Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Flemington Meets KC: Nalani & Sarina Prove It All Night in 45

On the EP and album (2015's Scattered World and 2018's The Circle) I’ve been listening to over the past two years, New Jersey twin rockers Nalani & Sarina have come to represent what I find missing in most contemporary music—a big vision and a firm belief in that vision. When I heard they were opening for Tech N9ne January 26th, I had to be there though three other favorite bands were playing shows the same night. I took my older brother (my first music teacher) and my nephew (the musician in the family) to their set opening for Tech N9ne, the biggest act in town playing a sold out show at the 2000-person room Voodoo Lounge.

Now Tech N9ne fans, and fans of his label Strange Music, are a wonderfully frenzied, devoted bunch. I can’t think of another Kansas City artist who has anything like his following. I was a little nervous for these Jersey artists I cared so much about because I would not personally want to be taking the stage before Tech and his two Strange-label openers. At the same time, it was a moment of great possibility. I plunged to the middle of the floor hoping, almost against hope, that this crowd would have open ears for the rock show that was going to happen before the Strange Music review.

They had only 45 minutes to make an impression, to gain some new fans.

Some musicians seize possibilities in a way that makes it look thrillingly effortless. Nalani & Sarina are just such artists. These two women hit the stage with guitars—mirror twins, guitar necks pointing in opposite directions—another guitarist to their right, a bassist to their left, drums in the back. They said, “Hello, Kansas City, are you ready to see Tech N9ne?” The crowd roared. “We’re here to warm you up!”

And then—I wish I knew how to say this with the appropriate weight—they tore into it all, their whole set, the whole room. They shouted in unison this clarion call—“Wa, wa, wa, wake up now! Wa, wa, wa, wake!”—and they were laying out the house with this slamming pledge to “stay here forever” and promising “the break of day.” More than a few hands in the house immediately went up.  

On the second song, "The Circle," Sarina took to the keys for a stinging funk riff, and Nalani answered with chunky rhythm guitar, their twin vocals full-throated and pledging that we could become a part of a revolutionary circle of change alongside them. Bold stuff for an audience that's never seen or heard the band before, but inviting, the message of freedom so universal and the energy infectious.

(This video from a smaller show in Chicago gives a hint of what it was like--

Nalani & Sarina have some wonderful ballads and songs that defy genre description, but they stuck to one hard rocking moment after another. “Wanna Be with You” featured an impossibly fast and facile bass run by Mike Klemash, feeling as much like a pledge to the audience as a love song (which of course it is).  

Things slowed a bit for the reggae-flavored “Deep End,” featuring a primal lead by Ryan Swing. This momentary change of pace allowed a glimpse of the depth of soul that typifies these women. Catchy as hell, you couldn’t miss the poignant hello-goodbye fragility of the desperate relationship at the heart of the song.

 At that point, they traded hard hitting raps and blended those twin vocals for the verses of their flipped bird to the music industry, “Get Away.” The steady beats provided by drummer Sunny Dee held the core of the hip hop/rock mix. The high energy funk of  “Hung Up” raised the room temperature a few more degrees. Though they introduced one of their finest songs, “Pretty Lies” as an experience at a bad frat party, it is tellingly and clearly a song that describes the state of today’s dominant culture and politics.

That’s when the show really got mind-blowing. Their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” might best be defined as sweat-drenched, on stage and throughout the crowd. Then, they launched into the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times (Come Again No More)” as an intro to one of their most powerful, inclusive anthems, “We’ll Be Free.”

(Here's a clip of "Hard Times/"We'll Be Free" from Chicago.

The show ended with their bluesy “Break of Dawn” as the framework for a medley of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” Taylor Swift’s “Never Getting Back Together,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” Prince’s “Kiss” and, well, what everyone has to play when they come to our town, Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City.” Sarina hit just the right note by almost apologizing before she did it by saying, “Since we’ve only been to Kansas City one time!” 

It was terrific.

After some wonderful fighting over the keyboards, both sisters playing over and against each other, Nalani stepped centerstage with guitar and began to testify. She shouted, “Just like James Brown said,” and Sarina answered, “What’d he say?” Nalani dropped to her knees calling, “Please, please, please.” The magic of rock and roll is when you are doing it right a moment like that works, and that worked that night as I imagine it does every night. That moment summed up not only the bravery and abandon of Nalani & Sarina’s 45 minute opening set but something close to the heart of the rock and roll universe.  

