Archive for the ‘essay’ Category

Iggy in ’80

Monday, August 26th, 2013

It was 1980. I was all of sixteen, and enrolled in a private high school that had only gone co-ed the year before I started 9th grade. I lived in the white-bread suburbs of North Atlanta, and my idea of going to “the city” was getting my Dad (or one of my friends’ dads) to drop us off at the mall where we’d catch a MARTA bus into Buckhead. Now, Buckhead wasn’t (and isn’t) the city-proper; in those days it was a conglomeration of high-end shopping malls, restaurants, stately older homes, and Oz Records.

No points if you guessed that Oz was our favorite (read: only) Buckhead destination. This large record store not only had a great selection, it was equipped with a used department; there I scored copies of relatively recent titles such as Wings at the Speed of Sound and Gary Wright‘s Dream Weaver for not much more than $2 or $3. And they had bootlegs, too…but that’s another story.

Point being, really, that I lived a safe, somewhat provincial life. One semi-edgy thing that I did do was spend study hall or free period with some of my good friends (usually Randy, David and/or Eddie – how’s that for a bunch of suburban-sounding names?), listening to albums we’d each bring from home. We’d check a portable phonograph out from the school library, and take it down to the breezeway (the classroom buildings were sort of built on stilts), find an outlet and spend an hour or so spinning new music. Those times would be my first exposure to groups like The Psychedelic Furs (they had just released their first – and best – LP) along with some true “outsider” acts and titles. While I’d as often as not bring something along the lines of a George Harrison LP, my friends would turn me onto things like Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music, Half Japanese, The Residents and other decidedly uncommercial offerings.

So when my friend and classmate Randy suggested I go with him to an upcoming concert, I knew it would be pretty well outside my frame of musical reference. To that point, I had only been to a few concerts, most notable among them my very first: Electric Light Orchestra in October 1978. (Yes, that was the spaceship/hamburger bun tour. Pretty cool.) This show would be taking place at a (then and now) legendary club in midtown called 688. The artist in question would be doing a five- or six-day residency, and while 688 was most definitely a bar (and a punk one at that), this residency was to include a special “teen night.” So we could get in on this no-alcohol club date.

So having convinced my parents that we’d be safe, I went to the local record store (“S.E.A.T.S. Outlet”) and bought my ticket to see…Iggy Pop. Now, I had never heard The Stooges, nor any of Iggy’ subsequent work, so Randy set about schooling me. He brought in the Bomp Records green vinyl Kill City, and I thought, well, wow. This is some pretty abrasive, angry stuff. Then he played me Iggy’s then-current album, Soldier. That was a little easier to take, I thought. I think Randy might have brought in and played The Stooges, but I am sure he didn’t turn me onto Fun House.

Having heard these records, I felt reasonably confident that I knew what I was in for.

I was wrong.

Monday, September 15. We arrived at 688 when it was still light outside. The area around the lonely, dingy white concrete block building at 688 Spring Street looked like a fairly dangerous place to be once night fell, so as soon as the doors opened, in we went. The place was dark and pretty decrepit. There was a bar near the back of the smallish room, but as I recall it wasn’t open, even for sodas and such. There was no snack bar.

The stage was no more than two or three feet higher than the main floor. And it was no larger (and in fact probably smaller) than the stage I recalled from my old elementary school’s cafeteria. The ceiling was pretty low, too. So while I had very little prior concert exposure, I could see that this would be a different experience. Unlike the Omni sports arena or Fabulous Fox Theatre, there were no seats! We’d have to stand the whole show.

I did notice that on the right-hand side of the stage, someone had scrawled in large, crude black lettering the entire setlist. A few of the song titles looked familiar: “Search and Destroy” from Raw Power, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “No Fun.” (As it happened, Iggy’s set list would remain on that wall, enshrined for history, as long as 688 remained open.)

A little while after the supposed official start time, the band came out. While I didn’t know (much less appreciate) it at the time, I would later learn that the bassist on the tour was Glen Matlock, most well known as the man who was kicked out of the Sex Pistols in favor of non-musician Sid Vicious. I don’t recall even knowing who the other players were.

And there’s a good reason for that: when Iggy Pop hit the stage, everything else became secondary. Almost immediately, he stripped down to bikini briefs and socks. I laughed (to myself; I didn’t want to get beaten up by some hardcore fan) as I noticed that they were a matched set: lavender with what looked like little crescent moons or some other pattern on them. I wasn’t about to get close enough to find out for sure.

