Archive for the ‘folk’ Category

Rick Wakeman, Cannonball Adderley, and Me

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Today I’m going to indulge in a brief change of pace. I’d like to tell you about a pair of reissues with which I am involved. I won’t be reviewing either title – what would be the point? – but suffice to say that if I didn’t think they are superb albums, I wouldn’t have written the liner notes.

The first, reissued earlier this week, is Rick Wakeman‘s final album for A&M Records, Rhapsodies. This 2LP set capped his association with Herb Alpert‘s label; the Yes keyboard player’s first album – The Six Wives of King Henry VIII – remains his best-selling (and arguably best) album, but Rhapsodies is a successfully varied lot as well. Though he had employed vocalists on some of his earlier A&M albums (even Rick Wakeman’s Criminal Record, another album reissued with liner notes by yours truly), for Rhapsodies, Wakeman stuck to his strengths: piano, organ and synthesizer. A crack band is on hand, and as often as not they play in what might be termed a disco fashion, but the results are not nearly as gruesome as that description might suggest. Flashes of humor are shot through the album, and save for an interesting misstep (a bizarre reading of Gershwin‘s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Rhapsodies is a highly recommended album. My liner notes contextualize the album and even sort of review the tracks therein.

Out next week is an album that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve written often about how the music of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley changed my life, serving as my adult gateway into jazz. (Audrey and I even had “Mercy Mercy Mercy” played at our wedding last year.) Adderley’s final project was also his most ambitious: a sprawling double LP that combined Broadway, blues, folk tale, avant/free jazz, funk and more. Big Man: The Legend of John Henry was met with mixed reviews upon its release shortly after Adderley’s untimely death. But it’s a fascinating album, with a modern-day allegory that (to my mind, anyway) spoke to the Black Power concerns of the early 1970s through the retelling of a Reconstruction-era folk tale about the “steel drivin’ man.” Famed actor Robert Guillaume (known to a generation as Benson, a core character on Soap and later a self-titled sitcom) got one of his first big gigs providing vocals for this album. And Mr. Guillaume consented to an interview with me, which formed the basis of my extensive liner notes. I also did the package design for the reissue (which includes the entire work’s libretto) and got my first (co-) producer’s credit on an album.

At present I’m writing liner notes for another upcoming reissue, Iron Butterfly‘s classic Ball LP, which will be out later in 2015. With luck, there will be other projects to tell you about in future days.

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Album Review: Lead Belly — Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

In 1948, on a Sunday evening in August, a new radio series premiered. Featuring beloved and renowned folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), The Story of Folklore presented the then-fiftyish Lead Belly doing what he did best: singing songs accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, and introducing the songs with brief spoken interludes. As was the standard practice, the shows would be recorded, pressed onto 16” “aircheck” discs and then broadcast shortly thereafter. The source for this vinyl release is a set of 78rpm 12” discs cut from a playback of those aircheck discs. The resulting quality is quite clear for a recording of this vintage, and the modern-day producers (noted jazz author Cary Ginell and Michael Kieffer) are to be commended for their largely hands-off approach that seeks only to present the performance its best form.

Modern listeners who know “House of the Rising Sun” from its popular interpretation by The Animals may be surprised to hear Lead Belly’s upbeat, almost happy reading of the tune. On “Leavin’ Blues,” the guitarist shows his skill with the twelve-string; he often sounds as if he’s playing more than one instrument (he’s not; nothing like overdubbing existed in the 40s).

Side One presents the August 1 program, and August 15 episode is documented on Side Two. The song list is similar for both episodes: both include brief run-throughs of “Irene” as the opener and closer, plus distinctly different versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and the astounding guitar workout “Hollywood and Vine” (almost prototypical rock’n'roll, Lead Belly characterizes it as “a little boogie”). The man billed as “American’s greatest living folksinger” performs “Backwater Blues” and “Leavin’ Blues” on the first session, with a focus on love songs of a sort (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky” and “Careless Love”) on the second-documented show. The bits of banter between Ledbetter and the (unidentified) announcer are a bit stiff, but they may have served to guide listeners into the somewhat unfamiliar musical world of Lead Belly.