P.S. On my way out, I picked up their first album, released in 2014. Though they’ve only gotten better, most of what I’m looking for in music was all there even then.  

Set list:

Wake Up
The Circle
Wanna be with You
Deep End
Get Away
Hung Up
Pretty Lies
Hold on, I'm Coming
Hard Times/We'll Be Free
Break of Dawn with Hit the Road Jack, Never Getting Back Together, Think, Kiss and Kansas City.

Friday, December 28, 2018

My 2018: The End of Something and the Beginning of Something More

As a recovering cultural critic, one of the things I need to let go of is the sense that I have to write about some quota of things to see the Old Year out and the New Year in. I am a part of a core group of friends who have shared year-end mix-tapes (playlists) and annotated lists and reflective columns for close to three decades. Friends still send me their year-end playlists, and I am so thankful for that, but I also have this needling guilt that I should produce one.

But no one's really asked for one for years, AND I never liked making them, not much. For one thing, I'm a slow listener. Some of my friends have a Top Ten for each month. I tend to listen to the same new thing all month long, and, then, maybe move onto another new thing the next month. Same way with reading and viewing. I plunge headlong into some things on impulse and ignore the rest of the world. What I come up with at the end of the year is anything but an overview of the year that was.

But the thing that troubles me most about year-end lists is how the bulk of what I'm discovering in any given year didn't come from that year at all. This was a year full of anniversaries that sent many of us back to the music of ’68, while ’78 was an absolutely formative year for me. I also think of albums like Rage Against the Machine's debut, which took a year to catch on, or Soul Asylum's breakthrough Gravedancer's Union, an album that languished on the charts for twelve months before that moving video of "Runaway Train" made that band superstars (for a couple of years). Music, movies, literature and art take their sweet time reaching people. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh weren't making "year-end lists" during their lifetimes.

Still, I understand the need to assess the past year and mark progress of some sort on the calendar. I do know the two most important books for me this year were C.J. Janovy's No Place Like Home and Sarah Smarsh's Heartland because they drew such rich portraits of the environment in which I was raised (and where I still live). Janovy did it with her remarkable observational and listening skills coupled with her intuition about truth and story. Smarsh did it by simply raising her voice and keeping herself honest.

Both books refuse to shy away from the ugly truths of the texture of the world I grew up in, but they fight that with portraits of dignity and courage that for the most part go untold. Again and again, the embattled characters in Janovy’s book are embraced and encouraged by neighbors who love them and appreciate them as human beings. Stephanie Mott, a transgender woman who spent a significant portion of her life homeless, so places faith in this decency that she engages in a statewide tour to diners, truckstops, practically anywhere she can talk to everyday people in order to discuss who she is and what she's been through and what needs to happen "if she's going to be okay." The truly inspiring thing is how many people hear that statement in the universal sense, something we often associate with the Black church, "if we're going to be okay."

Smarsh describes what it took for her to tell the stories of those who didn’t get the chances she had. She doesn't romanticize a damn thing; if anything the romantic notions are her confessions of her own sense of self-importance in this quest. But she uses her family to check herself, to root her perspective, and in the process she draws a portrait of lower income Kansas that's, as it must be, a tribute with its textured depth, love and admiration. She helps me see my own friends and family from a slightly different perspective. She has a grandmother who helps me understand things about my own, particularly her sometime disapproval of my attitudes. 

Thom Zimny’s  Elvis: The Searcher documentary worked some territory close to these books. By focusing on Elvis’s artistic biography, this film shows the oft-stereotyped and simplified artist's core power, celebrating the dignity and vitality of all of us abused and neglected every day, all day, all our lives long. In this framework, Elvis seems more important than ever because it's that overwhelming sense of division and hopelessness that tears at everyone these days, perhaps no one more than our youth.

2018 was a year when my younger daughter made me a 50+ track playlist. Just the list of artists is a lot to wrap my head around--K. Flay, Anarbor, Broods, Ruth B., Kurt Vile, Bea Miller, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Bazzi, AJR, Alec Benjamin, Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear, The Killers, The Bleachers, Panic! At the Disco, Wild Bell, King Princess, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Matt Maeson, Lea Michelle, Ingrid Michaelson, Tegan and Sara, Troye Sivan, M.A.G.S., I Monster, Marina and the Diamonds, Kendrick Lamar, MELVV, Grace, G-Eazy, Bo Burnham, Janelle Monae, Imagine Dragons, Adam Lambert, Jon Bellion, The Maine, Lorde, The Cab, Kane Strang, XTC, Elohim, Molly Kate Kestner, Twenty One Pilots, Avril Lavigne, Gabbie Hanna, Linkin Park, NF, Quadeca, and an endearing young political rapper called “grandson.”

