Saturday, September 19, 2009

Some New Motown Soul Sounds

I just watched a video clip from Music Fest NW (MFNW) -- another big Portland festival which I’m too lame (or old) to actually do. The huge list of performers and venues is just too damned overwhelming, especially when combined with the prospect of big crowds. Anyway, at the end of said clip was a snippet of Mayer Hawthorne, a geeky-looking, young white guy from Ann Arbor, MI. I liked the tiny bit I saw on the video so headed over the YouTube to see what I could find.

Mayer Hawthorne reportedly started out as a hip-hop aficionado and DJ before developing a neo-soul sound straight out of Motown. He writes and performs songs that sound like they’re right out of the 1960’s. I like it. Here's a fun video of his song, "Maybe So, Maybe No."

And here is the official video for "Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out."

Also, the founder of Mayer Hawthorne's label, Stones Throw Records, goes by the moniker "Peanut Butter Wolf." You gotta like that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fingerpickin' the Guitar

After four decades of playing the guitar, I think I've gotten pretty good at it. But then I listen the the really good players and am reminded that there is so much room to improve.

Yesterday morning, the Belmont Street Fair was kicked off with a set from Mary Flower, a fingerstyle guitar virtuoso who also plays a mean slide guitar and now resides in Portland. She teaches in Portland as well as through Skype, and has issued a few instructional DVDs. Here she is performing an original tune, "La Grippe."

After watching one of Mary Flower's lesson on ragtime guitar on YouTube, I wandered over to watch Chet Atkins play Black Mountain Rag using some form of open tuning:

After that, I have to end with the great Merle Travis playing "Cannonball Rag." Merle's playing has been a big influence on me (though I estimate I can only reach about 50% of his playing capacity, and that would be on a good day). If you're learning guitar, pay attention to the important part the thumb on the picking hand plays for all of theseplayers; the key to fingerstyle guitar is keeping a steady rhythm going on the bass strings. Also, check out how all three wrap their left thumbs over the top of the neck to fret bass notes. Merle Travis stands out by using his left thumb to fret several strings. Most standard guitar lessons don't teach the technique. Jimi Hendrix is another guitarist known for wrapping his thumb around the neck (though, in his case, it was the right thumb since he played left-handed).

I'll post more about Merle Travis in the future.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Celebrating Labor Day

For many of us, the first Monday of September signifies the end of summer and the start of another school year. We forget that the day was established to honor the contributions of hard-working folks. In the aftermath of the notorious 1884 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland hoped to encourage political rapprochement with Labor by pushing through legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. Another motivation for establishing Labor Day in September was to distance it from May Day, which had already become identified as “International Worker’s Day.” In the U.S., we turned May 1st into “Loyalty Day.” And if all of this is sounding as familiar to you as it is to me, it’s because I posted something about it back in May to accompany a video of Merle Haggard in honor of May Day.

To celebrating the people who put the "work" in "workmanlike," I selected a few of my favorite pro-labor tunes, starting with the man hisself, Mr. Pete Seeger (may he win a Nobel Prize someday) singing “Which Side are You On?”

Let's look at that one from another angle; this is Natalie Merchant’s haunting version, which starts off with Florence Reece who wrote the song in 1930.

Now, here's Woody Guthrie singing “All of You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.” That's Sonny Terry on harmonica and providing the accompanying whoops and hollers). I suppose it's not strictly a union song, but he does talk about folks organizing.

Then there's Billy Bragg with his interpretation of the Guthrie tune:

I'll close with The Strawbs singing “Part of the Union” in 1973. The Strawbs formed in England in 1964 as a bluegrass band known as the Strawberry Hill Boys. In their early days, they accompanied Sandy Denny who went on to become a member of Fairport Convention and Fotheringay.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Avett Brothers

Today I’ve been working on a post about beards for that other blog, Culture Shock. It’s a big hairy story that keeps growing, despite my efforts to trim it. While struggling to untangle my thoughts and comb through the prose, I've been listening to NPR’s live-streaming and archived videos from the Newport Folk Festival held this weekend (the 50th anniversary of that remarkable event). I heard some stunning performances, starting with a reminder of just how great Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are. She writes eloquent songs that sound as if they've been around forever. He accompanies her on a guitar that puts out a tone that I'd recognize in about three notes. Together they sing perfect harmonies. Joan Baez performed too. Half-a-century after her first performance at Newport, her voice is still crystalline and pitch perfect.

This post isn't about the Newport Folk Festival though. Since I began by writing about beards, this post is about the Avett Brothers, who are bearded (as are so many of the young people these days) and who put in a great set at the Festival. I first heard about the Avetts from my sisters and niece who saw them perform at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park a few years ago. They became instant fans, as did I after listening to their recordings.

