Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

New Crest on an Old Wave: The Dave Mason Interview (Part Two)

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: This current tour [coming to Asheville's Orange Peel on Nov. 8]  is billed as Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam. From what I’ve read, it seems that you’ll split the show between versions of material that we know from farther back, and the other part is newer material. Tell me a little bit about how the show works.

Dave Mason: I thought it would be kinda cool to put something together where I could revisit things from the beginning, from the Traffic work forward. Essentially what the show becomes is a sort of two-hour travelogue, I guess, of all my music up until this point. We start out with early Traffic stuff, and then after we take a break – though sometimes we do the show straight through, depending on the venue – we come back and I focus on stuff from my own career. From Alone Together to Let it Flow through what’s on the new CD, Future’s Past.

I wasn’t planning on putting out a new CD, frankly. It’s a compilation of things I had been working on at home, playing around with. So there’s some new songs on there, and as you say I revisit new versions of “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” a completely revised version of “World in Changes” from Alone Together, and a live performance of “As Sad and Deep As You.” That’s included because it turned out so wild that I just felt it had to be on there.

Another thing about the show is that it includes some pictorial stuff, and I tell a few stories and things like that. It’s kinda fun, and it’s going over really well.

BK: I believe that I read that the album that became Future’s Past started out as an EP…

DM: Originally, I was just going to put four tunes out. But I had stuff at home, because I’m always futzing around in the studio. And then it was, “Oh, let’s put that one in.” and, “Let’s put that one in, too! That’ll be good.” It ended up being nine songs.

BK: 2008′s 26 Letters 12 Notes was your first album of original material in many years. And now in 2014 there’s this new one. These follow a steady stream of live albums. It seems that in some ways you prefer the stage to the studio; is that true?

DM: The bottom line is now, that it’s truly all about live performance. Frankly, it’s…I don’t want to say the internet killed things, because it’s just another delivery system, but the big flaw is that there’s no radio any more. There’s no way for people to know that there’s something new out. So that’s, to me, the really big problem. In the days of FM, you’d hear some great, mixed-up stuff. Some great music. And for a start, there’d be somebody there deejaying! But as a national format, it just doesn’t exist any more.

The other problem with the internet is that it’s just destroying intellectual property. And the problem there goes to writers [journalists] as well as songwriters. Because everybody’s just taking everything…

BK: There was a time when music journalists could make a living!

DM: Exactly! And that’s the down-side of the internet. I could go on and on, be then it becomes…as people could say, “oh, you’re just bitching.” But I’m not. Because it’s my livelihood. As it would be for a journalist or anybody else.

And so it all circles back to the point that yes, it’s all down to playing live. Which is where it all started, anyway.

BK: The way I look at it, in the days of radio, you had broadcasting; nowadays, it’s narrowcasting. Back then, you’d turn on the radio, and you might hear a hard rock tune followed by a pop sort of thing, followed by something else; kind of all over the map, based at least in part on the whims and tastes of the real-live disc jockey. So people were exposed to different things, some of which they’d like, and some they won’t. Today we’ve got things like Pandora, which to some extent operate on the opposite idea: “So you like this song? Well, here’s something a lot like it that you might enjoy.” So the listener’s focus gets narrower.

DM: Yeah. The focus groups killed everything! [laughs] Everybody gets pigeonholed, tagged. It’s a shame. Because music is much more diverse than that. FM radio was diverse. And not only that: when they played something, they actually told you what it was!

BK: Now there’s an app for that.

DM: But we soldier on!

BK: When I go to a concert featuring artists who came to fame in the 60s or 70s, I’m always interested to look around the room. For some of them, the demographic is simply people in their fifties and over, full stop. For others, it’s more balanced, with younger people in the crowd. Have you noticed, which is it for you?

DM: The bulk of my core audience is 40s up to…hmm…late 70s. But I see younger people being there, for sure. And younger people who come – who are, let’s say, hearing my music for the first time – they come up to me afterward and are like, “Wow! That was incredible!”

