Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nick Lowe

All I have to say is that Nick Lowe is an amazing songwriter. His biggest hit (and source of endless royalty checks) is “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which Elvis Costello recorded. Lowe’s tunes are full of hooks, but his wordsmithing is what grabs me. Here are three selections spanning a few decades of work, starting with this performance of “So it Goes” with his band Rockpile in 1978.

And another one from the same era: Crackin’ Up.

This last is from Lowe’s 2007 album “At My Age.” You just have to love the cadence and syncopation as he delivers his lyrics, perfectly squeezed into the space available.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Richmond Fontaine

While I walked the dog tonight, I was listening to the album “Thirteen Cities” from Richmond Fontaine, the Portland band fronted by singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin. Vlautin’s tunes stand out as exquisitely written short stories reminiscent of Raymond Carver. In an interview about the album published in the online journal, Uncut, Vlautin described the album as a “record of drifters,” saying “I initially wanted it to be a record about the West, its decline, and the way I see it. But it turned into a record about drifting, both literally and guys just drifting from themselves, guys falling apart or, you know, redeeming themselves".

The following tune, “$87 and a Guilty Conscience,” is a particularly evocative one:

Vlautin is also an author of two novels: “Motel Life” (2006) and “ Northline” (2008). I look forward to reading them, though why do I suspect that they are quiet dark?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Rockin' the House

Over at Culture Shock, the other site at which I post commentary on life and culture in Portland, I recently ran a series of music videos tied to an election theme. That series included a clip of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing the gospel classic, “Trouble in Mind.”

That clip and the next were filmed in 1964, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe traveled to the U.K. with other blues and gospel artists as part of the "American Folk, Blues, and Gospel Caravan" -- a tour that included Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and the duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. "Didn't It Rain," actually preceded "Trouble in Mind" in the concert. I particularly like her moves at 3:26.

Here's a song, "Up Above My Head," featuring Sister Rosetta in what I expected to be a straight-ahead gospel tune given all the choir robes in the background. But, there's that white Gibson SG, and a sizzling solo at 1:25 (watch for the little windmill move at about 1:46).

Sister Rosetta learned her craft singing gospel in church, and was a star in that genre her entire career. But, she bridged the sacred and the profane from time to time, courting some controversy with those who thought that secular music as the devil's playground. Here's a very young Sister Rosetta (age 26) singing "Four or Five Times" with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra.

UPDATE: The risk of using videos other people have posted on YouTube, is that the links occasionally go dead. The clip with Sister Rosetta and Lucky Millinder's band is no longer available.

Instead, here's a clip of Ruth Brown ("Miss Rhythm"), who also sang for Lucky Millinder for a short time. This is "Tears Keep Tumbling Down."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Treat Her Right

When I started this, it was to post a clip of Bob Dylan playing the R&B tune, "Treat Her Right" during a rehearsal for an appearance on the Letterman show. (I'll get to that in a bit). As I dove into the topic, I realized that I did not know who wrote the song, or who first made it a hit. The answer: Roy Head and Gene Kurtz wrote it, and it was a mid-60's hit performed by Roy Head and the Traits. Kurtz is a Texas musician who has played with dozens of rock luminaries including, perhaps most notably, Edgar Winter. He still plays bass in honky-tonker Dale Watson's band. Here's a clip in which Roy Head busts some great dance moves, worthy of James Brown or Jackie Wilson:

What makes "Treat Her Right" a great tune is the R&B riff that anchors it and makes it move. Virtuouso lead guitar solos may be flashy and get all the attention, but I admire rhythm guitar players who can hold down a solid riff. Here's the Dylan clip doing that (he starts singing at about 1:00).

I like this clip, no matter that it's a cover tune played a bit sloppily, because it shows Dylan in pure garage band mode. These guys are doing what people in bands do all the time: Goofing around on a familiar riff while warming up. I would not be surprised to learn that Dylan and the band had never played the tune together before (indeed, if they had played together at all).

For another example of a great Dylan tune that totally locks into a groove, check out this clip of "Maggies Farm" from the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival with the late Mike Bloomfield on guitar. The man clearly loves a riff groove. (As a guitarist, I'm always fascinated to watch Dylan strum a guitar because his right arm is like a metronome).