Here’s the official video of the boys singing “Murder in the City”--a sweet song about family love, and a relatively quiet tune for them. I particularly like the opening lyrics:

If I get murdered in the city, don’t go revengin’ in my name.
One person dead from such is plenty, no need to go get locked away.

I like the exuberance of the Avett Brothers. They just put it all out there. No wimpy, delicate whispering in delicate falsetto--not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just like someone who can belt out a tune with power from time-to-time. If the two real brothers and the honorary brother can do it harmony, all the better. If one is banging on a banjo while stomping on a kick drum, that’s good too. Here's a rambunctious little number called "Talk on Indolence." [Warning: Beards get shaved off in this video].

This next one is from one of those horrible morning news shows, with newscasters who don't quite know what to make of it all. This show is called "North Carolina Now!" The music starts at about 2:10 if you can't bear to watch the interview. The segment ends with the banal question, "What message do you want your listeners to take away from your music?"

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy 4th: Dave Alvin and The Blasters

I was a big fan of the Blasters back in the early-1980s. Brothers Phil and Dave Alvin and the rest of the boys knew how to lay down a neo-rockabilly beat that was perfect for speeding down the highway. I remember one speeding ticket in Utah that was set to the tune of "Marie Marie." Phil sang most of the leads, but Dave was the better songwriter. (That's Phil’s grimacing face featured so strikingly on the cover of the band’s 1980 eponymous album).

After the Blasters faded from my playlist (never quite going away), I kept listening to Dave’s solo work. He still rocked, but his music had hint of country and blues as well. He even got a little folkie and acoustic with his album “Public Domain” (2000), on which he interpreted songs that are in … well the album title tells it.

Dave Alvin pairs a distinctive baritone voice with really sweet guitar playing. More than that, he writes songs that are great short stories. My son and I were fortunate to see him perform with his band, The Guilty Men, at a Zoo concert a few years ago. I had been teaching Chris to play the guitar and was glad to give him a chance to see a master player up close. The concert was held on a perfect summer evening much like tonight, and we found a spot close to the stage. That night, the band was one of the tightest units I’ve ever heard and Dave Alvin proved himself a masterful band leader. They played most of the classics from the Blasters songbook and many others from the “Ashgrove” album which had just been released.

That night at the zoo, they played this song, "The Fourth of July," which I dedicate to this independence day.

The next video is Dave Alvin singing “King of California.” I particularly like the way this one starts. Last year, I was playing and singing with a hobbyist band, “Bourbon Jockey.” We tried to keep it all loose, fun and not at all serious. We were serious about rehearsing once a week, but spent most of that time drinking wine and trying out new songs we were excited to play, rather than nailing down the list we already had. As the “front man,” it was my job to get us started off in the right key and playing the same song. My two compatriots were very forgiving. It’s nice to see that even Dave Alvin can start off in the wrong key sometimes.

Finally, this video of a live performance of “Out of Control” is long, but is a great example Dave Alvin’s guitar playing and storytelling. (The other guitar player is darned good too). I love the dynamics of the tune—the way the band lays back into the groove, then brings it all back up again. If you don’t listen to the whole thing, at least ff to 8:20 for a little musical surprise.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


I can't remember what spurred me, but many months ago I went searching for video clips of "moonwalking"--the dance move that Michael Jackson famously popularized and is often credited with "inventing." I never got around to finishing my blog post on moonwalking, but the time seems right to do so now.

Michael Jackson was an amazing performer and creative genius, but he didn't invent the moonwalk. He was taught the move--called the "backslide"--by choreographer, Jeffrey Daniel, who reports that it took much practice for Jackson to get it just right. A fascinating NPR interview in which Mr. Daniel discusses Jackson's choreography and influences can be heard here. His recollection is that Jackson first saw the backslide when Daniel performed it at Disneyland with The Electric Boogaloos. Here's a video of Jeffrey Daniel bustin' some moves with Shalamar. The moonwalk comes in at about the 2:00 mark.

Levon Helm, the Band's remarkable drummer and singer (and my favorite member) wrote about gigging with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in his early days, and mentioned that Hawkins had several dance moves including a moonwalk. The clip I found on YouTube has been removed for licensing reasons, but I managed to find this excerpt on MySpace. Ronnie Hawkins does a slow version of the moonwalk near the end. That's a young Levon Helm at the drumkit. I'll get around to a Levon Helm post one of these days.

Tap dancer Bill Bailey puts on an amazing performance in this 1955 clip, with a moonwalking exit at 2:05.