Plenty of familiar names here. I went to college with XTC. I took Trionna to the Electric Lady tour. I think I wrote one of the better early pieces on Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. I'm familiar with a slim fourth of the people she's listening to.....It's a reminder there's so much going on, always, and there's so much left to learn.

I rediscovered that on a few interesting nights, two with my friend CJ seeing Kamasi Washington (opening with a beautiful set by Victory Boyd) and Logan Richardson, rethinking jazz's role in an era that's largely post-rock (and almost post-hip hop) in the story it tells itself. When Richardson declares from stage that it's Charlie Parker behind all of pop music--way shy of the Louis Armstrong I might have picked or the logical choice of, say, Louis Jordan or Elvis for the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution--well, it's a reframing worth noting. Since the late 1940s, the self-consciousness of be-bop has never left us--whether it took the form of Dylan's beat poetry or Marvin Gaye's sexual and political visions or those two generations later from Janelle Monae. There are new frames to the story, and they're there to help us see it from more objective perspectives than our old windows (not that we should throw those out).
2018, for me, was a year of letting go of my fixed perspectives of everything and allowing myself to hear fresh again. It made me think of a comment a friend of mine made, another music writer equally involved in politics, at least 25 years ago. We both agreed the erosion of the basis of our economy (money=labor) would mean a revolution in our society. Something I would say we are experiencing quite painfully today, fraught with confusion about what it means and where we are going. Anyway, my friend said, you know, when this new class of people thrown out of the system try to unify around culture, it won't look anything like what it's looked like in the past.

2018 was a year where I saw that prophecy come true. Nothing means quite what it once did. Everything we thought was dead and gone may have fresh life, and things we thought were eternal may seem illusory. But it's a time of great possibility. I just have to look at my daughter's playlist. Over 50 songs by 48 artists that bear little resemblance to each other much less the fairly narrow canons I thought were revolutionary when I was 16.

To learn what we need to know about one another, where we are going and what we might accomplish, we have to listen closer than ever before. To learn what we need to know, we have to be open to things we wouldn't have considered worthy of openness in the past. To learn what we need to know, we need to recognize the table's been hit, the chess pieces are flying through the air and so are we.

But we can and must land on our feet, and we can only do that if we keep our eyes out for each other, if we offer a helping hand. 2018 showed me that necessity to be open and aware in new and unique ways. I'm not sure it had anything to do with what was released this year. It had everything to do with what was in play.

Love to you all. We're going to find each other and hold on, and we're going to make it through this storm. It all depends on recognizing our unity in the struggle. The struggle can and should and must bring us together. Happy New Year to all my fellow fighters.

To quote one of my dearest friends, "Love, love, love!" Love is just about all we need, but it takes some work, and a little science, to figure out the rest.  

Top of Form

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Working My Way Back to You: The Heart of Rock & Soul and the Ties That Bind

