Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 2

Friday, December 12th, 2014

Continued from Part One

From a commercial standpoint, The Blues Magoos were largely over after the lackluster chart performance of their third LP. “After Basic Blues Magoos, we broke up, because we knew we were banging our heads against the wall,” Peppy Castro admits.

But the band did continue, albeit in an unusual fashion. With a new lineup – only Castro would remain – and a wholly different musical approach, a reconstituted Blues Magoos would release Never Goin’ Back to Georgia (1969) and 1970′s Gulf Coast Bound. Castro is pleased to be given the opportunity to discuss those rarely-considered (and long out of print) albums.

“First,” he stresses, “you have to understand that at that point in time I was only nineteen years old. My father was born in Bogotá, Colombia. He died when I was five months old, so I never got the history or the culture of being half Colombian. So I decided that if I was going to continue to do music, I wanted to do something new for myself. I started putting a band together to explore, to be the first band to come out with ‘Latin rock.’ And at the time, the only things I had access to were offices with The Blues Magoos’ managers, and they offered me a place to rehearse and stuff like that.”

“My idea was to come out with a whole new band, in that style. But when they saw what I was doing, they came to me and said that they – the managers – owned the name The Blues Magoos, and that they had signed the name to ABC Dunhill. So if I wanted to, they wanted me to continue as The Blues Magoos. They were ready to offer me a deal.” Their strategy would be to take Castro’s new project and leverage it with a “brand” that was already known.

But, Castro says, “I turned down the deal. This wasn’t The Blues Magoos. But what I realized – at age nineteen – is that what I’d have to do is go back to square one with this entirely new entity. And that was going to take an awfully long time to get it off the ground. And I was worried that it might take so long, that the style might come and go, and it wouldn’t be fresh any more.” He recalls what he told himself at the time: “If I take the deal, at least I can still be productive. I can still move along as a talent, as an artist.” So he reconsidered, and took the deal.

Complicating matters, the remaining members (or ex-members, depending on how one views the complicated circumstances) regrouped and released a single of their own, “Let Your Love Ride” b/w “Who Do You Love,” on a small west coast record label, billing themselves as – you guessed it – The Blues Magoos. The inevitable round of legal wrangling quickly ensued. As a result, Castro says, “the release of Never Goin’ Back to Georgia got tied up for nine months. And in that time…Santana came out! I had the record cut, covered, and in the can.” Castro’s plan of premiering the first Latin rock band were preempted by the Carlos Santana-led band’s debut. Eventually Never Goin’ Back to Georgia came out, with the Blues Magoos name on it. Old fans were confused, and as for new fans, there weren’t many. (“It got tremendous airplay in New York,” says Castro.) He pauses. “Looking back on it now, I would have done things differently.”

But Castro makes clear that he can’t – and doesn’t – complain. “I’ve been able to make music on my own terms for fifty years,” he points out with pride. And part of those terms led to Castro reforming The Blues Magoos (with some original/early members plus some younger, new ones) in 2008. He felt the time was right. “There’s a feeding frenzy in modern culture,” he says. “Every week there’s a new this, a new that. Our society is so fast-paced, it’s like a runaway train. You never know where the fashion is going to go, what’s going to hit next. But when push comes to shove, people still look back upon the [1960s] era as being the most potent, the most intense. A new generation comes along every ten years, rediscovering the genre.”

And a key part of that genre was always the visual presentation. The Blues Magoos were famed for their Diana Dew-designed electric suits; the lights grew brighter as the music’s intensity increased. So what ever became of those suits? “God knows what the others did with theirs,” Castro laughs. “But I still have mine. It’s in ratty condition.” He mentions that at some point he might donate it to the Hard Rock Café; I strongly suggest he send it instead to a place of honor at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “One of the suits,” Castro chuckles, “was put into a time capsule by the Smithsonian Institute. It’s there as an example of 1960s art. It’s to be opened in the year 2065! Hopefully my kid can go see it then with his grandkids, and tell ‘em, ‘Hey, here’s your great-grandfather.’”