This video of Cab Calloway performing "Kickin’ the Gong Around" (1932) is great, great fun. At about 2:00 he throws in some dance steps, including something close to a moonwalk and a Michael Jackson spin.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Horses: A Thematic Post

This afternoon, we went to the Rose Garden Arena to watch a horse show. You can read all about it on my other blog.

In honor of the ponies, I decided to dig up a few thematic songs I like, starting with an obvious choice: Lyle Lovett with “If I Had a Boat.” My favorite line: But Tonto he was smarter, one day said, "Kemosabe. Kiss my ass, I bought a boat and I’m going out to sea."

Here’s a tune called “Horses” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham). There’s another version on YouTube from his Lost Blues album, but I like this one best:

For a little different feel, how about if we close with Patti Smith with her groundbreaking song, “Horses”? This 1976 performances was recorded for the "Old Grey Whistle Test"--a great music show from the BBC. (The Multnomah Library has a few compilations from the show on DVD).

Jeff Hanson (RIP)

I just read on the Mercury’s Blogtown that singer-songwriter Jeff Hanson died in a home accident at the age of 31. Months ago, I started, but never finished, a post after hearing Hanson sing on OPB or NPR. It was to have been a bigger post about what seems to be a trend of male singer-songwriters singing in impossibly high voices. Hanson’s voice could easily be mistaken for a female contralto, with a precise crystalline quality that was unworldly and that did not seem to fit the body from which is emanated. Maybe I’ll get back to that post one day.

In the meantime, here’s a video of “This Time it Will” from his record label, Kill Rock Stars:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Eels

This morning, while walking the dog, I heard an interview with Mark Oliver Everett (aka “Mr. E” or “A Man Called E” or just “E”) of The Eels, on occasion of the release of the band's new album “Hombre Loco: 12 Songs of Desire.”

At the risk of discrediting all pretense of credibility, I will cop to not having followed the Eels until now. The NPR interview with Scott Simon is a good one, including discussion of a documentary Mr. E has been working on about his father, Hugh Everett, a physicist known for his novel theories about parallel universes. (From the biography page on the Eels website: "A quantum physicist who authored The Many Worlds Theory, Everett inspired countless science fiction books, movies and Star Trek episodes with the concept of parallel universes. As a young teenager he exchanged letters with Albert Einstein, debating whether it was something random or unifying that held the universe together.")

Here's The Eels in the studio with “Prizefighter,” a song with the rough, rootsy sound toward which I tend to gravitate.

“That Look You Give That Guy” is an almost perfect pop song--something that would normally send me running in another direction. This one works. (Note to the Dog Walkerer: Look for the sad-eyed hound at 1:15).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tell Automatic Slim and Razor Totin' Jim: Koko Taylor is Dead

A Friend of the Blog just sent me news that blues singer Koko Taylor passed to the other side of the river today at age 80. Here's a link to Ms. Taylor's obituary in Rolling Stone.

Many many weeks ago, I started searching for covers of "Wang Dang Doodle" -- a classic party song written by Willie Dixon for Howlin' Wolf. (According to the Wikipedia entry, Dixon said it was the song he hated the most). As usual, I got sidetracked from that project.

The vocals and the video on this version by Koko Taylor are badly out of sync--in fact, I suspect that someone spliced the recorded version with some unrelated film footage. Little Walter is on harmonica. At about 1:48, you'll see Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry standing around in the studio for some reason. Despite the sketchy quality, you get the idea of what a great artist Ms. Taylor was.

Here’s an oddly compelling version of "Wang Dang Doodle" performed by PJ Harvey.

I'll get back to more posts from Koko Taylor, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon soon.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tony Joe White

This morning, the song running through my head was Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I don’t know what you think about Ms. Winehouse as an artist or a human being, and that song may have been over-played, but I still think it’s brilliant. But that’s not what this post is about.

Somewhere along the line and in my mind, “Rehab” made a segue into The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag.” Some melodic and/or rhythmic elements overlap on the two, so I was doing a mental mash-up. That’s not what this post is about either.

What this post is about is “Polk Salad Annie” and Tony Joe White. I meandered on YouTube from The Band and Amy Winehouse and ended up far from where I began – like getting lost in a swamp. And you know what you find in a swamp? Polk Salad.

Here’s Elvis singing “Polk Salad Annie” in full Vegas mode:

And just for the sheer fun of it (as if the preceding video wasn't plenty), here’s Tony Joe singing a duet of “Polk Salad” with Johnny Cash:

Tony Joe White’s biggest songwriting hits may have been “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.” He’s also written and produced for Tina Turner. For a country singer-songwriter, he’s can bring the funk. Here’s the incomparable Ms. Tina Turner singing Tony Joe’s “Steamy Windows.”

