Saturday, February 21, 2009

Snooks Eaglin

New Orleans R&B guitar slinger and singer, Snooks Eaglin passed on last week at age 72. Eaglin's guitar playing was characterized by an idiosyncratic finger-picking style that combined rhythm and lead playing with an incredible, crisp snap unlike anything you've heard by anyone else. I’m a guitar player who also uses an odd combination of thumb and fingers to pick and strum, but I can’t quite figure out what Snooks is doing or how he does it. He was reputed to have a vast repertoire of songs at his disposal and a tendency to perform without a set list, forcing his band mates to keep on their toes.

Here's a video of Snooks playing "Lipstick Traces," a song written by Naomi Neville, which was the pseudonym often used by Allen Toussaint. "Lipstick Traces" was made a hit by Benny Spellman in 1962, later covered by the O’Jays. It's a great tune and a perfect demonstration of Eaglin's impeccable rhythm guitar work.

Here's the tune "Red Beans," which shows off a little more of Eaglin's lead guitar stylings.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Defending Vincent Black Lightning (1952)

While perusing Carrie Brownstein’s NPR music blog, Monitor Mix, the other day, I spotted a post in which guest-blogger Sean Wilsey categorizes Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lighting (1952)” as one of his “candidates for worst song ever to become a semi-classic.”

Mr. Wilsey was gushing over the band The Airborne Toxic Event and its song “Sometime Around Midnight,” describing it as “overblown and absurd, yet somehow irresistible.” He notes that its “strain of adolescent self-seriousness … is fun to listen to,” whereas “Thompson’s song makes me want to stop living.”

He goes on to illustrate the topic with a series of other over-the-top songs characterized by “self-centered romanticism.” He concludes the post writing, “This all seems like a genre to me. Not sure what to call it.

Of course I was shocked and offended! How dare he! I always thought “Vincent Black Lighting (1952)” (let’s call it “VBL52”) was a brilliant tune--the perfect melding of traditional structure and style with a contemporary story.

When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of Richard Thompson--more accurately, of Fairport Convention, the pioneering British folk-rock band of which he was a founding member. I must have listened to their “Liege and Lief” album for hundreds of hours in high school. So, as a big fan of of the folk-rock movement, when I hear VBL52, I can’t help but hear a traditional folk song. Mr. Wilsey, if you’re wondering what to call that genre, how about “ballad?”

Because I'm a fan, I’m willing to overlook many of Richard Thompson’s weaknesses—there are certainly duds to be found in his prolific output. There are also many gems, and Thompson puts on an incredible live show. I’ve seen him in Portland twice – once playing solo acoustic (at the Zoo) and once at the Aladdin (playing electric with a band). Both configurations are great as he’s an inspiring guitar player in any format. He tours through Portland quite often, usually in venues that aren’t too big.

Here’s Richard Thompson singing VBL52, which he first released on his “Rumor and Sigh” album in 1991:

Going back in time, and demonstrating some traditional folk roots, here’s Fairport Convention with “Sir Patrick Spens” from about 1970.

Just for the fun of it, here’s Thompson doing a cover of the Britney Spears hit, “Oops I did it again” (included on his “1,000 Years of Popular Music” album).

If you want more "VBL52," here's a cover by the band, Reckless Kelly. YouTube also has a bluegrassy version by the Del McCoury Band.

Note on the photo on top: The crazy guy on the motorcycle is Rollie Free riding a Vincent Black Lighting as he breaks the land speed record for motorcycles, hitting 150 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Apparently, Free adopted the prone position to minimize wind resistance and would wear protective gear under normal circumstances. On this attempt, his leathers were ripped and torn from earlier runs so he made the last attempt wearing a Speedo, a shower cap and a pair of borrowed sneakers.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

pat mAcdonald

In 1987, Timbuk3 appeared on Saturday Night Live. They played two songs and I was hooked.

Timbuk3 didn’t play their Top 20 mega-hit, “Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” on SNL that night, but it was being heard just about everywhere else--on the radio, on compilation albums, on movie soundtracks. The song had a brilliant hook and clever lyrics and quickly became (it seemed) an anthem for frat boys and future hedge fund managers who were incapable of perceiving the ironic commentary lurking under its veneer of optimism. For a song about the threat of nuclear annihilation, it's quite upbeat.

I got a job waiting for my graduation
Fifty thou' a year will buy a lot of beer
Things are going great and they’re only getting better
I'm doing all right, getting good grades
The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades

Timbuk3 was a duo--a married couple, Pat MacDonald and Barbara Kooyman. Both sang and played guitar with backup and drum tracks played on a boombox—a trick developed while playing on the streets of Madison WI, and then Austin TX. Pat was the principal songwriter, but Barbara K. contributed some well-written lyrics as well.