“For me to bring back the Magoos,” Castro says, “this is like my high school reunion! I left home at fourteen, and I never went through high school. Now, I’m retired; it’s not about money. This is about a love for the genre, and it’s nice to spend a moment going back to the era that was the most exciting time in my life.”

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Psychedelic Resurrection: The Blues Magoos Interview, Part 1

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Forty-six years after the release of their last psychedelic-flavored release, New York City-based rockers The Blues Magoos have returned with a new album, Psychedelic Resurrection. From its multicolored fractal cover art to its song titles (“D’Stinko Me Tummies on the Blinko”), it’s clear that the band’s original approach – slightly goofy lyrics paired with aggressive psychedelic melodies – remains largely intact. Prime-era Blues Magoos members Peppy Castro (vocals, guitar), Ralph Scala (lead vocals, keyboards) and drummer Geoff Daking return, and original members Ronnie Gilbert and Mike Esposito make cameo appearances on the disc. Psychedelic Resurrection is a mix of new songs and new versions of Blues Magoos classics, including the Top 5 smash single, “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet.”

Those early Blues Magoos albums were products of their time; the studio tracks have a distinctive mid-sixties vibe to them. The songs on the group’s new Psychedelic Resurrection album maintain some of that vibe, despite nearly everything having changed about recording music in the years between Electric Comic Book and 2014. Peppy Castro says that “it’s probably easier” to capture the band’s intended sounds now than in the old days. “Because, for example, in the old days, editing was a nightmare!” He laughs. “You had to get the razor blade out. But I love challenges – I love solving problems – so for me, the goal has always been ‘How close can I get to the warmth of analog?’ I’m one of those guys who, as the technology was advancing, didn’t want to be left behind the curve. So in embracing digital technology, I bring with it my wealth of history, my experience of being in the business for fifty years. It’s a fun journey.”

The band’s first two albums were very successful, and both Psychedelic Lollipop and Electric Comic Book (both 1967) are exemplars of the psychedelic rock/pop style. As far as the production techniques employed on those records, “that was not so much our call,” Castro says. “We were involved in the music. We found our niche and decided, ‘Okay, this is the direction for the band.’ We were so inside the music; constantly writing, working like gears in a machine. As far as us being concerned with things like ‘panning,’ we didn’t get into that stuff so much on the first two albums. It was all very new to us. We went in, we tracked the songs, we overdubbed the vocals, and that was it.”

At the time of its release, many acts whose songs appeared on Lenny Kaye‘s 1972 2LP compilation, Nuggets, had no idea that their tunes were on that record, or that the record even existed. It certainly had a role in instigating the psychedelic rock revivals of the 1980s and beyond. The Blues Magoos’ “Tobacco Road” is right there on Side Two. “Somebody had told me about it,” Castro recalls. “But I didn’t know Lenny then. I always thought it was a nice thing, and I didn’t pay it any mind. Now I look back on it, knowing Lenny, and I see just how influential the record was. With the perspective, I see it, but at the time, it was just, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I blew it off; I thought of it as, ‘We’re in the 99¢ bin now,’ like it was a sort of K-Tel thing.”

Castro reflects upon the culture that brought forth the music of bands like the Blues Magoos. “Between the [Vietnam] war, and flower power, and half of the United States getting stoned and dropping out, the music was so creative. Every band was entirely different! It was just an amazing explosion of creativity.” During that time, The Blues Magoos were successful enough to be asked to appear on several TV shows of the era; the “Pipe Dream” clip from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is a classic. Many of those variety shows brought together edgy rock groups who sang – if a bit obliquely – about drugs and whatnot, right alongside what most would consider “square” performers.

“Life was so simple then, in comparison to today,” Castro observes. Cable TV didn’t exist; FM radio was just starting up.” Pop culture was more homogeneous. “And we we thrown onto those shows,” he says, “for the kids. Variety shows were for Mom and Dad and the family…’And now, for the kids, here’s the Blues Magoos!’ So it was taken in stride. In those days, if you had a hit record, these were the normal things that got done. But it was like being in a dream state for me, because I was so young.”

