer version of King Crimson, and has just released a collaborative album with his brother – pianist/organist Pete Levin – called Levin Brothers. But the music on the album is neither progressive rock nor pop: it’s jazz, fifties-style.


Bill Kopp: More than any other musician I can think of, you’ve played live and recorded in most every genre. Do you bring any specific sort of mindset to bear on a project based on the style you’ll be playing? In other words, do you approach sessions for The Levin Brothers album differently than, say, King Crimson?

Tony Levin: I listen to the music (assuming it’s not my compositions that I wrote for the project); I listen and just try to hear a bass part that best suits that music. I don’t come in with an agenda of what I want to play, or even pick what bass (unless I have to travel to the studio – in that case I’ll try to hear the music ahead of time and decide then.)

That describes my playing too, not just the process — like any fan of the music, I’m listening to the song if that’s what it is, or to Robert Fripp‘s guitar line if that is what it is. And I try to do something to enhance it.

Bill: To what degree were the tracks on Levin Brothers “composed,” and to what extent did they develop in the studio?

Tony: We wrote the songs completely, like you do with jazz records – then left the soloing for the players. The drum parts, Jeff [Siegel] sorted out very quickly and easily.

Bill: You play (at least) bass guitar, Chapman Stick, NS electric cello, and upright bass. Do you view those as four wholly distinct instruments, or is it more of a case of them being different extensions — tools — of your musical expression, chosen based on the project at hand?

Tony: I hadn’t thought about it, but I’d agree with your description of them as tools. I’m always the bassist in the band, so looking at what the bottom end will provide, and the sound differences among those instruments, even subtle differences, mean a lot to me in determining what will work. Sometimes the drum sound affects the amount of low end that’s left for me, so I may choose an instrument just because it has a big warm sound, or because it doesn’t have that.

Bill: Is this the first recorded collaboration with your brother? When working with him, do you experience anything musically unique, any sort of unspoken-yet-silently-understood level of communication?

Tony: We’ve worked together a lot, in various bands, through the years. We work great together and if we’re straight on where the music is heading, we each trust each other’s vision of how to do it. We also play locally, as a duo, pretty much whenever there’s a benefit show that needs a duet to help raise some funds… so the album isn’t really the first time we’ve played jazz together — but it is our first release.

Bill: The style of music you’re playing on Levin Brothers is most closely associated with the late 1950s and early 60s. But the style has clearly endured, sounding fresh today. Why do you think that this kind of music is so timeless (assuming you do think so)?

Tony: I was indeed struck by how the cool jazz I’d heard as a kid stayed with me all these years. I attribute that to the great songwriting and soloing of those players – Oscar Pettiford on cello and bass, Julius Watkins on French horn, Charlie Rouse on sax. So we didn’t copy their songs, but we did stay with the simpler chord structures of that style, and tried — hopefully with a little success — to write some songs that will have you humming them to yourself.

Bill: The album has that everybody-playing-together feel that’s so important on jazz recordings. Was it in fact done that way, or were the pieces assembled with other parts — drums, guitar etc. – overdubbed?

Tony: We tried a variety of approaches: we did demos that were there to overdub onto, and did some stuff from scratch in the studio. Usually, though, we had worked out in advance the tempo that was just right for each song. In my experience it can be a big time waste if you’re searching for the tempo, and with Pete and I together all the time it was pretty easy to practice them at different tempos ’til we arrived at the best one.

Bill: Considering all the tracks you’ve played on, and all of the musical styles you’ve played, is there a type of music you haven’t yet but would like to work on?

Tony: I don’t think about styles too much…and though I’m flattered about your description, really there are lots of styles I don’t play, or have only played a little. I think Latin music, particularly Latin jazz, is really fun and cool, but have only done a little of it. Likewise I love the power of heavy metal, which requires a particular recording style — and I’ve only been exposed to that a couple of times.

Bill: Is there anyone you’d really like to work with that you haven’t?

Who would I love to play with? Jimi Hendrix. Think you can arrange it?

Bill: Are there any plans for live dates in support of the Levin Brothers album?

Tony: We will tour for sure, but it’s hard to predict the season at this time. It depends on scheduling of a number of bands, and we’re trying to sort that out now and make plans to bring our music everywhere we can.

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Book Review: Wounds to Bind

October 23rd, 2014

The 1960s music scene was populated with people who – if they survived – have tales to tell. First-hand witnesses to (or participants in) the social and cultural upheavals that changed the way we looked at the world; movers and shakers in the development of new and groundbreaking musical forms: those are the stories we enjoy reading.

With due respect to Jerry Burgan, one of several guitarists in folk-rock group We Five, his new book Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution is not a leading exemplar of those kinds of stories. This is not to say that his tale isn’t interesting; it most certainly is, and he (aided by coauthor Alan Rifkin) tells his story in brilliant detail, with much shade, light and color.