Iggy grabbed the mic in that Iggy way of his, and roared into it, “Anybody got any drugs?” I didn’t know what to think; was he joking?

He was not, and the crowd did not mistake his request for a joke. From all directions, hands extended toward him, offering all manner of illicit substances. He received all of them, consumed them all on the spot, and then the show started.

I’d like to be able to recount the evening’s details from this point on, but I was so unnerved by what I had just witnessed that the rest of the evening went by in a blur. I do recall that it was very loud, that Iggy jumped into the audience several times, and that every few minutes an audience member would storm the stage, only to be violently manhandled by bouncers back into the crowd. Iggy didn’t do anything that involved broken glass or peanut butter.

I suppose I enjoyed the show. But more importantly perhaps, I think I realized that I had witnessed something historic. I saved my ticket stub (I still have it) and on the way out, I pulled the black-and-white concert poster off of the grimy wall. Some thirty-three years later, it is framed and proudly displayed on my living room wall.

I’d return to 688 a number of times in subsequent years (once I turned eighteen). Some of the more memorable shows I witnessed included LMNOP and Alex Chilton. When I saw the latter, there was a sort of nerdy guy standing next to me in the crowd, wearing an FFA jacket. I stared at him for a moment, and finally worked up the courage to ask him: “Are you Mike Mills?” The bass player for R.E.M. said yes. But while that was cool, nothing would really compare to the experience of seeing Iggy Pop on that stage in his socks and undies, singing to us teenagers that he wanted to be our dog.

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His Phone Calls Suck. But You Will Laugh.

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

And now for something completely different. If you’ll forgive this sort of inside-baseball indulgence, I’d like to share some spit-take-inducing mirth with you.

You might not have given much thought that such a thing exists, but in the music business there’s a job title known as “music publicist.” This person – sometimes in the employ of a record label, but more often contracted by a label, management or artist for the duration of a project – bears the responsibility of getting the word out about (for example) an artist’s latest album. He or she creates a press kit, promotes that kit to a mailing list of publications and freelancers, follows up with them, makes advance copies of the music available, and facilitates interviews and show passes.

It’s a lot of work, and although some publicists make a great living at it, most do it primarily for the love of music and the people who make it. In that way they’re similar to the musicians themselves as well as the writers who cover ‘em. In fact, there’s a tremendous amount of overlap: many publicists are musicians themselves, and even more are (former) music journalists.

There’s one component of the music publicist’s job that’s not often remarked upon, and that’s the role of gatekeeper. All manner of opportunists, rank amateurs and just-plain-clowns are constantly lining up for free show passes, free CDs, free access to the artists, free whatever anything and everything. And the chutzpah with which they request (and often, believe it or not, demand) these things is shocking. It’s the publicist’s often unpleasant responsibility to keep these characters at bay. Sometimes they’re harmless/clueless, sometimes not.

But, in the right light, said chutzpah is also funny. Very funny. So funny, in fact, that collecting a bunch of the exchanges (via text, email, telephone, etc.) between them and publicists might make a great blog.

And guess what: such a blog exists. More remarkable is that all of the exchanges on that blog are transcripts of the experiences of one man. One person. That person is Rey Roldan, president of Another Reybee Production, Inc., a NYC-based PR firm that represents A-list artists (as well as a number of up-and-coming ones, and some hey-we’re-back ones you’d be delighted to know about). He was involved in the early success of Britney Spears, and to his credit, he’s unashamed of this fact.

In my own role as a music journalist, I am in communication with perhaps a half dozen or more music publicists every work day, and while the overwhelming majority of them are supremely professional and a delight to work with, Rey rises above even that standard. A consummate professional. But he’s also possessed of a wicked sense of humor. Here’s an example from his Tumblr blog, My Phone Calls Suck (it should go without saying that Rey redacts identifying information from the transcripts he publishes:

[via email]

FAN: I am looking at whether or not to get a VIP badge for the [FESTIVAL] this year and just wanted to see if one of the ‘perks’ or opportunities is to actually meet members of the cast of the [FILM] itself? There isn’t very many details yet on the website but I see that the early bird date is approaching so just making sure before I make my purchase.

ME: Hi there. Unfortunately, purchasing a VIP badge doesn’t insure meeting the cast of [FILM]. Sorry.

F: Ok, listen. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and I need to meet [ACTORS]. How do I do that?

M: Stalk?