Everything gets so categorized, and formularized, pasteurized, homogenized – “it should be this” and “it should be that” – but the bottom line is this: if something is good, and especially if it has the ring of authenticity, then I don’t care what age you are. You’re gonna “get” it.


Mason notes also that signed copes of Future’s Past may be ordered from davemasonmusic.com, and the individual tracks are available for download/purchase. And it is also available on vinyl. — bk

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New Crest on an Old Wave: The Dave Mason Interview (Part One)

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Dave Mason was born in Worcester England, halfway between London and Liverpool. A few years younger even than The BeatlesGeorge Harrison, Mason came up in the sort of second wave of British rock acts, first gaining fame as a member of Traffic. Alongside Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, Mason was a major force in the band, most notably on their second LP, 1968′s Traffic, on which half of the ten tracks were Mason compositions or co-writes.

But Mason’s relationship with his bandmates in Traffic was always problematic: he had appeared on their debut LP (writing several songs for it as well) but had left by the time of its release (the American LP used a photo of the band that didn’t include him). His on-again, off-again status in Traffic yielded some excellent tunes – “Hole in My Shoe” (an early hit single), the original version of the now-standard “Feelin’ Alright?” and others – but ultimately he found himself on the outside of the group.

By 1970 Mason began a solo career. He also collaborated with Cass Elliot on a well-received album, and thanks to both his skills as a player and his well-connectedness in the rock community, he picked up a lot of high profile session work. If you’re a fan of rock from the late 60s though the mid 1970s, you’ve probably got a good bit of Dave Mason in your collection, whether you know it or not. He’s on albums by The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix (that’s him on acoustic twelve-string on “All Along the Watchtower”), Paul McCartney and Wings, Stephen Stills, Delaney and Bonnie and more. He was even – for a time in the mid 1990s – a member of Fleetwood Mac.

As a solo artist, Mason enjoyed several hit singles, including “Only You Know and I Know” (1970), 1977′s “We Just Disagree” and several others. These days, Mason concentrates more on public performances than studio work – as we’ll see in a moment – but he’s touring now in support of a new album called Future’s Past. Alongside new songs, the album – and its accompanying tour – takes an encompassing look at Mason’s musical career, most pointedly back to his earliest days in Traffic. In advance of his upcoming Asheville date (Saturday November 8 at The Orange Peel), we chatted about the new album, music old and new, and the state of what used to be called “radio.” The first thing I noticed was that – to my great surprise – having moved to the States decades ago, Mason has all but lost his British accent.

Bill Kopp: On the early Traffic albums – especially the second, self-titled one – your songwriting was a key component of the band’s sound. Did you bring those songs to the band, or did they develop out of group jamming to which you eventually applied lyrics?

Dave Mason: No, they were already written; that’s how I work. Which was sort of a conflict with the rest of them in the band, really. But I usually have a pretty good idea of what the song’s going to be, before I even walk into a studio. Other than how the other musicians might interpret it, the song itself is finished.

BK: Judging by the versions of old Traffic-era songs on Future’s Past, some of the arrangements are often quite different from the versions that Traffic recorded…

DM: Yeah, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” – which is not my song anyway – the original is in a major key. I put it in a minor key, and added a few more chords. I didn’t change the melody, but I changed it musically, adapted it. I don’t see the point in trying to reproduce what was already done.

BK: It seems that after your work with Traffic, Delaney and Bonnie, Cass Elliot, Derek and the Dominoes and a number of highly regarded guest spots on some of my favorite early to mid 1970s albums, you largely made a decision to work with your own bands. Is that an accurate characterization, or did it just sort of evolve that way?

DM: Well, there really was no [laughs sardonically] – it’s hard to put it into the right terms – there was really no place for me in Traffic any more. That’s why I went on my own. And then at that point, rather than staying in England, I thought it was time to pack a bag and come to the land where it all originated.