The disc captures the first and third episodes of The Story of Folklore, and the announcer makes mention of the program format for the fourth episode (spirituals), but only these two episodes have surfaced. Presumably the series didn’t continue for much more than four installments total.

The vinyl release of Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948 is pressed on beautiful translucent blue vinyl, housed in a sturdy full-color ten-inch sleeve, and includes a well-put-together liner note booklet that provides background on the recording, the songs, the performer, and the modern transfer of the recording. Happily, the entire project was done with the blessing and cooperation of the Lead Belly Estate.

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Album Review: Sid Griffin — The Trick is to Breathe

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

In the immediate wake of the excesses brought forth by psychedelia, popular (rock) music took a decided turn toward the simpler, more pastoral. Mere months after Cream were hitting the charts with “Sunshine of Your Love” and Jimi Hendrix was endeavoring to stand next to our fire, groups like The Band were finding success with a much more toned-down, sepia-tinted sort of music. That style owed more to acoustic instruments, even when they were employed in rock fashion.

While the charts splintered into genres as the 70s wore on, this simpler (dare I say softer) approach was taken to another level – a higher or lower one, depending on one’s need for rock in their musical diet – with the rise of the sensitive singer/songwriter. For all his merits, James Taylor exemplifies this turn away from the visceral in popular music, at least for a significant portion of the listening public.

But before the singer/songwriters took hold, and in connection with the pastoral approach, some very interesting (and creatively fertile) things were happening in popular music. The Byrds, Poco, Moby Grape and a few others had been investigating the sweet spot where rock and more acoustic-based forms met, and the results were sometimes exemplary. But the hybrid style didn’t gain a strong foothold in the pop marketplace.

Not right away, anyhow. But more than a decade later, concurrent with the rise of what is sometimes called the paisley underground movement, a number of musical artists took another look at combining rock and folk (and/or country) styles. There wasn’t really a succinct name for the hybrid then – today we might call it proto-Americana – but the music from artists such as The Blasters and Lone Justice had as its foundation that commingling of musical genres.

And without a doubt the giant among these was The Long Ryders. Led by guitarist (and player of other stringed instruments) Sid Griffin, The Long Ryders could be pointed to by decided fans of hard-rocking music of the 80s as the one “twangy” band that they really, really dug. The group folded near the end of the decade (happily they reunite on occasion), and the members went their various ways. Griffin continued to cultivate his career as a writer, a curator of music, and a musician with solo albums. He also started a group called The Coal Porters; almost wholly rooted in Americana-type instrumentation, they also rocked.

Griffin’s latest album, The Trick is to Breathe, combines the best elements of the hybrid rock-Americana style, and it’s also a lyrics-focused album that fans of the singer/songwriter genre will find very rewarding. It’s most certainly not a rock record – there’s not a note of electric instrumentation to be found – but it has an undeniable (if hard to pin down) rock sensibility about it. Griffin’s vocals are mixed right out front, allowing listeners to follow along in his story-songs without straining their ears. On the gentle “Ode to Bobbie Gentry,” Griffin makes the observation that “no one ever comes to no good in the show-biz world,” but the fact that he’s making albums like this strongly suggests otherwise. “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” is a bluegrass romp, but one that’s fun and free of artifice; even an avowed non-grasser such as this writer can’t be helped but drawn in by the lighthearted lyric set against a familiar melodic structure. Maybe it’s purely coincidental (and maybe not), but “Circle Bar” is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Rush‘s reading of Joni Mitchell‘s similarly-titled “The Circle Game.”