Back to "Treat Her Right:" Perhaps you remember hearing the tune on the soundtrack of "The Commitments." I rank that movie at or near the top of all-time great rock and roll stories on film. The original book by the Irish author, Roddy Doyle is a delightful read. Does the guitar player who kicks things off look familiar? It’s a young Glen Hansard from the Irish band The Frames and The Swell Season (with Markéta Irglová), who you may recall winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the movie "Once." There’s another good film on the theme of music making.

One more version, then I'll go: Tom Jones -- a singer who some may discount as a lounge-singer caricature, yet you can't deny he has a powerful voice. This clip is just plain fun.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Doug Sahm, the Sir Douglas Quintet & the Texas Tornados

Texas may have given us the Worst President Ever, but has also produced legendary musicians through the years. I discovered Doug Sahm only a few years ago, after picking up a CD compilation at the library (thank you Multnomah County Library). I became an immediate fan, drawn to a voice with R&B soul and power straight out of a San Antonio, Texas roadhouse. I've had a hard time putting this post together because there is a paucity of representative videos of Doug Sahm. I've found a few which I like, but I'm not satisfied that they do the man justice.

Sahm started out at a very young age playing country music, reportedly appearing on stage with Hank Williams at age 11. He moved into blues and R&B in the 50s, and in the latter part of his career played a part in defining Tex-Mex music with the Texas Tornados, a "supergroup" in which he was joined by Freddie Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyer.

In the mid-60s, Sahm tried to ride the wave of the British Invasion by dressing as a mod and performing as “The Sir Douglas Quintet.” The band's biggest challenge in pulling off this trick is the fact that two of its five members were Mexican. Bob Dylan became a fan and a friend, and is quoted as having said, "Look, for me right now there are three groups: Butterfield, The Byrds and the Sir Douglas Quintet."

Here’s a TV performance of one of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s hits, "She's About a Mover" (three of their tunes reached the Top 10). This clip is from the show “Hullabaloo” (that’s Trini Lopez making the intro). Ignore the cartoon set, the pageboy haircuts and the human props. It’s a catchy tune, Sahm’s voice is in fine form and I love that big old Gibson jazz guitar he's playing:

Sahm jettisoned the pageboy haircut, left Texas for San Francisco and Marin County, and went full-on hippie-cowboy. (The Rolling Stone cover from 1968 captures the image). I’m a big fan of Gram Parsons, but Sahm did the rock/country fusion first and was, in my opinion, a superior singer, musician and band leader. (To be fair, Gram Parson compensated with his charisma and earnestness that made it all work beautifully). In this clip of “Nuevo Laredo,” the emergence of Sahm's Tex-Mex sound is clearly demonstrated:

In 1990, Doug Sahm reconnected with old friends to form the Texas Tornados, a Tejano band described as a "Tex-Mex Supergroup." (Okay, I'll admit to being a closet Freddy Fender fan). They put out a few albums, won a Grammy (for "Best Mexican/American Performance"), and performed at Clinton's first inauguration. Here they are on Austin City Limits doing, "Hey Baby Que Paso?" It's not a great showcase of Doug Sahm's singing since Augie Meyer is singing the lead (that's Doug on the organ), but will have to do.

Here’s Sahm with a reincarnated Sir Douglas Quintet, playing a Kinks song that I find incredibly infectious. Trivia: That's Doug's son Shawn with the guitar and the sleeveless cowboy shirt.

When Doug Sahm died in 1999 at the age of 58, the Austin Chronicle printed an edition packed with articles and stories from admirers, friends and fellow musicians. Last April, the Austin's City Council approved the naming the highest point of the new park near Lady Bird Lake "Doug Sahm Hill."

I’ll close with a non-music clip--a brief cameo appearance Sahm made in the Kris Kristofferson flick “Cisco Pike” (1972). Another bit of trivia: That video was uploaded to YouTube by Doug’s son, Shandon Sahm, who was a member of the Meat Puppets.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

John Martyn ... and others

New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles recently reviewed a performance at Joe's Pub (NYC) by Scottish singer-songwriter, John Martyn (accompanied by the incomparable bassist, Danny Thompson). The review sent me in search of John Martyn videos which, in turn, sent me on Mister Toad's Wild Ride of YouTube Tangents. In the span of about 45 minutes I'd covered the waterfront: Skip James, UB40, Steve Earle, Nick Drake, José González, Joy Division, Richard Thompson, White Stripes, Son House, Howlin' Wolf, David Johansen, The New York Dolls, Iron & Wine, Leon Russell... I'm sure I could draw a schematic showing the connections and paths--my thematic searchs went from "blues" to "countertenors" to "performers with beards."