Here’s another gem:

EDITOR: Subject line: urgent press inquiry [BAND]

Dear Rey,

I am the editor in chief of [MAGAZINE], a weekly online arts and culture magazine. Would [BAND] be available for an interview hosted by [MAGAZINE] in August, September or October? It can be on a day of his preference (we just need to know the date and specific time), as long as it is in the evening hours EST. The whole band can participate.

ME: Hi there. The band won’t be touring till this fall so I won’t know what their schedule is till closer to the kickoff. By the way, what’s the “urgency”?

E: Thanks for your swift reply. That’s fine. Whenever you find out. Thanks.

M: Dear [EDITOR]. No problem, but again, what is the “urgency”?

E: Oh there was none. I needed to get your attention since publicists tend to ignore me.

M: This is just the beginning of our relationship and already you’re starting with lies? How am I going to believe you when you tell me you’re going to be working late at the office? Or that this girl “Clarice” is just a coworker? Or that the lipstick stain on your lapel must’ve come from the drycleaners? No wonder I have trust issues!

E: Hi there, Rey. Was that email meant for me?

Though you’d be forgiven for thinking, “this guy is just a really good comedy writer; clearly he’s making this stuff up,” he’s not. These are real. People are really this bizarre, random and blissfully un-self-aware. But whether they meant to or not (and clearly they didn’t) they have justified their existence on some level: via Rey Roldan, for you amusement. It’s comedy gold.  Go have a look.

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My Road Trip Soundtrack

Monday, July 29th, 2013

As I prepared for my current 12-hours-each-way trip to visit my parents in Florida (making sure to leave my hoodie at home and not anger the self-appointed watcher of their neighborhood pool; he tried to kick me out last time), I was tasked by my traveling companion to put together a small stack of my favorite CDs. (The car in which we traveled does not have an in-dash turntable, so LPs were out of the question). Rather than go with my current faves or a stack of albums in the queue for upcoming review, I selected a dozen or so of my “blue chip” albums, ones to which I turn again and again for enjoyment. I left out the really obvious ones (Beatles, Pink Floyd) and below is what I came up with. The ones with hyperlinks are reviewed or otherwise mentioned in some way elsewhere on my blog.

Big Star #1 Record/Radio City – The best 70s albums nobody bought the first time ’round are now among the most influential of the era.

Dennis CoffeyDennis Coffey – the master of guitar funk’s fairly recent album is both current and backward-looking in the best possible way.

Crowded HouseTemple of Low Men – The “difficult second album” is much darker than their debut, but showed the depth of Neil Finn‘s songwriting ability. I’ll admit that this one often makes me cry, and I’m not generally a “lyrics guy.”

Dungen4 – Rarely has an album that includes vocals done so much to successfully convey thoughts and emotions without requiring the listener to understand what’s being sung (like all Dungen albums, it’s in Swedish).

The Flaming LipsThe Soft Bulletin – For me, one of the best albums of the 1990s, right up there with Olivia Tremor Control‘s Dusk at Cubist Castle and Radiohead‘s OK Computer (see below).

The Go! TeamThunder, Lightning, Strike – Quite different from most else of what I listen to, this delightful album features loads of samples, loops and vocals that sound uncannily like inner city schoolgirls chanting doggerel while jumping rope. And it rocks.

JellyfishSpilt Milk – The group’s second and final album took the best qualities of the 70s and updated it, in the process creating muscular, joyous, transcendent progressive powerpop. Or something.

King CrimsonRed – The heaviest of the heavy, and the best of the best of prog. Red can be credited with (unintentionally) inventing progressive metal.

LoveForever Changes – Along with Moby Grape‘s debut, it was for many years the most under-appreciated great album of the 1960s. That wrong has since pretty well been corrected.

Porcupine TreeDeadwing – The most commercially appealing entry in the band’s deep catalog, it contains my favorite track of theirs, the long-form “Arriving Somewhere (But Not Here).”

RadioheadOK Computer – A fairly obvious choice, but fifteen-plus years later this record continues to reveal new wonders to me on each successive listen.

The Rat PackThe Very Best of the Rat Pack – a relatively recent compilation of Vegas-era hits from Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and of course Frank Sinatra. Designed to be played very loudly. And when we were riding around town running errands with my parents, this was one we could all enjoy.

The WhoWho’s Next – The best and most consistent album of The Who’s career; with all the modern-day commercial use, it’s easy to overlook just what a powerful (and yet gentle) record this truly is.