Griffin’s gentle mandolin plucking is at the center of “Between the General and the Grave,” and some melancholy fiddle work helps create a fragile ambience for this tale of war. Perhaps the most interesting track on The Trick is to Breathe, “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” is also the track that sounds the most like The Long Ryders. This fanciful rethink of an imagined conversation between the King and Gladys Presley is warm and sentimental, painting a portrait of Elvis when he was young and relatively innocent (“I’ll still be your son when all is done”). Griffin’s Elvis conveys some hard-earned wisdom to his mother: “Mama, never party after the show.” Musically, it’s a cousin to “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” from The Long Ryders’ 1987 LP Two Fisted Tales. Whatever its provenance, it’s a delight.

“Everywhere” is the album’s longest track, and it waits until more than halfway through to change up the arrangement. But it’s worth the wait, with some wonderful close harmony vocal work. A reinvention of the sixties folk-rock classic “Get Together” is nearly unrecognizable, but in Griffin’s capable bluegrass-centric hands, the old adage “a good song is a good song” is proved yet again. With its fade-in and fade-out, the brief, clanging instrumental “Front Porch Fandango” sounds for all the world like a spontaneous jam that happened to get caught on tape; more of it would be even better.

“Punk Rock Club” is a bizarre – yet enthusiastically welcomed – left turn on The Trick is to Breathe. On this spoken-word track, Griffin recites a collection of comments, perhaps from selected audience members. In their most deadpan voices, Griffin and his friends give us lines such as, “Why is the singer so angry?” and “Why does the drummer hit so hard?” This piss-take of rock’s poseur tendencies is very knowing, and very, very funny. The crosstalk near the track’s end is reminiscent of some of the experiments Robert Fripp did with The Roches on his The League of Gentlemen album.

The gentle guitar picking on “Who’s Got a Broken Heart” finds Griffin with both feet in singer/songwriter territory. He reaches deep and pulls out a more nuanced vocal than is typical, and subtle cello sawing adds the perfect accompaniment. The three-quarter time story-song “We’ve Run Out of Road” feels like the kind of song Willie Nelson comes up with at his best. Griffin’s careful arrangement touches help the song strike the perfect balance between slick and down-home.

Griffin wraps up the stellar album with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a high-speed bluegrass tune that riffs on tried-and-true phrases and lyrical snippets that overtly reference Bob Dylan and The Beatles (“No Direction Home,” “I Saw Her Standing There,”) all put to clever, smile-eliciting use.

The Trick is to Breathe is a start-to-finish triumph.

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Book Review: Wounds to Bind

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

Friday, October 10th, 2014

A Guest Feature by Annelise Kopp

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

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

Watch “Freak Scene” (Dinosaur Jr, 1988)

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

Watch “Listen to Me” (J Mascis, 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch the full KEXP interview with Henry Rollins & Dinosaur Jr

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

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Album Review: Bombadil — Tarpits and Canyonlands

Friday, September 26th, 2014

With a slightly more arty take on the approach favored by bands like Fleet Foxes, on Tarpits and Canyonlands, Durham NC-based Bombadil crafts a music that feels like equal parts Americana, baroque art-pop, and quirky Van Dyke Parks-styled worldAmericana. Metallic-sounding tack piano forms the centerpiece of many of the disc’s arrangements, but out-front vocal harmonies figure largely in the group’s sound, too.

But before you start thinking that Tarpits and Canyonlands is some sort of bandwagon-jumping exercise designed to glom on to the success of Fleet Foxes and their ilk, consider this: the album was originally released back in 2009, upon which it sank with nary a trace. A number of serious setbacks contributed to the album’s failure-to-launch, but the most serious setback occurred when band member Daniel Michalak (“considered the band’s driving force,” sayeth the press kit) was waylaid with a serious – and incapacitating – medical condition called neural tension. So despite some early positive reviews, Bombadil disappeared from sight, taking the promise of Tarpits and Canyonlands with them.