I’ll close with a more recent video of Tony Joe White doing a solo on “Who You Gonna Hoodoo Now?” His isn't the greatest singing voice, but that deep bass certainly has appeal.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Two Mother's Day Videos + Bonus Ono

Don't read anything into these song selections. They are only what I found after doing a quick search for songs on the theme of mothers.

The first is a fun little tune from Scissor Sisters, "Take Your Mama Out," with the choice lyrics:

Gonna take your mama out all night
Yeah, we'll show her what it's all about
We'll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne
We'll let the good times all roll out

And for those readers who may not be feeling sentimental about dear old ma, here's John Lennon's tribute to his mother (and father).

The last one has nothing to do with mothers, but I'm sending this out to my friend Sharon because I know she'll appreciate seeing Yoko Ono knitting while blindfolded.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Tribute to Shatner

In honor of the release of the new Star Trek flick, and for all my geek friends, this is a tribute to William Shatner. A few years ago, Mr. Shatner teamed up with Ben Folds to put out an album of cover songs and originals, titled “Has Been.” While the album had all the over-the-top camp value we’ve come to love and expect from him, it also had some moments of brilliance and remarkable self-reflection. Most importantly, I think Mr. Shatner had a helluva good time poking fun at people, including himself.

Here’s the Shatner/Folds cover of Pulp’s “Common People,” which a brilliant mash-up artist combined with clips from the old Star Trek animated series.

On the same album, Mr. Shatner performed a work of slam poetry, “I Can’t Get Behind That.” Haven't we all felt like this at some point? The video is lip-synched by puppets (can puppets do that?), and ends a 2:56, so please ignore the final 45 seconds of silliness at the tail end.

Back to Pulp, how about this live version of "Common People"?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

More Pentangle and the Lyke Wake Dirge

Commenting on my recent Pentangle post, friend of the Blog, Mead Hunter, praised that group’s stirring version of the “Lyke Wake Dirge” – a traditional English song about the soul’s travels after death. The verse is also a cautionary tale: Be charitable and kind to others, or karma’s gonna getcha.

You will find a nice “translation” of the text by Jeff Duntemann here.

I also found this beautiful a capella version by The Young Tradition, a mid-1960s folk revival trio that sang unaccompanied. For some time, they reportedly shared a house with John Renbourne and Bert Jansch from Pentangle. I don't remember having heard them, so this was a nice discovery:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Happy Belated May Day!

Yesterday was May Day (aka “International Workers Day”), but I was too busy working my ass off to celebrate the achievements of the labor movement.

Did you know that the U.S. version of Labor Day was created in 1887 and scheduled in September to disassociate it from the more radical, leftist versions traditionally held on the first of May? And that in 1958 President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1st as “Loyalty Day” and “Law Day?” Loyalty Day was launched in 1921 as “Americanization Day” with the intent of reaffirming national loyalty and recognizing “the heritage of American freedom.” Law Day is pretty much the same thing, with a little extra boosterism for the rule of law as the foundation for democratic freedom. Who knew? By the way, we don't torture.

In honor of the labor force (currently employed or not), here’s Merle Haggard singing his tribute to the working stiff:

Friday, May 1, 2009


I’ve posted before about my affection for the British “folk/rock” movement from back in wayback time, when I was a laddie, ca. late 60s and 70s. I listened to them all: Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Pentangle. In the end (or "the final analysis" or "when all is said and done"), I think my favorite is Pentangle. Perhaps that’s a guitar player’s bias-- focusing on the brilliance of John Renbourne and Bert Jansch. But as I listen again now, I’m amazed at Danny Thompson’s virtuosity on the bass and Jacqui McShee’s crystalline voice, and the musicality of them as a group.

I like this first video because ... well because they are just so cool the coolest little chamber ensemble ever. (The audience on the sidelines look like they're just high and groovin' on the vibe). I love seeing folks sing duets (think Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or George Jones and Tammy Wynette) -- there's a connection that comes through the eye contact and the intimate listening that's required. I see it here between Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee. The whole band feels like they are closely listening to each other. Look for the sweet instrumental break at 1:30 (John Renbourne on guitar). Did I mention that the drumming is simply perfect?

Next is one I remember well: "Wedding Dress." Again, they feel like a chamber ensemble. The drumming is not flashy, but absolutely perfect. And listen to what Danny Thompson’s doing with the bowed bass at 1:43. Beautiful!

I'll close with an instrumental piece from 1971, "In Time," in which Pentangle borders on cigarette enwreathed jazziness. Look for Danny Thompson’s bass break at 1:00 and then again at the close around 3:30.