 At the end of my semester, I had my second level composition students write a little journal about a record or song that they would call a favorite. This activity was literally inspired by a dream that woke me 5:30 that morning. I was trying to herd a bunch of students in a public place and find us all somewhere to sit. It wasn’t working, so I just started saying, “Write about your favorite song!” It fit with what they needed to do that day (an analysis exercise), so I brought along my lifelong mentor Dave Marsh’s book The Heart of Rock & Soul, read snippets from a few entries and had them write their own.
Perhaps because I’ve devoted most of my life to music and I’ve been a little estranged from that work lately, I have found myself thinking a lot about these journal entries, especially what they had in common. My students are a pretty diverse group. Though the largest fraction are young women and a few men (white, Black and Hispanic) from my area, in these classes I also have students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Pakistan, China, Japan, Iraq and Iran. I played with the demographics all kinds of ways, but the most interesting aspects of the journals are the ties that bind them together. Though most students wrote about being attracted by the sound of a record or a song, that isn’t what yielded the most interesting connections. I am taken with all the ways my students use their music.
The most common single tie that binds responses together is a sense of belonging. Sometimes that feeling is microcosmic, like a student writing about her boyfriend buying her fries when she had too much to drink. But often it is on a larger scale—how a whole family chimes in repeating “Oh, Christmas Tree” for the entirety of the song’s lyric or how an entire family associates Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with the student as a little girl or Katy Perry’s “Firework” with another, singing it to her uncle each year when she went to visit him.
Sometimes, it is about the George Strait or Joan Sebastian, Dad or Mom used to play in the car, or the Lebanese singer Fairuz who reminds my Iraqi student of her once-normal life back home, from the breakfast table to getting dropped off at school. 
Sometimes it is about a family with a musician, like the memory of being a little girl and thinking her aunt was Joan Jett (or the other way around) because she had seen her aunt’s cover band play “I Love Rock & Roll” long before she knew anyone else sang it. Then there’s the grandfather who made up his own words to Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” when he sang it to his granddaughter, and the memory of playing Elvis for him when he was recovering from heart surgery. I believe that student plays the guitar herself.
Those who aren’t motivated to play music still use it for motivation. One student has drawn on Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” to navigate her way through difficult situations; another has used Logic’s “Everyday” to put up with juggling too much school and too much work. Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” encourages another student to honestly express her emotions and keep moving forward. One uses music to “make my mood better and make me think deeply.”
These private uses often relate to pain. A number of the journals above dealt with the loss of a loved one, the song lending the writer a way to carry that pain. One student’s father always talked about when they’d share a beer on her 21st birthday but he died when she was 19, so she associates life after him with Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here.” Another student uses Son Lux’s “All Directions” as a way to appreciate the moment and life’s constant state of change. Another talks about how Twenty-One Pilots’ “Migraine” speaks to the battles in his head.
Some of these battles are literally to keep getting out of bed in the morning. One young woman loves The Black-Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love” because it helps her deal with “all the hate in the world.” Another young woman writes about how Sufjan Stevens “Mystery of Love” helped her through her first heartbreak and “come to terms with what had happened.” Another tells how Breaking Benjamin’s “Until the End” gives her the upper hand in ongoing battles “with severe anxiety and depression.” Her journal is echoed by yet another young woman’s journal about J. Cole’s “Once an Addict,” relating “to every line” and using it to “overcome and better think about my situation.”  
J. Cole, "Once an Addict" art
If anything is a sign of the times, it has to be the amount of anxiety and depression that surrounds us. The world is changing, rapidly, and the future is obviously uncertain and more than a little bit terrifying. Taken as a whole, these journals show how people engage with music to find ways to keep going and to find each other. I didn’t categorize these, but the range of emotions my students used to describe their music says a great deal.
According to these students, their songs express relatable pain, yes, but that’s never the whole thing. They also make “my heart [feel] full” and help us “have fun.” They are reminders of “the best days of my life,” and they are “uplifting.” They are “smooth and catchy” and “romantic and playful.” My students’ songs calm and comfort as well as excite, and their songs counter worry and hopelessness with feelings of individual strength, strength in numbers and joy and love and peace.
It’s a wonderful reminder why I have been either writing music or writing about music since I was 15, and also a reminder that neither myself nor my students have to feel as alone as the world tends to make us feel. I hear all of these songs calling us to come together, and though we don’t yet quite know how, all of these students and their songs say the answer’s all around us.  

Friday, December 21, 2018

No Place Left To Hide: Springsteen on Broadway, Hard-Fought Reminders and Fresh Keys to the Universe