BK: Do you find fronting a band more appealing than, say, a more collaborative approach?

DM: [Lengthy pause while he mulls the question] I never wanted to be a solo artist per se. I always liked being part of a band; I thought that differences were what made things stronger. It sort of just turned out this way, I guess. And then I had to sort of [chuckles] learn to stand up there in front and “be the guy.”

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 2)

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Continued from Part One

As Jon Auer pointed out in metaphor form during our conversation, speaking of Big Star in a slightly different context, “You can write the greatest letter in the world to someone, but if the postman loses it, or doesn’t deliver it, and no one ever gets it, no one’s gonna know how great it was.”

As it turned out, the Memphis date wasn’t the revived Big Star’s final show; not by a long shot. They continued to perform on and off for more than sixteen years, and even cut an album of new material, 2005′s In Space.

Thankfully, and no doubt in part owing to the success of the earlier box set* and movie**, Omnivore Recordings did — as filmmaker Danny Graflund would say — indeed give a flying fuck. Omnivore has quickly developed a reputation as musical curators: their approach to releases might be described as, “You probably haven’t heard this before, but you should hear it. This deserves your attention.” They do important, eclectic musical work. So now we have Live in Memphis as both a single audio CD and a concert DVD.

The twenty-song setlist as presented on Live in Memphis doesn’t differ significantly from the Columbia set performed and recorded a year and a half earlier, but the songs included here provide a more well-rounded portrait of the “new” Big Star. A faithful cover of The Kinks‘ “Till the End of the Day” reminds listeners of the studio version that was among the in/outtakes from the band’s Third/Sister Lovers LP. And Alex Chilton‘s off-kilter choice of covers is made manifest not only with Todd Rundgren‘s “Slut” and the T. Rex number “Baby Strange,” but with a surprising run-through of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” the bossa nova smash “Girl From Ipanema” (long a staple of Chilton’s solo shows), and the rock’n'roll obscurity “Patty Girl” by Dick Campbell and the Scarlets.

Chilton doesn’t hog the spotlight, though. While his idiosyncratic style all but guarantees that he’d alter the phrasing of his vocal and guitar lines, Auer and Ken Stringfellow take a more faithful approach, following the original arrangements to, um, the letter. The result is an odd juxtaposition: at times, The Posies duo sound more like “classic” Big Star than does Chilton. But when they take the lead vocals – most notably on Chris Bell‘s searing “I Am the Cosmos,” they achieve the feat of both remaining true to the original (and thus honoring Bell, who died in 1978) and making the song truly theirs. And when Jody Stephens takes his vocal turns, his fragile, heartfelt readings of “For You” and “Way Out West” rank among the disc’s most scintillating moments.

Still, Live in Memphis is perhaps not the best place for a Big Star neophyte to begin; such a person would be best served by finding a copy of the (now out-of-print) single-CD set that pairs #1 Record and Radio City (the 2014 individual album reissues add no bonus tracks, and even use the same brief Mills-penned liner note essay in both!). Moreover, Live in Memphis does lack a bit in terms of sound quality: while it’s entirely listenable, it’s only a few notches or so above an audience bootleg fidelity-wise. (Fortunately, and thanks to improvements in consumer technology, audience bootlegs from the 90s onward tend to sound pretty fine.) Still, for the faithful, Live in Memphis is a must-have. And though I haven’t yet screened the companion DVD (sold separately), I suspect it’s even more essential for lovers of Big Star.

Besides, in the wake of Chilton’s sudden death in March 2010, Live in Memphis might just be the final word on Big Star…

No, wait: acclaimed music journalist Holly George-Warren (with whom I shared a cab ride once; file under “brush with greatness”) published a Chilton biography, A Man Called Destruction, earlier this year. Word also is that a Chilton biopic is in development, and then there’s the absolutely wonderful Big Star 3rd series of concert performances: those feature a rotating cast of luminaries, including Stephens, Auer, Stringfellow, Mike Mills and Chris Stamey. Those shows are a living testament to the enduring appeal of the music created by that little band in Memphis who could never seem to find a break during their original existence. “That we’re still talking about Big Star now,” Jon Auer said to me, “is a testament to how passionate people are about this music.”

* Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski produced the Keep An Eye on the Sky box set during her time at Rhino.
** Omnivore served as music supervisors and executive producers for the Nothing Can Hurt Me motion picture documentary.

 

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Big Star Lives! with “Live in Memphis” (Part 1)

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

The story of Big Star – a band once so obscure, only critics, musicians and a small handful of in-the-know fans even knew of their brief existence – has now passed into popular culture.

I’ve always considered myself a hardcore fan of their general style of music: back in the early- to mid-1970s, I was into Badfinger, and I knew about bands like The Raspberries and Blue Ash. But at the time, I had never heard Big Star; the only time I even saw their name was in publications such as The Rolling Stone Record Guide. I didn’t have their records; I didn’t know anybody who had the records. They didn’t get played on the radio. And you couldn’t find the records, as they had quickly gone out of print. (As I have chronicled elsewhere, I stumbled upon “new old stock” copies of their first two LPs – still in shrinkwrap – in a record shop in the 1980s.)

In recent years, the Memphis group’s music has been championed by prominent musicians (among them Chris Stamey of The dB’s and R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills). Their two Stax/Ardent albums (#1 Record and Radio City) have been reissued multiple times (the most recent, just this summer, with contemporary liner notes from Mills). A 4CD box set of rarities, Keep An Eye on the Sky came out in 2009 to widespread acclaim. And Big Star got a proper, feature-length documentary done on them with 2012′s Nothing Can Hurt Me.

But all of this modern-day, well-earned appreciation was actually preceded by activity from Alex Chilton, vocalist/guitarist with Big Star through its original existence. Though the famously prickly Chilton had previously shown little interest in revisiting his Big Star years (much of his subsequent solo output seemed, at times, to be a repudiation of the musical approaches of both Big Star and his teenage group, The Box Tops), in April 1993 he surprised everyone by agreeing to a one-off reunion of the original band.

That performance – documented on the slightly-misnamed Columbia: Live at Missouri University – featured Chilton on guitar, plus original drummer Jody Stephens. (Bassist Andy Hummel either declined to participate, or wasn’t asked; no one’s sure, and Hummel passed away in 2010.) The pair were joined by two young musicians who had become Big Star acolytes of the highest order: Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, collectively known as The Posies. Though the duo had heard and read the name Big Star, they grew up without having ever heard Big Star’s music; once they discovered it, they were – like so many others of a similarly melodic musical predisposition – hooked for life. As Jon Auer told me recently:

“My first experience hearing Big Star — for real — was when I was working at a record store in Seattle. My manager at the time put on [a cassette of The Posies' debut album] Failure. He was a fan of things like NRBQ and Elvis Costello, and he really dug the tape. And he said to me, ‘Hey: have you ever heard this band called Big Star?’ I said I had heard of them. He said, ‘[deep sigh and pause for emphasis] Come. With. Me.’ He pulled out a vinyl reissue of Radio City – not an original copy like you have – and said, ‘here’s what I’m going to do. I’m gonna let you get off work now. Go home and put this record on. And listen to “September Gurls.’ It might sound like a cliché, but when I dropped the needle on that particular groove, it was like the feeling of meeting somebody and feeling that you’ve known them all your life.”

So it was that this foursome practiced up a set of Big Star tunes (plus some solo material from Big Star’s late and departed founder, guitarist Chris Bell) and did the “one-off” show. But the story didn’t quite end there, however: the reformed Big Star went on to do a number of high-profile TV and concert dates. That run was set to conclude with a date back in the band’s Memphis hometown, scheduled for October 29, 1994.