If I'm sounding over-exhuberant here, it's because it's Friday night.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ian Dury & The Blockheads

Here’s a blast from the past (last 70’s). This song popped into my head the other night, and I discovered that my wife had not heard it before. Or perhaps I was doing an exceptionally bad job of singing “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Whatever. It motivated me to search for videos of Mr. Dury. Warning: Double sax solo at 1:48!

This is great party music with smart lyrics. I once owned the band's second album “Do it Yourself,” the sleeve of which was based on samples from a wallpaper catalog, with over a dozen variations of the cover issued. (Designed by an artist named Barney Bubbles).

Here’s another big Ian Dury hit with a classic theme: “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll.” (Fun chorus starting at 2:30).

And here's "What a Waste" from 1978. Warning: Synthesizer solo at 1:30.

In case you couldn't catch the lyrics:

I could be the driver of an articulated lorry
I could be a poet, I wouldn't need to worry
I could be a teacher in a classroom full of scholars
I could be the sergeant in a squadron full of wallahs
What a waste
What a waste
What a waste
What a waste

Because I chose to play the fool in a six-piece band,
First-night nerves every one-night stand.
I should be glad to be so inclined.
What a waste! What a waste!
But I don't mind.

I could be a lawyer with strategems and ruses
I could be a doctor with poultices and bruises
I could be a writer with a growing reputation
I could be the ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station
What a waste


I could be the catalyst that sparks the revolution
I could be an inmate in a long-term institution
I could dream to wide extremes, I could do or die
I could yawn and be withdrawn and watch the world go by
What a waste

Ian Dury died of liver cancer in March 2000. What a waste.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Connie Converse

A few days ago, my wife e-mailed me a link to NPR’s “Song of the Day,” with a story about a woman named Connie Converse who wrote, sang and recorded poignant little folk songs in New York in the mid-1950s. Converse was a relative unknown who never put out a commercial recording. She left New York for Ann Arbor, where she worked at the University of Michigan for a dozen years. Then in 1974, she packed her belongings in her VW bug and drove away, never to be seen again.

This video features Ms. Converse singing her song, “One by One.”

The video was accompanied by evocative photos from the Luminous Playhouse Theater Company, the creation of artist Anne Garland. Here’s how Ms. Garland describes the Luminous Playhouse:

The stage for The Luminous Playhouse Theater Company is a five-story 1960s abstract modern dollhouse that fills several shelves in my work space. In its dreamy, glowing rooms I set up changing scenes with an eclectic assortment of figures and props that I’ve collected for this project. Everything’s intentionally mismatched in style and scale—some things are new, some I made myself, many are vintage with their own mysterious histories that add to their storytelling potential.

I’ve been experimenting in the Luminous Playhouse with color and staging and lighting, blur and depth of field, realism and artifice to create what I think of as visual narrative or theater—an evocative cinematic interior-scape. I love how the camera reveals a vivid and potently human world in these artificial constructed scenes. To me the characters’ expressionlessness and their static, stiff poses only enhance the drama. Their impassivity invites an utterly personal interpretation, allowing—even requiring—us to bring our own emotional narrative meanings to the tableaus.
You can listen to more songs on a MySpace page someone has set up for Ms. Converse. The songs there include one with this great rhyme:

Up that tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing
Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling.

When I listen to Connie Converse, I hear something out of the folk era of the 50s and 60s, but I also hear contemporary female singer-songwriters. Without knowing anything about her, would I know she recorded 55 years ago, or would it be just as easy to believe that she recorded yesterday? If you told me she was working as a barista at Stumptown and performing at Mississippi Studio in the evening (probably with the Portland Cello Project accompanying), I might believe you.

Here's Portland's Laura Gibson:

Another Portlander, Laura Veirs:

And Joanna Newsome, who hails from Nevada City, California (where my parents now live):

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jimi and Shotgun

I was looking for videos for the classic R&B tune, "Shotgun" when I ran across this early televised clip of Jimi Hendrix playing behind the duo, Buddy and Stacey. Jimi is over on stage right, next to the drums -- not the first guitar player you'll see. He isn't given much to do beyond the fundamental riff that defines "Shotgun," but if you listen very, very closely at the 1:30 mark, you'll hear him throw in a few extra notes that are all Jimi-- as if he couldn't be constrained any longer by the repetition. Also, check out the over the neck sweeping action he throws in at 1:48 as a little flash.

Buddy and Stacy were apparently a hot song and dance act that performed with notables such as Little Richard, Jr. Walker, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, and Gladys Knight. I also read that they performed with The Sir Douglas Quintet, of which I wrote months ago. They certainly had the dance moves. And how about those high-waisted pants?