After five years(!) of treatment of most ever kind, Michalak started to get better. But things went slowly…very slowly. In 2012 Bombadil finally took to the road for a tour, which went well.

Well, now it’s 2014. Earlier this year the band – rightly convinced of the quality of their largely overlooked 2009 album – reissued Tarpits and Canyonlands. But they didn’t simply burn up a stack of CDs. Oh, no: Tarpits and Canyonlands has been given the most lavish reissue/repackage one can imagine. A sprawling 2LP vinyl set comes housed in the sturdiest gatefold sleeve I’ve ever seen, complete with artwork and extra goodies that border on the precious. But for a standout album of its quality, the lavish treatment makes sense.

The band’s baroque Americana somehow feels warmer and less stilted than (gotta mention ‘em again) Fleet Foxes; there’s something up close and personal about the production values that makes the whole affair seem, well, friendlier. Yawning cellos lean up against gently picked acoustic guitars; odd bits of distorted guitar rub uncomfortably against martial snare drum blasts; the net effect is difficult to classify, but worth the time spent unwrapping its charms.

In connection with the reissue, Bombadil returned to the road; the next several weeks will see the band take a southern swing, with October dates in Ohio, then Virginia, two dates in their home state of North Carolina, two in Georgia (Atlanta and Athens, natch), and three in Tennessee (Gatlinburg, Nashville, and Knoxville.

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Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 1

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

It’s not easy putting together the lineup for a music festival. All sorts of competing forces work against each other in the planning process. You want a lineup that’s cutting-edge, but you need to keep it accessible enough to sell tickets. You want an eclectic lineup, but you also might want to make selections based upon some sort of overarching theme.

The organizers of Transfigurations II – a celebration of the anniversary of Asheville NC-based Harvest Records, previewed here – threaded the needle with this year’s festival. The lineup drew from a wide array of genres, wide enough to appeal to aficionados of the out-there as well as to the mildly adventurous festival-goer.

I wasn’t able to make it to either of the first two nights – held at local Asheville clubs – but I enjoyed an afternoon and evening on Blennerhassett Island in nearby Marshall NC, site of the Saturday segment of the festival. Set up across three stages, the festival featured a small outdoor stage near the water for solo- and small acts (amplified acoustic and such), a large outdoor stage, and an indoor stage in the gymnasium building of what used to be a school. I bumped into a friend at the festival, and in conversation, we decided that the crowd numbered around 500-800 people, a nice size if you’re attending. I estimated the crowd’s mean age to be about half my own, but there really was music for all tastes here. Food and beer lines weren’t overly long, and one could get as close to the performer as one wished (more on that later).

Upon arriving, I caught a few minutes of the tail-end of Steve Gunn‘s set on the big outdoor stage. My initial impression – commenting on both the band and Gunn’s vocals – was that the whole thing sounded a bit like The Grateful Dead backing Greg Lake.

Next, Asheville-based Angel Olsen appeared on the small outdoor stage solo, accompanied only by a solidbody electric guitar. Her angsty, heartfelt melodies were delivered by the amped-up, slightly distorted guitar, yet she played in a folky style. Her vocals included a fair amount of what might be termed yodeling. Not exactly my cup of tea, but Olsen is clearly very good at what she does, she seems quite free of artifice, and the sizable crowd (which grew as her set went on) was enthralled, thoroughly enjoying her performance.

When Olsen finished, I walked the couple-dozen steps to the indoor stage where Quilt would perform. They hadn’t quite started their set yet, so I walked up front to take a closer look at their onstage gear. I was surprised and delighted to find a Rheem combo organ. Rheems are somewhat rare beasts; as combo-organ.com notes, the company is best known for their water heaters (no, really). The Mark VII that Quilt had was in excellent shape, unexpected for a keyboard manufactured 1966-68 or so. Though I had never heard the group, I knew that Quilt was described as “dream psychedelic,” and that alone was enough to pique my interest. Seeing the Rheem organ suggested to me that they might be (or at least sound like ) the genuine article.