The band's biggest album,"Greetings from Timbuk3," was full of musical hooks and catchy word play and textual rhythms, as well as the right touch of political overtones and social commentary. "Life is Hard" is one of my favorites from that album, with lyrics that are worth paying attention to and that have been lodged in my brain for the past twenty or so years: "You can't get to heaven on roller skates. You can't catch a taxicab to Timbuku." (I apologize for the poor video quality).

Timbuk3 put out six or seven studio albums, eventually growing to be a four piece band. They never regained the chart success of "Future's So Bright." The story is that Bausch and Lomb tried to secure the rights to the hit tune to promote Ray Ban sunglasses. Clairol allegedly offered big bucks for another song, "Haircuts and Attitudes" (excerpt of lyrics below). Pat MacDonald turned down all of the offers, standing on principle and artistic integrity. McDonalds (the fast food folks) purportedly offered a million dollars for the rights "Future's So Bright," but MacDonald (the songwriter) wasn't interested in that either.

Timbuk3 eventually broke up, destined to be a one-hit wonder. Pat and Barbara K. divorced in 1996 and MacDonald released a few critically acclaimed solo albums with limited sales. Somewhere along the line, he started writing his name as pat mAcdonald -- apparently because he got tired of journalists dropping the "a". He kept writing prolifically, including tunes for, or in collaboration with such improbable people as Cher, Aerosmith, Keith Urban and others. Somewhere along the line, mAcdonald recorded a collection of Depeche Mode covers, "Strange Love: PM does DM."

You can get more info on Wikipedia or by visiting mAcdonald's website. What I wanted to show was mAcdonald's more recent stripped down, raw and very compelling work. I'm particularly taken by the tunes on his album "In the Red Room." These are simply mAcdonald alone with his guitar and a homemade stompbox to amplify the rhythmic beat of his foot. Think about what The Black Keys do with just guitar and drums, then take away the drums. mAcdonald described the project this way:

"The Red Room is a corner bar in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Harley Junior was kind enough to open it on a Sunday and give us the run of the place, so we moved aside the pool table, set up a P.A. and invited a few friends to drop by later that night. Everything on this disk was played and recorded that day, February 1st, 2004, between 6 pm and 2 am closing time - just me, my guitar, my foot and harmonica, live with no overdubs ... The production cost was about $200, including 3 rooms at the Holiday Motel and a $50 bar tab."

What I like is the low register, the drone-quality and the John Lee Hooker-esque driving rhythm--it's about as stripped down as you can get. The "Red Room" album also has one of my favorite interpretations of the Johnny Cash tune, "Ring of Fire" (which I unfortunately can't find on YouTube). Here's another tune, this time with mAcdonald playing slide on a cigarbox guitar.

I'll close with a verse from the Timbuk3 tune, "Haircuts and Attitudes."

Razor cut, laser cut, chopped and channeled
Curled up, slicked back, hanging in the eyes
Parted left, parted right, straight down the middle
Scientists say your hair never lies.
I've done lots of research, it may be just hype,
But the latest findings cause me to tremble
Categorize us into three basic types
According to which of the Three Stooges you most closely resemble.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Erin McKeown

As is my habit, I picked up a few unfamiliar CDs on my last visit to the Public Library. One was “Sing Sinners” by Erin McKeown. Having no foreknowledge, I listened without expectations. While the library categorized it as "folk," the album turned out to be a collection of jazz standards by an exceptionally talented singer and guitar player.

My first video is of McKeown’s cover of a Fats Waller tune about pot-smoking, “If You a Viper.” No endorsement of this behavior is to be implied by my having posted the song--it's just one of my favorite tunes to have played and sung with my now-defunct band, Bourbon Jockey (though we did it about eight times faster). I like McKeown's laconic version, especially the fun, fun drumming by Allison Miller and the bass solo by Todd Sickafoose (starting at about the 3:00 mark). I like my live music loose and full of humor.

I’m also a sucker for live performances of incongruous cover songs. Sometimes the results are kitschy fun--other times, a new interpretation of a pop song reveals that it is rooted in really good songsmithing. This next video, with McKeown’s cover of Beyonce’s ubiquitous song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” does both. It's a lot of fun and is sung to a very appreciative audience (McKeown has a devoted fan base among girls who like girls).

I'll close this post with one of McKeown's own songs, "If You Want to be a Lady," and with a caveat: I've only heard her album of standards and what I've fished off of YouTube, so my selections may not accurately reflect her work. I just like them.

John Martyn RIP

I’ve not kept up with current events lately, so just learned that folk/jazz singer-songwriter John Martyn died last week at age 60. The NYT obit is here. My post about Martyn back in October can be found here.

In memory, here’s a video of John Martyn performing his perfectly lovely tune, May You Never, with lyrics suitable for an Irish wake. (You may know Eric Clapton's cover of this song on his Slow Hand album).

May you never lay your head down, without a hand to hold.
May you never make your bed out in the cold.
May you never lose your temper in a barroom fight
May you never lose your woman overnight.