That performance may have been the only gig Jimi played with Buddy and Stacy. After that, and before he became a superstar and guitar god, he played guitar for the Isley Brothers ca. 1964. The next clip is an instrumental version of an Isley Brothers tune, "Move Over and Let Me Dance." Though there's no accompanying video, I'm including it here because there is no mistaking the Hendrix sound and riffs. (It may be of limited interest by readers who are not guitar players).

I started this post thinking about "Shotgun," not Jimi, so let's get back to it. I first heard "Shotgun" on a 1968 album by a Northern California band called Clover. I still have a Clover LP and will digitize its tracks some day because it's not available anywhere. Today we might categorize Clover as "alt-country" -- they were using pedal steel guitar and playing a mix of country and R&B before Gram Parsons arrived on the scene. In a later incarnation, their front man was Huey Lewis, before he broke into the big time. After that, several members of the band moved to England where they became Elvis Costello's band on "My Aim is True." Believe it or not.

"Shotgun" makes for a great rhythm guitar lesson, with a couple of interlocking parts that makes it fun to play for two guitarists. I'll close with the best known version of the song performed by Jr. Walker and the Allstars. The quality is crappy, but it has go go dancers. Listen for the little rhythm guitar figure at about .33, after the line "Put on your red dress."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

More Nick Lowe

After listening to him on my headphones last night, I decided to add a follow-up to my Nick Lowe post from last November . I appreciate the clarity of Lowe's lyrics and the stories they tell. He avoids cryptic verse that requires a decoder ring or an English lit degree, yet he's writing poetry. I think it's fair to characterize his songwriting "old school," in the mold of a master like Hoagy Carmichael. Occasionally Lowe verges too closely toward clever or cute, such as this line from his song "All Men Lie":
Do you remember Rick Astley?
Had a big fat hit, it was just ghastly

But then there is this beauty of a tune, "Lately I've Let Things Slide," which is full of both humor and pathos. The video quality is poor, but listen to the words and the phrasing:

Lowe recorded this next tune in the mid-1980s. "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)" is nothing more than a fun rocker.

I suspect that "I Knew the Bride" was influenced by Chuck Berry's wedding song "C'est La Vie" (aka "You Never Can Tell). Here's a version of that Cajun-flavored tune sung by a young Emmylou Harris. That’s the master of the Telecaster, Albert Lee, picking the guitar (on her left), and Rodney Crowell singing harmony (on her right).

Sunday, April 5, 2009


On heavy listening rotation this week has been Lambchop, the Nashville TN band fronted by singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner. When Lambchop started out, it (I should probably say "he" since Lambchop = Wagner) was labeled “alt-country” -- probably thanks to the hometown more than anything. Others have called it “country soul” and one critic labeled the band as a “freak-chamber-country collective” (which seems off-the-mark so sorry I mentioned it). Some of Lambchop's later material even veers into what might be called "neo-lounge."

As a band, Lambchop has had a rotating lineup of musicians through the years, growing to as large as 20 members to create a “big band” sound behind what are otherwise quiet and subtle songs. When I first heard Wagner's deep, rumbly mumbly voice, it seemed oddly familiar. Then it came to me: Cat Stevens (Yusef Islam) from “Tea for the Tillerman” days (a favorite album when I was a teen). Someone called Wagner “one of the greatest of the bad singers,an unassuming master of phrasing," and said, "though you might barely discern a line in the vocal rumble, the way he occludes and reveals can be felt.” Oddball, quirky voices seem to be popular in indie music these days, though more often pitched up close to or in falsetto range.

I admit that I’ve not yet listened closely enough to crack the code to decipher most of Wagner’s lyrics. Wagner has said, "I use language in a reckless, abstracted splatter of phrase and meaning that somehow comes together through association with the music.” Fair enough -- it's National Poetry Month after all.

Lambchop has developed a sizeable, semi-cultlike following, so there are many lousy YouTube videos shot by camera phone out there. I did find a decent version of “Up with People” from the band’s “Nixon” album. I particularly like the rhythm guitar part that chops away like a metronome, reminding me of Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs (I'll have to get to them one of these days). The horn breaks are pretty sweet too.

Here’s Wagner performing a solo version of his song, “Slipped, Dissolved and Loosed” decked out in his signature seed cap and thick-rimmed glasses. (This was clearly filmed in a hotel room somewhere, and since I finally got around to watching "No Country for Old Men" on DVD last night, I kept expecting Javier Bardem to burst into the room with guns ablaze as I watched it).

Here's Wagner with a cover of Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which demonstrates nicely his interesting phrasing and quirky voice.

If you want more, NPR has posted a 28 minute video of Wagner from its “Tiny Desk Sessions.” OPB Radio also has audio from an in-studio session with Wagner.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Tribute to Boom Boom

I love the rockabilly, so was delighted to discover this neo-rockabilly tune, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom" by Dublin-born singer, Imelda May, backed by a hot band. I particularly like the slappy bass and the use of the traditional bodhran.