 

Bob by Others

Friday, May 24th, 2013

Today’s Bob Dylan‘s birthday. I spent part of yesterday afternoon listening to my The Times They Are A-Changin’ LP, and I’m reminded yet again that the man is (or at least was) a peerless lyricist. That said, generally I still prefer his work when it’s interpreted by others. I know it’s an overly obvious thing to state, but his delivery doesn’t often work for me. The visceral Blood on the Tracks is one of the few of his albums to which I often return, but quite a bit of his catalog leaves me col. I recently spent a couple of hours with Before the Flood, a live document of his mid-70s tour with The Band. I really enjoyed The Band’s material there, but Dylan’s reinventions of his own songs left me confused, more than anything. I understand an artist’s need to keep things interesintg by changing-it-up, but the radical re-arrangements struck me as a bridge too far. Of course Dylan’s made a career of doing that kind of thing ever since. Good for him, I guess.

In any event, other artists have made careers of their own through interpreting Dylan’s work, filtering it through their own particular skill set and aesthetic sensibilities. South African keyboardist Manfred Mann has been particularly successful at this: his “Quinn the Eskimo” from the 60s was a good-timin’ hit, and his Earth Band reading of “You Angel You” is a personal favorite.

Of course The Byrds and the Hollies are celebrated examples, but as a my own best-loved Dylan tune, I would offer up Wire Train‘s cover of “God on Our Side.” As is necessary with a Dylan interpretation, the band truly makes the song their own. Dylan’s powerful, gut-wrenching lyrics remain largely intact, but the arrangement is filled with the best elements of 80s “college rock” (for lack of a better term). This is, for me, the greatest Dylan cover of all time, though if you ask me tomorrow I might have a different answer. One of my few music-related regrets of the 1980s is that I never saw Wire Train live onstage.

 

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Essay: For the Love of Vinyl

Friday, February 15th, 2013

“May I have your mailing address? I have some vinyl I’d like to send you.” That brief message from a music publicist landed in my inbox yesterday, and brought a huge smile to my face. You see, like many people, I am a vinyl fanatic.

I started buying LPs around 1973 or so (I was nine); prior to that I had amassed a handful of cassette albums that I played on my portable Norelco deck. I had a couple of Carpenters albums, some Partridge Family, some Jim Croce and a Sonny & Cher live set. Not very rocking, I admit; the rock side of my interest was confined to my radio listening at that stage. But when I inherited my uncle’s hi-fi, it was time to start getting records.

The hi-fi was a curious thing. It looked like a really sturdy suitcase. The speakers unlatched from each end, hinged outward, and could be unhooked and moved away from the main piece. The audio cable – about four feet long, if I recall – was stuffed into a hole in the back of each speaker. At the top of the case was a metal button; when pressed, it released the front panel, which came crashing down like a Murphy Bed in a screwball comedy, revealing a turntable. Three knobs were also revealed: volume, tone and balance. Tone, of course, related to bass/treble, and since in those early days my hearing hadn’t been wrecked by years of live rock’n'roll, I adjusted it judiciously. Balance was almost pointless; this unit was a hi-fi, not a stereo, so the output through each speaker was identical.

But it was enough. I started buying LP records as soon as I could afford them. In those days a record on sale went for about $4.99 – still a lot of money for a ten-year-old – but I bought them as able. My earliest records were mostly 45rpm singles, though when my aunt and uncle came to visit, they went out and bought me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course that set the bar pretty high: “So,” I probably thought to myself at the time, “I guess albums all come with lyrics on the back, a gatefold sleeve, and an insert with cutout moustaches and the like.” Subsequent purchases did little to dispel that notion: when I bought WingsVenus and Mars, I got – again – the lyrics and the gatefold sleeve, plus two (count ‘em, two) posters and two stickers! Plus the record was really great.

I still have both of those LPs, and nearly all the singles I had bought previously. I say nearly because – even though I lean ever-so-slightly in an OCD direction and can count on two hands all the physical objects I’ve lost or misplaced my entire life so far – a pair of singles seem to have disappeared on me. And it was only earlier this week that I finally came up with a possible explanation. The two 45s that went missing from this young boy’s collection were Ray Stevens‘ “The Streak” and C.W McCall‘s “Convoy.” So, dear reader, what do you suspect happened to them? Yup. I think my parents took them away and destroyed them. They were surely sick of hearing the novelty songs played loudly and incessantly, and probably felt they were doing me a favor. In retrospect, they probably were. I must ask them about this when I talk to them this weekend. No hard feelings, Mom and Dad.