Those who had followed Big Star sensed that this would be an historic event. So arrangements were made to film the concert. Filmmaker and former Chilton bodyguard Danny Graflund convinced the mercurial Chilton to allow the filming (“I’m ready for my closeup,” Chilton deadpans onscreen before launching into “The Ballad of El Goodo”), and the show was a rousing success. But – as Graflund explains in his liner notes for the new Omnivore Recordings CD Live in Memphis, when he shopped a rough cut of the film to potentially interested parties,

“not a single label gave a flying fuck. No bites, no nibbles, not the slightest interest from any of the shits who could have done something back then. So I put the master tapes in a box, put the box in my closet, and there they stayed.”

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Back to Bassics: A Chat with Tony Levin

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

Tuesday, 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)

Monday, 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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A Chat With The Turtles’ Mark Volman, Part 2

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I was ten when the film came out, and even though Dirty Duck was a cartoon, I wasn’t allowed to see that one. It got an X rating…

Mark Volman: Right! “Livin’ in the Jungle” came from that, and several others. “Get Away,” “This Could Be the Day,” an unreleased version of “Goodbye Surprise,” and “(You’re Nothing But a) Good Duck.” And another song we did called “Rollin’ in the Hay.” “Youth in Asia,” “Mystic Martha,” and “The Big Showdown.” Some of those were some sort of [Bruce] Springsteen stuff that we were messing around with. Those are all unheard material that we thought maybe we could add to make a Battle of the Bands reissue even more special. It would have a little more volume to it, instead of just being a 34-minute record. So we’ll see how that comes out.

It’s fun to dig into the archives. We haven’t really unearthed our old unreleased stuff the way that other artists have, because we didn’t feel that there was really that big of an audience for it.

Bill: I’m a big fan of the Flo & Eddie albums.

Mark: All of it is available. If you go onto The Turtles‘ site, you can buy albums one and two (The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie from 1972, and 1974′s Flo & Eddie) and albums three and four (1975′s Illegal, Immoral and Fattening and Moving Targets from 1976). We packaged the two Warner Brothers albums together, and the two Columbia ones together on CD. And online you can actually download the reggae album (1981′s Rock Steady with Flo & Eddie).

Bill: That one’s very, very hard to find on vinyl…

Mark: And it would be a hard one to pull together for a CD or vinyl release, because of all the song ownerships. But it hasn’t escaped us as a potential vinyl reissue. As well as The Crossfires! We did a CD reissue [of the pre-Turtles surf group], and one of our hopes is to do a vinyl reissue. Ultimately, the plan would be to do vinyl reissues of all of those, and then put them in a box set for sale in Europe. Because the fan base over there knows our history, because our connection to Frank Zappa.

The music of Flo & Eddie never, unfortunately, broke in America the way it did in Europe and internationally.

Bill: I was at a garage sale last summer, and I stumbled across a copy of the 1982 Checkpoint Charlie EP. The one where the record plays from the inside out.

Mark: What a fun record that was! You know what’s so funny, that record – as crazy as it was to do – we did it in an afternoon. We sold Rhino on the whole idea; not just spinning it backwards, but doing it using only kids’ toys. All the recorded instruments are just toys, stuff that a kid could own at the time. It was a hidden project for years. When Rhino finally put it out, it became kind of an underground thing. And listening to it today, we were really way ahead of what the curve was at that time, in terms of the whole electronic thing; it hadn’t really happened yet. We just did it as a one-time thing and then moved on to something else.

Same with the reggae album: we were just messing around with that, and then we found somebody to finance us going down there [to Jamaica]. Because we didn’t want ot do it with a bunch of musicians from California!

Bill: Howard has been quite bust the last several years, what with the My Dinner with Jimi film and his book with Jeff Tamarkin. Besides touring with Flo and Eddie and the Turtles, and teaching at Belmont University, what do you have going on these days?