The Blues Magoos’ third release, 1968′s Basic Blues Magoos, is held in high regard among critics today. But it failed to chart at all. “I don’t know if a lot of people know this,” Castro says, laying out the circumstances that led to its commercial failure. “’Pipe Dream’ was the first single from Electric Comic Book. In those days – and nothing’s changed, really – the conglomerates owned the business. And every ABC-owned or -syndicated AM station – that means hundreds of radio stations, all over the United States – banned the record. Because they were afraid of the drug reference.”

It mattered little that “Pipe Dream” carried what was effectively an anti-hard drugs message; that nuance was lost on the suits. “We thought we were putting a positive message on it,” Castro says, “but purely because of part of the lyrics, WABC banned it.” And other stations quickly followed. “We lost the record, basically,” Castro sighs. “Mercury panicked, and they flipped the record, making ‘There’s a Chance We Can Make It’ the new a-side. And then that went Top 40. But once we got banned by ABC, the vultures were out. There was a smell of, ‘These guys got one hit, but their second one didn’t make it. So…’ And thus came the one-hit-wonder tag upon the band.” Going forward, Mercury’s promotion of The Blues Magoos was halfhearted at best.

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A Career in FLUX: The Adrian Belew Interview

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

The music of electric guitarist Adrian Belew is tough to pin down, and he prefers it that way: “I don’t like to put titles on any of these brands of music,” he says. People like to have them, “But for the people making the music, it’s better not to have them.” Fine: if you’re not familiar with Belew’s music, perhaps a rundown of some of his more well-known credits will help: he’s toured and/or recorded with Frank Zappa, The Bears, Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Tom Club, and David Bowie. And for many years (1981-84 and 1994-2008) he played guitar, sang and composed in King Crimson.

But alongside all of those projects, the Nashville-based guitarist has maintained a solo career, and he has nearly two dozen album releases under his own name. Since 2006 he has led a group than fans dubbed The Adrian Belew Power Trio; the current lineup includes Julie Slick on bass, and drummer Tobias Ralph. Belew first learned of Slick while he was teaching a seminar at The School of Rock. “Julie was a graduate of the school,” Belew recalls. “Paul Green, the founder of the school, said, ‘You’ve got to hear these two students of mine.’ So Julie and her brother Eric played together. And that was enough for me!” The siblings rounded out Belew’s new trio; Eric Slick eventually left to join Dr. Dog, and was replaced by Ralph.

Julie Slick’s muscular, inventive playing has earned her critical plaudits, and she came to the widespread notice of King Crimson fans when she toured (with Belew and Ralph) as part of Two of a Perfect Trio, a six-person, three-act concert that eventually became what the King Crimson organization calls a “ProjeKct,” a side-project involving one or more members of Crimson. The TOAPT concert at the Diana Wortham Theatre was a highlight of the 2011 Moogfest.

King Crimson – with more than twenty musicians having passed through its ranks – recently concluded a new tour of its own. Members come, go, and sometimes return, depending on what founder Robert Fripp has in mind at any given time. Presumably, the door is left open for former members to return to the active lineup. “I think that is the way Robert Fripp views it,” says Belew, carefully measuring his words. “I’m not sure it’s the way I view it. I don’t know if there is any future for me in King Crimson. Now that I’ve been sort of outside the band and watched it walk by, I’m a lot less interested.”

With his Power Trio, the man dubbed the Twang Bar King (also the title of his 1983 album), Belew has plenty to hold his interest. Each night on the current tour (which brought them to Asheville’s New Mountain on December 3rd), the three musicians build their pieces based on a new Belew concept he calls FLUX. “It’s the first time we’ve tried this,” Belew explains. “We’re doing things in a different format: sometimes we don’t play the complete songs. We play a portion of them, and they’re interrupted by something, and then we go to the next song. So in our evening of music, we can play something like thirty different pieces.” Belew describes this approach as a “really good way to move the pace of the show, and to give the listener and viewer a look at my whole career.”