These days I still buy vinyl. About a week ago I went onto Spotify and listened for the first time to Shuggie Otis. Even as a teenager, he was turning out some amazing guitar work. His album Here Comes Shuggie Otis is an amazingly varied affair, and the production on it is often no less than thrilling. I immediately went onto eBay and found a good used vinyl copy for a few bucks. I “bought it now” and it arrived yesterday. I’m spinning it as I type this. The few crackles don’t bother me a bit; they’re sort of auditory “comfort food, “ like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and other staples of my childhood.

My ex-wife sent an email a week or so ago, alerting me to an upcoming “record fair” here in Asheville. She copied my adult kids on the email, too; both have vinyl collections numbering in the hundreds. So that’s where I’ll be tomorrow. Six thousand LPs and counting, and no end in sight. Maybe they’ll even have a C.W. McCall single I can pick up cheap-like.

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Vote for Me! Please!

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

When I started this whole music journo writing gig many years ago, part of my motivation was to build some “street cred” that I could leverage when proposing one of a few book ideas I have rolling around in my head. It never occurred to me that I might (even on rare occasions) stand up in front of a crowd and talk about this stuff. But thanks to the encouragement of a dear friend, last year (February 2012) I did just that: I gave a what’s called an Ignite Talk. And I enjoyed it a lot.

Here’s last year’s talk. Me? Nervous? Nah.

 

I enjoyed it so much so that I actually applied to do another one this year. And I’ve been selected as a finalist. But the final decision as to which speakers (ten, chosen from about 35) get the gig…well, that’s up to you. You needn’t be able to show up for the actual event (though that’d be cool, and I might even buy you a drink if you did), but if you enjoy my writing at all, voting for me would be a quick, painless and immensely appreciated way for you to show me some encouragement.

Voting takes only a moment, and you can (but don’t have to) vote for several entries. My proposed talk has to do with one of my book ideas.

This link will take you to the voting page. The deadline is in only a few days. It would mean a heckuva lot to me if you’d go to the page, fill out the form, and cast your vote for Bill Kopp and “The Greatest Music You’ve Never Heard in Your Life.”

Thank you. Count on me reminding you again, but please vote now.

http://igniteavl.org/vote

Update: No rare personal appearance for me this go-round. I didn’t make the cut. But I’ll continue to have plenty to say here online.

Concert Preview: The Who

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

I’m very excited to be going to see The Who in concert in Greenville SC, just down the hill from our mountains tonight. It will be the third time I’ve seen the group onstage.

The first time was in 1980. Not that final “farewell” tour, but a short mini-tour that took the band to a handful of sports arena dates. Not very long after the Cincinnati Riverfront Coliseum tragedy, the summer 1980 show in Atlanta holds some particularly vivid memories for me. My buddy Lex and I ventured downtown to camp out for advance tickets when they went on sale several weeks before the concert date (electronic ticketing was in its infancy in those days, so “first come,first served” truly was the order of the day; read about that era and much more in the excellent Ticket Masters: my review is here). After spending the night on the sidewalks outside the then newish Omni, home to Atlanta Hawks and Flames pro teams (it’s long gone now; Atlanta builds and destroys with impunity) alongside a bunch of fairly scary types (we were innocent, suburban sixteen year olds), we ended up buying our tickets from a scalper who had a better spot in line. We paid about $20 each for our 14th-row seats.

When the day of the show arrived, we got an adult (his Dad or mine, I can’t recall) to drive us to the nearby shopping mall, where we caught a city bus downtown. Our inexperience with urban navigation meant that we were caught flat-footed to discover the bus that ran after business hours followed an abbreviated route and thus didn’t take us right to the Omni. Deposited instead onto Peachtree Street, we warily hailed a cab. This was the first (and for many years, last) time either of us rode in a taxi, and we were shocked and a little frightened when the cabbie immediately offered to sell us drugs. We politely declined his kind sales pitch, and after enduring the four-block(!) ride, ran away from the cab as fast as we could.

As we approached the Omni, I casually asked Lex, “You’ve got your ticket, right?” He stopped dead in his tracks: He had left it at home! Me, I’m neurotic about such things, and not only had my ticket, but had verified that I did a good three or four times since leaving home. I sternly advised him that I would not be accompanying him on his round trip back to the suburbs to retrieve his ticket. He did in fact make it back in time for the show, but I vaguely recall that he did miss some of the opening set by Willie Nile.

The show itself was great. This tour was of the Kenney Jones era, so I am not one of those lucky people who can claim to have seen the mighty Keith Moon onstage, but the four-piece lineup (augmented by a three-piece horn section and, I’m pretty sure, longtime keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick) tore through the group’s catalog. It was certainly the loudest concert I had attended up to that point, and few of the countless concerts that I’ve seen since were nearly as loud.