Mark: I’m a full time professor. So I don’t really have a lot of extra time. This new box set has been about a twenty-four month consideration. Right now our Happy Together tours fill up summertime, so we really don’t have to do a whole lot of extra touring. This last year we did a show up in Bearsville NY, at the Performing Arts Center, with Dweezil Zappa. So we’re talking about maybe playing the music if his dad, and taking that overseas. So there’s all that, and we’re pushing these vinyl reissues now – we did the Happy Together and It Ain’t Me, Babe albums on vinyl just last year. And besides Battle of the Bands, we’re also looking at reissuing Turtle Soup on vinyl. And otherwise we’ll kind of lay low.

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A Chat with The Turtles’ Mark Volman, Part 1

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The TurtlesMark Volman and Howard Kaylan, aka Flo & Eddie – have worked tirelessly to regain the rights and control over their catalog; the latest fruit of their labor is a new 7-record box set containing 45rpm records. I spoke to Mark about that set, their larger plans of a vinyl reissue program, and a few of their lesser-known works. – bk

Bill Kopp: There’s something special about having Turtles music on vinyl. Just last year, FloEdCo reissued the Happy Together and It Ain’t Me, Babe albums on vinyl, and now there’s this set of 45s. After years of not having control over reissues, and seeing haphazard collections of your music coming out, how does it feel to be able to, shall we say, set things right?

Mark Volman: Well, of course that’s always been on our minds. There were so many outside deals that had been negotiated. We needed to clean up everything, and it took a long time. I would guess that some of the deals had to be attacked a lot more than others; some just had to kind of run out. But ultimately, to do things right, we wanted to get everything in-house. And that took a whole lot of years.

But vinyl has always been something that we loved, because we collect; both Howard and I are fans of vinyl. I’ve collected 45s and albums since the sixties. So having the ability to pull this stuff together for vinyl collectors has been really fun. We did the Greatest Hits; the 45s that we’re putting out are another version of that, but we wanted to do something in kind of a fun way. So we created a reproduction of the original way these came out: we used the colors of the label…

Bill: The deep blue labels are very reminiscent of the White Whale labels on the 60s records…

Mark: Yeah. And we wanted to include the “Turtles on 45” spindle in case people needed it. Everything about it was nearly done, and we got to the point where it’s going to be made available internationally. We’re really excited about it, though I don’t expect it to sell more than three, four, maybe five thousand copies.

For the last two years, we took a prototype of this package out on tour with us, and sold them. And those limited edition ones were in a little different package, and they were sold on our Happy Together tours. This upcoming summer, the fifty cities that we’ll hit, we’ll take out this new version. There’s a diehard fan base that stays with us through the years, and they just love it when we put together this kind of thing.

Bill: The one thing – and this isn’t a criticism, it’s a question – is that you didn’t include a set of liner notes, a booklet or anything. I wonder if that was a missed opportunity.

Mark: I think that The Turtles history is pretty intact online. If someone wanted to go online, they could read all about it. And every greatest-hits album that we’ve put out has had a little blurb or something. What we really did here was just focus on the records coming out. We weren’t really trying to reach a new audience as much as we were providing a new version for the older audience.

We didn’t want to do a booklet; we had our choice: we could have done six 45s and a booklet, or eight 45s. We felt it was more important to put the songs in there. And so rather than treat it like it was history, we presented it like it was new.

Bill: Are there any plans to reissue other Turtles music on vinyl? Maybe my favorite of The Turtles’ albums, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands?

Mark: Yes. In fact Howard and I entered into discussions about a couple of things. Battle of the Bands, definitely. But if we do that, we want to do it with all the visuals, and do a little bit more of a presentation. There’s also a second Battle of the Bands record that Howard and I have assembled, which includes a lot of music that was never released. That includes some of the things that Howard and I did for movies. We wrote original songs for some movies back in the 70s. And we called it Battle of the Bands just so we had a way to refer to it. So what we’re considering is repackaging Battle of the Bands on vinyl, but with a second record. There’s stuff from the motion picture The Dirty Duck