That inspired me to search for other tunes with either "Boom," "Boom Boom," or "Boom Boom Boom" in the title. Believe me when I tell you there are plenty -- often in conjunction with the word, "shake." This one is a classic from bluesmaster John Lee Hooker, a master of the driving rhythm and tapping toes.

I didn't want to post a variety of covers of the same "Boom Boom" song, but couldn't resist Springsteen's cover of the Hooker song. (There's also a nice version by the Animals ca. 1965, but I'll save that for a separate Animals/Eric Burdon post in the future). This is The Boss stripped down to his rock 'n roll heart in the mid-90s. The tune is about two minutes too long, but has a fun finish to it and Bruce rocks the telecaster.

Just for fun, let's hear from the fabulous pair of parodists from New Zealand, Flight of the Conchords, with "She's So Hot Boom."

I'll close with a tune from a Thai techno/hip-hop group, Buddha Bless, playing "Bump Boom Boom" from its album, "Gancore Club 2." I won't pretend to be a fan--I just tripped across them in my search for Boom Boom. I asked Google to translate listener comments about the band from a Thai website, then used a selection to compose this poem:

Cymbal sound with a slow tempo
then fire, then a mother dress.
Perfectly capturing the wistful song dog
[ball well] Birth.

Love song to the fight,
only you dance to music from the sea cock.
Rave music for the quick draw
to the top of the card.

Fire environments because they love
music, not the Sikh face.
Wistful lyric dog fight.

These factors are very beautiful music...
music for women who like this trip close.
To love music because it is good and
portals like flowers bloom.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Camille O'Sullivan sings Nick Cave

I came upon this sultry, Irish-French (French-Irish?) chanteuse indirectly, while watching a video by another singer on the same label. What caught my ear were her covers of two stunningly beautiful Nick Cave songs. (My second post on this site was about Nick Cave, and I reviewed his September 2008 Portland concert over at Culture Shock).

Very much like Tom Waits, Nick Cave is a masterful lyricist and a charismatic performer with a voice and sound that is distinct in its rawness and lack of polish. When either of these artist's songs are interpreted--particularly by female singers--I invariably hear them afresh and gain an even deeper appreciation of the poetry.

I'll start with Ms. O'Sullivan's interpretation of "God is in the House."

I love her interpretation, but searched out Cave's own version and found this video, which I like even more:

Here's O'Sullivan singing Cave's beautiful classic, "The Ship Song."

Here's Nick Cave's own solo version:

Blind Pilot at SXSW

I’ve been listening to music on a rainy spring day in Portland. Right now, I’m enjoying listening to a Blind Pilot concert recorded by NPR at SXSW. Darn pretty music – sweet harmonies, simple instrumentation (including a nice touch of trumpet), heartfelt, smart lyrics. Some of it is a little more pop than I normally like on my headphones, but it is lovely music to listen to on a grey day.

Friends from college days, Israel Nebeker and Ryan Dobrowski are Blind Pilot. The pair hails from Portland where they are warmly embraced by the city’s avid bike culture on account of their conducting a West Coast tour completely and utterly by bicycle, hauling instruments and all their gear behind their road bikes, and playing in small towns. With the addition of a few more band mates they have graduated to a tour van. In May and June, they’ll be on tour with the Decemberists, in a tour bus I imagine.

Here's Blind Pilot's official video for "Go On Say It," which looks like it was filmed in Astoria.

Here they are in-studio at KINK radio, singing "Three Rounds and a Sound."

On NPR you can also listen to a SXSW concert by another Portland band that is making waves, Blitzen Trapper. I'll get back to them sometime.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip

This tune by the British duo known as Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip just showed up on NPR's "Song of the Day" play list. Mr. Pip's words are too wise to not pass along for the edification of our readers. And since Mr. Pip's name is an intentional misspelling of the title and character in an Edward Lear poem, "The Scroobious Pip," this post is in honor of World Poetry Day, which is today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

SXSW 2009

The annual SXSW music fest has started in Austin. One of of these years, Mighty Toy Cannon will be so renowned across the blogoverse that I'll get free tickets and airfare to attend. Yeah, right.

For now, I'm stuck listening to podcasts and streaming concerts and reading blog reports courtesy of the estimable Bob Boilen and colleagues at NPR and "All Songs Considered." Their SXSW coverage is quite remarkable and fun.