The next time I saw the Who was some nine years later. Newly married but as-yet childless, I saw the show with my (then-)wife at what was then called the Lakewood Amphitheatre. (It’s changed names and sponsorship countless times. If it still even exists, these days it’s probably the Krispy Kreme Lakewood Theatre or the Depends Undergarments Arena or something like that.). The group for this tour was a greatly-expanded lineup that found Pete Townshend on (shudder!) acoustic guitar, alongside countless faceless players. They put on a decent show, but the bloodless renditions felt more like a Who tribute group fronted by Roger Daltrey. The show was also built around Tommy, my least-favorite album in the group’s entire catalog. (For me, “least favorite” Who still beats a lot of things, though.) The tour was documented by release of the only truly dreadful Who album ever, the 3LP Join Together.

And that was it until now. Busy raising a family, I missed subsequent opportunities to see and hear The Who, including their mid 90s mounting of a Quadrophenia tour. I considered that one, but was wary due to its billing as featuring all-star guest vocalists. “Meh,” I thought.

Tonight looks to be different. Though The Who have only released one album of truly new material since 1982′s It’s Hard (an album that has a few great moments – like the blistering guitar coda of “Cry If You Want” – scattered among its general mediocrity), and their 21st century return Endless Wire leaned a bit too far in a singer/songwriterly direction for my tastes, that 2006 album did include a bonus live disc called Live in Lyon. And the power of that performance suggested that there was plenty of life left in the old warhorses still.

Of course John Entwistle‘s gone now, but Pino Palladino‘s bass work fits into the Who style in a way that the still-excellent Kenney Jones’ drumming never did. And Zak StarkeyRingo‘s son, taught to play by Uncle Keith himself – is a fiercely powerful, expressive and aggressive drummer.

The band also includes Pete’s brother Simon Townshend plus three – three! – keyboardists. But when the plan is to recreate Quadrophenia (one of my favorite Who works) onstage, those banks of keyboards are potentially a very, very good thing. I’ll be sharing the experience with my adult kids this time around, and that will make the experience even better.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Yep Roc 15 Preview

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

The big Yep Roc 15 three-night musical gala kicks off later this week. As I prepare to travel to Carrboro/Chapel Hill NC, meaning that be out of the office for a couple days, I’d like to take this opportunity to direct your attention to a couple of brief pieces I wrote back in the pre-blog days. Both are acts who’ll be among the YR15 headliners.

  • This review covers the 30th anniversary of Nick Lowe‘s Jesus of Cool. The expanded release on Yep Roc  takes a wonderful album and makes it even better.
  • Robyn Hitchcock has seen his catalog repackaged, expanded and reissued a number of times. But Yep Roc’s 2007 package I Wanna Go Backwards is one of the best, collecting three great albums and two discs worth of previously-unheard goodies. Here’s a review.

A whole bunch of other relevant links can be found in a blog post I published recently. That’s right here.

If you’re reading this and you plan to be at Yep Roc 15, let me know. I’m always happy to meet fellow music fans, especially ones who read my stuff on occasion.

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AMA Field Report: Memphis in Nashville

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

The Americana Music Association Conference and Festival took place September 18-22 in Nashville TN. As a first-time attendee – and as one whose tastes don’t fall neatly into the Americana category – I did my best to go with an open mind. Good thing: the AMA turned out to be perhaps the best festival I’ve ever attended. Quite a surprise, that.

Part of that is down to a simple fact: the AMA’s concept of Americana is very broad. Utilizing a big-tent philosophy, the Conference and Festival sought to include many forms of American music. This was not – as I might have thought some months ago – a strictly fiddles-n-banjos affair. Not by a long shot, in fact. It was possible, if one sought to do so, to neatly sidestep most of what might more traditionally be thought of as Americana, and instead focus on seminars, meetings, conversations and (most of all) musical performances that would best be labeled…well, something other than Americana.

But the big-tent approach makes real sense; it’s not some sort of sell-out, a bid by the AMA to draw a wider audience in simply to cover the event’s expenses. And a major attraction under that tent this year was the music of Memphis, Tennessee.

The focus on Memphis began early and continued. At the big awards ceremony held at the historic Ryman Auditorium (a church-like edifice with excellent acoustics and great sight lines no matter where one is seated), Booker T & the MG’s keyboardist Booker T. Jones accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award. (So, too, did blues guitarist/singer Bonnie Raitt and the very British Richard Thompson. Big tent indeed.) Jones sat in on Hammond B3 with Alabama Shakes as they delivered a rousing number to an appreciative room-capacity audience.