The FLUX concept began its life as a mobile app. Belew just completed a successful crowd-funding campaign for FLUX, and the app debuted November 25th. When I try to compare FLUX to previous projects by Todd Rundgren (1993′s No World Order) or Brian Eno, Belew stresses that his project is very different. “This is not computer-generated music,” he explains. “This is music that I make beforehand – hundreds of bits and pieces – and they line up differently with themselves, and with the visuals that accompany them.” FLUX is an ongoing project, and Belew will regularly add more new music into the app. The idea with the interactive FLUX app – and, by extension, the live music of The Adrian Belew Power Trio – is that “music is never the same thing twice. I think that because people process things so much quicker now, the world is ready for this,” he laughs. Asked about his next project after this tour, Belew says that he’s very excited about it, adding, “I’m not allowed to talk about it. All I can tell you is that it involves film.”

An edited version of this feature appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Mountain Xpress.

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Swamp Dogg: Never Too Old to Boogie

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Damn! We thought you was dead! We thought you died in…nineteen-whatever!” That’s Swamp Dogg, recounting a common reaction he gets when people meet him in person. He’s very much alive, living in Los Angeles, and as busy as ever.

In his 2003 book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken (now Senator Al Franken, D-MN) made a goal of re-popularizing the phrase “kidding on the square.” In short, as Franken describes, it means, “kidding, but also really meaning it.” The phrase – and the practice it describes – has been around for years, but one of its most skilled practitioners has long been laboring without the recognition he deserves. Since 1970, Swamp Dogg (aka Jerry Williams) has been releasing albums that combine sociopolitical commentary with music. He’s sometimes compared to Frank Zappa, but Williams’ music has always been based in a tuneful, groove-oriented approach.

Swamp Dogg got his start as a soul singer, producer and arranger using his own name; after scoring a hit (at age 24) with the 1966 single, “Baby You’re My Everything,” he landed a job as an in-house producer at Atlantic Records.

But it was in Williams’ guise of his alter ego Swamp Dogg that he began crafting his most enduring work. Songs like “Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe” (from his debut LP Total Destruction to Your Mind) set the tone for Swamp Dogg’s approach: lay down a catchy groove, arrange it in an almost-slick (read: commercial) way, and then put some provocative and/or controversial (but always humorous) lyrics on top of it. If you put on one of his albums – say, 1971′s Rat On, with its oft-voted Worst Album Cover Ever – and don’t listen closely, you might think you’re just hearing some really good, undiscovered 70s funk-soul-r&b. But then you pay closer attention to the words in a song such as “These Are Not My People,” and you discover – as Sly Stone, one of Swamp Dogg’s heroes, might say – there’s a riot goin’ on. (Be sure to check out his new ode to the man, “Where is Sly?”)

For his trouble, Swamp Dogg earned (and still deserves) the label “cult hero.” His efforts have rarely translated into fiscally profitable results. Still – thank goodness – he marches on, and his latest album, The White Man Made Me Do It (his 21st long player) shows that time has blunted neither his sharp wit nor his musical skills.

I first learned about Swamp Dogg in the pages of Richie Unterberger‘s Unknown Legends of Rock’n'Roll. Unterberger’s profile of Swamp Dogg gave me a good sense of the man’s pointed, intelligent wit. With his songs that tackle universal and always-topical themes such as racism and inequality, that wit comes in handy. “It’s difficult to get a person’s attention,” Swamp Dogg observes. “But then even after you get it, it’s a challenge to hold it. So doing a little parody-type lyrical thing always helps.”

While never heavy-handed, Swamp Dogg often manages to convey real content in his songs. The title track on 2014′s The White Man Made Me Do It is a good example; the song’s extended outro features Swamp Dogg listing lesser-known African-Americans who have contributed to society in notable ways. The tune is almost a history lesson. Asked why he didn’t mention Garret Morgan, credited with development of an early traffic signal, Swamp Dogg says, “I didn’t want [the listener] to feel like you went from entertainment in your living room to a schoolhouse.”