NPR is also offering a free sampler download featuring ten bands, including Portland's own Blitzen Trapper and Decemberists.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Six Days on the Road

There's nothing I don't love about this song. The best truck drivin' song ever written (and there are a lot of great truck drivin' songs). I think the first version I ever heard was performed by Red Sovine, the Grand Master of the genre. Anybody playing country, alt-country, country rock, neo-country-rock, neo-alt-country-americana ... has to cover it. It's as fun to perform as it is to listen to.

The first video from Dave Dudley is my favorite of the bunch--perhaps because he's the songwriter. And he's playing a guitar that looks just like mine. The shiny shirt doesn't hurt either.

"Six Days on the Road" was a favorite of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The FBB were an opening act for the infamous Altamont concert in 1969, and a short excerpt of Gram Parsons singing "Six Days" appears on "Gimme Shelter," the Maysles Brothers documentary film about that event. I can't find a YouTube video of that performance, but here's one with the FBB, post-Parsons--Chris Hillman sings the lead. Sneaky Pete Kleinow's pedal steel simply kills.

I'll conclude with a version by a young Steve Earle. Guitar pickers will appreciate the little solo bit at 1:30 (I believe the fellow with the Telecaster is Mike McAdams). My only quibble with this version is that the rhythm section doesn't bounce quite as much as I think it should -- a little too plodding.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Johnny Cash and Guests

On Facebook, I've recently been tagged to list 15 albums that changed my life. That's going to be a challenge because it is a distinctly different assignment than listing "15 Desert Island Albums" or "15 Best Albums of All Time" or "15 Albums Listened to in the Past Week." So, more thinking will be needed.

One album that came to mind is the eponymous John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (featuring Eric Clapton). I think I became more of a fan of John Mayall than Clapton after that album (though I mean no disrespect to Clapton). That memory led me to YouTube, where I found this collaboration from the Johnny Cash Show ca. 1970, with Johnny playing "Matchbox" with Carl Perkins and a young Eric Clapton. Clapton also performed on that episode with Derek and the Dominos.

After that, I was tempted to chase down three paths: (1) More "Matchbox"; (2) More Clapton; (3) More Carl Perkins. Instead I decided to find a few other guests who appeared on Johnny's show. Here's Neil Young, with a nice introductory tribute frmo Johnny:

And here's Johnny Cash in a duet with Bob Dylan from one of the great songs from the "Nashville Skyline" album (which may end up on my Top 15 Influential Album list.

I wish to assure any readers that I will get into the 21st century one of these days.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Little Red Book

This evening, my grocery store was playing “My Little Red Book” as performed by the mid-60s Los Angeles band, Love (fronted by Arthur Lee). You may have heard it on the soundtrack to “High Fidelity” (a great book and movie). Sorry about the lack of synchronization in this video:

"My Little Red Book" was written by tunesmith Burt Bacharach and made a hit by Manfred Mann, helped by showing up on the soundtrack for the movie, "What's New Pussycat." Here's a version crooned by Elvis Costello, accompanied by Mr. Bacharach and requisite horns. I understand that Bacharach never approved of the Love version.

Finally, here's a version (without video) of which Mr. Bacharach would most certain disapprove -- performed by the White Stripes in 1998, when they were still relatively unknown and playing street fairs in Detroit:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dead on This Day

For reasons that aren’t that interesting, I tripped across a fascinating and beautifully designed website for an online magazine called Obit. Here’s an excerpt from its statement of purpose:

Death gives life its immediacy. Because we know it will end, we savor and value life all the more. Obit examines life through the lens of death. Whether it’s the loss of a person, a place, an object or an idea, life’s constant change presents an opportunity for examination, discussion and even celebration.By examining the transformations we face, we can understand how the past influences our time and our future. Obit aims to offer a forum for ideas and opinions about life, death, and transition that you will find nowhere else.
I may write more about this site over at my sister blog, Culture Shock, but there’s a reason I’m mentioning it here. The site includes a section called “Died on the Same Day” through which the user can select any day of the year to discover who shared that date of demise. The two folks listed for March 2, 2008 were Dusty Springfield (who died on March 2, 1999) and Serge Gainsbourg, who passed to the other side on this day in 1991.

"Dusty in Memphis" is a great album. Here's a video of her performing "I Only Want to Be With You."

I'm also a huge fan of Shelby Lynne's tribute album to Dusty. Here's her version of the same tune:

Now Serge's turn, with the song “Mr. William,” which I presume was performed as part of the French Garden Implement Exposition.

This tune, “All That You Are” isn’t Gainsbourg’s (it’s by Nat King Cole) and he doesn’t sing, but the video is pretty cool and I wish I was that guitar player:

UPDATE: Reader Mead Hunter brought my attention to a version of "I Only Want to Be With You" performed by the Bay City Rollers, the Scottish pop/rock heartthrobs straight out of the early 70's. You gotta love that opening bass line:

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.