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Bonus Weekend Feature: 101 Runners

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

I’m getting married today! And I’m so happy about it that I have a gift for my readers: an extra, weekend piece. This is an edited version of a feature that ran a couple of weeks ago in Asheville NC’s local altweekly, Mountain Xpress. — bk


New Orleans is rightly acclaimed as the birthplace of jazz, that most American of art forms. But the city’s rich, multi-ethnic heritage gave rise to an even earlier musical style. Though Mardi Gras Indian funk doesn’t enjoy jazz’s high profile, the lively and expressive form is kept alive through the music and performances of groups like 101 Runners. Recently in Asheville for two shows, Sep. 13 and 14, and featuring War Chief Juan Pardo, the group is an exemplar of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, renowned for pageantry and reveling at Mardi Gras carnivals in New Orleans.

Band leader Chris Jones characterizes Mardi Gras Indian funk as the musical product of “a magic, mystical, spiritual and ancestral tradition” dating back to the late 1800s, a time during which “local Indian tribes and formerly enslaved African Americans had commonality.” These ethnic groups had common problems, and helped each other in many different ways. Centered around New Orleans’ Congo Market, they interacted freely and often, trading goods and mingling bloodlines. Jones points out that the oral tradition of singing, chanting and drumming that developed among the combined cultures is “relatively undocumented,” though some recordings by artists such as Jelly Roll Morton showcased the developing style. The first tribe debuted in the 1880s, calling itself The Creole Wild West; they remain active today. Jones considers the Mardi Gras Indian tradition “one of the most incredible subculture phenomena” in America: “two of the most oppressed peoples of the time were able – through craft and song – to form a bond that helped them weather the storm.” And that strength has helped the tradition continue to this day. “There’s a lot of mystery” to that tradition, Jones says. “A lot of things, they keep close to their vest.”

Asheville’s Goombay festival, then, is an ideal showcase for 101 Runners. The deep connection between Native Americans and African Americans is explored in the group’s percussion-centric music.

Perhaps the most well-known major group exploring the style was The Wild Tchoupitoulas; produced by Allen Toussaint, their 1976 album brought the style to national prominence. They added “a foundation of funk organization” to traditional tribal drumming. 101 Runners build on that style, further exploring the music’s African percussion roots. “A lot of the music starts with the chants and percussion, then the music comes in,” Jones explains. “Then we go on the musical journey together.” He laughs and sums it up as “organized chaos.”

The band’s pair of Asheville dates – an “official Goombay after party” at New Mountain, and a parade and show to close out Goombay on Saturday night – featured African dancers and the flamboyantly dressed Mardi Gras Indians. 101 Runners widened their musical vision further to include a number of local Appalachian musicians who joined in. Jones has experience in this area: he conceived and produced the BlueBrass Project, a series of recordings that paired New Orleans and Appalachian musical styles. Asheville-based musicians Jay Sanders and Woody Wood are veteran members of the loosely-knit 101 Runners collective. Asheville concertgoers experienced a unique mashup of cultures and roots music styles. By focusing on that – plus the African elements highlighted in the Goombay festival – the group could “cross-pollinate.”

“They originally wanted us to play 45 minutes” at Goombay, Jones says. “That’s like two tunes for us!” 101 Runners negotiated to play longer. But Jones stresses that the dance-oriented, partying Mardi Gras Indian funk is about fun; it’s not “deep and trippy and jammy.”

Jones says that War Chief Juan Pardo “spends countless hours” creating his outfit; the result is full of beads, feathers, rhinestones and other colorful ornamentation. There’s nothing like a 101 Runners performance, promises Jones. Onstage, 101 Runners are “never the same thing twice. In ten years, we’ve had two rehearsals. And one of them was terrible!” Jones observes that the ancestral nature of the music – paying tribute to so many American traditions – can often “wake up some of the ones who came before. One thing I learned really early was not to put any confines on it. We let the music take us where it goes; it’s moving artistic expression.”

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