“The point is,” he continues, “there are hundreds – thousands – of legends who blacks can take as idols. They will take a football player right out of college – somebody who’s had two great years – and all of a sudden he’s deemed a role model. And he hasn’t really done anything to make him a role model. You can be a role model if you’re [still] alive, but I think you gotta have a lot of age on ya.”

Still, Swamp Dogg is no finger-waving, pull-your-pants-up sermonizer; he’s always about entertaining first, and holds on to his irreverent attitude: “George Washington Carver didn’t rape no white girl in school, or any of that bullshit,” he points out. Then he quickly adds, “And if he did, he got away with it!”

Swamp Dogg is adept and comfortable trafficking in a wide array of styles: funk, soul, blues, disco, country. He views the various genres as “different dimensions of one big thing. You’re always using something from another genre, even if it’s only five notes, or six notes, or a lick.”

Unlike many r&b artists – especially ones who recorded in the 60s and 70s – Swamp Dogg has worked hard to regain control over his back catalog. Nearly all of his albums are available in authorized versions – in one format or another – via his website, swampdogg.net. Swamp Dogg mentions his experience many years ago with the people at Louis Drozen‘s Laff Records, a label that primarily released raw-and-raunchy comedy albums (by artists such as Redd Foxx and LaWanda Page) squarely aimed at a black audience. “They made a cover for the self-titled album. It was a picture of me. In a swamp. With a dog. With a dog! It was awful! I said that I wanted to make my own cover, and my wife said to me, ‘Look at the covers you make! They’re no better!’”

Several Swamp Dogg albums (but not the Laff Records one from 1982) are available on physical CD, on the Alive Natural Sound label. The different formats sometimes feature different material: the CD version of The White Man Made Me Do It includes a bonus disc of songs featuring production, arranging, and/or writing by Swamp Dogg; tracks include sides by Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, Swamp Dogg himself, and more. Swamp Dogg notes that another format of the album doesn’t include those tracks, instead featuring “an excerpt from my autobiography, which is called Kiss My Ass.”

“People can buy it when I finish it,” he says, and then his voice trails off, slightly perplexed: “Richie Unterberger is supposed to be writin’ it with me. It’s either him or Ben Greenman. I’ve been so busy.”

Swamp Dogg continues, “I’m trying to do like they did in the old days – though ain’t nobody want to bring back the old days – put my stuff out through two different distributors.” Red Eye and Burnside (the latter “my distributor for the last twelve years or so,” Swamp Dogg says) handle distribution of his physical product. “And what I love about them is, not only do they work, but they pay ya! Motherfuckers’ll send you a check every month. I don’t care if it’s only $37. They’ll send you a check for $37 or $37,000; they don’t care. As soon as they get paid, they pay you. And if they don’t get it, you don’t get it.” He believes that if record companies did business in the past like the companies he works with do now, “the business would not have gotten as fucked up as it is.”

Asked about any plans for upcoming live dates, Swamp Dogg mumbles vaguely about some efforts his “acting manager-at-large” is making, and then stops, brightens, and laughs. “In answer to your question, no, we don’t have any work!” But he fully expects that to change. “We’ve gotten rave reviews everywhere we’ve gone,” he says. “We haven’t been booed offstage yet.”

As a matter of fact, thanks both to the availability of his music, and to its timeless themes, Swamp Dogg is gaining new fans. “I’m acquiring a new audience. I done fucked around and outlived my [older] audience,” laughs the 72-year-old. “Them motherfuckers are dropped dead. But luckily, some of the kids heard my shit bein’ played around the house.” Swamp Dogg says his current audiences are “young, and they aren’t afraid of people who speak out.” And they’re open to the themes found in songs like “Prejudice is Alive and Well” on his latest album.

Swamp Dogg is refreshingly modest about his work. “I ain’t never told nobody that what I was sayin’ is total truth,” he insists. “It’s what I feel. Just what I feel.” And he’s sincerely happy to sit down for conversations with writers like myself. “You’re helpin’ keep me alive,” he says. “I mean it: people think I’m dead!”

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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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