But the thing is, We Five are notable in equal parts for having one hit (the gloriously spine-tingling “You Were On My Mind”) and, it must be said, for being on the periphery — as opposed to being an active part –  of the scene. As worthy as “You Were On My Mind” was and is, the group didn’t write the song – Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson composed it. And Burgan didn’t come up with We Five’s inventive arrangement: guitarist/arranger Mike Stewart did that.

To his credit, Burgan never casts himself in the role of hero/protagonist: he never makes outsized claims as to his importance. Instead he places himself as close-proximity witness to the events that unfolded around him, and his recounting of the story maintains his sense of awe and wonder. Wounds to Bind isn’t a score-settling tome: Burgan has good things to say about (nearly) everyone with whom he worked. Still, Wounds to Bind does present one man’s perspective on the folk rock scene of the mid 1960s.

Burgan is at his rhapsodic best when writing about the arrangement and recording of “You Were On My Mind.” His (and Rifkin’s) written deconstruction of the song and its genesis serves to highlight the brilliance of the We Five version of the Ian and Sylvia tune. In fact, theirs is less a “version” and more a rethinking: in addition to changing the lyrics (for airplay), Mike Stewart and company created lyrical emphases that didn’t exist in the original, and added instrumental flourishes that made the song a timeless, transcendent piece of earnest folk-pop-rock.

Burgan’s recounting of his time on the road in Dick Clark‘s traveling revue is also a richly rewarding read. Of particular note are his characterization of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and his telling of a Thanksgiving episode in rural West Virginia. And Burgan rightly highlights the significance of having drummer John Chambers in the band in a time when mixed-race groups were highly unusual (to say the least). And his stories about We Five (by then on the downhill side of success) performing in front of ultraconservative audiences in Texas and Utah are well-told and (rare within the context of the book) simply hilarious.

The fact of the matter remains that We Five never capitalized on the success of their lone hit single. Near the book’s tail-end, Burgan recounts a recent conversation with Jerry Moss, co-founder (with Herb Alpert) of A&M Records, the label that released We Five’s music. Moss apparently has fond memories of the first We Five album, struggled to recall the second…and as for the third? Nothing. That same reaction likely holds true for even the hardest of hardcore sixties folk fans: nothing We Five did post-”You Were On My mind” got notice, and – based on Burgan’s telling of the story – not a whole lot of it was all that memorable anyway.

And therein lies the challenge in a book such as Wounds to Bind. The story that most people want to know about takes place within the space of a few years in the middle of the 1960s. But of course Burgan can’t just leave it like that; doing so wouldn’t make sense. So a chunk of the book (arguably a disproportionate amount) is given over to discussing events post-”You Were On My Mind.” Sadly, it gets less and less interesting – and farther from the core of the folk-rock story – as it goes along. Anecdotes about Burgan and his wife playing desultory gigs in Las Vegas and Reno are more than a little depressing, and his memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Van Dyke, and Gary Lewis are serious downers as well. And though Burgan makes no apologies for it – nor should he – the story of him moving into pharmaceutical sales seems to exemplify the “selling out” that so many sixties luminaries railed against.

That said, Burgan makes it clear that he – unlike pretty much every other figure from that era about whom I’ve ever read – was largely apolitical. And a guy’s gotta eat. So while no one’s questioning his life choices, a significant percentage of Wounds to Bind covers material that’s just not all that compelling.

Sad, too, are the fates met by all of Burgan’s ex-bandmates. Wounds to Bind does “solve” the “mystery” of whatever happened to vocalist Beverly Bivens, but that story might be met by most readers with a resigned shrug and a sigh. Surprisingly little is discussed about Burgan’s wife Debbie’s role as Bivens’ replacement in We Five (documented on the now-rare Return of the We Five and Catch the Wind LPs), beyond the author making clear again and again the Debbie didn’t much care for touring (or drugs).

Some mention is made of the 2009 compilation There Stands the Door, a best-of/rarities CD that shows We Five to far better effect than did their A&M releases, highlighting the fact that the group drew influences not only from folk (such as the group Mike Stewart‘s brother John was in, The Kingston Trio), but Tin Pan Alley and show tunes. That focus suggests that – had We Five held together and been better marketed by A&M, they might have had a shot at a place in the music scene not unlike Spanky and Our Gang achieved. But because A&M had their hands full with “adult” pop (The Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66, The Baja Marimba Band), and viewed We Five as too far into the rock sound (ironic considering how little regard its members had for rock music in general), things never went that way.

At its best, Wounds to Bind is a fascinating memoir of an important time in music and culture. Unfortunately, at its worst, it’s simply not all that compelling. Many glaring errors (one moment The Raiders’ lead singer is named Marc Lindsay; the next’s he’s Mark Lindsay, then Marc again; that’s just one example of several I could cite) suggest that Wounds to Bind could have benefited from an editor’s careful once- or twice-over.

Verdict: a qualified recommendation. Parts One and Two are well-written, essential reading, and those who get that far will want to read the rest, but Part Three is downbeat and less rewarding for the reader.

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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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