Opening night on TV, December 16th, a Sunday, I watched Springsteen on Broadway with my dear friends Billy "Chin" Heaster and Ben Bielski. Bruce has compelled me to write in response since I was 15. That night was no different, and what follows is what came pouring out, with some much needed edits....
All I can say is I knew it would be good because it’s Bruce. Well past the point where he has to, Bruce continuously fights to raise the stakes each time out, at least for his core audience. I’d read a few reviews of the Broadway show, some of the best written by people I knew. But nothing I read really prepared me for what I experienced.
There are a couple of reasons for that, and they’re understandable. One is that Bruce designs what he does so much focused on his ideas that it’s hard to miss them (although many have), and that’s what writers want to write about, ideas, I think. At least the story.
Briefly, we start with the portraits of a hometown he loved and hated and move to polar portraits of his mother and father. Then we follow him as he goes for his own version of Elvis, discovers America and realizes how easily his life could have been lost, at home or in Vietnam. He forms a band that is, magically, a formula of “1 + 1 =3” and he finds a wife who can look him in his eye and call him on his bullshit. His father gifts him with an attempt at apology that helps him not make the same mistakes he made with his own kids. And then he turns overtly outward with a suite of songs about our better selves—the vision of Tom Joad, the conviction of the first responders during 911, folks like me (and almost everyone today) struggling to restart again “worrying about your little world falling apart” and, ultimately, that core theme of Rock & Soul, that “People Get Ready” train to the Promised Land. In summation, he shows every one of those themes’s DNA in the closing song, his signature “Born to Run.” It’s a compelling story, vital and beautiful.
But that’s not what makes the show work, not the story alone. It’s, as he calls it, the “magic trick.” It’s what he’s been after for some time. How can you tell the story as honestly as possible in a way that may truly be liberating? He’s been after it for years. I remember thinking of the analogy of Bruce night-after-night picking a lock over two decades ago. How do you use this thing in a way that doesn’t simply reinforce the illusion?
Well, he boils things down, for the most part, to their essence. He gushes over Elvis (tellingly without saying his name because he's talking about a promise more than a man) and he explains that his first step in learning his craft involved posing with a guitar not playing it. He is, at once, at his most theatrical and most scripted, and he is also at his most precise.
Director/Secret Weapon of E Street Band, Thom Zimny
 Springsteen on Broadway is bare bones in a way that reveals each song in a new light. I think it’s a profoundly musical experience. Even the monologues, which take up the majority of the performance, serve as verbal tone poems that connect the songs. The words are great—natural and poetic and honest, nakedly as close to that goal as you can get without embarrassing yourself and the audience. But what I think about in the monologues, and which director Thom Zimny captures so well with this film, are the facial expressions, the inarticulate moments, the balks, the agonized flailing, the shouts and the prayers.
This translates into a different way to hear the songs, as something familiar but new, enhanced. When Bruce sings “Brilliant Disguise” with Patti, they are eyeball-to-eyeball, telling each other they are watching for any sleight of hand, and, and, especially Patti lets you know that she’s going to catch some. I’ve never heard the pledge of “Tougher than the Rest” articulated more vividly. And this goes for much of the show. The way he manages to bridge the gap between a new sprightly rhythm for “The Promised Land” and the dark, desert storm vision that he articulated acapella on the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour….Well, to me, it’s mind-blowing.
Pretty much everything in this show is about everything but, first, the music of voice and the music of music. “My Hometown’s” never been more beautiful than set in this context on solo piano. “My Father’s House” never more haunting than after a tale of the old man’s bar (and his ruddy, misshapen, post-bar face). “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the E Street Band declaration of purpose, never more infectious. I asked my friend Billy, who was the only one who saw this on Broadway, “How did you not break out into song on that?” The restraint is part of the power of the show, too.
One of the great mistakes I make when writing about Bruce, or anyone, is my tendency to go on too long. As one of my great friends and mentors has put it, what you are doing is always in service of the music. Yes, the music takes care of itself. No commentary on the show could or should try to “cover” what the show has to offer, what the music is trying to do. That’s a fool’s errand to no purpose.
My main concern here is to say, if you watch Springsteen on Broadway, watch it as a piece of musical theater and be ready for it to be one of the most challenging pieces of musical theater you are likely to encounter. If you go in determined to disprove that notion, then you probably won’t have the experience. If you go in openly, the rest will take care of itself.
Beyond that, I want to declare the honor and privilege of watching it with my dear friends of the past three decades. When Bruce talked about losing his father, I felt the bond with my brothers, all of us now fatherless, with various levels of father-son issues unresolved (although all of ours in better shape than Bruce’s, he seems to have found some peace). When Bruce talked about his mother’s dementia and sang one of his greatest all-but-unknown songs “The Wish,” a song about her and dedicated to her, he spoke in varied ways to all three of us who still struggle to be there for our aging mothers. None of us missed the visceral way his reading of the thirty-year-old song speaks to his mother’s dementia, to our own concerns and fears.
And, finally, I felt blessed by the way the show spoke to the hope that binds my friends and I together. It’s not an idealistic hope. It’s a hope that’s there when you’ve got nothing left to lose. “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart” never sounded more revolutionary. It’s tactical. It’s about how you do things rather than simply what you’re trying to do.
And that’s the beauty of Springsteen on Broadway. We all want to be reminded of our better selves and live up to that measure. The question is, “how in hell do we do that?” Bruce doesn’t have the answers, but he has many clues, musical and theatrical and philosophical clues he’s puzzling over himself. But he’s figured out a new way to present them that sheds more light on what he’s spent his life doing. It’s crucial, at least to us fans, because it helps us shine a new light on ourselves….
And I, for one, damn sure needed that.

Blood Brothers "Big D" Alexander, Benny "GTO" Bielski and Billy "Drive All Night" Chin