But let's get back to John Martyn who was one of the pioneers of English/Celtic folk-rock from the 60s and 70s. As a teenager, I loved all that stuff: Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Bert Jansch... Here's how Pareles describes him:
Mr. Martyn’s style, which has lately been revived by the college-radio favorite José González, mingles the modes of traditional Celtic songs, jazz chords, rural-blues fingerpicking, the otherworldly singing of Billie Holliday and the bluesman Skip James, a fondness for electronics like the Echoplex and, from the 1970s on, a touch of reggae. In his music, steady, precise, tightly wound yet eccentric guitar vamps — with chords and single notes ricocheting from off-beats — support waywardly improvisational vocals that are crooned with honeyed introspection or burred with a rasp.
I’d forgotten about Martyn until last year, when I was searching YouTube for covers of “Johnny Too Bad,” a reggae hit by The Slickers. I don't particularly like Martyn's cover of the tune, so will post it down below, along with a version by Steve Earle. But I did find this song, "He Got All the Whiskey," which I dug from the moment he counted it in with some well-paced grunts.

I presumed it was a traditional tune, but I've seen that title credited to Cajun songwriter Bobby Charles (who wrote "Walkin' to New Orleans" for Fats Domino), and I found it listed as a track on a Bo Diddley album, though I haven't yet found another recording. This clip was recorded as part of the "Transatlantic Sessions," a project that threw U.K. and American artists together in the studio and had them sing songs from both sides of the ocean. There are many great clips from the series to be found on YouTube. This video has Jerry Douglas on Dobro (actually a Weisenborn slide guitar), along with Danny Thompson playing stunningly beautiful upright bass. (Danny regularly accompanies the great Richard Thompson, no relation). The woman singer (and hippy dancer) is Eddi Reader, another Scottish singer-songwriter.

Here's a clip of a younger John Martyn with a solo version of the Skip James tune,"Devil Got My Woman" (sometimes called "I'd Rather be the Devil"). This video is from a great BBC music show "The Old Grey Whistle Test," and it's a fine illustration of Martyn's use of early looping technology (the Echoplex), as well as his "otherworldly" voice. I'm guessing he was one of the earliest artists using electronics this way. In a future post, I may track down more contemporary uses of looping.

Now here's Skip James doing the original version of "Devil Got My Woman." James' distinctive falsetto set me off in search of other male artists singing in that high register--a style that seems to have become prevalent in contemporary in indie rock and singer-songwriter genres. Last night, OPB radio played an in-studio performance by Minnesotan Jeff Hanson, who sounds like a countertenor out of a baroque choir, taking his voice not only to an absurdly high pitch but with a distinctly feminine timbre. Again, a topic for a future post. Let's hear from Skip James.

Pareles notes John Martyn's influence on contemporary singer-songwriter, José González, which I think is a fair comparison:

González is an Argentinian who grew up in Sweden and sounds like he's singing in folk clubs in the British Isles in the 1960's. I hear Bert Jansch more than John Martyn, but they're both Scotsmen. Okay, here's Bert Jansch, playing "Blackwaterside" which inspired Jimmy Page's "Black Mountain Side," for which every reasonable person agrees he should have received credit. I must have listened to the album this was on a thousand times in my younger days.

Jose González does a version of "Love Will Tear us Apart," which is how I got to Joy Division in my ramblings. We'll save that for another day. I also want to post more Skip James, including his tune "I'm So Glad" which I remember fondly in Cream version sung by Jack Bruce. That tangent also took me to Son House, which took me to David Johansen (ex-New York Dolls) who is a killer bluesman at heart, which took be to Howlin' Wolf ...

I was going to close this post by embedding John Martyn's cover of "Johnny Too Bad," but there's something not quite right about it to my ears -- it's overproduced, has lost the reggae beat and Martyn's singing is too mannered. I like John Martyn too much to leave you with that. Instead, here's a far superior version by Steve Earle with the V-Roys (from 1996):

Monday, September 29, 2008

Everything is Broken ... Oh Mercy

This is going to be a quick post 'cause I gotta get to work. Turned on the news this morning and the lines from Dylan's song "Everything is Broken" popped into my head. This from his 1989 album "Oh Mercy," which I think is one of his best. Besides the tunes themselves, producer Daniel Lanois found a new fresh sound for Dylan--one that I can still hear in his latest recordings. If you've read Dylan's quirky memoir, it was this album that he was recording when he describes working in New Orleans.