The next day, Memphis music scholar Robert Gordon interviewed Jones at length in a small amphitheater inside of the Country Music Hall of Fame. For about eighty minutes, Gordon and Jones engaged in a lively trip down memory lane, and while Gordon’s questions were always knowing and well-chosen, the pair took several good questions from the full-house audience as well. (I asked Jones about the inspiration behind the McLemore Avenue album; a brief discussion of that exchange is here.)

Later that same day, back at the Downtown Sheraton (main location of the conference), a panel on The Music of Memhpis was moderated by Rick Clark, and included Scott Bomar of Electraphonic Records and The Bo-Keys (more on whom forthwith); Jody Stephens of Big Star; Robert Gordon; and Ardent Studios’ John Hampton. The conversation covered a wide range of topics, including Memphis’ contribution to powerpop in the form of Big Star, The Scruffs, Van Duren, Tommy Hoehn and others.


Perhaps the best was yet to come: an evening showcase at the Rutledge (a tiny and intimate club about a mile from the Sheraton) featured a stellar lineup of acts. First were Ardent darlings Star and Micey; theirs was a lively Americana-infused set that ended with the band wandering out into the audience, where they sang and played sans amplification. While they’re nominally Americana, their approach folded in elements of rock and soul into an exuberant whole.

Luther and Cody Dickinson (guitar/vocals and drums respectively) took the stage next for a set that was perhaps a bit lower-key than I might have expected. Very effective but not rocking-out. They saved that for a bit later, when they were joined by their full band (North Mississippi Allstars) and fronted by Jim Lauderdale. (The latter was also the affable host of the previous night’s awards ceremony.) I had seen the Allstars before, but with Lauderdale out front (I understand he will release a new album with them backing him) they transformed into something else, something more interesting. The music they performed had more in common with Memphis blue-eyed soul of the early 70s. The collaboration was a very natural one.

Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys would be important even if they weren’t very good. Fortunately, they’re both. Comprised of younger players and (much) older ones, The Bo-Keys give the opportunity for deserving artists who might not otherwise get gigs to strut their stuff. Vocalist Percy Wiggins was resplendent in his tuxedo as he belted out the soulfullest of soul tunes, ably backed by the band with a full horn section. This is the sort of music that can’t easily be captured on record; it has to be experienced first-hand to truly appreciate the energy.

The evening’s Big Event came next. Billed as “Songs of Big Star,” this huge ensemble of artists was the highlight of the entire event for this attendee. The visual was a spectacle in and of itself: various people wandering on and off the stage as the demands of a given song dictated. Sometimes a string ensemble (with conductor!) would appear. Sometimes it was just Jody Stephens at the mic, backed by two or three players. Other times Stephens was behind his drum kit, as REM‘s Mike Mills sang lead. Or maybe ringleader Chris Stamey (The dB’s) might be out front. Or maybe the Dickinson boys. Or Brett Harris, an amazingly talented singer (and auxiliary member of The dB’s for live dates). The constantly changing aggregation – often reaching fifteen or more people on the relatively small stage – ran through the Big Star catalog, and even managed to faithfully recreate the ramshackle piano intro of “Jesus Christ.” By the time the all-in final number “Thank You Friends” got underway, there were cheering fans and moist eyes all around. I can’t speak for the other attendees, but I cam away with the feeling that we all were witness (and party) to something special, something unique.

More reporting on AMA to come in future blog posts.

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Fantasy Festival: Yep Roc 15

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I’m not a fan of professional team spectator sports; that kind of thing has never held any fascination for me. But I sort of understand why others like it, I guess. I also (thank goodness) don’t work in a cube-farm office – got that out of my system back in the mid 90s – so I don’t have to endure endless water cooler chatter about who won the big game last night. My coworkers of that era quickly figured out that I was clueless when it came to sports: then as now I don’t know if the Cardinals (to pick a random example) are a baseball or football team. And I think I heard that the Rams don’t even play in Los Angeles any more.

But I do remember a game-of-sorts that my sports-loving coworkers used to really get into. It was something called “fantasy football.” It isn’t, I don’t think, anything like “band camps” in which you play a vast sum of money to hang out with rock stars slightly past their sell-by date; no, I think it has to do with picking a bunch of your favorite players and somehow pitting them against your friend’s list of players. Maybe I’m wrong.