Indeed they were. The four-piece stuck mostly to original material from their two albums, and while there was a faint whiff of “Paisley Underground” about their sound, for the most part their hypnotic-yet-catchy songs didn’t sound like anyone else in particular. Though this was a daytime set in a sunlight-filled gym, eventually the sun moved just enough (Blennerhassett Island is surrounded by mountains) so about mid-set, the room dimmed a bit.

That meant that the way-cool vari-lites and projections cast the desired effect upon the group, giving them a look highly reminiscent of the photo on the back cover of The Velvet Underground With Nico. The kind of music they played – though more hooky than even the Velvets’ most pop-oriented tunes – only heightened the similarity. My comment at the time was, “I have t-shirts older than them, but they ‘get’ it.” I bought their (vinyl) album at the merch table as soon as their set was over.

Click to read Part Two: The Clean, Reigning Sound, and Lee Fields & the Expressions.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Album Review: Dave Van Ronk — Inside Dave Van Ronk

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

I’m not a folkie. When it comes to acoustic based music of the folk sort, my tastes are fairly limited: I own a decent-sized stack of Bob Dylan albums, that cat-chewed first Peter, Paul and Mary LP I got from my parents’ collection, and a few Phil Ochs albums. And that’s about it. I prefer the British Isles/European folk styles of Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, and, well, Donovan.

But I’ve long been familiar with the name Dave Van Ronk, albeit only on a surface level. What I knew of him could be summed up in a sentence or two at most: he was part of that whole Greenwich Village scene, along with people like Rambin’ Jack Elliott. I had never heard a note of music by either of them, though. Still, when the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis was released, and I started hearing Van Ronk’s name more often, I figured it was time to give a listen. (The film takes some of its cues from Van Ronk’s life, I’m told; I haven’t seen the movie.)

As it happens, Concord Music Group, owner of the Fantasy back catalog, shrewdly chose right-about-now as the time to reissue Inside Dave Van Ronk, on vinyl and CD. So availing myself of a copy, I sat down to take in some folk. But first, I turned to my trusty and well-worn copy of the seminal rock-crit treatise, Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia. Wrote Ms. Roxon:

In the sixties, an age of lyric tenors, falsettos and angelic boy singers, Dave Van Ronk, who sings like a combination truck driver-lumberjack, seems strangely out of time and out of place. But if you’ve ever heard him after an evening of Judy Collins-Joan Baez sweetness, and if you’ve heard what he does with Joni Mitchell‘s “Both Sides Now,” giving it the gritty third dimension of a man who’s been there, then you know his time is coming.

Roxon was prescient about a lot of things, but Van Ronk’s time never truly did come. Or maybe it did. While he never shifted a whole lotta units, this was folk music, after all. But he was a respected, revered figure in the folk world, and his twenty-or-so albums are highly regarded within the folk idiom. Allmusic.com rates several of his albums as four-to-five star releases, and not a single rated one is less than three stars.

He began his recording career in 1959, and his fourth LP (recorded in early ’62) was released in 1964 as Inside Dave Van Ronk. On the record, Van Ronk performs unaccompanied acoustic guitar readings of a dozen tunes, all traditional numbers. And to the first-time listener, he sounds a bit like an American version of Nick Drake, albeit with a much gruffer voice and a simpler approach on the guitar. The choice of English folk tunes (“Fair and Tender Ladies,” to name one) alongside more recognizably American ones (“Kentucky Moonshiner”) heighten the similarity.

The Fantasy reissue isn’t a straight reissue f the original LP; no, it also includes the LP Dave Van Ronk / Folksinger (recorded in April ’62 at the same time as the Inside tracks, but released in 1967; go figure). It’s a mix of traditional tunes with some more modern numbers. So the CD features 25 tracks.