"Everything is Broken" starts of with the kind of great riff I love--a little surfy in this live cut. In my next post, I'll pull up a few more examples of most excellent riffage.

And apropos to the theme of the previous song, here's another from that album, "Political World." I'd rather be posting a live performance, but couldn't find one quickly, so here's the commercial video version.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nick Cave

Last week, I was stunned (Is that the right word? Yes!) by a live concert by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Crystal Ballroom (see my original post at Culture Shock). I'm a bit chagrined to admit that I only found Nick Cave and his various band permutations within the past year or two. But, I quickly became a fan of his amalgam of intelligent songwriting and charismatic showmanship.

This first clip, "Henry Lee," features a duet with PJ Harvey from his 1996 album "Murder Ballads." It's sexy, macabre and funny all at once:

To illustrate how my mind works: I'm now tempted to jump from the foregoing duet to one featuring Nick Cave and the infamous (and toothless) Shane MacGowan covering Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Is that the path I really want to take? I'm not sure how to read this one, and am afraid that it obscures what great artists they both are. Are they sincere, or is it all tongue-in-cheek? Okay, let's watch, but promise to come back when it's over.

In some future post, we may take a video tour of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues. For now, let's look at Nick Cave with one of his latest band incarnations, Grinderman. This is a clip of "Honey Bee" from an appearance on David Letterman. Although this tune wasn't on the Portland set list, it captures the crazy energy and showmanship of that live show. The Rasputin-like character is co-conspirator, Warren Ellis, who is a hoot to watch in concert as he bangs away on violins, beat boxes and that mandocaster (electric mandolin) he wields in this piece.

There's so much more, but I promised to limit each post to no more than three clips, and I wasted one on the Shane MacGowan duet! A fellow I once worked for had a saying, "You should never substitute rules for judgment." So, I judge that you ought to see my favorite Cave tune, "Red Right Hand" from 1994. He played this one live last week and it was quite different. Besides the creepy, sinister lyrics, I completely dig the slinky bass line, the booming bass drum, the chime and the simple organ solo in the middle.

If you're wondering what this is all about, go here to read the Mighty Toy Cannon Manifesto describing my intentions for this site.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mighty Toy Cannon Manifesto

When I was invited to add my observations on art and life in Portland Oregon at Culture Shock, I started paying closer attention to the bazillion other bloggers creating this age of information overload. I've read posts from erudite analysts, witty banterers, and egomanical diarists. While many are creating new content, most are recycling flotsam discovered on their own expeditionary journeys. That's okay by me. With so much information floating about, it helps to have curators sorting and sharing. (A few of my favorites are linked on my blog list to the right).

With that in mind, this blog will be akin to your friend with the big record collection. You know, the one who can stay up all night spinning tunes, with each song triggering a recollection of another in an attention-deficit-disorder frenzy of free association.

What I post won't be from my own collection, but what I find on YouTube or similar video warehouses. Like most, I thought YouTube was all skateboarding dogs, things being blown up, and adolescent ravings. I quickly discovered that it is also a rich source of music, both new and vintage. As a musician and glutton for music, YouTube has served me as an able research tool. I'm often surprised at what I discover. And, I'm the kind of sharing person who is wont to say, "Hey, look at this cool thing I just found!"

I'm not a music writer, nor do my insights into music go very deep. Don't expect Greil Marcus here. This will be a tour of my eclectic musical tastes and influences. I'll try to make each post fit within a thematic framework, and include just a few comments to explain what I've posted and why. I'll try to limit the number of videos I embed in each post to no more than three. And I'll try to add a few new posts every week.

Perhaps nobody will ever drop in to visit, or stay very long when they do. Some of my links may go dead if a video is removed from the original source. I encourage you to comment, but won't expect that you will. If this site is only my private repository of free associations and discoveries, so be it.

Why the sobriquet "Mighty Toy Cannon?" I explained the name's origins in my first post at Culture Shock.