But if that is what it is, then it’s slightly similar to a little imagination exercise I occasionally engage in: a fantasy festival. If I were a rock impresario with unlimited (or at least substantial) resources, and I wanted to put together a festival with a list of great acts, who might make the list?

As it happens, someone else has done this for me. And as luck would have it, that “someone” is the staff of Yep Roc Records, based in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill region of North Carolina. I live a mere four hours’ drive from the Triangle, and I’ll be attending the festival, designed to celebrate the label’s 15th anniversary. It’s called Yep Roc 15, and the lineup – all acts signed to Yep Roc – is stellar. I’ll be reporting on it a number of times both before and after the three-day festival (October 11-13), and if my smartphone battery holds up, I might do a bit of liveblogging straight from Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, home to the three-night extravaganza.

For a full rundown of the acts who’ll take the stage, visit www.yr15.com. But here’s a survey of some (not all) of the acts I am most excited about seeing, hearing, and in some cases, meeting:

As co-leader (with brother Phil) of The Blasters, Dave Alvin was a pioneer in what we now call roots-rock. I saw The Blasters way back in 1981, in my fake ID era; that was the only way to get into Atlanta’s Agora Ballroom if you were under age. Alvin’s Romeo’s Escape LP (known outside the USA as Every Night About This Time) featured the amazing, heart-rending “Fourth of July,” a song he’d re-record (in an arguably inferior version) when he subsequently joined X. I saw Alvin onstage last year, and while he leans a bit more toward country than he did in his Blasters days, his story-songs and colorful personality make him a must-see.

There’s so much I could say about Nick Lowe. From his work with Kippington Lodge to Brinsley Schwarz to (most notably) Rockpile and his solo records, he’s consistently turned out some of the finest songs in any genre. While he made his name to some degree as a house producer at Stiff Records in the 70s, his biggest claims to fame are the classics “Cruel to Be Kind” and a song that’s become a standard, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” The success of the latter set Lowe up so as not to have any financial worries. Like Alvin, Lowe has moved in a singer-songwriter direction; his current tour brings him to my hometown (Asheville) the night before Yep Roc 15, and in fact my interview with him will run in the local altweekly Mountain Xpress that week (it’ll be on this blog two weeks after that).

Robyn Hitchcock is in many ways the successor to Pink Floyd‘s Syd Barrett. But he’s much more than that. A prolific artist who has recorded with his groups (The Soft Boys and The Egyptians) as well as solo, the Cambridge-based Hitchcock can always be counted on for droll lyrics fused to winning melodies. I interviewed him many years ago in connection with a reissue of his albums. This will be my first time seeing him onstage.

Los Straitjackets are, quite simply, the world’s greatest instrumental surf guitar band. With their high-concept look and flawless choreography, they’re among the most distinctive bands you’ll ever hope to see. I’ve seen them twice and interviewed them twice (in 2007 and 2011). The current live dates are a special treat: guitarist Danny “Daddy-O Grande” Amis returns to the lineup after wrestling cancer to the ground.

Fountains of Wayne rank among the finest exponents of intelligent powerpop; every one of their albums is filled with wry observations on life, and more hooks than seems fair. I first saw FoW onstage at Bonnaroo 2007, and covered the release of a live concert DVD as well as a break-out solo album by their lead guitarist Jody Porter.

Liam Finn comes by his talent at least in part thanks to genetics. His dad is Neil Finn of Crowded House, and Tim Finn (Split Enz, Crowded House) is his uncle. Liam tours sometimes as a member of Crowded House as well, but his own music offers a more modern take on the classic sounds of his dad’s band. I’ve seen him both as a Crowdie and as a solo opener; in the latter situation he made intelligent use of looping to create rocking songs out of nearly nothing but his voice and guitar.

The Sadies are an astounding band; their 2007 New Seasons album just might be the finest synthesis of rock, country and Americana since early Flying Burrito Brothers. But that’s not all they can do: though their vocal harmonies are a thing of beauty, their soundtrack to the documentary about Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (Tales of the Rat Fink) is an instro-surf extravaganza of the first order.

And that’s just some of the acts on the bill. Also scheduled to appear: John Doe (formerly of X), Chuck Prophet, Minus 5, Sloan, Chatham County Line and host/emcee John Wesley Harding. And several more. And the organizers promise more names are yet to be added.

I’m telling ya: Yep Roc 15 is my fantasy festival. I can’t wait; I’m already working on lining up some interviews. Stay tuned.

Tickets have long been on sale, and both discounted-advance and VIP tix are long gone. But individual day passes remain, at least at the time of this writing. Go get yours now.

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