The two albums are very much cut from the same cloth, and it makes good conceptual sense to reunite the music all into one place. His reading of Reverend Gary Davis‘ “Cocaine Blues” is more rough-hewn than Drake’s version (included on the bootleg Tamworth-in-Arden). But it honors its source relatively faithfully. Van Ronk plays guitar and sings on the Folksinger tracks; he switches to the more expressive 12-string for Inside, and adds a bit of dulcimer, autoharp and harmonica as well. All the tracks are spare and unadorned, and sound like what they probably are: recordings made in a single pass, with Van Ronk pulling songs from his own repertoire and playing them the same way he would at a Village coffeehouse.

If that description sounds appealing, you’ll likely enjoy an hour-plus of Dave Van Ronk as presented on this set. The music makes no pretense to be anything more than it is: Van Ronk’s not musically arguing for the timelessness of these folk tunes. He’s merely presenting them for you to react however you see fit.

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Album Review: Los Lobos — Sí Se Puede

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

It was eight long years ago that I first reviewed a Los Lobos album, a then-new best-of compilation called Wolf Tracks. And I had added some of their music to my collection many years earlier, with a purchase of the La Pistola y el Corazon vinyl LP in 1988. So while I’ve not followed their career as closely as perhaps I should have, I’ve known from the start that these Angelinos were adept at chronicling the Latino/Norteamericano experience in a way few others could even attempt.

What I didn’t know until very recently is that while their breakout EP Just Another Band From East L.A was released in 1978, it wasn’t their debut: an even-earlier collection of songs was put together in 1976.

Conceived as a charity album with all sales proceeds going to United Farm Workers of America, Sí Se Puede featured the band backing various vocal collectives. And coming from a band that was still some years away from hitting the relatively big time, it’s a revelation.

As one might expect, there’s a strong worker-centric vibe to these songs, all selected by television producer Art Brambila, the man who conceived of the overall project. Brambila gathered local singers together in a studio (with session time donated by Herb Alpert) with the then four-member Los Lobos to record the ten tracks that made up Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can). A few weeks later, the project was completed, and 5000 copies were pressed on vinyl, to be sold as fundraisers. In 2014, original copies are impossibly rare: the two online outlets where one usually looks to find used vinyl (musicstack.com and discogs.com) have none, nor does ebay. Gemm.com does indeed list one, for a mere $1409.18 (plus shipping).

Thankfully, Concord Music Grop has remedied this situation, after a fashion. On March 11 (this week) the label has reissued Sí Se Puede in digital-only format. And while that might be a slight disappointment to those who cherish the physical artifact, the music itself makes getting an mp3 version worth making the exception.

Most of the tunes are in Spanish (in all or in part), but a lack of familiarity with the language won’t diminish your enjoyment. “Mana is Now” featuring Geree Gonzales and Tierra sounds not wholly unlike what Linda Ronstadt did on 1987′s Canciones de mi Padre. And the artist known here only as Ramon fronts Los Lobos on “Yo Estoy con Chavez” (“I am With [Cesar] Chavez”), a new folk tune based – fittingly enough — on the melody of Woody Guthrie‘s “This Land is Your Land.”

There’s plenty of traditional Mexican sounds to be found here; Los Lobos turn in primarily acoustic performances, though the lack of electric instruments doesn’t mean a corresponding lack in energy. Lots of accordion, fiddle and harmonica give these tunes – lovingly arranged by the band – an authentic and homespun (yet thoroughly professional) feel overall. The highlight of the entire collection is one of three tracks on Sí Se Puede to feature Carmen Moreno, the lovely, flute-laden “Sangre Antigua.”

Fans of the band will absolutely want to add this to their collection, as will anyone interested in a socio-musical document of the concerns of California farm workers in the mid 1970s. Originally done as a way to raise funds for UFW, today it’s simply a fine collection of music.

Note: You may also enjoy my review of Los Lobos’ 2010 album, Tin Can Trust.

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